Reading - December 2014

The Week (6 December 2014 / Issue 1000)
Off-Message by Matthew Parris (2001)
Bitter and jaundiced, but in a good way.
The Week (13 December 2014 / Issue 1001)
Guitarist (January 2015 / Issue 389)
The Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre (2007)
The usual jolly good Christopher Brookmyre fun (as opposed to the dull "Chris" Brookmyre books). Hadn't re-read it for a while - not sure why.
The Week (20 December 2014 / Issue 1002)
The Education Of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1937)
Amazingly timeless, somehow. Not that I know, but I wouldn't be surprised if similar scenes play themselves out even today. Just as charming as its sequel (which I know better). And thanks to my Dad for getting it for me!
Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Paul Balmer (2013)
Just wondering what electric guitar-related project to do next, so re-reading this. I still find it incredibly annoying that it refers to "S-type" guitars throughout, but otherwise it's a useful resource.


Time Out

The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Time Out is pleasantly polite, easy-listening jazz. If that sounds dismissive then that's unfortunate; the music is unobtrusively groovy and inconspicuously accomplished. It doesn't barge its way into your consciousness, but moves in gradually, until suddenly you find you can sing along with all the tracks.

Given that the linking idea between these choices is that they are in a variety of time signatures, with only a few excursions into 4/4, it's quite a feat that they should sound so natural. It doesn't feel like challenging music. I expect this is partly why it was such a success in its time - that, and the one-off, mellow hummability of the famous "Take Five" (in 5/4 time, of course). Even the featured drum solo doesn't dent its likeability.

If none of this comes across as a whole-hearted endorsement, that's probably more to do with the fact that I find most jazz a little bloodless, rather than anything else. It's all ... well, like I said, pleasant.


Matthew Parris

Bitter and jaundiced - but in a good way

A couple of months ago I re-read Simon Hoggart's Playing To The Gallery. It's a collection of parliamentary sketches from, roughly, the first Blair term of government. I really liked it - always observant but funny, warm and fond. Off-Message covers the same period of time but is meaner and keener to score political points. It's a harder read than Simon Hoggart's book - snippy, bitchy and bitter - but, sadly, probably a lot more representative of British parliamentary politics, both then and now.

Parris's sketches illustrate the ludicrously tribalist nature of British politics. To any even slightly independent or indifferent observer (say, 99% of the population), any minute differences between the Conservative and Labour policies are entirely overwhelmed by their similarities. Yet virtually the entire parliamentary calendar, not to mention vast acres of newsprint and entire epochs of television coverage, is devoted to rows about (essentially) whether the country should be one millimetre further over to the left or the right.

In the first half of the book, Parris illustrates this nicely. He's an ex-Tory MP writing for The Times. You wouldn't seriously expect anything other than whole-hearted support of Conservative policy (unless it appears to be insufficiently supportive of the rights of multi-billionaire media tycoons, obviously). The sketches mock all sides, but while the tone is fond for Tories (he even manages to say something nice about the appalling Anne Widdecombe), it's downright nasty towards Labour, right from the moment of their election. This despite the fact that New Labour policy was broadly the same as Conservative policy anyway.

However, there's a six month gap in the middle of the book, where Parris takes off to South America or somewhere to research another book. He resumes the sketches afterwards but is noticeably more critical of the Conservatives - indeed, of all politicians. The first piece on his return is not even an attempt at satire, just an exasperated diatribe on how politics and politicians are lost in their own little world. I find it interesting and illuminating that this is what strikes even a seasoned insider after a time outside of the environment - and seems truer than anything else in the book.


Jack Takes The Floor

Ramblin' Jack Elliott

If I hadn't read up on the history of Jack Elliott and of this album, I would have assumed that this was some sort of take off. The hill billy "yee-haw" persona sounds so fake and overdone, and the whole sound is a dead ringer for Bob Dylan on his first couple of albums.

In fact this is partly true. The main thing to note is that the influence ran the other way round: early Dylan albums were heavily influenced by Jack Elliott, hence its inclusion in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. It's not so much that you can trace the lineage from Elliott to Dylan, more that Dylan shamelessly copied Elliott lock, stock and barrel. And not just the sound either, but the whole persona. Both "Jack" and "Bob" were suburban Jewish boys who reinvented themselves in Woody Guthrie's image.

The music is not my kind of thing - unremarkable traditional dirge-like songs with hokey introductions. I've only listened to the album a few times but I can't pick any out. Of historical interest only, and little of that frankly.


