31/01/2019

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.

31/12/2018

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!

28/12/2018

The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit

John Seabrook
2016

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.

30/11/2018

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!

16/11/2018

II (Föllakzoid)

Föllakzoid
2013

Since I already have a couple of Neu! albums, I'm not sure I need this. It's fairly generic trance-rock/krautrock of the kind that's huge fun to play - and fun to listen to under the right circumstances. There's not a lot of variation between tracks though, nor much variation or dynamics in the tracks themselves - although, to be fair, that's not the point of this kind of music.

Great cover though.

11/11/2018

Irish Tour

Rory Gallagher
1974

Driving blues-rock in excelsis

Rory Gallagher is a bit of a cult favourite amongst guitarists, partly for his superb blues soloing and tone, and partly for his astonishingly battered '61 Strat, which looks like it's been soaked in acid and left in a peat bog for a year. That's the guitar he's playing on this live album (at least according to the footage I've seen), and the sound is legendary enough to have inspired both a replica of that guitar and a set of reproduction pickups named after the album.

To love this album you have to love the blues. I've always liked good tunes and when that can be married with stellar guitar playing then so much the better, like "The Thrill Is Gone", "All Your Love" or "Bad To The Bone", all clearly blues or blues-inspired. And of course you can't ignore the fact that the blues underpins huge swathes of classic rock.

Given the choice, though, I'll take the tune and leave the guitar, because the alternative is almost always dull, and sadly too much of Irish Tour falls into this category. It's probably a different prospect when you're there and the room is rocking, but at home, only a few tracks emerge out of the generic blues-rock on offer.

By far my favourite, and the reason I got the album in the first place, is "Walk On Hot Coals". The first part of the track is a pretty generic but energetic 12-bar boogie that lights up when it swerves in the chorus to an F/Em/D progression. Then in the second half of the track there's an extended instrumental workout over this section, which has superb dynamics and some staggering playing. If we could lose the organ solo I'd be even happier.

I also like "Tattoo'd Lady", an up-tempo number that sounds like Disraeli Gears-era Cream, complete with a decent tune (no idea what he's singing about though); and "A Million Miles Away", a slower, soulful track with an interesting, albeit slightly over-long, solo. The rest just blurs into one for me, though, with nothing standing out.

All that said, Rory's playing is never less than excellent and as a memento of a much-loved rocker in his prime, you can't do better.

31/10/2018

Reading - October 2018

The Return of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1959)
More of the short stories, maybe a little broader this time, but inventive and funny enough to keep what is basically a single joke going. I think this is the first of these books that I ever read (a long time ago), and it reminds me of my Grandma.
The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Foryth (1971)
A superb story, immaculately told. The detail has its precedent in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, but surpasses even that, and surely influenced people like Tom Clancy.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 30 No 02)
The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
One of my favourite books; by parts funny, thrilling, gruesome and sweet, it's not too long but satisfyingly complex. The universe it depicts is so convincingly and completely described that it almost disappears; there's nothing jarring because it's all so consistent. Fantastically imaginative and involving.
The Business by Iain Banks (1999)
This is probably the third time I've read this, and I still find it disappointing. I think I was hoping I'd missed something, but it feels like a book written because a book was contractually required rather than because it was a story that needed to be told. It doesn't have any particularly interesting ideas - the central theme of "The Business", some ancient, semi-secretive, globe-straddling organisation, is an obvious and dull one - and the plot meanders a little. Ultimately, I didn't really care about the characters so, although it's perfectly readable, I just felt a bit unimpressed.
Are You Dave Gorman? by Dave Gorman & Danny Wallace (2001)
I really like both knowing that this is a real story but also the way it's been slightly massaged to make the telling better, and the way it switches between the two authors' viewpoints is very effective. Obviously each character in the book is somewhat exaggerated, but I hope Dave Gorman's blindly optimistic, insensitive character isn't real - I felt very sorry for Danny Wallace for most of the book. Still, funny. Also, I know (of) a Dave Gorman where I work - sadly, he doesn't feature in the book as far as I can tell.