Liar's Poker

Michael Lewis

Last week a video was doing the rounds on Facebook and twitter of a trader who flabbergasted the BBC interviewers by claiming to be looking forward to the oncoming recession because he was going to make loads of money from it.

He was subsequently revealed to be a fake and general attention seeker but one of the reasons he caused such widespread outrage was that he sounded so convincing.  How?  Well, I don't know, but I'm betting he's read Liar's Poker.

Many of the characters in the book are exactly like him - single minded, amoral (note: not immoral) and utterly unconcerned with the possible side-effects or wider issues caused by their behaviour.  They do what they are paid to do because they get a kick out of it and because they are paid very well.

Lewis's book dates from 1989 and so doesn't cover anything to do with our more recent mess but the basic causes are clearly the same.  He saw the change, roughly from the late 70s to the mid 80s,  from when traders were well paid to when they were obscenely well paid - and became one of them.  He discusses the reasons in a light, non-technical way (although some of the financial details still made my head hurt) and gives a good and entertaining overview of the way things have become - and, no doubt, still are in many respects.

I've never really looked into the financial culture, beyond a basic knowledge that some chancers get very lucky, but I have to say that the scale and effects of their activities really shocked me.  That's probably naive of me.  It's still depressing though.

Anyway, the book is a classic (it says so on the cover) and well worth reading.


Black Coffee

Peggy Lee
1953 / 1956

Late-night torch singing par excellence.

My knowledge of the Great American Songbook is limited to exposure to it via Fred 'n Ginger films and the Red Hot + Blue compilation - something I hope to rectify via my immersion in fifties music.  A number of them feature here, from the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart.  The instrumentation is sparse, limited mostly to piano, double bass and drums, and puts Lee's breathy, vibrato-laden voice centre stage.

My favourite is "My Heart Belongs To Daddy", an up-tempo swing through the classic Porter innuendo-fest.  Somehow it has a dark edge to it (and not, I think, the kind of edge that a 21st century sensibility would attribute to it).

Most of the rest of the album is very relaxed and slower in feel, apart from a decent version of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (which, while good, can't match Sinatra's ... but then, whose can?).  I also rather like the sultry "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good To You?".  I didn't know anything about Peggy Lee before this, but this will get more plays in my house.  And the edition I bought came with the album Dream Street as well.  Which is nice.

Great mood music, and something out of the ordinary from my point of view.  To be tested at our next dinner party!


Just My Type

A Book About Fonts
Simon Garfield

A very interesting, layman's guide to the arcane and sometimes insanely detailed world of the typeface.

Despite the fact that we see many different fonts every day, and are affected by them, I suspect that most people know next to nothing about them.  For example, did you know that, for a "t" to look correct, it has to actually lean slightly to the right (or was it left)?  Or that the dot over the letter "i" is slightly to the left of the letter itself?  The minuscule changes and differences between fonts are all but invisible to me, but to aficionados they are glaring.

I can kind of understand this.  One of my passions is electric guitars and I can tell the difference between any two models very easily.  Most people can't - and, again, despite the electric guitar's centrality in modern music.  You have to be utterly immersed in something to see the details, but you don't need to be to appreciate the final effect.

Garfield covers the history of fonts and typefaces (no, I'm afraid I can't remember the difference) without making the book seem like a history lesson, and discusses many of the individual fonts in detail.  The first chapter covers why Comic Sans is so reviled, and later we find out why Arial provokes so much controversy (it's a near-copy of Helvetica, apparently).

The only thing I didn't like - and this occurred on one of the first pages, which nearly put me off - was when discussing the first computer to offer a range of fonts to users.  It was the original Apple Macintosh - and according to the book, it was "designed by Steve Jobs".  Jobs was certainly influential on its design but to credit him only is poor research.


The Voice Of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra

The first concept album? Certainly the only album I own that was originally released as a literal album - a collection of four 78 rpm records (with one song on each side of a disc).

Two things struck me about this album. Firstly, I was surprised to find that Sinatra - who I think of as a fat old man singing slightly flat - was recording as early as 1946. Seeing him as a much younger man in the pictures on this album is jarring. Secondly, it includes a version of "Try A Little Tenderness", a song that, in my ignorance, I assumed was first sung by Otis Redding. So I'm learning interesting things already.

To say that the music sounds dated is to miss the point. It was recorded sixty-five years ago. Those thin, scratchy strings were recorded with state-of-the-art technology. What hasn't dated is Sinatra's voice. Lighter and higher than it became later, it's still marvellously controlled and already has that distinctive ability to come in just under the note.

The songs are all very down-tempo romantic ballads. "Someone To Watch Over Me" is a beautiful song, sung beautifully. The aforementioned "Try A Little Tenderness" sounds strange as a traditional ballad - probably as odd as Otis Redding's version sounded to those who knew this version. Taken all together - and particularly with the ten bonus tracks supplementing the eight that made up the original album - it's a bit too cloying for me. Taken individually, the performances are all very good.


The Fifties In Music

I was having lunch with my friend Brian a couple of months ago when he asked me for some recommendations of what to listen to. He'd - finally - given up on Q magazine and the relentless attempt to keep up with whatever hip 'n' happenin' new music being dictated by increasingly desperate major music companies, and wondered what classics he might have been missing from the past.

