Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some thought about the long-term future of eBooks

Nothing whatsoever to do with music this time (and it's been a very LONG time, I know!), but the current growth in eBooks got me thinking, resulting in the following partly-baked thoughts:

If eBooks are thought of as a simple consumer product, they will fail. Books are not simply products that are purchased from a retail outlet, read, and then either discarded or stored away. Far more than that, they form the foundation of a rich subculture which supports charities, democratises literacy, and more.

Additionally, and uniquely amongst media artefacts, they (along with other print media) are their own self-contained interface; unlike CDs, DVDs, video tapes, audio cassettes, and vinyl discs, they require no equipment other than the reader's eyes and brain, in order to be decoded and absorbed.

Books, magazines, newsletters, all come in a huge variety of formats, but the fact that no equipment or interface is required to read them means this heterogeneity is not a problem. eBooks are sold in a variety of proprietary formats, each of which requires a special piece of hardware or software in order to be read by the reader. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with having a variety of readers - Kindle, Sony Readers, iPads and the rest - but if eBooks are to have a future beyond mere novelty, these readers must eventually possess a multi-format capability, enabling them to read eBooks in all known proprietary and Open formats. Human readers can then select the reading platform with which they are most comfortable, safe in the knowledge that they can read eBooks in any format, purchased from any source. And while we're on the subject, this "all formats" capability should also include full backward compatibility with all previous eBook formats, on a continuing, non-expiring basis. There should be no obsolescence of formats, as far as readers are concerned. After all, I can (with care and cotton gloves) read a Medieval manuscript quite easily, despite the hundreds of years since it was printed; so why should I be unable to read an eBook published a mere 20 years ago, just because its format is no longer in use? (This is not idle fretting: try finding an MS Word plugin to enable you to read a document produced using word processor software from 20 years ago - there are plenty of formats from that era which Word cannot open successfully).

OK, so I've mentioned the issues surrounding the ability to read all eBook formats. Now what about this subculture I mentioned in the opening paragraph?

E-bookstore software such as Adobe's Content Server 4 allows for borrowing of eBooks, with an encoded expiration date, so the "lending library" cultural model appears capable of being covered in the eBook realm. However, all of current eBook transactions take place at the corporate level - whether the corporate entity in question is a bookstore or a lending library, and even if the transactions are free. The key element that's missing is putting the DRM or Copy Protection into the hands of private individuals. What we really need is transferrable DRM. Imagine the following scenario: I want to lend you the eBook I just read. If I just email it to you, you'll fall foul of the DRM. However, if my reader of choice has a (hypothetical) "transfer" function, it puts a digital wrapper around the eBook before emailing it to you, which your reader's "receive" function decodes, acquiring the eBook along with the DRM required to read it. Meanwhile, although I still have a copy of the eBook on my device, its DRM is now marked as expired, so I cannot read it. In effect I've given you the book. Transferrable DRM. Now that's a rather clumsy process, but it illustrates the principle of what I think of as "transferrable DRM". To give you an eBook, the process would be as described. To lend you an eBook, you'd simply reverse the process after reading, sending it back to me. To donate a book to a charity shop, you'd send the eBook to their computer, and they in turn would send it to someone wishing to buy it from them. And so on. Making ownership of an eBook a simple transferrable token would open up the world of eBooks, enabling them to develop the same rich culture which surrounds the world of printed books.