Reading - November 2014

The Week (1 November 2014 / Issue 995)
Seven Days In The Art World by Sarah Thornton (2008)
Fascinating study of an alien world.
The Week (8 November 2014 / Issue 996)
First Time For Everything by Aimee Carson (2013)
Studly male and female flake straight from central casting; he needs a softer side, she needs to let people help her, although neither will admit this of course. Slightly edgy in that both have darker sides, particularly her history of cutting herself; also the only story I have read that makes masturbation into a plot point. The author's main job is as a family doctor, which possibly explains both of these, but of course their presence completely ruins the film rights,
The Week (15 November 2014 / Issue 997)
Guitarist (December 2014 / Issue 388)
A Man Of Privilege by Sarah M. Anderson (2012)
An uncomplicated plot of blink-and-you'll-miss-it slightness but with characters of surprising grittiness. It's the first time I've come across an ex-prostitute as the heroine in a book like this. For a book in the Desire series, hardly any sex.
An Intimate Bargain by Barbara Dunlop (2012)
Another Desire novel, but despite the unpromising, generic title (M&B's titles are getting worse and worse generally) this is a well-plotted, well-written book with twists and turns that develop naturally and don't seem to be there just to meet the word count. Very readable.
The Week (22 November 2014 / Issue 998)
He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt & Liz Tuccillo (2004)
Since I am not a single woman, this book is not aimed at me, but it's a quick and funny read anyway. Its basic message is simple: ladies, if he's not making time for you, calling you, being with you, then dump him because he's not as committed as you. Ah, if only life was as simple as a romcom, eh?
The Week (29 November 2014 / Issue 999)
Six Feet Over by Mary Roach (2005)
A spirited (geddit?) journey through some of the more diverting interfaces between science and the pseudo-science of life after death. Inconclusive, other than by showcasing the paucity of evidence for the existence of a soul or any consciousness that survives us, but the point of the book is entertainment rather than enlightenment, and in this it succeeds.


Come Fly With Me

Frank Sinatra

An excellently themed collection of travel-related songs, all given the trademark Sinatra treatment. The uptempo numbers swing nicely, particularly the specially commissioned title number, "Let's Get Away From It All" and "Brazil" (and also the extra-on-CD "I Love Paris"). Sinatra sounds more relaxed on these, whereas the lush ballads lilke "Around The World" or "Autumn In New York" are a little heavy on on the big strings and sound forced, although "London By Night" is lovely.

Oddly this is the opposite of what I found a year and a half ago, when I found the slower songs on In The Wee Small Hours more convincing that the faster songs on Songs For Swinging Lovers. Maybe this is to do with the arrangements, all by Billy May, whereas the other two were arranged by Nelson Riddle.

Still, it has to be said that this is Frank's golden period and none of the tracks dip below good, and Come Fly With Me is consistent with his other albums of the fifties in being superbly listenable. (It's also consistent with them in having terrible cover art.)


Palo Congo


Ground-breaking world music. Probably.

Although this album is listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, its entry only describes it rather than explaining why it has been included. (The piece reads like someone was assigned it as homework; the book is a great resource, but I have many reservations about it.) Having listened to Palo Congo, I am also at a loss to explain its place in history.

Certainly, the album brings a flavour of world music from a time well before there was such a category in the western world, and it must have sounded very different at the time. It isn't Sinatra-smooth crooning, or bouncing Basie jazz; it's not perfect pop or raw rock'n'roll. It's a view into a different kind of world, an older world, where music is made for participation rather than listening to.

So, all the chants and repetition would be great fun if you were joining in. As an audio experience at home, it's a bit tedious. If I had to choose one track, it would be "El Cumbanchero", which has an actual tune and some sort of direction and development - at least, for the first couple of minutes. After that it runs out of steam but persists for another three. "Choferito Plena" has an appealing figure on a guitar (or something similar) which reminds me of The Bhundu Boys. "Triblin Cantore" is nice enough. However, too many tracks are just extended conga workouts - fair enough given that Sabu Martinez is a congo player, I suppose, but unedifying to listen to for any length of time.


Seven Days In The Art World

Sarah Thornton

Fascinating insight into an alien world

I came to this book hoping to have my prejudices about modern art refuted but expecting to have them confirmed. Unexpectedly, it did both. I still think most of the art is ridiculous - literally, deserving of ridicule - but it turns out that not all of the people producing, selling or buying it are conmen or marks.

On reflection, this isn't surprising. The art world is big enough that its inhabitants are not a homogeneous collection of people with the same opinions, motives and objectives. Therefore it makes sense that, for every pretentious twit warbling nonsense about the latest prodigy, there's a no-nonsense business woman or man lining up the next deal; for each arriviste billionaire attempting to purchase credibility, there's an artist genuinely moved to produce their life's work; for all opportunistic hangers on, there are rational human beings who love their world.

The art world, from this excellent, measured portrait anyway, has a number of interesting parallels with the music world. The commercial demand for more and more product has increased the value of novelty, of something different; "originality" is highly prized. The commercial aspects of the business are now what drives it. There are stars and wannabes, sharks and innocents. The biggest difference is that what customers buy is the original art work itself rather than something endlessly reproducible, so although this is now a bigger market, it's still an exclusive, expensive one.

Considered in this light, the one thing that didn't make sense to me now becomes slightly clearer. My view of the art under discussion here - primarily "modern" art (the term is only used by ignorants such as me, apparently) - is that it's almost all garbage. I don't understand why anyone would give it house room. But that's no different from my assessment of the quality of most pop music - most of it's cannon fodder, mud thrown at a wall. It's there because people will pay for it, everyone has different tastes and sometimes we just want something for a specific mood.

What is also different is the attitude to the art. In music, no-one's really pretending (apart from those with a direct interest) that the latest new sensation is producing anything more important than another throwaway tune. In art, everything has have meaning and significance, hence some of the piffle spouted about transparently mundane works.

Oddly though, this insistence on meaning extends to the artist. A key quote from the book is that "in a world that has jettisoned craftsmanship as the dominant criterion by which to judge art, a higher premium is put on the character of the artist." In fact, it's quite clear that it is the "character" of the artist that is much more important. If I made a painting of a load of spots, it would be stupid. But if Damian Hirst does it ... then it illustrates "the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format". Or to put it another way, you can churn out any old crap as long as you're an "artist". 

