Reading - April 2019

The Guitar Magazine (May 2019 / Issue 368)
Sound Man by Glyn Johns (2014)
Glyn Johns is obviously a legendary producer, but I found his book less interesting that other accounts from the front-line of music engineering that I have read recently (notably, Glenn Berger and Phill Brown's books). The writing style is a little jarring, with too many short sentences that should have been joined together (although that does mean he wrote it himself, because no professional writer would have done this - in fact, I'm surprised his editor let it past), and although there are loads of good stories about the many famous people he's worked with, there's very little technical detail. Possibly that's more appropriate for a general audience, of course.
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre (2001)
I've almost read this too many times. It's clearly a fantasy in many ways and yet wonderfully believable and grounded in reality, like all of his books (or at least, the earlier ones; I don't like the "Chris" Brookmyre books - sadly, since it doesn't look like "Christopher" is coming back).
A Snowball In Hell by Christopher Brookmyre (2008)
The next book to feature Simon Darcourt - blackly comic, of course, but quite gruesome in places. But, as Cher in Clueless so memorably points out: "until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value."


Reading - March 2019

The Guitar Magazine (April 2019)
They're still persisting with the "blues essentials" lessons and we have yet another history of the 58/59 Les Paul 'bursts, although at least this is written by Tony Bacon from original source interviews. Otherwise a good mix of interesting and less common gear alongside the usual suspects (we get a Fender and a Gibson review this month).
Over Here by Raymond Seitz (1998)
This is a really interesting entry in the small category of books I own that try and identify and classify the British character. Raymond Seitz was the first career diplomat to be appointed US Ambassador to the UK and spent time here on other postings too. As he says, much as he dislikes the word, he would probably be classed as an anglophile. Given his position (in particular, the ultimate one), his view of British society is almost certainly a fairly narrow one; he visits Chequers and associates with earls. Nevertheless he makes some interesting comparisons between the US and the UK. I like the the way he describes how the different political systems influence and are influenced by the way the country thinks and feels about itself. His writing is beautifully fluent, witty and expressive and this is a most enjoyable book (even though my edition had an error in production and is missing two chapters!)
Flirting With The Forbidden by Joss Wood (2014)
The first in a Mills & Boon/Harlequin "By Request" triple header, this is a decent enough romance - my first in quite some time, I think.
Hot Island Nights by Sarah Mayberry (2010)
While this, the second novel in the "Romance in Paradise" trilogy, starts off as regular bonk-fest (I counted six, erm, encounters in the first four chapters), it develops nicely into something a little more complex and emotionally rich. She rescues him, he rescues her. Very sweet.
Good Night And Good Riddance by David Cavanagh (2015)
Unlike a lot of my friends, I never listened to John Peel much. I've always been into pop music - albeit with a fairly wide interpretation of "pop" - and so a show that steered as far away from pop as possible wasn't going to be my cup of tea. I only read this because I heard David Cavanagh being interviewed on the Word Podcast, and it sounded interesting - although when I got it, I was put off again because it's quite a chunky tome! But, against my expectations, I've really enjoyed it. One of the things it points out, again and again, is how often, and how far, Peel was ahead of the curve. What he played could well end up being "pop", a year or two later - and consistently, right across his 30+ year broadcasting career, he gave bands their first exposure on radio. Amazing, really. The format - a brief entry for many of the hundreds of the shows that still survive - is surprisingly readable. While the subtitle - "How Thirty-Five Years Of John Peel Helped To Shape Modern Life" - is a touch over-the-top, you can't argue with his influence on modern music. Time to go and re-read Margrave Of The Marshes, I think.
From Fling To Forever by Avril Tremayne (2014)
One of the signatures of all Mills and Boon/Silhouette/Harlequin (all the same company) novels is the "emotional drama" of falling in love, but this falls firmly into melodrama, and is the worse for it. The two main characters spend ages blaming each other for their feelings - in particular, the man, although to be fair the woman does call him on this - before getting together over half-way through the book in something borderline non-consensual from the woman's point of view, which made me uncomfortable. A bit of a slog and I only bothered because I needed the happy ending.
1001 Guitars To Dream Of Playing Before You Die by Terry Burrows et al (2018)
As with all books of this nature, it's physically hard to read - at nearly 2kg and over 900 pages of thick, quality paper - and frustratingly unevenly edited. There are a number of entries with entirely the wrong picture and too many dull write-ups. Most of this is caused by the need to meet the arbitrary 1001 guitars of the title. That said, there's loads of instruments in here I've never heard of, many beautiful pictures to gaze at and no omissions that I can think of. Full marks for including a healthy number of bass and classical guitars too (although this is probably for practical reasons, since it made it easier to reach the magic number). I'm pleased to have read this but it took ages and it will now be used as a reference only.
Think Like A Freak by Steven D Levitt & Stephen J Dubner (2014)
Kind of a mix between advice on critical thinking and the kind of unusual facts from the previous Freakonomics books. Very readable, but surprisingly short, since almost 20% of its length is made of up notes on the facts in the main body of the book!
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953)
The first Bond novel and a surprisingly slim volume and plot. Still, it's well-paced and has all the basic ingredients that came to define the genre, and probably made quite a splash at the time.
Pride/Prejudice by Ann Herenden (2010)
I came across this in the library app while searching for Pride & Prejudice itself, and was intrigued enough to have a look. It's a kind of companion piece to the original, intending to fill in some of the gaps in time and motivation that have occasionally puzzled readers - much like many other spin-offs (for example, Mr. Darcy's Diary). What I didn't realise until afterwards was the significance of the slash in the title. This books focuses very much on the sexual motivations of the characters, and in particular the relationship between Darcy and Bingley, which is extended to be a sexual one. Obviously people had sex back then and equally obviously it wasn't talked about - or not written about, anyway - so it's kind of interesting to think about what must have happened in real life. However, too much of this doesn't really ring true for me, and the book doesn't hold up as a story in its own right. I suspect I'm not really the target audience. Still, an interesting diversion.


