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Thursday, 27 March 2014

Making an album, part 3: The tyranny of choice

One of the things I think about during the recording sessions for my album is the question of just how far I should try to push the musical envelope.  By that, I mean: how much time should I devote to experimenting with the sounds?  My songs invariably start out as chords strummed on a guitar or vamped on a piano, but the recording studio is a creative space in which basic ideas can be re-imagined and transformed, given flight by the power of imagination and a degree of technical nous. The limp little caterpillar of your home demo might become a beautiful soaring butterfly once the studio witch doctor has worked his gadget-magic, evoking the software gods of sonic sheen and sparkle.  So why spend time, one might ask, making music that sounds a bit like some other music that folk will have heard a thousand times before?  Perhaps I should set my sights on creating something unique, something so idiosyncratic and personal that only I could have made it?

While it can be tempting to embrace the unusual or the outrĂ© in the belief that one is somehow expanding the boundaries of art, there is often a fine line between the interesting and the frivolous; one man’s bold experimentation might be another man’s self-indulgence.  One of the dangers of pursuing originality for the sake of it is that you may lose sight of the more important pursuit of excellence (I’ll get around to a definition of ‘excellence’ at some point).        

Many years ago, I read a piece about the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.  It focused on his unusual and experimental approach to composition, waxing lyrical about his pioneering ‘twelve-tone’ method (don’t ask) and his use of ‘hexachordal inversional combinatoriality’ (no, really … don’t ask).  Enthused by the article, I fell for the “challenging, revolutionary and experimental, your-life-will-not-be-complete-until-you-have-embraced-this-music” baloney and bought a copy of the composer’s Piano Concerto Op. 42.  I listened to it. Then I 'listened' to it. Then I really concentrated and listened some more.  I tried to convince myself that I was getting into it: "No, wait ... this little section here is quite good. Listen ... I can almost hear a tune trying to break out."

But it was no use.  I enjoy a bit of hexachordal inversional combinatoriality as much as the next man (particularly if it has a good beat and maybe a sexy female vocalist), but I had to give up on Schoenberg’s music.  Not because it was too 'difficult', although it probably was indeed 'challenging, revolutionary, experimental' etc.  I gave up because I thought it was dreadful. 

There are plenty of examples of music disappearing up its own backside in the pursuit of grandiosity or arch quirkiness; by the same token, I’ve heard plenty of stuff that is well constructed and beautifully recorded, but manages to lack any semblance of spark, energy or wit.  I’ve nothing against difficult or challenging music, but I don’t think it should get a critical free pass just because it is difficult or challenging.  Art works best when there is balance between content and form.  By all means try to be a pioneer, but your content must be able to cash the cheque written by the radical aspects of your chosen form. 

But challenging established notions of song-writing is not on my agenda; I’m too set in my ways to be radical. My preference is for well-structured songs that express ideas or emotions or tell an interesting story, but for any musician who is in the mood to push that musical envelope, the opportunities for studio experimentation are probably greater now than they have ever been.  
Before the advent of multi-tracking (i.e. the ability to layer sounds one on top of the other), engineers and musicians had to learn their parts and record them in a single take.  If they messed up, they had to do it again.  If they got a perfect take, but there was perhaps a rogue sound on one of the microphones, they either lived with the imperfection or recorded the entire thing again.  In those days, the role of the producer was to capture a performance, or series of performances, by musicians.  Multi-tracking changed the way that music was recorded, but more importantly, it changed the way that producers and musicians heard and imagined music.  You could argue that The Beatles and the Beach Boys picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Phil Spector and redefined the relationship between music and technology.  Now that we’re in the digital age, it is probably fair to say that the technological leap in the recording process during the last fifty years is equivalent to the difference between travelling on a push bike and travelling on a jumbo jet.

With the range of options available to studio musicians heading somewhere in the direction of the infinite, every decision now competes against a bewildering range of alternatives.  There is no sound that can’t be manipulated, fixed, imagined or executed; an editing task that once might have taken days to execute can now be managed with a few clicks of a mouse.  Recorded instruments can be layered, stacked and treated to an extent that was impossible in the days of analogue tape.  But with an arsenal of gadgetry and some very smart software at your disposal, you can easily end up chasing your tail in the chimerical pursuit of aural nirvana. 