I had plenty to say, of course, and I recommended a number of albums. But the main thing I suggested was that he get hold of one or two of these "list" books. Whatever your views on such things, the one thing they do is serve as an excellent starting point for discovering music. Personally, I rather like these books, and I think the reason why was summarised very well in an amusing online review of The Mojo Collection:
Books like the Mojo Collection have a curious effect; one is simultaneously consoled and rebuked by the lists themselves. As surely as one pats oneself on the back with one's left hand for possessing the most excellent bodaciousness of mind to be the owner of an original, pre-'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' copy of New Boots & Panties (and Out of the Blue) one's right hand wields the whip in readiness for the flagellation necessitated by one's failure to have got round to picking up that beautifully re-mastered version of Pacific Ocean Blue.
The conversation remained with me and I dug out my own copy of The Mojo Collection (ed. Jim Irvin, 1998) and also happened to find 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (ed. Robert Dimery, 2005) in the library. Looking through them, I realised that my own knowledge was fairly spotty, particularly pre-1970. Maybe my own musical knowledge needed a little updating.

I'm not the first to think so, either. The 1001 Albums book has inspired a number of blogs from people attempting to obey the title and listen to everything - in order. Some of these are still going (the second one has finished and moved onto The Mojo Collection) and some gave up. But the attempt is worthwhile if you end up listening to new music.
So - pausing only to order 1001 Albums from Amazon - I decided to start myself. I'm not *quite* so anal that I insist on listening to one album per day in strict order (neither am I self-disciplined enough to only listen to one album a day). Neither am I married to the idea of doing only one book. Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere and limit scope somehow. I decided to stick with the two books I had and start with the fifties - an under-represented decade in my collection.

Here is the combined list of albums from the fifties from the two books, in chronological order (and alphabetically by artist within the year).

  1. Frank Sinatra: The Voice Of Frank Sinatra (1946) M
  2. Peggy Lee: Black Coffee (1953) M
  3. Julie London: Julie Is Her Name (1955) M
  4. Frank Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours (1955) A
  5. Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n' Roll Trio: Johnny Burnette & The Rock 'n Roll Trio (1956) M
  6. Fats Domino: This is Fats (1956) A
  7. Duke Ellington: Duke Ellington At Newport 1956 (1956) A
  8. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook (1956) M
  9. The Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life (1956) A
  10. The Four Freshmen: Four Freshmen And Five Trombones (1956) M
  11. Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956) A
  12. Louis Prima: The Wildest! (1956) A
  13. Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swinging Lovers (1956) A
  14. Mose Allison: Back Country Suite (1957) M
  15. Count Basie Orchestra: The Atomic Mr Basie (1957) A
  16. Nat King Cole: Love Is The Thing (1957) M
  17. The Crickets: The "Chirping" Crickets (1957) A
  18. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard (1957) A
  19. Miles Davis: Birth Of The Cool (1957) A
  20. Machito: Kenya (1957) A
  21. Thelonious Monk: Brilliant Corners (1957) A
  22. SabĂș: Palo Congo (1957) A
  23. Jack Elliott: Jack Takes the Floor (1958) A
  24. Billie Holiday: Lady In Satin (1958) A
  25. Mahalia Jackson: Newport 1958 (1958) M
  26. Tito Puente & His Orchestra: Dance Mania Vol. 1 (1958) A
  27. Nina Simone: Jazz As Played In An Exclusive Side Street Club (1958) M
  28. Frank Sinatra: Come Fly With Me (1958) M
  29. Frank Sinatra: Sings For Only The Lonely (1958) M
  30. Sarah Vaughan: At Mister Kelly’s (1958) A
  31. Dave Brubeck: Time Out (1959) A
  32. Ray Charles: The Genius Of Ray Charles (1959) A
  33. Miles Davis: Kind Of Blue (1959) A
  34. Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Gershwin Song Book (1959) A
  35. Charles Mingus: Ah Um (1959) M
  36. Marty Robbins: Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs (1959) A
(Key: M = Mojo CollectionA = 1001 Albums)

I've got all of these now (oh yes, no mere listening for me, only owning will do). I already owned a few before starting this venture (the Miles Davis albums); doubtless I could have found all online somewhere (and in a couple of cases of severe unavailability, I had to resort to this) but I wanted to own them. And, to be honest, it's £170 well spent. Nothing cost more than a tenner and average cost was about £6. And much of the music is wonderful.

What have I learned? The music that has aged most is the rock 'n' roll, which now sounds primitive, dated and thin (although this wasn't helped by the fact that the version of This Is Fats that I got was mastered at the wrong speed! How is this possible?). The "standards" stand up very well. The Sinatra albums on this list are the bedrock of his reputation and, having only been familiar with the bloated old codger singing "My Way", I was very pleasantly surprised. And my favourite album is from a genre I would have bet actual real money on not liking - country (or, more probably, western, given the subject matter). It's the Marty Robbins album and it's very catchy and sounds excellent.

More investigation into related music can be found at this wonderfully statistical site that aggregates all the list books into a set of "best" albums per year, genre etc.