The publishers wouldn't welcome any of this, of course. They prefer a model in which everyone who reads an eBook reads a copy which they have purchased themselves, at full retail price. But publishers, representing the Business aspect of books, are merely a component of the cultural world of books. Their role in relation to eBooks should be similar, otherwise eBooks will never be a cultural phenomenon, merely a line of retail business, selling to those with large disposable incomes and sidelining the disadvantaged.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Hitting The Decs

This is just a quick entry to let you all know that I'm having my fifteen minutes of fame on BBC 6 Music this week. Gideon Coe's show, 10am-1pm Monday to Friday, has a feature called "Hit The Decs", where listeners are invited to send in a list of 5 tracks, one from each of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s (decs = decades, geddit?). Each week, one listener's list is selected and the tracks are played, one per day, during the week. And I'm doing this week's list. The 60s choice was Tomorrow's "My White Bicycle", played at about 12:15 yesterday (Monday) if you want to check it out on the "listen again" feature. Today it's The Damned's "New Rose" - listen in if you want to find out the other choices, and to find out scurrilous factoids about me, which I confessed to in response to their email questionnaire...

Current listening pleasure provided by the brilliant box of B-Sides & Rarities by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, and the fabulous first album, "Employment", by The Kaiser Chiefs.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Progressing Backwards

I'm going through a bit of a prog-rock revival at the moment. I think it all started a couple of years ago when I bought the Genesis Archive 1967-75 box set (I'd won a £25 Virgin voucher in a competition, so it was an impulse purchase). As the live performances of Gabriel-era favourites like "Dancing With The Moonlit Knight", "Supper's Ready" and the complete "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway" thundered gloriously from the speakers, I found I couldn't for the life of me understand why I'd ever gone off the band in the first place. Then I remembered...

In 1975, Peter Gabriel left Genesis, with Phil Collins - a brilliant and mighty drummer, but all the stage presence of a middle-aged woodwork teacher - taking over the "vocal duties", as they say in the business called Show. The first couple of post-Gabriel albums weren't too bad, but then they became the middle-of-the-road, comfy hit machine we knew and loathed from that point on. Now, this switch coincided with the rise of Punk and New Wave music, which energised me tremendously - it was an exciting time to be nightclubbing, seeing bands like The Stranglers, The Damned and The Slits at Birmingham Barbarella's each weekend. Suddenly energy and commitment seemed at a premium, and twenty-minute virtuoso epics seemed as relevant as yesterday's sodden chip-papers.

And, of course, punk led to many good things, without which my musical life would be the poorer: Never Mind The Bollocks, The Clash, XTC, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Wire, the list could be extended to the point of tedium. But somehow, I never got around to re-evaluating prog-rock, and Genesis in particular, until that box set. I'd always assumed that I'd grown tired of Genesis purely as a side-effect of the heady swirl of shifting allegiances of the Punk era. But no, it was simpler than that.

Genesis with Phil Collins at the helm were just plain shit.

There, told you it was simple. Listening back, Genesis with P.Gabriel were exciting, quirky, unfashionable, noisy, and almost frightening in the moments of rawest power (the final outburst of "...Giant Hogweed", the first couple of minutes of "Apocalypse In 9/8", the closing pages of "Musical Box"). Especially live, where Gabriel's presence was downright unnerving at times.

So I set about re-evaluating more of my Prog-Rock back pages. The starting point was "The Best Prog Rock Album In The World... Ever", a 3-CD set featuring 30 tracks in 240 minutes. Ah, 8 minutes per track on average, them's Prog-Rock timings! The rush of nostalgia was overwhelming! I'd forgotten:

...the sheer terror of Van der Graaf Generator's avant-rock terrorism. Listening to "A Plague Of Lighthouse Keepers", their 25-minute magnum opus, is akin to sharing a locked room with a grizzled old mariner undergoing a violent psychotic breakdown. No wonder John Lydon still lists them as one of his favourite bands.

...the demented "everything but the kitchen sink... oh hell, throw the sink in too!" genre-defying twists and turns of Gentle Giant at their finest (particularly the live "Playing The Fool" and studio "In A Glass House" albums). A track might start with them singing an accapella four-part mock-medieval fugue, switching suddenly to a jazzy instrumental section, which is then ripped open by jagged rock guitar and thundering bass, before subsiding into a xylophone solo, and then... and so on. Utterly in a world of their own, their live shows were exciting musically and physically, watching them run around frantically from instrument to instrument for a couple of hours. Great.

