Thursday, 15 July 2010

Travis & Fripp in Gloucester

One knows one is getting old when one finds one’s self attending a gig in Gloucester alongside various sextogenarians at 7pm…

I could have started my blog like this, but then I thought, no – I refuse to give any of the ignorant sniggerers out there the pleasure. Thus…

One appreciates that quality musicians have found a way to both reach a more mature and higher quality audience, as well as the courage to experiment with exciting new venues, when one attends a concert such as Travis & Fripp in the Atrium of Gloucester College.

Actually, I could have written this about the Travis & Fripp gig I attended at Coventry Cathedral in May 2009.

New music, new audience.

The Coventry gig was the culmination of three or four previous gigs in small churches around the West(ish) Country and although I can’t say it took me by surprise, having been familiar with Fripp’s soundscapes for some time beforehand, it was A Big Event. I wasn’t expecting two guys to quite fill that space so completely and so appropriately. It took my breath away, particularly the final number of the second set, which reduced me to a blithering wreck.

Back to today, then (15th July 2010) and accompanied by two (yes, two) women and it was clear that this was a very different kind of gig. A hundred or so chairs set out in the Atrium of Gloucester College, a small stage and no colossal tapestries in sight…

That said, there were three fabulous paintings by PJ Crook and it turned out that today’s concert was by way of tribute for the unveiling of a new piece by the artist. It was also a charity event, organised by Crook and the College in aid of Crook's work with the National Star College.

(As an asides, my wife and I visited the Stanley Spencer museum in Cookham the other day and I was surprised how the similarity of the two artists’ styles had never struck me before. It was a treat for me as Lorraine loves Spencer and was equally thrilled by the work of Crook… Fripp she can take or leave…)

Now, I’m not sure whether it was my personal build-up to the show that made a difference (but I suspect it had something to do with it), but in contrast to the sunshine in Coventry, the perusal of the bombed out shell of the old cathedral, the talk by the bishop before the gig of the spirit of reconciliation, today’s pre-gig activity involved a grey, drizzling day, a shopping mall, a rather poor meal and a hunt through a confusing one-way system.

I was really looking forward to the players taking to the stage, but was feeling… well, normal. Within seconds, however, I was transported as wave upon building wave of shifting harmony engulfed me, washed me away, gently scrubbed the scars and entrails of normality from my being and left me feeling somewhat naked in the presence of beauty.

This show started, for me, in much the same way as the Coventry gig ended: in a powerful swirl of feelings tangled up in sounds that left me emotionally ragged. I was overwhelmed – utterly and delightfully.

The few seconds of applause that followed were needed by me to simply recompose myself. What followed from here was a personal and friendly journey through some delightful pieces – some seemed planned, others totally improvised, but after the emotional battering of the opening number, it was all thoroughly enjoyable.

The second piece was a quirky jazz, almost humorous, but solid in its direction. The third was Moonchild – starting with a clearer nod towards the original than the Coventry gig, but veering further away as harder rock elements entered the variations on the theme.

I think there were five pieces in all, but one stood out as it seemed that Fripp gave the nod to Travis to ‘just play something’. Travis seemed a little unsure, but eventually picked up the soprano sax and began a gentle, but complex series of runs of a ‘seventhy’ leaning.

The piece crawled, stood, stumbled, walked and then ran. It was such a delight to watch such a progression in what seemed to be total improvisation, but, despite the freeness it evoked, was perhaps the most ‘real’ music I have ever encountered.

After a mere 45 to 50 minutes, it was over. My other accomplice, Helena, who hadn’t seen Fripp since 1983 at the Hammersmith Palais nudged me and said ‘shout for more’. Even my wife said she wanted more… But I guess one of the cardinal rules of performance is ‘leave ‘em wanting more’. We certainly did.

Fripp was relaxed and smiling throughout, even giving his wife a wink during one of the numbers. The applause at the end was heartfelt and hearty.

It was a small meal, but an ultimately satisfying one. “I’m coming back tomorrow,” said Helena. Yes, that would be a good thing to do… But would it be the right thing?

Twice in a row, ten out of ten for Travis and Fripp. Open your minds, breath deeply and buy the albums here.