Reading - February 2019

Very British Problems by Rob Temple (2013)
The book of the Twitter account @SoVeryBritish, a classic example of a single joke (three, max) taken to unnecessary extremes in the pursuit of stocking fillers, cash and social media stardom. Mostly disposable but occasionally amusing. Quite nice to dip into over breakfast.
The Guitar Magazine (March 2019 / Issue 366)
The Guitar Magazine continues its apparent wish to be more like Guitarist with three profiles of blues guitarists, and a lesson in blues shuffles, "like Stevie Ray!". Yawn. Also included, "for free" (you're too kind) is a 32-page Taylor advert, er sorry, supplement. There's plenty of other interesting content, but the signs, two issues into their new look, are a little worrying.
The Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp & Steven Daly (2005)
Like an extra long version of one of the Bluffer's Guides (which I bought in the 80s but are astonishingly still going, now published by Haynes), this offers useful information in the form of amusing satire. If it's occasionally inaccurate on the British side of things, then we can forgive it.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (2011)
Picked this up for a re-read on a whim, and pleased I did. It's a lot funnier and franker than I remember. There's enough material here for a couple of stand-up routines, easily.
The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett (1986)
Rincewind isn't one of my favourite Discworld characters, but nevertheless I enjoyed this story, which is the second in the Discworld series. Also, it occurred to me that the lack of chapters in Pratchett books always seems unusual and yet completely logical. It's like a very long short story.
Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode (2013)
I re-read this because by the time I realised I had done so before, I was enjoying it enough to want to carry on. A bit rambling - some of his asides occupy several pages - but still interesting. Given its premise (does the world still need professional film critics?), I wouldn't have said that this was a book likely to sell much - not as much as, say, a collection of Kermode's best reviews (which he doesn't appear to have done, oddly) - but then, I have read it twice now, so what do I know?


Reading - January 2019

The Guitar Magazine (February 2019 / Issue 365)
New look, no more "vol this number that", and more gear I would say. It still has some very in-depth technical articles, but also a new and surprisingly pointless "Essential Blues" lesson, which is nothing that can't be found online and sailing a bit close to Guitarist territory.
The Rough Guide To The Titanic by Greg Ward (2012)
I fancied watching James Cameron's Titanic over Christmas (still spectacular, but the computer-generated scenes are more obvious to me now, and blimey don't Kate and Leo look young?) and this is the obvious companion piece.
Not The End Of The World by Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
Great fun as usual.
Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989)
It turns out this is the prequel to Men At Arms (one of my favourite Discworld novels) that I never knew existed. It covers the arrival of Corporal Carrot in the Nightwatch and Vimes's engagement, things assumed at the beginning of the next novel but which for some reason I had never wondered about. Anyway, this book is the usual mix of satire, slapstick and comedy and a jolly good read.
The Book Of The Year 2018 by No Such Thing As A Fish (2018)
The same amusing mixture of miscellany as last year's book. Fun to dip into.