...ELP's over the top excesses. Those who despised them characterised them as pompous pseudo-intellectuals, but their true forte was speed, power and theatricality. They had more in common with the kind of heavy-metal band whose dearest wish is for a Spinal Tap-style "amp that goes up to 11", than with anything fey or precious. Listen: Keith Emerson used to jam knives into the keyboard of his Hammond organ, making it stick on a howling discord. Then he'd spin it round and throw it across the stage. And those knives were actually Nazi daggers, given to him by one Lemmy Kilminster, more recently of Motorhead. It's not lacking in significance that ELP's fan-base included an awful lot of Hell's Angels.

And so, once more, on. The final seal on this nostalgia-fest came when I read Stuart Maconie's excellent musical memoir "Cider With Roadies" (the best rock-biog title EVER). His tales of discovering Prog-Rock, then becoming a Soul Boy (lived in Wigan, y'see), then a punk, then discovering The Smiths in the 80s, struck so many chords with me (power chords, natch).

Sometimes, after decades of musical journeying, it's good to look back and realise how diverse the totality of your musical tastes has been. And to understand that, just because you've not revisited earlier enthusiasms for a long while, that doesn't mean they were crap. The best way is forwards, but an occasional fond look back over the shoulder can lead to some brilliant rediscoveries.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

The BBC? Hurrah!

As one who long ago abandoned the wastelands of Radio 1, save for the curmudgeonly delights of John Peel's various programmes - even that avenue of pleasure now being closed since the tragedy of last October - I've been amazed to find myself rediscovering the pleasures of the Beeb's national radio stations. Radio 1 is still a no-no, even though I love the genuine enthusiasm of Colin and Edith; their afternoon show is still too full of the kind of waffle the station's long been synonymous with, however wondrous their co-presentation of BBC3's Glasto coverage undoubtedly is. But beyond the digit 1 lie wonders...

Radios 2 and 3 have gradually been shrugging off their awful fuddy-duddy images of yore. Thanks to the recruitment of early-middle-aged enthusiasts such as Jonathan Woss and Mark Lamarr, radio 2 now covers quite a spectrum of pop, rock and R&B from the last five decades, plus it gives excellent coverage to the burgeoning roots-music scene which is gradually rehabilitating folk music. Then there's Radio 3, which actively participates in various jazz festivals (e.g. the London Jazz Festival), World Music festivals (Celtic Connections, WOMAD), inaddition to regular programs pulling together myriad strands of World, Folk, Jazz, and some of the more leftfield experimentalists (Late Junction and the mighty Andy Kershaw's weekly show). Oh, and all that classical stuff I love so much, too. (I spit on Classic FM, with its "mellow classics" mentality and its jarringly inappropriate torrent of commercials).

And now I've discovered another musical delight, in the shape of BBC6, one of the Beeb's new(ish) digital-only stations. When I was a teenager in the late 60s through the early 70s, I always used to wish Radio 1 could be more like its own best shows all the time. Why did I have to settle for the little oases of Peel and Alan Freeman, blokes who steered away from Osmonds and Bay City Rollers and preferred the brighter lands of pop-rock, prog-rock and generally more "album-oriented" stuff. Well, BBC6 is that station! From Phill Jupitus's breakfast show to Craig Charles's funk show, their playlists are stuffed with the best retro pop-rock combined with the best new bands. I think it fair to say the target audience comprises the thirty- and forty-somethings who regularly watch Later With Jules Holland, and who tape every minute of Glastonbury coverage each year. Listen: in the space of a single show on Friday lunchtime, Vic McGlynn played tracks by The Undertones, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, Kaiser Chiefs, Pigbag, Suede, Groove Armada, The Skids, Radiohead, The Damned, Pentangle, Traffic, and Carter USM. Pure gold! Then Craig Charles hit us with Freddie Hubbard, Beastie Boys, Spencer Davis, Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Freakbass, Gil Scott-Heron, and Nat Adderley.