I think my bank manager's a fascist

This is a tenuous wee bloggette. Tenuous because it only very loosely relates to football and/or music, but because of this, I figure this offering can go on both blogs…

It was, we thought (my wife and I), a simple task. When we first got married, she made her bank account joint for her and me. I’m not sure why we didn’t do the same with mine, but there you go – the question never really arose, but my ongoing ineptitude with all things financial meant that, this week, we thought we would give Lorraine access to my account, too. She’s really good with that sort of stuff.

So, a meeting was made to meet a ‘personal banker’ for a few days later and we were required to bring in voluminous quantities of paper and documents that proved beyond doubt that she really was my wife and not some woman who has been grooming me in order to run off with my amassed wealth (ha!).

All well and good. As were the initial pleasantries of the meeting. (“you don’t bank with us, do you?” he asked Lorraine. “No,” I said. “She has found another way.” I was secretly pleased with that.)

It got to a few minutes in, when he announced that he would have to say some stuff in accordance with the law and ‘will try not to sound too much like a parrot’. He then proceeded to ramble off a couple of paragraphs of financial blah from memory. To his credit, it was not like a parrot. It was more like a horse race commentary. “I hope that wasn’t too much like a parrot,” he mumbled, once over the hurdle.

“It was very good,” Lorraine lied. “Are you an actor?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“You can always spot them,” said Lorraine. “Luvvies, gays, they can always recognise each other.”

“Well, I’m more of a singer, really, I do some stuff with my church and I hold classes with some youngsters.”

Oh dear, I thought. In one sentence he has managed to mention that he is a) an actor, b) a singer, c) a Christian and d) some sort of teacher. We then got a brief outline of the fact that he has recently changed churches and the fact that he is singing with a band, doing numbers such as Mack the Knife, Hey Joe and Minnie the Moocher… At this point I glazed over.

Oh, God, I hope I don’t do this. Do I flaunt myself insensitively like some sort of private parade in front of people, letting them know how bloody marvellous I am? Please, someone, tell me I don’t or I might have to dig a hole in the Chilterns and live there on vegetable husks for the rest of my days.

Somehow, a bit later, we got on to football and the World Cup. Now, we were on more even ground here. Everyone is a football manager – me included – and I consider football a safe haven for the terminal bullshitter – hence my blog.

But there was something odd about him. Statements such as “Don’t tell me Lumpard (I call him that) and Rooney weren’t thinking about their houses, cars and holidays when they were on the pitch.” I know some serious sports journos have said this – and they might be right, although I seriously doubt it. I think the problem is a lot more deep seated than that. But the mispronunciation of Lampard’s name – and the flag to make sure we were aware of it, rang oddly with me.

‘I don’t think I like you,’ I thought.

Somewhat out of the blue, he began talking about Raoul Mote (?) – you know, that fuckwitt that shot people, evaded capture for a few days then, thankfully, shot himself (where he should have started, really). Apparently, there is a Facebook page where people are holding this thug up as being some sort of hero. Definitely odd, but not something I would think about above, say, thinking about the need to buy some more Marmite, because my current jar is almost empty.

Anyway, Mr Manager, started getting a bit heated about what sort of people would consider a murderer and attempted murderer to be a hero.

“Mass hysteria,” said Lorraine. “It’s the same with Princess Diana, politics… And don’t get me started on religion…”

Oh dear, I thought. My dear lovely wife has either forgotten the religious references a few minutes ago, or is spoiling for a fight.

“It’s funny, isn’t it,” said Mr Manager. “I mean, I’ve only been a Christian for a couple of years – although I’ve been in and out of church all my life – but everyone thinks of Christianity as a peaceful religion.” (Do they?) “Whereas Muslims talk about their religion being a peaceful one and we all know it isn’t.” (Do we?) “I wouldn’t mind, but I haven’t heard a single Muslim say they utterly condemn the actions of these terrorists.”

Here, both Lorraine and I interjected. “Oh come one! You need to listen to a bit more Radio Four.”

“Well, they certainly aren’t saying it loudly enough,” he rejoined. (Splutter, splutter.) “The thing is,” he continued, “Is that everyone thinks of Christians as peaceful, but when you think just a hundred years ago, it was all ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’. Christians aren’t so peaceful when you think about it. I mean, look at history. Islam and Christianity are just as bad as each other. We both have violent histories. I mean, I became a Christian because of the London bombings on 7/7. I know some people might say that is not the right reason, but it’s had a good effect on me… Can you sign here and here, please?”