Reading - December 2018

The Guitar Magazine (January 2019 / Vol 30 No 4)
"Gear of the Year" edition; a bit disappointing since I've already read all those reviews during the year, and in any case I'm not in the market for anything new.
The Story Of Music by Howard Goodall (2013)
That this covers primarily Western instrumental ("classical") music doesn't stop this from being a concise yet comprehensive journey from its origins to the present day. He justifies the focus on Western music because it's the most complex and now the foremost musical form in the world - which rings true to me. Originally written to accompany the TV series of the same name (which I think I watched), this doesn't feel like a spin-off, but works well as standalone book, and is interesting and informative without being overly academic. Goodall has little time for labels (other than to point out how misleading many are) and the book is better for it. The main disadvantage of the book form is the lack of actual music, but the extensive Spotify playlists make that an advantage because you can explore at your own leisure. I've been listening to everything from plainchant to bebop this last week, and thoroughly enjoying it.
How Music Works by John Powell (2010)
This makes a nice companion to Howard Goodall's more cultural analysis, by focussing on the physics of, well, how music works: why certain notes go together while others don't, why scales are arranged the way they are and so on. It's written in a jocular way, which helps liven up what could be a somewhat dry subject, and although it's probably a bit longer than it needs to be, I definitely learned something.
The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit by John Seabrook (2016)
Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!


The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit

John Seabrook

Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!

On an internet forum I belong to, there was a discussion a few months ago about Ed Sheeran and the merits - or otherwise - of his songwriting. Views were split pretty evenly between those who liked the songs and admired his craft, and those who felt that there was something cynical and calculating about his approach. This latter group often acknowledged the quality of the songs while simultaneously claiming they they were devalued by Sheeran's openness about how he tries to write songs for specific occasions or groups - almost like it was a job.

In this overly romantic vision of songwriting, real songs, real art, comes from genuine feeling and life experience, written by one or maybe two people at most. The song comes to you, not the other way round. It's an oddly naïve viewpoint, which is ignorant of the simplest of facts of songwriting: it's hard work. Even something as personal, touching and sublime as Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" didn't just appear on a page; it probably took days or weeks of effort and, crucially, built on her years of previous work. It has graft, craft and technique, all used to make the song better, more listenable. And why not? Why wouldn't you want the song to be better?

Nevertheless, the theory of divine inspiration persists amongst many people. And of course, to them, the antithesis of real songs is "manufactured" songs, made by a "machine". It's a point of view that pervades this otherwise excellent book, from the title itself, through the ridiculously hyped-up jacket quotes ("unbelievable", "frightening", "unsettling"), to the heavy implication of manipulation and exploitation, both of artists and audience.

Unstated but accepted is the idea that this is not real music, not good music: it is successful because somehow it cheats, by being too addictive, too knowing, and too formulaic. And the people who make it! They'll try anything - like using many different combinations of people, or bringing in specialists in melodies ("topliners"), beats or lyrics. Don't they know that a song that has five people involved as writers isn't as good as one written by a single person?

Of course, any reasonable examination of the facts breaks down this somewhat silly idea very easily. Leaving aside the hit "machines" of yesteryear - Motown, say - from which many superb tracks emerged, the idea that pop music is worse because when you peer behind the curtain it turns out that there's lots of people working hard on making it as good as they possibly can, is clearly ludicrous. While there's money to made - and there still is, lots of it - there will be professional songwriters, and they don't operate by sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. They go out and find it. For every Cole Porter classic, there's a dozen average songs that no-one plays any more. But those classics are no less wonderful as a result.

Ultimately, the value of any art lies with those who consume it. All the women and girls for whom Katy Perry's "Roar" became an anthem are not wrong because it was the product of a collaborative, "factory-line" like system, that identified a need, a gap in the market. It doesn't matter: it means something to that audience; that's really all that matters.