The Last Clown by Francis Alÿs illustrates the issue. It's a very short, low quality animation (sorry, installation, how gauche of me) about a man tripping over a dog. It looks like a student project - and not a very good one. Oh, but because it's made by an actual artist, well, it's making all sorts of important valid points about the relationship between art and humour and entertainment. The fact that any of the Pixar shorts make the points more effectively and much more entertainingly is, well, beside the point.

In an environment where there is no absolute "meaning" to any work of art, there is therefore no actual meaning, since any person of moderate intelligence or imagination could make something up. For example, the cover (above) shows Maurizio Cattelan's "Untitled" (2007) [and what is it with "untitled" works - are these pretentious twerps afraid to commit themselves?] - a stuffed horse's body hanging on a wall. I could construct a number of interpretations, but if it wasn't presented as "art" it would be pointless, crude and shallow. But because it is presented as art we attempt to impose our own meaning on it. And doubtless some would say that's the point. In that case why not just lead a bunch of art critics to a cow pat and call that art? We could have a long discussion about the relationship between art and nature.

But equally, where everything is so highly subjective, the fact that I find the art derivative and empty is irrelevant. Someone loves it; they should buy it and enjoy owning it, sharing it. Another makes a living out of it and meets interesting people; that sounds like a nice life to me. If the irony of being so completely unjudgemental about what constitutes good art and yet so completely judgemental about who can create it or even buy it has struck anyone, then they're keeping it quiet.


Reading - October 2014

Yes Man by Danny Wallace (2005)
Read this on the bounce from Join Me! and initially I thought that it wasn't as good, but it won me over. Danny's willingness to pursue a silly idea past the point of common sense ends up achieving something, and his willingness to share elements of his life gives this a reality that fiction would lack. Ultimately rather sweet.
The Week (4 October 2014 / Issue 991)
Brian May's Red Special by Brian May with Simon Bradley (2014)
Fantastically detailed examination and account of Brian May's iconic,  home-made guitar. The thinking that went into it is amazing, as is the fact that it has survived 50 years of rigorous life on the road. The more I learn about Brian May, the more I am impressed. He really is a unique player, and I love listening to him talk too. I would have liked a little more info on the backline - since the sound of an electric guitar is the whole thing, particularly so in May's case, where it's the combination of the guitar, a Rangemaster-style treble booster and AC30s. Nevertheless, a real feast for a guitar geek.
The Player Of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)
One of my favourite books, although I haven't read it for a while. An astonishingly complete vision of otherness as well as an engrossing thriller. Fantastic.
Star Guitars by Dave Hunter (2010)
A coffee table tome for guitar geeks (hi!) describing 101 famous guitar players and the guitars they are most associated with. Some odd omissions: Jimmy Page's Gibson doubleneck warrants a mention, but not his Les Paul, for example. The book is well but somewhat randomly illustrated - although there's at least one picture of each guitar being described, there are many more of assorted records, sleeves, tickets and posters of the artist, which seem a bit pointless. Still, any guitar porn is good guitar porn as far as I'm concerned.
The Rock Snob's Dictionary by David Kamp & Steven Daly (2005)
Pitch perfect piss take of the elitist, obscurist mentality of the worst kind of rock fan; the one for whom it's not about sharing but competing. Very funny and surprisingly informative. Multiple excerpts available online!
Guitarist (November 2014 / Issue 387)
Comes with a free supplement all about effects. I feel my wallet is in danger again ... might have to try and distract myself with a project to build a treble booster!
The Week (18 October 2014 / Issue 993)
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
I still can't believe this hasn't been made into a film - it seems custom designed for it.
Passion For Speed by Nick Mason & Mark Hales (2010)
A multi-millionaire plays with his toys.
Playing To The Gallery by Simon Hoggart (2002)
Subtitled "Parliamentary sketches from Blair year zero", which all seems a very long time ago now. Very, very funny in places, with a keen eye for the ridiculous, but a warmth and fondness too.
The Week (25 October 2014 / Issue 994)
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton (2012)
Well worth the re-read, in the same way that reference or educational books are - to remind oneself of the principles, ideas and thoughts within. Not just thought-provoking, but an inspiration. (I do wish the paperback edition stretched to better quality reproduction of the various photographs though.)


Passion For Speed

Twenty-four classic cars that shaped a century of motor sport
Nick Mason & Mark Hales

A multi-millionaire plays with his toys

I thought that Passion For Speed would just be a glossy coffee table book with pretty pictures of Nick Mason's many fabulous cars. And it is - but it's more too. In fact, it's a lot more than that: essentially a detailed track test of each car, arranged in chronological order from a 1901 Panhard B1 to a 2003 Ferrari Enzo.

It could have been rather dull or even just an excuse to get Pink Floyd and/or car enthusiasts to part with their money. However, it's clear Nick Mason is a huge car nut and wants to actually tell us about the cars in detail, and thankfully the book is really interesting. Nick provides an short piece on each car, describing why he bought it and what he's done with it. Mark Hales provides a much longer insight into what each car is like to drive; how it grips, how it steers, its quirks and foibles. Since the cars are discussed in chronological order, you get a real sense of how the technology developed - from the initial, primitive designs (the Panhard, a Bugatti Type 35), through the pinnacle of pre-aerodynamic, pre-big rubber (the classic Ferrari 250 GTO) and up to recent hyper cars like the McLaren F1 GTR.