As we left the room, he asked us not to say anything about our conversation… “It could lose me my job!” he said.

Is there another way? I sincerely think there is…

Monday, 12 July 2010


I’ve got a gig! Not a particularly earth-shattering piece of information, particularly as those of you reading this blog (hopefully all six of you) have: a) played with me at one of my recent gigs; b) seen me at one of my recent gigs; c) known about one of my recent gigs but had something much better to do on each occasion.

Most of my playing these days takes place either in private (not listening to my own advice), with my wife at our local pub (strangely lacking in invites to return after four or five appearances… Could it be we simply don’t attract the right quantity of audience – regardless of the undoubted quality) or at my local open mic night (here, most definitely taking my own advice).

The only time, however, I have played my own version of soundscapes/Frippertronics was at a sort of ‘freestyle’ open mic night at the Firestation in Windsor – the so-called Professor Hitchen’s Art Lab (or some such).

I’ve been down there a couple of times, actually, just to make some sort of observation of the reaction to a bloke standing there making bleeping and droning noises with a guitar, a giga-delay unit and various knobs, switches and pedals to make the whole experience as unearthly as is humanly possible.

Which was great – and the response was great, too. The thing is, it was, like any open mic night, a ‘blind’ performance. I emailed the organiser, explaining what I wanted to do, they responded saying ‘great, come on down’ and I played – although it was clear on each occasion that the MC had no idea who I was or what I was doing and on each occasion implied that I would be getting on stage with my guitar ‘to sing us a few songs’.

In a way, that was kind of cool, because if anyone was expecting a song, they would have been extremely surprised to hear the amorphous swoops and whooshes emitting from my guitar…

But I digress, yet again.

Yes, I have a gig – a gig playing my auraloramas – a gig in an arts centre – a gig with loads of other artists, musicians and dramatists… A gig where I had to send in some examples of my music to see if it was suitable.

An da man, he say ‘yes’.

It is the tenth anniversary of the Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Maidenhead and the establishment is holding a special, all-comers celebration of the arts in Maidenhead. There will be drama groups, musical theatre groups, dance groups, artists and who knows what else, all performing in every possible square inch of the centre.

I’m telling people that I will be in the disabled toilet… I don’t know if that’s true, but it is possible – and who cares. The fact is that an arts centre thought my strange noises suitable for a multi-arts celebration.

I’m jumping the gun a bit here. I’ve just been on the Norden Farm website and the September 26th event isn’t even on the calendar yet, but hey, take this as a suitably previous teaser for the eventual blog I will write again once the chance to book tickets has arrived…

Bloody hell – that’s the problem with the mediocre: too damn keen…

Friday, 9 July 2010

Alone in Amazon’s jungle

I was on the BBC on Thursday (July 8th) – Radio Four to be precise… You and Yours to be completely pedantic. An MI retailer in Tunbridge Wells had notified the Beeb about Amazon’s establishing a musical instrument tab on its website – almost simultaneous with the online retail monster’s upping of the tariff for selling MI via its site from seven per cent to 12.

The retailer was Jonathan Birch of JB’s Music – a sensible chap, articulate and smart – and he had been enjoying a bit of success online thanks to Amazon – until this unforewarned step killed off any hope of making money out of the deal.

As he put it, terms such as ‘affiliate’ and ‘partner’ became meaningless as the corporate decision was made without consultation and without giving the retailers concerned the chance to even talk to someone, let alone object.

These news magazine interviews are so short, you never get the time to say everything you want and the message often gets so abbreviated as to become almost meaningless.

Jon and I were there with sheets of paper with bullet points on them, ready to air our views, but we got a bit hijacked by the fact that groceries have been made part of the Amazon offering and clearly Peter White (the show’s host) had been told that I would somehow defend Amazon.

I pointed out that people feeling intimidated by MI retail outlets – in reference to the entry level, rather than higher-end, more serious musos. There is little we can do about this, but I am genuinely worried about
a) unethical shoppers using retail outlets as showrooms and demonstration premises for their cheaper online purchases, and
b) the seemingly irrevocable slide towards uniform products from uniform brands and the death of variety

In many ways, we in the MI trade are barking up the wrong tree a bit here. Why are more people turning to the internet for their shopping? This is the question that needs to be answered. I think there is a growing laziness towards shopping these days, which might be fine for books, CDs and white goods, but I think is very dangerous when applied to musical instruments.