Do you need a perfect valve amp sound for your guitar?  Just run it through this plug-in and there are 150 possible options.  And what if we chopped up that guitar chord, reversed it, arpeggiated it, then used it as a texture underneath the verse piano? Maybe we could make that piano sound like it was recorded in an old abandoned church?  While we’re at it, let’s try messing that vocal up so that it sounds like a cello being attacked by a chainsaw, underwater. 

Ed McArthur at Stealth, my co-producer on this album, is currently working with another artist who has a recorded a song with somewhere around 200 vocal takes and another couple of hundred instrumental tracks. That’s on one song.  They won’t be able to use all that information in the final mix, but they’ve given themselves a hell of a lot of options (and probably some sleepless nights).   
But having a million options isn’t necessarily a good thing, as anyone who has ever tried to exercise restraint in an ‘eat all you want’ Chinese buffet will testify.  On a bad day, that bewilderment of choice can lead to indecision and even inertia.  Just because it’s possible to have 200 instrumental alternatives on a track doesn’t mean that you should do it.    

As the album begins to take some kind of shape (in my head, at least), I find –once again- that I’m gravitating towards material that, to my ear, ticks some of the key boxes to do with construction, melody, depth of feeling and pleasing-on-the-ear chord changes.  I’m quite willing to manipulate sounds and play around with unusual instrumental textures, but the shape of the song, the integrity of the composition, has to remain intact.  I’ve got pretty clear ideas of where I want each of these tracks to go and I’m hopeful that I’ll know when it’s time to experiment and when it’s time to just nail the basic arrangement.       

The astute reader may have spotted by now that this essay is a thinly-veiled attempt to head off at the pass any criticism of my music for being safe, pedestrian and middle-of-the-road.  So, having started this piece by talking about experimentation, the link below will take you to a song -called 'I like your shoes'- that I realised pretty quickly wasn’t going to be messed round with or built up into a many-layered wonder. 

A couple of years ago, I saw a picture that had been taken at a big anti-capitalist demonstration in one of the major European cities.  It featured the striking image of a man, his face obscured behind a balaclava, about to throw a missile at some policemen.  The protestor was dressed in expensive designer gear and it struck me as odd –to say the least- that he was ‘protesting’ against a lifestyle that he appeared to endorse through his expensive choice of label wear.  I wondered if the guy had actually thought the thing through.  Maybe, like others I could name in the political sphere, he was merely operating a policy of ‘do as I say, not as I do’.  Or perhaps he just liked throwing stuff at policemen.  Once the subject matter was established (with the starting point being the focus on the protestor’s expensive trainers) the lyric almost wrote itself.  I wanted to keep it simple, in the spirit of old-style protest songs, the twist being that it’s a protest song about a protest.  It also seemed somehow appropriate for me to blag and then invert Gil Scott-Herron’s line about the revolution not being televised.

There is not much to this recording apart from some double-tracked acoustic guitar and piano, with a little bit of rudimentary percussion.  And yes, if I was true to my word I would have recorded it one take, just me and my battered old acoustic. 

But it’s my party and I’ll overdub if I want to.  

I like your shoes

Saturday, 15 March 2014

About that 'democratic deficit' ...

As the protagonists in the referendum debate paddle fractiously around the shallow end of the intellectual pool, so the need becomes greater for a civilised and less strident exchange of views, one focused on the real issues.
Like most people, my criterion for placing a 'yes' vote is simple – will an independent Scotland be a better place for my children and their children to live in? For the moment, I’ll put to one side the question about what exactly would make the country a better place in which to live.