In between there's a real range, including an astonishing BRM from 1953 which has a power to weight ratio (and resultant acceleration) unmatched until twenty years later, and only then in Formula 1 cars; the iconic Maserati 250F (the "perfect" front-engined F1 machine); a bunch of racing and road Ferraris, and even a early 80s Tyrrell F1 car. My personal favourite is the legendary Porsche 962, a thoroughbred bruiser of a racing car and utterly invincible for decades.

Nick Mason seems to buys cars like the rest of buy clothes - in fact, I'm pretty sure he has more cars than I have socks. It's an admirable collection (the cars, not the socks) which serves to emphasise how incredibly successful Pink Floyd were - although he still manages to get a (good-natured) gripe in about how drummers are lower down the pecking order than singers and guitarists - he had to wait until after Eric Clapton and Jay Kay for his Ferrari Enzo, the poor lamb. But for allowing his cars to be actually run and raced, he deserves full marks.


Deserter's Songs

Mercury Rev

I remember this album being released. It was well and widely reviewed in the many music publications I read at the time (Q, Select, Vox and Muddly Mucker) but for some reason, although I got as far as purchasing and enjoying the singles "Opus 40" and "Goddess On A Hiway", I never bought the album until this year. I haven't even heard it before.

Still, apparently this hasn't prevented me from forming preconceptions about how it would sound, since my overriding feeling is that it isn't what I was expecting. The track that comes the closest is "The Funny Bird", an epic-sounding roller-coaster with some nicely squalling lead guitar.

Much of the rest is a little fey and wan by comparison. Not that, after several listens, it doesn't have its appeal. "Pick Up If You're There" is a lovely, ethereal instrumental. "Tonite It Shows" steals sweetly and shamelessly (and without credit) from "Hushabye Mountain" (from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). "Hudson Line" is cute, mainly remarkable for featuring Garth Hudson himself!

Overall, though, I had expected something with a little more substance. Perhaps, given the well-known connection between Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips, I thought we would get something as well-rounded, powerful and imaginative as Lips albums Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots or At War With The Mystics - although that said, it does seem fair to point out that, if it's hard to slip a cigarette paper between the two bands, Mercury Rev got there first.


Distortion Of Sound?

The Man prevents altruistic musicians from improving our souls. Or something.

I just watched "The Distortion of Sound", a documentary about the evils of compressed audio. It's interesting and has a star-studded cast, but nevertheless manages to miss several points in a short time.

Firstly: there never has been some golden age when recorded sound was perfectly reproduced or reproducible. Mass dissemination has always required a compromise. They claim that there is a "striking" decline in the quality of sound in the last two decades, but answer me this: do MP3s on your iPod sound worse than a ten-year-old mono transistor radio receiving an AM signal?

Secondly: lossy, audio data compression is not the same as audio dynamic range compression; they are only related inasmuch as audio with less dynamic range can be compressed into smaller files. You could have 24-bit FLAC files that would still sound shitty if they had been mastered with too much dynamic range compression.

Thirdly, and most importantly: I think there is a difference between music as art, which has a relatively small audience, and music as a consumable item, which has a big audience. The artists interviewed could maybe insist on only the best quality versions of their music being available. They could say "sayonara" to Spotify, "arrivederci" to Apple and "piss off" to Pandora. In doing so they would sacrifice a large part of their audience and their business. Would they do that?

There's no question that the problems highlighted are eminently solveable, now or soon. It's also clear that they won't be until there is a demand. The film essentially claims that most people don't know to ask. I think the better question is whether they would care if they did.

[Asides: David Hepworth makes similar points better than I can. And Greg Milner's book "Perfecting Sound Forever" is a fascinating insight into the history, techniques, technicalities and politics of recorded sound.]


Reading - September 2014

The Week (30 August 2014 / Issue 986)
The Return Of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1959)
A charming and very funny collection of short stories featuring immigrants to the US trying to learn proper English. It's never explicitly stated that they are Jewish but given Rosten's background as the author of The Joy Of Yiddish we are probably justified in assuming that mostly they are. It's also a lovely evocation of its time. There is a first book of these stories, which my Grandma had, but I haven't seen it for a long time.
Exegesis by Astro Teller (2000)
Diverting but ultimately unbelievable story of an AI achieving consciousness. Good on the supposed motivations and actions of the computer, but less so on that of the human creator. Presciently, its fate lies with the NSA. Hmm. maybe it wasn't fiction after all ...
Guitarist (October 2014 / Issue 386)
Big feature on Brian May's Red Special guitar. Very exciting. Made me go and buy the (new) book! (Exactly as intended I guess).
The Week (6 September 2014 / Issue 987)
A Snowball In Hell by Christopher Brookmyre (2008)
Comfort, or more probably, low effort, reading. Familiar and still funny. Sick in places, sweet in others.
The Week (13 September 2014 / Issue 988)
Join Me! by Danny Wallace (2003)
Funny and sweet. Danny's persona (or possibly actual personality) as a wide-eyed innocent has an appeal that runs through the whole book. Although the whole activity is laudable I spent much of the book wondering where his money was coming from to do all the travelling he does.
The Week (20 September 2014 / Issue 989)
Whoops! by John Lanchester (2010)
An even better book about what caused the 2008 crash and recession than Michael Lewis's excellent The Big Short - clear, concise and precise. As well as explaining it all in simple language, Lanchester has some interesting ideas: for example, he suggests that one of the contributory factors was the fall of Socialism and resulting climate of "we won", which in turn led to a belief that more capitalism and an unrestrained free-market must be even better. Ultimately he points out that at some point western society as a whole must say "enough" - not just "enough" of the out-of-control money markets, but "enough" to always wanting more stuff.
Love From Both Sides by Nick Spalding (2012)
It seems unfair to call this "disposable", since clearly any book takes a lot of effort. But I skim-read this comedy/romance/farce ("farce" in the literal, Faydeau sense) mainly to get to the end. Lite entertainment.
The Week (27 September 2014 / Issue 990)