This was the other point I was trying to make. Music is a social thing, in the practice, in the performance and in the publication. Why are we increasingly isolating ourselves – from the purchase of the equipment, to the recording and performance of music – and doing more and more of it on our own?

I know internet sales are harming some bricks and mortar stores, but no more than mail order and Argos and others have done in the past.

The BPI has been banging on about the death of the record business because of home taping and now downloads for years.

The Musician Union has been doing the same about keeping music live.

But the fact is, there are still records being released – more than ever as the technology takes power away from the big record companies. There is still a phenomenal amount of live music – despite the Music Forum and UK Music banging on about a decline. And there are still musical instrument retailers...

As long as there are, there is hope for the music playing community and any negatives in the world of music can be reversed. I know it sounds like so much old guff, but if musos do have somewhere to go where ideas can be exchanged, then there is a future.

The problem with the likes of Amazon is that we are encouraged to stay at home, click a few virtual buttons and then stay at home and wait for the item to arrive...

Then stay at home and play it...

I find that unspeakably sad...

We need to get out and about, be in and among the music playing community. When music thrives in a public, active way, I seriously think we do too.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The joys of mediocrity 2

Right, so 90 per cent of us are mediocre – live with it. Of course, when encapsulating such a huge proportion of the world’s human population, one needs to take it as read that we are talking shades of grey here.

There are the talented mediocre, the mediocre that have practised that little bit more than their mediocre brothers and sisters and there are the mediocre that have practised a lot, but are so untalented that they stumble backwards into the world of the hopeless, or those that are so talented, but have no truck with any practice whatsoever and stumble from the upper echelons of mediocre back into the lower echelons as the talent atrophies within them.

For talent is a being – and any and every being needs sustenance. Starvation tends to lead towards death – although it never ceases to surprise me how long a body can exist without food. (As a side note, there are other ‘abstracts’ that exist as a being – conscience is one, marriage is another (or any relationship), interest a third. I am sure you can think of others, but these things all require constant nourishment if they are to survive and thrive. You can feed them the wrong sort of food, too, of course and by doing so, corrupt them; turn them into something that is ugly, hateful, destructive or listless.)

There are, of course, those exceedingly rare specimens of human being that have not a gram of talent and have never even heard of the word ‘discipline’, but have a single-minded enthusiasm for some creative act or other and manage to stagger and fall backwards into genius, unaware of how they got there, nor what they will do now that they are there. These fine (and lucky) individuals tend to find themselves in areas of humour – and the joke does tend to wear after a while, but still, it must be kind of cool to find yourself achieving acclaim with no effort whatsoever…

I digress…

The thing is, we are mediocre to greater and lesser degrees. A quick visit to your local open mic night will (possibly) confirm this. If you have not been to your local open mic night (or any open mic night for that matter) then please do – as long as you go with an open mind.

We musos are a proud and egocentric bunch and it is often difficult for us to find a good word for each other, but do give it a try. Pop down your local open mic night – take your instrument – and put yourself forward to do a number or two – then stand back an enjoy the efforts of others.

Pretty much the entire gamut of talent is on display and you will hear the odd number you haven’t heard for eons, which will give you a nice blast of nostalgia.

It is also interesting to watch the types of people that perform and how they view themselves and each other. There is often a sort of gauge you can draw that the more mediocre a performer is, the more front they seem to possess. How often have I seen a clearly talented individual pull off a really tricky piece of finger work while singing an equally complex melody, only to mumble some sort of feeble apology at the end of the piece – thus causing the applause to peter out sooner than it should have done? Very. And how often have I seen someone that can barely strum a chord – let alone three – with little or no idea of a tune in his or her head, but do so with so much front and enthusiasm that the audience feels compelled to blast him off stage with their applause – or at least delay the next onslaught.

The thing is, it is fun – and if you get involved, it becomes even more fun. You become part of ‘the gang’ to a greater or lesser degree. What is more, the more you turn up, the more you become a part of that particular open mic night’s scene…

And do you know what? The more you turn up, the better you get. Some people even start expanding their repertoire. And every now and then, that exceptional individual – so awful they are utterly brilliant – turns up. You don’t want to miss that…

Saturday, 3 July 2010

My wife is better than me

It’s the weekend – joy! What’s more the sun is shining… What’s more it’s my wife’s and my first wedding anniversary – what more could one want?

