Reading - May 2019

You Can Beat Your Brain by David McRaney (2013)
The sequel to the "award winning" (it says here) You Are Not So Smart, and therefore second product of the very interesting podcast of the same name, this is a great pop-science book about psychology. In seventeen easy-to-digest chapters, McRaney sets up a misconception (say, "You honestly define that which you hold dear"), states the truth (in this case, "You will shift your definitions to protect your ideologies"), and then deconstructs why that is, citing studies and giving entertaining examples. Brilliant stuff, and well worth reading to understand more about why people behave the way they do ... although it's a lot to try and remember when it's your own behaviour! I read this from the library, which, annoyingly, doesn't have its precursor, only this.
Coal Black Mornings by Brett Anderson (2018)
Suede first came to my attention when my friend Pat dragged me to the launch gig for their first single - a short performance in the Covent Garden Rough Trade shop. With probably a couple of hundred people crammed into a tiny cellar, it was loud and immediate, and made me a fan. I bought the single, of course - and carried on buying for another decade - and read the interviews. Brett Anderson came across as a precious, precocious, somewhat self-conscious aesthete in the Morrissey vein - likeable, a bit prickly and full of himself.

This autobiography explains where that young man came from as, in clear, unsentimental prose, Anderson describes his childhood and teenage years. One of the things I like about the book is that, unlike many autobiographies, he doesn't understate how much work went into Suede and the sheer, bloody-minded persistence required to get to that first single. He's a bit pretentious sometimes, and when he's talking about the hard work involved in the creative process it is tempting to tut and think, "Get a real job," but overall I really enjoyed reading what he had to say. 

(Minor niggle: the phrase "coal black mornings" occurs several times through the book, and might be an attempt at a kind of leitmotif. Unfortunately it just comes across as unimaginatively repetitive and something that should have been spotted and replaced by an editor.)
The Guitar Magazine (June 2019 / Issue 369)
Notable for the inclusion of some "entry level" guitars, a mere nine hundred of your English pounds thank you very much. Granted, the new Sheeran guitars are a quarter of the price of a full-fat Lowden, but "entry level"? Competition is a Marshall DSL20CR ... crossing my fingers!
The Mixing Engineer's Handbook (4th Edition) by Bobby Owsinski (2017)
On every single of your favourite tracks, however much it sounds like it was just recorded like it sounds, it almost certainly wasn't, and it's probably the mixer as much as anyone who is probably responsible for making it better. Whether it's by adding a soupçon of reverb to fill out a sound, or placing the guitar in the stereo field just right, the mixer's job is crucial to the sound of the finished article. This book contains almost certainly as much as I will ever need to know about mixing, so it's nice to have it all collected in the first half of the book. The second half, which consists of interviews with successful (and, in some cases, famous) engineers, is also interesting but less likely to be revisited. Overall, it gives a real insight into how a good mixer can add a huge amount to any recording. (Quite large for a "handbook" though ...)
Being An Actor by Simon Callow (1984)
Brett Anderson's Coal Black Mornings (above) occasional descent into pretentiousness
 reminded me of the wonderful I, An Actor, but while reaching for it I saw this on the same shelf and realised I hadn't read it for a long time - and this really had to be read first. My copy dates from 1988 and I probably borrowed it from the library before that, and plenty from it has stuck in mind, including one of my favourite sayings, that it's not enough to be talented, you have to have a talent for having talent. The book is part autobiography and part a compelling explanation of what it's like to be an actor - a strange occupation in so many ways - and how it affects the life of that person. Callow is very honest and open about his feelings, and yes, while this does occasionally - OK, quite often - lead to the kind of uncomfortably pretentious moments so mercilessly mocked in the "Nicholas Craig" book, within his own world it all makes perfect sense. A really interesting view.
How Does It Feel? by Mark Kermode (2018)
I initially felt a bit meh about what seemed yet another account of a wannabe teenage rock star's failed attempts to make music. Even allowing for Kermode's constant self-deprecation, he does seem to have carried on trying for far longer than any ability would warrant. However, as the narrative continued, I began to have more and more admiration for his persistence and sheer bloody-mindedness, which by the end had managed to produce a parallel career - or, at least, a paying hobby - in a skiffle band. A testament to "just having a go" and inspirational in a way.
I, An Actor by "Nicholas Craig" (aka Nigel Planar & Christopher Douglas) (1989)
The late Rik Mayall's various versions of himself characters are well known, but his fellow Young One Nigel Planar's superb creation is much subtler and far, far funnier. Nicholas Craig is a bitchy luvvie based, surely, in no small part, on Simon Callow (see above). The book is hilarious throughout. For example, chosen at random, here he is on the subject of comedy:
The first thing to be absolutely clear about as far as comedy is concerned is that it is a desperately serious business. Serious and tough. You have only to watch master comedians like Leslie Phillips and Terry Scott at work to realize there nothing remotely amusing about it.
Fantastic stuff and yet surprisingly unknown.
How To Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff (1954)
A classic - great fun and highly educative. I remember readying my Dad's copy probably thirty or more years ago. Huff genially demolishes most "scientific" statistics in popular publications that, incredibly, are still using the same tired techniques, 65 years later. None of it surprises but it's nevertheless a useful primer on how to read any spuriously precise facts and to always ask: Who says so? How does he know? What's missing? Did somebody change the subject? And does it make sense? 


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.