Anyway, back to the book. Its slightly odd prejudices aside, this is still a fascinating insight into a particular segment of the pop music world - although, contrary to what it says, it is just a part of that world, so to say the producers are taking over is a little over the top. I knew the basics of a lot of this, but maybe it's a revelation to those who didn't (and hence the quotes on the jacket), and it's all described very well. Even better, the author has compiled Spotify playlists for each chapter - there's also a chapter about Spotify itself, which is a bit of an aside to the main subject, but worthwhile.


Reading - November 2018

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (2007)
A very nicely concise synthesis of what is known about William Shakespeare, without scholarly pretension or unnecessary speculation - but also, oddly, without much sense of what makes him so revered. Perhaps that's taken for granted.
1971: Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth (2016)
I really like this book but it reads like Hepworth talks, which doesn't work quite as well on the page. Oddly, having listened to a sample of the audio book - read by the author himself - it sounds stilted by comparison with his usual fast-talking, sardonic style. So it is that contentious statements, which come across in broadcast as being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, tend towards boorishly arrogant in written form. This goes double for the central theme, that 1971 was "Rock's Golden Year". David Hepworth turned 21 in 1971. I turned 21 in 1990; I think you could write an equivalent book about the latter year and make the same claims for things that "changed musical history".
Nothing Is Real by David Hepworth (2018)
If the subtitle - The Beatles Were Underrated And Other Sweeping Statements About Pop - shows a certain self-conscious flippancy, then little of the text exhibits it, to its detriment, I think. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the primacy of pop music over any attempts to intellectualise it, but some of the aforementioned "sweeping statements" put entertainment value over accuracy. Still, it's nice to have some of Hepworth's pieces for The Word magazine in book form (particularly since I was forced to get rid of my magazine collection last year); and in fact, I could have done with more - this is a surprisingly and disappointingly slim book. Maybe he's holding some over for Volume 2.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven (2008)
The selling point for this book is the outrageous language and situations; extravagant sex, lorry-loads of drugs and a tiny bit of rock'n'roll. Funny, but a bit too in love with its own shock value and a bit light on actual plot. The characterisation is vivid but somewhat one-dimensional, although if some of the characters are cliches that's possibly because they are in real life too. It's a satire, obviously, and so - I hope - exaggerated for effect, although I fear not as much as I wish.
The Guitar Magazine (December 2018 / Vol 30 No 03)
Never Say No To A Rock Star by Glenn Berger (2016)
An insider's look into the studio life in 1970's New York. Berger gives a good sense of the madness of the life as well as, unusually in books on this subject, the sheer amount of hard work being a studio engineer. Sure, working a tape machine isn't exactly mining coal but it's technical, exacting and draining. The book interleaves stories of stars with the author's love affair with recording music. Entertaining but if I'm honest, I could have done with a little less of his own story.
The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)
A highly readable and compelling thriller. Whether it's believable is perhaps a different matter. The picture Forsyth paints of the Soviets, in particular, is probably coloured by his own political convictions - although it does ring true - and in particular his portrayal of the Labour Party as being on the verge of takeover by the hard left, which sounds more like a paranoid right wing delusion. What is indisputable is that although this was published a year after the 1983 election, it correctly predicted when the next would be, which is interesting. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was a fan.
The Case Of The Restless Redhead by Erle Stanley Gardner (1954)
I used to read the Perry Mason mysteries a lot when I was in my teens. I'm not entirely sure why - they are formulaic, hopelessly dated - in fairness, this one's 65 years old! - and hard to believe. Nevertheless, as combination whodunnit and courtroom drama, this is easy to read and is ideal bedtime reading.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)
They say "write what you know", and Helen Hoang has surely followed this advice. So in this sweet romance, we have a heroine who is autistic (as is Hoang), and a hero of Vietnamese descent (as is Hoang). Both of these unusual elements add to the story; I was concerned that having an autistic central character would be a bit gimmicky, but as a device to analyse love, it works really well, because she needs everything explained to her. It helps that the main personalities work well and that the story, although fairly conventional in romance terms, feels realistic, with convincing secondary characters. I enjoyed it very much and read it very quickly, which is always a good sign!