It has already been one of those idyllic mornings when the simplest of things fill one with joy and love. Cutting Lorraine a flower from the garden to take up with her wake-up cup of tea, being given a really nice bottle of wine and a photo album of our wedding and honeymoon, enjoying a radio show together (Des Lynham and a mate nattering about golf – very funny – very middle class – very middle aged), cleaning out cars and then discovering Lorraine in my studio discovering this blog.

I started it on Wednesday and now it’s Saturday – four days, four blogs. Lorraine actually inspired me to start writing a blog when she started her own last September. That’s how slow a starter I am… And this is how slow a ‘continuer’ she is. Today, after seeing my first three efforts, Lorraine dived with vehemence on to her computer and began continuing hers. You can see it here.

In case you haven’t clicked through to look it at it by now, it’s called ‘My husband is better than me – grrr’. Bless her. And while much of what she has written in said blog is quite true – including the willy cleaning habits… Just in case – the thing that is wrong is the very premise of the piece. I’m not better than her. She’s better than me.

We both work as writers, but while I tend to burble out the first thing that comes to mind and then click on the upload button with a flourish a few minutes later, Lorraine has the ability to write something, look at it, correct stuff, re-write it, re-correct it, change the ending, edit out the unnecessary bits and then give it a final gloss and re-re-re-re-correct. This is real writing. This is what real writers do. Not splurge their never-ending thoughts on the trivia of musical instruments, music, writing, or whatever, and then be happy with the results with barely a second glance.

What is more – and as her blog describes – she does this while putting a load of laundry into the washing machine, filling the dishwasher, doing the ironing, dusting, cleaning, cooking and organising our diaries and finances for the next 15 years. If she finds herself at a loose end, she’ll pop out into the garden and go shopping… For fun.

How do women do it? Why can’t they simply sit down and do nothing? As I mentioned in ‘The joys of mediocrity 1’, my habits are generally half-hearted and even then it done with extreme struggle against my unending ability to do absolutely nothing. I can watch football or listen to an album and have not a though in my head about what needs to be done. Women don’t seem to be able to do that. I think I would pity them if it weren’t for the fact that they are continually jemmying men out of their seats and into some chore or other.

And this brings me back to the opening. This has been a wonderful morning – as have been the past few Saturdays, because I have got out of bed, fully prepared (and psyched up) to do at least one relevant chore before anything else.

The difference this morning is that exactly one year ago, we were meeting up at Auchen Castle in Moffat to promise ourselves to each other for the rest of our lives. It was a wonderful day – and that makes today a wonderful day, too.

I met Lorraine 30 years ago – it was an inauspicious start to a relationship. We were in a show together and that was pretty much the beginning and the end of the story.

When we met up again nearly ten years ago, there was an attraction. Nine years ago, we became friends. Eight years ago we were best friends. Six years ago we became lovers. Four years ago we began living together. Last year we got married. Today we are going to the garden centre to buy Lorraine a shrub that she really wants.

The joy of that big day one year ago almost pales into insignificance with the simple beauty of being there for each other, of being together, of doing stuff together. My life, thanks to her, is pretty much complete.

And to top it all off – she’s loads better than me at pretty much everything.

Happy anniversary, Darling – I really love you.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Joys of Mediocrity 1

We are surrounded, in this world of instant communication, with people that are (rightly or wrongly) given appellations of superlative nature and our televisions, radios, cinemas, music players and concerts are filled with talents that we mortals can only admire. Aspiration might be available to all in equal measure, but the ability to achieve the pinnacle of any discipline is denied most of us. This is because most of us are, sadly, mediocre at best…

I say ‘sadly’, but there isn’t really any reason to get emotional about it. We have two choices when confronting our mediocrity: do something about it or not. And the line is drawn very high, because if you practise something, you must practise with the aim of achieving some degree of perfection – anything less is dooming yourself to more mediocrity.

I wish I had known this as a child – or perhaps I should say, I wish I had taken the clues and hints that exist along the route of my early life, for I sincerely doubt there were none. I’m certain no-one laid it out on a plate for me, but I’m equally certain that I must have come across clues for the total dedication needed to become a master at something.

In my case, my desire was to be a musician – a guitarist. Almost from the word go I was looking for easier ways to achieve this and, in my naivety, I figured that being bassist would help me. I also managed to fill my head with proto-punk thinking that training and lessons were for snobs and elitists and I would have no truck with such nonsense.