White Blood Cells

The White Stripes

The White Stripes passed me by at the time of this album and continued to do so until a couple of years ago, when I watched the guitar geek fest that is It Might Get Loud. While thoroughly enjoyable (albeit a touch indulgent in parts), this does come across as predominantly a Jack White film, starting with a cool scene where he constructs an extremely rudimentary electric guitar with a block of wood, a couple of nails, a bottle, one guitar string and a pickup. Later there's some great footage of him playing with The Raconteurs.

White is widely acknowledged as a guitar aficionado and often fêted as a next generation guitar god. However, despite my interest in all things guitar related, in general I find guitar-centric music from the likes of Steve Vai, Eric Johnson or even Rory Gallagher to be a little wearing after while. Music for listening needs to have hooks, melodies and structure. Personally, I rarely find that in music made by instrumentalists, regardless of the ability on display.

White Blood Cells is much more about the songs though, I am happy to say, even given the famously stripped down line up. However, I think the quality control threshold was set a little low. There are sixteen songs here, yet the album length is barely forty minutes. Some of the tracks are just sketches, although to be fair most tracks have a germ of an idea which would be good, but is insufficiently explored; for example, "Expecting".

The best developed tracks are good though. The singles - "Fell In Love With A Girl", "Hotel Yorba" - are excellent of course. "We're Going To Be Friends" is a cute nursery rhyme. "Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground" reminds me of Bowie's "Width Of A Circle".

Unfortunately there are definitely some tracks that wouldn't be missed. "I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman" kind of peters out after wandering vaguely around for a while. "Little Room" is a sketch. "Aluminum" is a load of noise, probably excellent fun to play but wears thin to listen to in about twenty seconds.

Overall though nothing has captured me and I wouldn't be racing back to the album. I'm not quite sure what made this album one of Rolling Stone's top 500 albums ever.


Reading - August 2014

The Week (2 August 2014 / Issue 982)
Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Previously if asked I would have said that Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors, but I realised that although I have read all her books a long time ago, the only one I have read more than once is the inevitable P&P. I know the plot of Emma well but as I read it this time it felt like the clues to the ultimate conclusion were all new to me; that is, I haven't re-read this before. I'm not sure why. It's as charming as you would expect; very little happens really and it's a bit verbose, but it's still a lovely story.
The Rough Guide To The Titanic by Greg Ward (2012)
An excellent introduction to the subject - indeed, probably the only book you will need if, like me, you are interested only in the fundamentals of the story rather than the myths and large amounts of detail. Well written, well organised and authoritative.
The Week (9 August 2014 / Issue 983)
The Week (16 August 2014 / Issue 984)
Vox by Nicholson Baker (1992)
Perfect bedtime reading.
Guitarist (September 2014 / Issue 385)
Top 100 Singles by Martin Roach (2002)
Celebrating 50 years of the UK charts, this lists the top 100 UK singles, by sales. Interesting but showing too many signs of having been rushed, and now terminally dated, not least in its over-insistence that the charts are still of any interest to anyone outside the business. Published in conjunction with the NME, which provides occasional examples of the review a single got at the time; all this serves to prove is how self-centred and blinkered most music journalists are.
The Week (23 August 2014 / Issue 985)
Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode (2013)
Entertaining, if slightly over-long, discursion about the role of professional film critics in today's online world. The only thing that spoils it slightly is Mark's incessant self-deprecation. Have a little pride, man! Oh - and from a few comments he makes, he must live near me!
The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story by Vivek J. Tiwary & Andrew C. Robinson with Kyle Baker (2013)
This is the first graphic novel I have ever read. The pictures are great, but the story is somewhat skeletal: it's a short book and most of the space is taken up by artwork, so there isn't much space for words. There's some sort of matador theme, inconsistently developed, apparently inspired by Epstein and Lennon's holiday in Spain together. I feel like perhaps some of the imagery passed me by, not being used to graphic novels, but I wasn't particularly impressed. Still, it was over quickly.
How To Make Money by Felix Dennis (2010)
All of the wisdom in How To Get Rich, condensed into eighty-eight short essays, each on a single aspect, each only a page or so. How To Get Rich is more interesting and entertaining, this is intended more as a serious reference. Interesting in places - his perspective on taking  a company public is that "public companies are not sane places" -  but (since I don't plan on trying to get rich, having read Dennis's previous book on why it's not as desirable as generally thought), probably not for me.
Raise The Titanic! by Clive Cussler (1976)
Unintentionally amusing concept thriller now rendered irrelevant by subsequent discoveries - it will never be possible to raise the Titanic, due to it being in two pieces. Notable for spawning the flop film of the same name.
Tuesday The Rabbi Saw Red by Harry Kemelman (1973)
Unpretentious and enjoyable whodunnit with a Jewish twist and a rabbi for a detective.