It hardly needs pointing out that some people will never, under any circumstances, vote for an independent Scotland, while others will remain committed to independence no matter which arguments are presented to them. The result, therefore, will probably be determined by people sitting in the as-yet-undecided camp. From what I hear and read, a lot of folk are going to vote on the basis of gut feeling and emotion. There is nothing wrong with that, but it can occasionally get a bit silly. I heard a news item on Radio Scotland in which a member of the public said that the recent comments by David Bowie had "helped make up her mind" to vote yes. Without wishing to be too unkind, I’d suggest that if you place your vote on the basis of a throwaway remark by a pop star, you probably shouldn't be allowed out of the house without a ‘name and address’ tag on your jacket and someone holding your hand.
I do understand the emotional pull of a Yes vote, but if we’re going to set ourselves up as an independent first world nation, with responsibilities for the economic well-being of some five million people, my preference would be to spend a bit of time focusing on the arguments, the practicalities and the numbers. Accordingly, some of the flimsier arguments should be quietly dropped. One example would be the notion being put forward by the Yes campaign that Scotland has suffered from a ‘democratic deficit’. I think a brief examination of the facts renders that an extraordinarily feeble case to present.

In addition to having our own parliament (unlike other parts of the UK), Scotland is proportionally over-represented in Westminster. We have 8% of the UK population, but account for 9% of the seats in the House of Commons. By contrast, the London metropolitan area -to take one obvious example- is home to 21% of the UK population, but represented by only 11.2% of our MPs.
Scottish MPs at Westminster can vote on issues which do not affect Scotland, while MPs representing English, Welsh or Irish constituencies do not have a say in any of the business of the Scottish Parliament. On that basis alone, how is it possible to conclude anything other than that Scottish voters are getting a bigger bang for their electoral buck than any other part of the UK?

Where does this idea of a 'democratic deficit' come from? Is it a by-product of our passionate and oft-expressed desire for independence? Well … not really. As recently as 1959, the SNP could only muster 0.5% of the votes in a general election. By the mid-eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was in her pomp, they were polling around 12%. At the last general election, as the only explicitly separatist party, they got 19.9% of the popular vote. The combined vote of the unionist parties was around 78%, so Scotland can hardly claim to have been clamouring for independence. At the most recent Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the victorious SNP actually gathered fewer votes in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher’s hated Conservatives got in the 1979 general election. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The way this ‘democratic deficit’ argument is presented, you’d think that Scotland has had to endure decades under the jackboot Reich of hard line, right-wing Tory administrations, but that’s far from being the truth. Since the end of the second world war, general elections in the UK have produced 35 years of Tory rule and 30 years of Labour rule, plus 4 years under the present coalition government. In democratic terms, that seems like a fairly reasonable split between what -on paper, at least- are opposing political ideologies. And if the vast majority of Scots invariably vote for unionist parties, what gives us any more right than the residents of Yorkshire, Cornwall or Suffolk to feel aggrieved by the vicissitudes of the electoral process?

When people say, in the context of this independence referendum, that there is a 'democratic deficit', I think what they mean is: “We don't want a Tory government.” There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, but to break up a successful political union just because the odd election doesn't go your way seems like rather a selfish impulse.
Blair Jenkins, the Chief Executive of Yes Scotland, has gone on record as saying that independence will mean "no more Tory governments, ever." That sentiment might appeal to a lot of people, but that doesn't make it right. For those of us who think that you can hardly get a fag paper between the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives as it is, this looks like a desire to narrow even further the choice available to voters. In that sense, the 'brave new Scotland' promised by the Yes campaign is already tainted by some profoundly illiberal impulses.

This might come as news to some folk, but democracy is not about getting what you want all of the time. It is about representing, as far as is possible, the current will of the people, which means that sometimes your favoured side will win and sometimes it won’t. The make-up of post-war British governments is remarkably evenly split and that is, arguably, one of the strengths of our current system. It’s not just that you can’t win every election; it’s that you shouldn’t be able to win every election.

And this is something that people who go on and on about that ‘democratic deficit’ should consider: the only countries in which it is possible for one grouping to win every election are countries in which most of us really wouldn’t want to live.

Monday, 10 March 2014

A criminal act?

Concern has been expressed in some quarters because the government has floated the idea that not paying the BBC licence fee could become a 'civil', as opposed to a 'criminal', offence. In 2012, 180,000 people in the UK were prosecuted for not paying the £145.50 fee; that accounted for an incredible one in ten of all criminal prosecutions that year. In the period between January 2011 and March 2013, 107 folk were actually jailed for non-payment.