What a shame. As my mediocre progression has taken place over 35 years, I see now that I could indeed have become a decent – even worthy – player had I had the discipline to learn my instruments properly. As it is, I now have the habit and inclination for half-hearted practise and very little chance for mastery…

But this is not to say I will ever give up. I have kitted myself out with what I have and I can certainly improve upon it, but the music I create delights me – however mediocre it might be. I don’t thrust it upon anyone, I play when invited, I record my music and make it public, should anyone stumble across it and find it acceptable (or even, heaven forbid) enjoyable.

Too often mediocrity is scorned, too often the access that the masters have to the broadcasting of ideas means that anything less than brilliant is poo-pooed and the throngs of the mediocre are repressed into feeling inadequate and, most tragically, giving up on whatever discipline they have half-heartedly chosen.

To this end you get comments such as one I heard some years ago when a local band was playing and I was on my way to see them. I asked a friend if he wanted to come along. “Why would I want to do that?” he responded with genuine and even insulted incredulity. “I have CDs of Led Zeppelin at home and in my car!”

I find the attitude scandalous. It applies a lot to amateur drama, too – another field I have experience in and a love for. And I have never practised or studied drama, but I have a natural aptitude to it that is of a decent level. There are others in my drama group that do have something of a discipline in this area as well as the aptitude and they are excellent actors – not superlatively good, but good enough to pull off the most difficult of productions with considerable aplomb… Yet the masses stay away and even turn their noses up at the thought of seeing ‘amateur’ drama.

Of course, it is more fool them, but it is also detrimental to the group, which, as the snobbery is perpetuated, declines in terms of finances and finds itself struggling to put on the sort of productions it is capable of.

So, I want to start (ha!) a change in mind-set. Let’s rejoice in mediocrity. We are, most of us, mediocre anyway. Why not cling together and support each other. I’m not saying we should praise something that doesn’t deserve it, but we should be willing to see the efforts of others and, in doing so – I guarantee – we will witness some wonderful performances or productions or creations along the way.

No More Heroes

At the recent MI Retail Conference & Expo (a gathering of the UK’s musical instrument industry) one of the panel sessions drew a question from the floor regarding the influence of famous musicians in the past in getting ‘the kids’ to play musical instruments.

It went something like this…

“During the 60s and 70s, musical heroes would inspire younger people to play and this would get them into our shops and create new customers, Even in the 90s with Oasis and the Brit Pop wave, there was a push from the musicians to get kids playing. There doesn’t seem to be anyone any more and I was wondering why the panel thinks there are no more heroes.”

Paraphrased, but pretty much the thrust of the question. Unfortunately, at the time the panel was discussing the relationship between supplier and retailer and why some big retailers had gone out of business in recent years and the chair had to push the question to one side (although the ever-wise Noel Sheehan of Sheehan’s Music in Leicester did allude to it, although from where I was I couldn’t hear what he said!).

But it did get me thinking. Is this true? Are there really no more heroes? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has started playing in the past year or two as the result of being inspired by a contemporary musician.

My general disinterest of pop stars and celebrity means I am probably not the person to tackle this, but it does interest me. For what it’s worth, off the top of my head, these are the most recent heroes for any given interest…

Guitar: Slash (80s/90s)
Drums: Dave Grohl (current)
Bass: Flea (80s/90s) (There is, of course, the mighty John Paul-Jones of Led Zeppelin who is currently holding the low end of the rhythm section with Grohl in Them Crooked Vultures, but I’m not sure what ‘the kids’ think when they see an old wrinkly on stage struttin’ his stuff – I know it does it for me, but I’m an old wrinkly who grew up with Led Zep.)
Keys: Norah Jones (current – although she is admittedly a pianist… a hero keyboard player? Er… Howard Jones? Oh, hang on… Chris Martin, anyone?)

Heroes from the brasswind and orchestral strings, I’m afraid, drag me personally back to the 1940s… Although there is Jean Luc Ponty on violin and that girl… Er Teresa Mae, was it?)

So, yes, it is a struggle. There don’t really appear to be heroes any more, despite the fact there are a lot of instrument playing collectives driving the big chunks of the charts in the shape of your Coldplays and Snow Patrols, Gorillaz, Flaming Lips and Arctic Monkeys.