I'm instinctively suspicious of any station with a playlist, and sad to say BBC6 has one. But it's a bloody eclectic playlist! Plus the presenters are given free rein to add a proportion of their own selections.

Just got to find time to listen to all this extra musical input, now!

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Get Me A Librarian... And A Library

My CD collection is starting to preoccupy me. Not the music - though there are always three or four earworms vying for headspace, even when I'm not actually listening to anything. No, it's the sheer logisitical nightmare of Owning A Large CD Collection that's tying my brain in knots at the moment.

Once upon a time, I only bought and listened to - broadly speaking - pop and rock albums, be it folk-rock, prog-rock, punk-rock or rawk-rock. The old vinyl collection lived in two large vinyl-coated LP-cases, which bookended 2-foot row of those albums which wouldn't fit in the cases. No problem.

Then I switched to CDs and, simultaneously, started getting into (again, broadly speaking) classical music. Planning ahead, I bought three glass-doored shelf units which would hold about 600 CDs in total. One for classical, two for pop/rock/whatever. No problem.

This was somewhere around 1988. Seven years later, the units were getting a bit on the full side, plus my wife-to-be had moved in, and two CD collections were beating as one. A short while later, we moved house, and bought three much more spacious CD-shelving units. These beauties would easily hold 1500 CDs. Surely that would see us through to our dotage?

Er... no, actually. We got into world/roots music. I got into jazz, and also discovered the wonders of eBay stored searches. Areas of our bookshelves had already been annexed for storing those big box-sets that wouldn't fit the CD shelving. Suddenly these was no space for any more CDs, and there was nowhere to put any more tall CD-shelf units. Eek! Time for desperate measures!

I launched a three-prong attack: first, I bought a load of those jewel-cases for double-CDs. The ones which are only the same thickness as a single-CD case. These replaced about 70 of the old-style double-thickness 2-CD cases. Second, we scoured the shelves for freebie compilation CDs which we'd simply kept out of pure hoarding instinct but never listened to more than once, plus those "mistake" CDs - bands by whom we'd heard one song which turned out to be atypical, bands who'd turned out a dud album we'd bought for "completeness". That trawl netted about 100 CDs we could safely pass onto the charity shops. Thirdly, I decided to add a third category to the filing system: jazz would have its own storage area, for which I evicted books from three shelves. These three measures gave us another 400 CDs-worth of grace.

But now things are nearing "tilt" again. We're probably up around the 2000 CD mark now, and there's probably room for about another 50 or 60 before something has to give. The books are starting to look nervous!

I've contemplating buying some of these 264-disc CD wallets (which I already use for discs of burned radio comedy), each of which could comfortably hold 132 CDs plus their booklets. But I really don't like the thought of having to haul a great big case of discs around every time I want to play a single disc. It seems clumsy somehow. Or I could buy up a ton of those slimline CD cases that are only about half the thickness of the traditional jewel case. But the back-inserts wouldn't fit them properly, thereby screwing up the process of edge-browsing. Clear another ghetto amongst the bookshelves, maybe for "Folk" or "World" music? No, no, no - there are already far too many confusing cases of crossover, where I can't decide whether Jamie Cullum goes under Jazz or Pop/Rock, or whether Jacques Loussier's Bach discs go under jazz or classical.

Or maybe I should just stop buying CDs. But that really IS thinking the unthinkable.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

A Glimmer Of Light

A comment from Stu read:

The problem is that by listening to a wide variety of music and making up their own minds, the general public is buying music which is good, rather than 'music' that the music industry would like them to buy.