Reading - July 2014

Guitarist (August 2014 / Issue 383)
Country Of The Blind by Christopher Brookmyre (1997)
Comfort reading.
The Week (28 July 2014 / Issue 977)
The Week (5 July 2014 / Issue 978)
Notable for containing an obituary of its owner, Felix Dennis - a remarkable man. Have gone and purchased his book "How To Get Rich" in tribute - not because I intend to get rich, but because it is an excellent and entertaining book.
How To Get Rich by Felix Dennis (2006)
I am never going to be rich, but having read this book I am reasonably convinced that this is no bad thing.
The Week (12 July 2014 / Issue 979)
Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (1995)
This is in my top 10 favourite books, but it's the first time I've read it in ages. It is good though. I read it for comparison with Dara O Briain's book.
Tickling The English by Dara O Briain (2009)
A book with a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a tour diary? Yeah, much of it is. Is it a(nother) rumination on English/British identity? Kinda. Dara makes some interesting points and is funny (I'd be tempted to see his show) but the real clincher is at the end, where he points out that the notion of a national identity isn't really anything to do with any alleged shared characteristics but with a shared culture.
Cider With Roadies by Stuart Maconie (2003)
All of Stuart Maconie's books have punning titles but this is probably the best. A highly amusing account of life as a music obsessive and his time as an NME music journalist.
The Week (19 July 2014 / Issue 980)
Guitarist (Summer 2014 / Issue 384)
The Week (26 July 2014 / Issue 981)



In Rainbows (2007)

Videotape (Live)
Radiohead often tread a finely balanced route between music for the head and music for the heart. There's enough in the lyrics here to occupy your mind if you're so inclined (although my regular reader will know I'm usually not): is it the singer's last few days, his final words, wallowing in memories?

In isolation this would too mawkish for my taste, but the music makes it a definitive requiem. A central, mournful piano progression is surrounded by sparse, fidgeting electronic percussion and shot through with Thom Yorke's thin, pained voice singing like the words are being pulled out of him. It's all very dry, very close and personal.

Not comfortable listening by any means but beautiful and wonderfully constructed. There is relatively little pop music that can genuinely be described as haunting, but this is one such track.


Baking Bread: Basic Method

Step by step

After some experimentation, I have settled on a multiple-knead method copied from Dan Lepard. He uses it for some specific recipes but I find it works for everything. It's slightly more complicated and takes a longer elapsed time before the bread is ready to rise, but the total knead time is about 2 minutes over an hour, rather than 10 minutes at once. Your arms will thank you, I promise!

Here's the method I use for a loaf in a tin (which is a bit easier than shaping a free-standing load). There are three stages.

Mix and knead:
  1. Mix the flour and yeast together in a large bowl.
  2. Dissolve the salt (and sugar, using) in the water.
  3. Add the water to the flour, mixing until you have a rough ball of dough (you may need to add a little extra flour or water).
  4. Cover the bowl and leave for 10 minutes.
  5. Take the dough out of the bowl and knead on a floured surface for about 30 seconds. Form the dough into a ball.
  6. Clean and oil the inside of the bowl.
  7. Place the dough back into the bowl, cover it and leave for 10 minutes.
  8. Repeat the 30 secs knead twice more at 10 minute intervals, then leave for 30 minutes.
  9. Knead once more, then place in the bowl and cover.
  1. Leave to rise until the dough has roughly doubled in size (about an hour, can be up to 2 hours).
  2. Take it out, press all the air out, form into a ball again and put it back in the bowl. Leave to rise again.
  3. Prepare a tin by greasing the inside and then dusting the inside with flour.
  4. Once the dough has roughly doubled in size again, take it out and press all the air out. Roll into a sausage a little shorter than the tin and place in the tin.
  5. Leave to rise until roughly doubled in size - usually about an hour or so. The bread is ready when you press a finger in and the dough doesn't spring straight back.
  1. Pre-heat the oven to about 220 C with a small baking tray in the bottom.
  2. Boil a kettle and put the water in the baking tray in the oven.
  3. Cut a slash on top of the loaf with a bread knife.
  4. Spray the loaf with water.
  5. Place the loaf in the oven for 10 minutes.
  6. Spray the loaf with water again and reduce the temperature to about 180 C.
  7. Bake for another 30 minutes.
  8. Take the bread out and cool on a wire rack.


Baking Bread: Ingredients

You only get out what you put in

There's a lot of snobbery and rubbish written about the ingredients used in bread, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that only four of them are absolutely required. Obviously good quality ingredients are better than poor quality, but if you can actually taste the difference between bread made with normal tap water and bread made with the finest bottled mineral water, then, well ... you're lying.


Choose "strong" or "bread" flour
You must use flour with enough gluten. In the UK, this is usually labelled "strong" or "bread" flour. For the most part, this means imported flour, since for some reason this kind of flour doesn't grow well here. If this bothers you then it is possible to buy UK-produced bread flour, for a price. Don't use plain flour - it is fine for cakes but won't work by itself for bread because it won't support the rise properly.
My favourite flour is Waitrose's organic malted grain
Malted grain is made with a mixture of grains that have been allowed to germinate and then roasted, and various flours. The best known brand of malted grain bread is Hovis Granary™, and you can buy this in packets, but I find the Waitrose flour better. The same range's strong white flour is my standard white flour.
"Stoneground" flour makes the bread coarser and denser
Stoneground flour is milled the traditional way between two slowly rotating mill stones rather than with high-speed rollers. Some people claim this makes the bread taste better, although I'm not convinced. What it definitely means is that the stoneground flour is significantly coarser and less finely milled, which in turn makes for a denser bread because it doesn't rise quite as much.