There are a couple of issues here. When punk came along, it spurned musicality and reverted to short sharp bursts of three-minute assaults that relied heavily on chords and voices. Then comes the current mainstream predilection for so-called talent shows – even shorter bursts of one-and-a-half minute dribbles almost exclusively centred around singing.

Ah, yes, the singer. Now this seems to be where the heroes are coming forth, there was a time when the strutting guy who made hot moves with a mic stand was almost a side show to the musicians, but these days to sing is to be king. Interestingly, I’m not sure that singers sell microphones…

The broader question is, of course, whether any artist influences the sales of any given instrument. That they inspire people to play I don’t think there’s any doubt, but am I interested in the fact that a certain guitarist plays a certain model of guitar? Less so, it seems to me, although the manufacturers (particularly the ones that don’t like to pay for adverts – and there are a lot of them) would have you believe the opposite.

I think diversity is a big part of the equation, too. There are simply so many acts and so much music that singling out a particular hero from among the multitudes of thumpers, noodlers and warblers just isn’t inherent in the culture of popular music anymore.

And yet, in terms of units sold, there are more musical instruments out there than ever before – thus adding still more to the diversity of music being made…

What the retailer asking the question was worried about, of course, was where his profits have gone. Unit sales up, but margins are squeezed to near extinction, making it a tough job to make a living out of musical instruments.

There aren’t really any heroes any more, just the growing wall of sound created by the endless stream of ordinary people (me included) making music. The real problem is making enough space and enough quiet in which a careful amount of quality music can be placed – hopefully with a touch of acumen, a degree of taste and a big dollop of sensitivity.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Term Time

There has been much talk of Prog rock recently – which in and of itself is a remarkable thing as the term became a source of ridicule and shame for the detractors and fans respectively during the late 1970s and has only just now become usable again – despite the attempts of the BBC to continue the ridicule with its Prog Britannia show.

The facts are – as are the facts with much of music when it becomes a subject of conversation rather than the organisation of sound in space and time – that some people like some things and others like others and it is not for me or anyone to rail against the taste of another. It’s as pointless as hitting yourself in the face with a hammer.

In this opening blog, I would like to address the terminology. ‘Prog’ is a label and like any label in the world of art or creation, it immediately achieves ignominy when it is applied.

Prog Rock, or anything claiming to be Prog Rock, is probably something that is trying to be Prog Rock and adhering to formulas and styles – or even stereotypes, God forbid – in order to be classed alongside anything else that has been labelled Prog Rock.

An unfortunate stance to take with one’s creations, it seems to me.

The problem comes from the fact that progressive rock (note the absence of capital letters) is precisely what it says on the tin: rock music that progresses from a particular point or environment.

In this way, I think, avoiding the danger of post-rationalising and applying criteria to work that existed before the phrase, we can start with the work of The Beatles (Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s) and Pink Floyd (Piper at the Gates of Dawn) as sort of ‘proto-prog’ inspirations and then the late 60s early 70s era when that which the wider world labels ‘Prog’ was actually also progressive (King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Caravan, Egg and so on and so forth).

For some reason, the label ‘Prog’ stuck with that music, although rock music’s progression moved across the road into the subsequent worlds of punk, new romantic, hip hop, grunge, Brit pop, acid house, techno and so on – again. (I am certain everybody will have a different list of ‘progressions' through the fads, but I think it is well worth pointing out that once these things became fads, the progression in musical terms had most likely moved on to the next development – the mass market is always the bell tolling for any new music or art and the real artists are looking elsewhere by the time the businessmen move in.)

That which was progressive and became Prog is set in that age and while there might be something of a renewed interest in that music, albums that retain a listenability, that remain fresh, that do not date necessarily back to their era, but continue to live and breathe in the modern world, are those that have achieved an artistic value above and beyond the era and the label they have been pinned to. Larks Tongues in Aspic and Red (King Crimson), Close to the Edge (Yes), Camembert Electric (Gong) are a few that spring immediately to my mind, but there are others.

Interestingly, for me at least, is that of those old proggers, only King Crimson progressed, never looked back, never became a tribute act of itself, continued, up to the last gathering, to move forward from where it had been.

I miss nothing of the old Prog world – I still have the albums I like – but I do miss King Crimson and that pushing of the envelope while remaining a glorious evolution from that basement on the Fulham Palace Road in 1969.

Got to admire that achievement…