Spot on, Stu. I have this wonderful daydream where bands sell all their CDs by direct mail order and/or downloading via their own websites. A number of bands, especially on the folk, world and underground scenes, already do this, as do a growing number of classical-music people. Peter Maxwell-Davis, the Orkney composer, bought all rights on recordings of his works which had been recorded for Collins Classics, when they went belly-up. He set up a website ( where people can buy downloads, or compile their own custom CDs, complete with bespoke sleevenotes, for around ten quid. If all this led to the death of the parasitic music INDUSTRY, and the birth of a thousand cottage-scale businesses of musicians selling their own wares, I'd be a far happier bunny, and far more optimistic about the future diversity of recorded music. And I think it just might happen.

Home Taping Is Saving Music (And Always Has Been)

Back in the old vinyl days, every other album inner-sleeve was printed with dire warnings that "Home Taping Is Killing Music". I spent many an idle moment trying to envisage this: a big, jolly Treble Clef being battered to death by hordes of screaming Phillips Cassette-players, swinging microphones like morningstars around their (tape)heads, perhaps? Of course, what they REALLY meant was "Home Taping Is Cruelly Reducing Our Multi-Million-Pound Profit Margin By A Few Percent, Thereby Mildly Limiting Our Crack-Cocaine Budget". Or something like that.

But reducing the share value of an entertainments corporation wouldn't have the emotional impact of thinking you werre somehow "killing music", would it?

So we ignored their piffle and merrily continued trading tapes, didn't we? And the real truth was this: not only was our tape-trading not particularly hurting the megacorps' profit margins; in fact it probably, on balance, INCREASED record sales. I don't think I, or my various friends over the years, are particularly atypical, so here's a quick anecdotal list of f'rinstances:

A friend hears a Billy Connolly album at another friend's house. Second friend later gives first friend a tape of the album. First friend plays this to death, and goes on to buy the Big Yin's entire back-catalogue - first on vinyl and VHS, later on CD and DVD.

In the early 80s I join an informal club called Frank's Tape Loop. We each make a compilation tape of our favourite music, and then mail the cassettes to each other on a round-robin basis. The upshot of this criminally-irresposible disregard for the copyright laws is that - without exception - every member of the Loop ends up buying whole heaps of albums by bands they'd never have heard without the wonder of Home Taping.

I was just about to continue this list, but then realised how monotonous such a list would be - the message is so simple and so obvious: the wider the range of music someone hears, the more music they will buy. The more someone is able to hear an album before buying it, the more confident they will feel that their investment will not disappoint.

So why does the record industry's paranoia continue to this day? We're now being told that music downloading is the big bad boogeyman of the moment. Yes, file-sharing is enabling people to obtain tracks (illegally) without paying for them, but what happens then? Does the music industry really believe that, if this was made impossible, people would always buy the tracks instead? I very much doubt it. In the days when tapes, not MP3s, circulated, I must have listened to a hundred average-to-crappy tracks for every one that led to a purchase. But without being able to hear all that stuff for free, there's no way I'd have randomly gone out and bought albums by Husker Du, Foetus, Nick Cave and so endlessly on.

The point is that home taping, and now file-sharing, is the ultimate "try before you buy" scheme. In effect it enables music fans to do the music industry's marketing for them - for free.

And if the industry really wants to know why sales decline, they should look instead to the cookie-cutter, follow-the-leader mentality that leads to endless identikit releases from the major labels. And the pop, rock and classical divisions of the majors are all equally guilty in this regard. But that's a whole 'nother High Horse which will have to wait its turn.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Cracking nuts

Since quite early in the year, we'd been eagerly looking forward to 4th December, since the Birmingham Royal Ballet had seen the error of their ways, and were once more presenting The Nutcracker as their Christmas special. Whilst last year's digression, a brand new production of Beauty And The Beast, was spectacular, I'm afraid my inner brat sulked at being denied its annual fix of The Nutcracker. Well, it was only the second Christmas since 1994 that we'd been deprived of this - the first being a couple of years earlier when Birmingham Hippodrome was being refurbished.