Use "quick" or "easy bake" yeast powder
This is the easiest to use and lasts well; I use Doves. I can't taste the difference between commercial yeasts, including "organic" yeasts. Fresh yeast is the purists' choice, but this has two main drawbacks. Firstly, I don't know where to get it. Secondly, it goes off very quickly - in a week or two.
A "levain" or sourdough "starter" is a lot of work
An alternative source of yeast is to cultivate your own. This is how sourdough breads are made. The yeast is grown in a "starter" mixture of flour and water which requires regular and frequent maintenance, usually referred to as "feeding". It's like owning a pet. I kept a starter for about a year but really it needs using a few times a week to not be wasteful. It does add a nice tang to the bread though, even just using a little as well as commercial yeast.

Other ingredients

Water is water
As long as it's clean, it's OK. You don't need to heat it up, particularly if you plan on letting the bread rise more than once. There's probably some benefit in letting tap water stand for about an hour before using it - you can taste the difference in the water itself if you do, so it must make some difference to the bread.
Salt is salt
As long as it doesn't have any unnecessary additives it's OK. Use sea salt if you want (I usually do, to be honest) but I doubt it makes any difference. You can get a lot of different variations and some are quite highly flavoured, and this will be noticeable, but it's not necessarily an effect you want.
Oil or fat can help the texture and improves the life
I usually add some olive oil to my everyday loaf. It softens the texture and means it will last slightly longer before going stale. Other recipes (e.g. a milk loaf, one of our weekend favourites) use butter for a similar reason.
A spoonful of sugar helps ...
Depending on what flour you use, a teaspoon (5g) of sugar can take the edge of a very savoury taste. I used to add this to my regular loaves but I don't any more. Some breads are intentionally sweet of course; for example, challah often has honey in it.


Baking Bread: The Basics

What you knead to know.

Before I started baking, I thought it would be more complicated than it is. That's not to say it doesn't take practice, nor that finding out about it (say, by reading a book or two) isn't necessary. But I wouldn't have been quite so intimidated if I'd known these things first. Maybe these will help you.

All you need is flour, water, salt and yeast
Four simple ingredients, and the only one that actually makes any difference is the flour. Have you seen the list of ingredients on commercial bread?
100% flour, 60% water, 2% salt, 1% dried yeast
Rather than trying to memorize or look up recipes, just remember these proportions (2% yeast if using fresh yeast. But don't bother).
Take your time
You can't rush good bread. Time for the dough to rise, maybe two or three times, is an essential part of the process. Mass-produced bread, made using the Chorleywood process, rises for only 45 minutes and tastes bland as a result.
Allow about a day
I know this sounds like a lot, but most of this time, the dough is rising, so there's plenty of time to do other things. The more time the dough has to ferment, the better the taste will be.


Baking Bread: Books

What to read instead of my ramblings ...

I am firmly of the opinion that, if you want to do something new, the first thing you need is a book about it. Aren't books great? There are so many about any given subject that you can spend your entire time reading about it rather than doing it - and then spend even longer wondering which of the many differing opinions are actually correct!

I went through a number of volumes when I starting baking bread. Most of them spend spend a couple of pages on tools and technique, and then have pages and pages of alternate recipes. For someone like me, starting from a knowledge base of zero, this was frustrating. Eventually I found some I liked; these are the books to which I return regularly. Both have plenty of recipes for you to try, but more importantly, they have useful information about the process.
Bread (River Cottage Handbook No. 3) by Daniel Stevens (2009)
Far and away the best book about actually baking bread. It starts with nearly forty pages of detailed steps about how to make bread: how to knead, how to make the dough into a ball and loads of other small things that I have never seen covered in any other book. For a beginner, it is invaluable. If this much information makes bread-making sound complicated, then don't be disheartened; it's all easily learned and understood. If I only had one book on bread, this would be it.
The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard (2004)
A bit of cult hit in baking circles, this is on my list for two reasons. First is his revelation that ten minutes of kneading is unnecessary; and second is his milk loaf recipe, which is a family favourite in our house. He has a lot of information about using a starter for sourdough-style breads, and covers bread in many different countries too.

Finally, a special mention has to go to Elizabeth David's classic English Bread And Yeast Cookery (1977). If you're interested in a really definitive work, including the history and culture around the subject, you can't do better than this.


Baking Bread: Introduction

You can make bread too! Yes you can!

challah and 2 malted grain loaves
I really enjoy baking - baking bread. Using just basic ingredients, you can easily make a loaf that tastes better than anything you'll find in a supermarket.

Bread has a reputation for being tricky. I know quite a few people who "make their own bread", but who wouldn't try and make it by hand. It's not difficult though, and, like anything, it gets easier with practice. Hand-made bread is almost always better than that from a bread maker (or a shop) and you can make loaves like the challah on the right, which you can't do in a machine! I make two or three loaves a week, usually at the weekend, and although it takes elapsed time, it doesn't actually require a lot of effort.

