Reading - December 2013

The Week (30 November 2013 / Issue 948)
The Week (7 December 2013 / Issue 949)
Round Ireland With A Fridge by Tony Hawks (1998)
Read to B over 3 months, with a little judicious on-the-fly editing. He loved the silly humour, but was puzzled by Tony's constant pursuit of women.
How To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (2006)
A simple guide with useful advice. It is essentially the basics in non-judgmental, non-confrontational discussion, applied to a specific relationship type; that of a parent and child. Good to be reminded.
Guitarist (January 2014 / Issue 376)
The Week (14 December 2014 / Issue 950)
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records by Stuart Maconie (2013)
The Week (21 December 2013 / Issue 951)
Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner (2009)
The Week (28 December 2013 / Issue 952)


Perfecting Sound Forever

The Story Of Recorded Music
Greg Milner

Perfecting Sound Forever (the title is taken from a Pavement track) is a look at the technological history of recorded music, from wax cylinders to software codecs. It's fascinating to revisit the analogue vs. digitial debate in the context of similar debates down the decades: cylinder vs. disc, acoustic vs electric recording, 33 vs 45 - there's always been people prepared to swear blind that their method of sound reproduction is better. (More amazing is that there are people who will defend the original acoustic wax cylinder - and even more still that they might, according to the author of this book, have a point.)

What is also interesting to any student of rock and pop is the detail of how the advancing technology has shaped the sound of the music we listen to. It's well known that the advent of multi-track recording enabled more advanced and creative uses of the studio in the service of music production (as opposed to merely music recording). However, what I hadn't appreciated was how the increasing number of tracks changed the music; both by reducing fidelity - 24 tracks on a 2 inch tape is less accurate than 16, for example; and by changing the practice of recording - why bother getting a perfect performance when you can piece it together from several takes? This latter is taken to extremes now that software allows an infinite number of tracks, but was also responsible for the sound of late seventies rock - that dead, dry, pristine sound perfected by Steely Dan, and caused the separation of instruments required to allow the editing to work.

There's a very interesting chapter on the way that the "loudness war" has further deteriorated the fidelity of what we listen to as a direct result of the greater dynamic range available with CD, and a discussion of how even more technology allows us to reduce fidelity yet again by tricking the brain into hearing what's not there - the era of the lossy compression algorithm (MP3, Ogg Vorbis, AAC and so on). It's difficult to avoid the ironic conclusion that all the advances have failed to advance anything with respect to the accurate preservation (that is, the other sense of "record") of sound.

Well worth reading. Oh, and bonus points for featuring Tony Bongiovi fairly prominently without mentioning his more famous second cousin once.


The People's Songs

Stuart Maconie

When I was five, I had my tonsils out. This entailed a two night stay in hospital, and without parents staying over, either. Not a fun experience, particularly, but the silver lining was that, as a reward for being good, I got a record player (an old, portable, valve-powered Dansette type), a handful of singles from that week's top ten ... and a lifelong love of pop.

I loved those records, and still do. The intro of David Essex's "Gonna Make You A Star" always gives me an anticipatory shiver. I will go toe to toe with anyone who dares argue that "Love Me For A Reason" by The Osmonds isn't one of the best pop ballads of the last forty years. "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" sounds magnificently odd even today and remains a career pinnacle for Sparks. And, oh, best of all, one of the finest number ones of the seventies: "Sugar Baby Love", instant time travel in vinyl, plastic or bytes, a song that whisks me effortlessly back to my bedroom in Kenton where I would beat the purple carpet and dream of playing drums for The Rubettes.

I can hold my own with any rock snob but anyone lucky enough to have caught me in the right mood or with enough drink inside me will know that my passion is pop music: cheap, disposable, sentimental, trashy, exploitative and glorious pop music. The best pop marks a moment, a mood or a memory like nothing else, and it's intensely personal. What the songs above do for me, they don't do for you; what they mean to me, they won't mean to you; and what I hear, you can't. But what they do for me, nothing else can; what they mean to me is ineffable; and how they sound is utterly unique.

This is what pop music is really about and why, ultimately, it is far more important than the orthodox canon of classic albums and iconic artists that appear in weighty lists and turgid books. Which is why I like the idea of The People's Music so much. It operates from exactly this point of view, and picks fifty pop songs from the last sixty years that encapsulate a period in time or summarise a cultural shift. Maconie's introduction articulates much better than I can why pop history is social history, so central is it to so many people.

The radio series - sorry, landmark Radio 2 series (it says here) - is essential listening for any fan of pop. The book, introduction aside, is a little lacklustre by comparison. It consists of the scripts for each programme - as entertaining as you'd expect from Maconie - but, without the interviews that are the programme's raison d'etre (it bills itself as an "aural history", after all), each individual piece seems too short and somewhat disjointed. And of course the book can't include any music at all. Thank goodness for Spotify, eh?