Anyway, it was SO good to see it again. Spectacular scenery, great set pieces, brilliant dancing (I'm slowly learning to appreciate the finer points of ballet) and, with our front-row seats, a ringside view of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia playing like demons. The woman sitting to our left, another regular subscriber, was really swept up by it - at the climax of the Transformation Scene, after the Christmas tree and fireplace had grown to giant proportions and the leader of the rats emerged from the glowing fireplace, she was obliviously shaking her fists in front of her face in sheer glee. I must admit, I came pretty close to whooping and cheering myself!

Friday, November 05, 2004

RIP Dancing John Peel

I can't for the life of me recall which band recorded a little link for John Peel's "Sounds Of The 70s" show, which went something like:

Dancing John Peel
He's a real big deal
And he's oh so real.

...but real he certainly was. And now he's gone. Three generations of rock fans had their tastes and attitudes to pop and rock music irrevocably widened and honed by Peelie's shows; what the hell is the next generation going to do?

I was on holiday in St.Ives when I heard the news last week. Standing in a surf shop looking at the gaudy surf-shirts selecting my annual Tasteless Shirt purchase, bopping and choogling gently to the rather nifty choon coming from the speakers. The song ended, cueing in a burbling Radio 1 DJ. "Blah, blah, blah, ... remembering John Peel..., blah, blah, bl...". What? The? Fuck? Everything just ended at that point. Some hours later, I noticed my wife was looking a bit odd, and asked if she was OK. "I just feel I've lost a family member", was all she said. And that just about sums it up, really. Ten days later, I still can't quite believe it.

OK - when coherence fails, cue random memories:

1971-ish. That was the year I first encountered Peel's show. It featured an excellent Bowie session - Queen Bitch, Suffragette City and Hang Onto Yourself, as I recall. In between the Bowie songs, this affably-mumbling chap talked to me in much the same way my pals and I chatted about music. He sounded like the kind of hip uncle I'd always wished I had.

1974. Our Upper-Sixth form was pretty evenly split amongst soulies and rockers (and those sad souls for whom music was irrelevant or peripheral, but they didn't exist from where I stood). The rock contingent wanted Peel to DJ at our Sixth-Form disco. The soulies would have none of it. My buddy Toad wrote to Peel to ask if he did that kind of gig. Peel wrote back with a friendly reply, saying yes, no problem. Alas, the powers-that-be wanted unanimity before booking anything, and the soulies would not budge. Neither would we. So we became the first sixth-form for years, at our school, not to have a sixth-form Christmas Disco.

From there, the years sort of merge. But Peel first turned me onto Bowie and Roxy Music; to punk rock; to Ivor Cutler; to Krautrock; to indie rock (the class of C86); to hip-hop. I look aghast at so many of my contemporaries who, by the time they entered their 30s (let alone their late 40s, where I am now), either lacked any interest in music, or had become living fossils, stuck with the same musical tastes they'd had in their early- to mid-20s. I count myself deeply fortunate and blessed that my musical tastes still continue to expand ever-faster - there are so many whole genres to explore, let alone individual bands and performers. My rate of CD-purchasing has never been greater, and the purchases are split about 30-70 between back-catalogue of already-known artists, and performers I'd never even heard, a year earlier. And it's all - ALL - down to the fine example of open-earedness and musical curiosity instilled into me by listening to the radio shows of John Peel. I generally reject heroes, but Peel remained an eternal exception.

He was my hero.

I feel bereaved, so gods know how his family must be feeling. My heart goes out to Sheila and their children.

Thanks, John, for all those decades of teenage kicks.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Classical Hardrock

I was pretty late coming to classical (or orchestral, or symphonic - whatever shorthand label you prefer) music. It coincided with turning thirty and acquiring my first CD player. The resulting expansion in my listening CV has been pure pleasure, but there is the odd associated niggling annoyance, mostly related to non-zealots' attitudes to "classical music" (whatever that is).