For many folk, the subject of the licence fee invariably provokes a knee-jerk reaction. The BBC is either the greatest thing in the civilised world or it’s a festering hive occupied by metropolitan leftie propagandists. I’m somewhere in the middle ground on that topic, but I do think it’s obvious now that we need to have a debate about how the state broadcaster is funded. The imposition of what is, in effect, a broadcasting poll tax is, in the 21st century media landscape, utterly iniquitous.

The recent decision to relegate BBC 3 to an online-only channel got some folk worked up, but the argument dissolved into a tit-for-tat exchange about the perceived quality (or lack of quality) of its output. That’s not the most important aspect of the debate, but it has to be said that some of the trashier elements of BBC 3’s output are so spectacularly adrift of the Reithian desire to educate, inform and entertain that one could almost suspect that the corporation was being sabotaged from within.

Some time ago, I stumbled across a programme that was so stunningly awful, I thought it might have been a parody. It was a sitcom (with not much emphasis on the 'com') called Coming of Age. I’m going to tell you about it, but I’ll warn you now that readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away.

The show was described as “a frank look into the outrageous world of a group of sixth form students living in Abingdon as they enjoy a final romp with adolescence”. The 'plot’, such as it was, focused on a young man being talked into giving his girlfriend one 'up the botty' (which was, indeed, the name of the episode). His girlfriend persuaded him that the thrill of sampling the forbidden fruit of anal intercourse would be enhanced by performing the act in his mum’s bedroom. Hilarious consequences ensued as the girl lost control of her sphincter during the ‘up the botty’ activities and defecated on his mum's bed. Those crazy kids explained the mess by blaming it on the family dog, which was the cue for some grotesque canned laughter. Undeterred by events, the couple determined to have another go. During their second attempt (I hope you’re keeping up with the subtleties of the plot), the girlfriend suffered the same unfortunate accident. This time, they blamed the mess on the young man's invalid and senile grandfather. Cue that canned laughter track, again.
The narrative arc was completed once the 'up the botty' girl, having promised her boyfriend that everything would be just fine on their third attempt because she hadn't eaten for two days, defecated a third time during another rigorous bout of anal intercourse. Honest, I'm not making any of this up. I was watching this show in the same way that rubber-neckers watch car crash victims being treated at the side of the road by paramedics.

It was so staggeringly awful that I suspected one of four things was going on:

a) I was dreaming, or
b) My late night cup of cocoa had been laced with hallucinogenic drugs, or
c) The makers of the show had some kind of scam going on, similar to the plot of the Mel Brooks film 'The Producers', wherein two theatrical producers plan to get rich by selling shares in a Broadway flop, or
d) A parallel universe existed, in which someone could meet with a TV executive and present an 'idea' and a 'script' like that and the TV executive would think: "Yes, this seems like a good idea and really quite funny. Those jokes about anal intercourse really do push the boundaries a bit, like most ground-breaking art usually does. Yes, let’s make sure this gets on the telly.”

I suspect that (d) is the correct answer and, if anyone knows anyone who works in that parallel universe, please pass their contact details on to me, because I have a pile of very old rope that I'm keen to sell for hard cash.

Bawdy humour and vulgarity, in context, doesn't trouble me at all. The most troublesome thing about Coming of Age was the fact that people on the public dime had been paid to write, produce and perform material that was so entirely bereft of comedic talent, wit or charm. I don’t know if it represents a nadir for the BBC comedy department, but –to paraphrase Damon Runyon- it will do until one comes along.

But on second thoughts, maybe I’ve been a bit harsh. Maybe the writers were more subtle than I have given them credit for.

When you think about it, those 107 folk who were jailed for not paying the licence fee and the other 179,893 who were prosecuted would perhaps have viewed that ‘up the botty’ episode as a metaphor for their relationship with the state broadcaster.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

This is a job for … Synth-Rock Pedantic Man!