First, there's the belief that it's all really difficult, cerebral stuff, not for the likes of those who "just enjoy a good tune". Well, yes, if simple ditties are your bag, and you come home with an impulse-purchased heap of CDs by the likes of Cage, Messiaen and Alkan, expecting to be whistling your favourites after a quick listen or two, then you're going to become rapidly disillusioned. But an awful lot of classical music was originally written as dance music, back when the only discos were balls held by aristos who could afford an orchestra to provide music for dancing, and a composer to write the tunes. A disc of Strauss waltzes, Chopin mazurkas, or Handel's orchestral suites shouldn't challenge anybody who's simply after a good choon or ten.

Worse than the above misconception, however, is the rock fan who believes that classical music is all rather sedate, polite, and proceeds meekly at low volume levels. They also associate it with a lack of "attitude", and assume it was all written by ivory-tower-dwelling intellectuals. My personal favourite method of dealing with this belief-set is to persuade them to go to a concert featuring something like Shostakovich's mind-shattering Fourth Symphony. Or (the cheaper option) to sit them in front of a suitably cranked hi-fi and play them the CD - though this leaves the problem of convincing them that in a live setting, a symphony orchestra really IS that loud! That symphony has everything a rock fan could possibly want: pounding metronomic rhythms, deafening crescendos, and sections played at such speed that you can almost smell the smoke rising from the smouldering violin strings. But unlike most rock tracks, the music's constantly twisting and turning, changing shape, repeating itself just often enough to lodge itself in the brain, but not often enough to become comfy. And it lasts for over an hour. My wife turned to me after seeing it performed live for the first time, shook her head and said "Wow! That was like a real white-knuckle rollercoaster ride!". And the ivory tower? Well, Shostakovich (who lived in Stalinist Russia) had just finished writing the Fourth Symphony, when a scathing review of his Opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (itself a seething cauldron of sex and violence) appeared in Pravda, expressing Comrade Stalin's personal displeasure under the headline "Muddle Instead Of Music". This spelt an almost-certain death sentence for the terrified Shostakovich, who was sure he would now be "disappeared". Desperately, he hid the equally-radical Fourth Symphony in his desk, and quickly wrote a symphony (the Fifth) as an appeasement, subtitled "A Soviet Artist's Response To Just Criticism". Shostakovich survived, but never again did he write anything quite so savage and uncompromising. The Fourth symphony itself was not premiered until well after Stalin's death. At a performance of the Fourth, late in his life, Shostakovich turned to his companion and remarked sadly that, had circumstances been different, he would certainly have continued further down the path indicated by the Fourth Symphony. There's poignancy for you!

So, if you're a rock fan reading this, and wonder what anyone could see in something as feeble and namby-pamby as classical music, please buy a CD of Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony (THIS is a really fantastic modern performance), turn up the volume, and give it a try. There's lots more around in the same vein. Classical Hardrock, if you like.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Fairport, por favor

Sometimes, the omens gather with just the right density to persuade me that I should revisit a previously-overlooked artist. Just prior to last year's Glastonbury festival the Beeb screened "Glastonbury Fayre", the film record of the 1971 festival. This included footage of a very young Fairport Convention, playing something manic and rootsy. "Mmm...", I thought, "I must check them out someday". I'd been saying this to myself, on and off, since the very early 70s.

Does anyone remember those excellent sampler albums which companies like Island and CBS used to release? The Island samplers were particularly good, with an artist roster including Traffic, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Free. Oh, and Fairport convention. Each successive Island sampler brought a new Fairports track ("Meet On The Ledge" on "You Can All Join In", "Cajun Woman" on "Nice Enough To Eat", "Lord Marlborough" on "El Pea"...), and every time I thought "Mmm... I really must check out their new album". It's funny when you get into that anti-groove where, somehow, you always intend to buy a band's albums, but somehow never do.

Anyway, after watching "Glastonbury Fayre", the pressure stepped up. First, BBC4 showed a couple of superb documentaries about Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy. Thompson was a member of Fairports through to their fifth album, "Full House", so there were plenty of Fairports clips. The Carthy documentary filled in a few gaps in my knowledge about the links between Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and the rest of the 60s/70s electric folk-rock mafia.

Finally, JeanGenie's blog references to this year's Cropredy Festival, combined with several stories in MOJO about various internal marital upheavals posing a threat to the future of Cropredy, and possibly to the seemingly-eternal Fairports, gave me the final push.

So I went eBaying, of course!

I have a simple rule for buying CDs on eBay: no more than a fiver per CD, including postage. But with about 50 auto-searches active at any time, I get about 3 or 4 "bites" each month. So I baited my lines with searches for the first five Fairports CDs, dropped 'em in the eBay waters, and waited...

(Why the first five? Because for me the key figure in the Fairports was Richard Thompson. Next most important was the voice of Sandy Denny. Finally, the most Golden era of the band came on Liege And Lief, when Dave Swarbrick joined the line-up. Swarb and Thompson were constantly pushing each other's virtuosity, sometimes reaching such speeds in live performance that the whole thing teetered thrillingly on the verge of chaotic collapse. After that album, Sandy Denny left. Then "Full House" was the last Thompson album. End of their peak period, where my tastes are concerned).

Anyway, for several months, I had little success, snaring only a copy of "What We Did On Our Holidays". Then suddenly, yesterday, I won an auction on "Unhalfbricking". Good news, but better was to come: today I won TWO auctions, on the first album, "Fairport Convention", and on the mighty "Liege And Lief". So all the PayPalling's done, and I'm sitting here writing this, to pass the time while I wait for those padded envelopes to thud onto the doormat!

Oh yes, Trivioids: "Fairport" was the name of the house where the embronic band first gathered...


I may have finally figured out what this blog should be. I'm a music obsessive, so this will simply be my responses to whatever music I've been hearing and buying recently. No limits - jazz, world, chamber, orchestral, roots and folk, blues, alt rock, prog rock, punk rock, seaside rock... well, maybe not that last one. I'm no critic, so those seeking the next Charles Shaar Murray or Nick Kent will find little here to amuse them. But it'll amuse me, and that's enough for now.

This blog's former incarnation is no more. All gone, kaput. Just listen to the music...

Dylanphobia Revisited

I've never got along with Bob Dylan's voice. For years I thought he was just a talentless, tuneless exemplar of The Emperor's New Clothes. Then someone pointed out how many of my favourite songs were actually written by The Zim. OK, at some subliminal level, I'd always known The Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" was a Dylan choon, but I'd assumed he must have written it on one of his rare good days. Then I heard his original version of it. Gaaaaahhhddd! The awful whine, the gasping, whooping phrasing - all still in place. Hardly believable it was the same song. Likewise I find his original of "All Along The Watchtower" all but unlistenable, yet Hendrix's version is still sublime to these ears.

So I had the usual aversion hurdle to leap, when I read about Robyn Hitchcock's "Robyn Sings", a double CD of Dylan covers by one of my favourite songwriters and performers. It was hearing Dylan's "Visions Of Johanna" that first made then-teenage Hitchcock decide he wanted to be a singer-songwriter more than anything else in the world, and this loving recreation of 15 Dylan songs is clearly a labour of love. I've always been delighted by Hitchcock's freewheeling surreal imagery (despite the occasional suspicion of misogyny, a trait he readily acknowledges in the sleevenotes), and never realised just how much this also applies to Dylan's lyrics.

I doubt this will inspire me to seek out any Dylan albums - his horrible nasal delivery is one of my very few all-time musical turnoffs. But as a songwriter I now believe the hype, he's pretty damned good. So, Robyn, what I think I'd now like is for you to work through Dylan's back-catalogue, recreating each of his albums. Whilst still turning out your own stuff, with and without various Egyptians and Soft Boys, of course!