After many years of living a double life, I have decided that it is time for me to reveal my secret identity as one of the lesser-known super heroes. Just as Batman is obliged to respond whenever the authorities beam that big bat-sign up into the night skies of Gotham City, so it is my sacred duty as Synth-Rock Pedantic Man to respond whenever someone exhibits a sloppy recollection of pop trivia. For years I have watched over the planet, correcting minor factual errors whenever a friend, acquaintance or passing stranger has carelessly demonstrated a less-than-encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music.
In my relentless battle against the forces of inexactitude, I have lost count of the number of times that I have tackled misconceptions, slapdash inaccuracies, oversights and false assertions about which year such-and-such a song was a hit for so-and-so.

Let me explain how it works.

Whenever someone says something ridiculous like: "My favourite 80s track is 'Our friend’s electric' by Gary Newman", I am instantly transformed into Synth-Rock Pedantic Man and will fearlessly point out that:

"Actually, that track was released under the band name 'Tubeway Army'. And the title of the song is a question -the question being Are ‘friends’ electric?- because he’s singing about having a relationship with an artificial human. That’s why ‘friends’ is in inverted commas. And it's Gary 'Numan', not 'Newman'. And it’s not from the 1980s; the track actually came out in 1979."

The role of Synth-Rock Pedantic Man demands eternal vigilance because, in my world, danger is ever-present. You may find this hard to believe, but there are people who literally don’t know the difference between Depeche Mode and the Human League, or who are unaware that Ultravox -before Midge Ure joined the band- had released three excellent albums, the first two of which were credited to Ultravox! That exclamation mark, incidentally, was said to be a tribute to the German band Neu! It wasn’t that common at the time, but many other bands since then have used the exclamation mark in their name: Wham! The Go! Team and Panic! At the Disco, to name but three.

I will admit to having had some scary moments. I’ve lost count, for instance, of the number of times I’ve tangled with folk who didn’t know that Duran Duran were named after a character in a science-fiction film. I’ll wager that some among you couldn’t even name that film. It was, of course, ‘Barbarella’, the French-Italian kitsch classic from 1968, starring Jane Fonda and directed by her husband of the time, Roger Vadim. Although, strictly speaking, Duran Duran only based their name on the character; he was actually called ‘Durand Durand’ (and was played by the Irish actor Milo O’Shea).

It is impossible to predict when my super-powers might be called for. Only the other day, I over-heard this remark during a conversation between two ruffians on the train: "I quite like Craft Work. What was that one they sang about supermodels? And that other one … 'Here comes the rain again' … that was them wasn't it?"

My relentless pursuit of veracity trumps any trivial concerns I might have about my personal safety, so I leaned across the isle and said, calmly:

“I think you’ll find that ‘Here comes the rain again’ was by Eurythmics (often mistakenly called The Eurythmics, but the definite article doesn’t actually appear in their name). And it’s not Craft Work, but Kraftwerk, which is German for ‘power plant’ or ‘power station’. And the song in question was called ‘The Model’, which, curiously enough, was not actually a hit when the ‘Man Machine’ album (from which it came) was released in 1978. It was included as the b-side of the ‘Computer Love’ single in 1981, but it got so much radio play that the record company re-released it –against the wishes of the band- and it got to number one early in 1982, nearly four years after it first appeared on an album.”

I will not repeat the torrent of foul language I had to endure at that point; I’m not looking for your sympathy. As one of the lesser-known super-heroes, I have had to develop a flinty immunity to public scorn. It is enough for me to know, dear reader, that my work gets done and that the planet is safe from sloppiness, hazy recollection and terminological inexactitude. At least until the next time.

But alas, this unstinting devotion to duty comes at a heavy personal cost. Not only have I never been thanked for my work; I have not been invited to a social gathering of any kind since 1997. Nevertheless, I am resolved to carry on with my selfless task. Only when the curse of sloppiness of recollection has finally been eliminated will I have cause to celebrate.

And ‘Celebrate’, funnily enough, was a single released by the Simple Minds in 1980. The band got their name from a line in the David Bowie song ‘The Jean Genie’ (the title of which was said to have been a punning nod to the controversial French writer and political activist Jean Genet). In their early days, Simple Minds were known as Johnny and the Self-abusers.