I didn't think making bread was particularly unusual, but people often ask me quite a few questions about it when they find out that I mostly make my own. There's no point in reproducing what you would find in a good recipe book, but I thought there would be value in pulling out some of the things I wish I'd known when I was starting, and tips I find myself giving people when they ask about baking.

I'm going to write a few posts about different categories of things: the ingredients, the kit, the method and good books. In none of this do I claim to be a master baker - I make simple loaves for my daily lunch, not exotic types or complex recipes. I do it because I enjoy baking it, the resultant bread is always good (occasional failures notwithstanding!), I know exactly what's in it ... and, to be honest, I enjoy being able to tell people I bake my own bread - by hand!


Reading - June 2014

Fame In The 20th Century by Clive James (1993)
As full of insights and pithy phrases as ever, but because these are the scripts to the TV episodes from which this book was a spin-off, it doesn't flow as well as James's usual writing. At times it seems like a series of potted biographies rather than a reflection on the changing nature of fame, which is a shame because what he has to say about the subject is as interesting as ever. The full text is online, although I bought the book second-hand.
Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (1982)
What's remarkable about Asimov is how little his style has changed over the years. Comparing this with The Stars, Like Dust, which I read last month, it's just as chatty, just as full of good ideas. It's a lot longer though - I wonder if, come the 80s, his editor told him that big books were what the market wanted?
The Week (7 June / Issue 974)
Rock Stars Stole My Life! by Mark Ellen (2014)
Reading this hugely enjoyable autobiography, I can hear Ellen's voice in my head from the Word podcasts; childishly enthusiastic about both the music he loves and the words he uses to simultaneously describe it and satirise some of the excesses of the industry. His unassuming self-portrayal masks the fact that he  - with David Hepworth - has defined mainstream music journalism for a few decades and successfully edited the best music magazines we will probably ever see. That's no mean feat. He's very amusing about his life in magazine publishing but I do worry slightly about him - now that The Word has shut down, what is there in a shrinking industry for the man who edited magazines like Smash HitsQSelect and Mojo? I hope he's OK.
The Week (14 June / Issue 975)
I Don't Mean To Be Rude, But ... by Simon Cowell (2004)
Part memoir, part extended self-justification, part manual. All ego.
Get Fit: Running by Owen Barder (2005)
Second reading as revision and in order to vary my training plan. An excellent and compact primer on running for fitness. See also the author's extensive web site, which includes a slightly different version of this book and many other useful items.
Foundation And Earth by Isaac Asimov (1986)
In the introduction to Foundation's Edge, Asimov explains that his publisher commissioned these two novels at a specific length. This one, while full of the usual good ideas and a lot of sometimes stilted exposition, also reads like he was told to include more sex. In Asimov's case, this mostly comes down to talking about sex. Still, nice to have the whole thing tie back to Daneel Olivaw and the author's much earlier robot series of stories.
The Week (21 June / Issue 976)
About A Boy by Nick Hornby (1998)
Last time I read this, I don't think I had children. This time, I have a 12 year old boy, just like Marcus in the story. I enjoyed it more this time. It's so well observed and so well written - unobtrusively well written, too, a very easy read. The ending fizzles out slightly - effectively "and over the next couple of months everything got slowly better", but that's probably more true to life.


I Don't Mean To Be Rude, But ...

Simon Cowell

Part memoir, part extended self-justification, part manual ... all ego

For every successful singer, there are hundreds who didn't make it. This applies in all fields, of course. It's tempting to look at the winners and conclude that whatever characteristics they possess are the reason for their success; tempting, but largely wrong. Just because Simon Cowell, who just happens to be very blunt ("rude", "honest", "tactless" - all euphemisms for the same thing), has done well, doesn't mean this is necessarily the reason for his success.

Since, like most successful people, he is unwilling to give enough credit to luck, Cowell has decided that it is this feature that has contributed most to his success. But, to gather from the amount of time he spends justifying his behaviour, he's still not really comfortable with it. When he's not doing this, he's patting himself on the back for having such wonderful insight into the public's taste.

What's interesting to note is what isn't present in the book: much evidence of a love of music. There are occasional glimpses (he's a big fan of disco), but when he does discuss what he considers to be good music, it's mostly in the context of how successful it was or what it achieved for the singer's career.

Biggest unintentional comedy moment: given a list of ten then-current celebrity relationships, Cowell (having just controversially declared that some celeb affairs are only done for the publicity - gasp!) decides whether they are merely PR fodder or "true love". Those in "true love", according to the oracle, include Paul McCartney and Heather Mills, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, and Madonna and Guy Ritchie. Only one of the couples, the Beckhams, are still together. Beyonce and Jaz-Z are described as "dubious". Still, one out of ten is probably a reasonable hit rate in the pop world.

I picked this up for free and despite having only seen the briefest of glimpses of Pop Idol or other schlock, I found it interesting, as a pop fan, to read about the behind-the-scenes machinations. The book itself is well-written and well-tailored to its likely audience. As such, I doubt that it was actually written by Cowell himself, but no-one else is listed. Still, a quick and interesting read.


Reading - May 2014

Guitarist Guide To Amps by Michael Leonard (ed) (2014)
Somewhat lightweight and poorly edited special edition. Over-priced. Some interesting info but I should probably get a proper book about guitar amps.
The Week (3 May 2014 / Issue 969)
Guitarist (June 2014 / Issue 381)
The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov (1951)
An early Asimov novel, yet instantly identifiable by the interesting plot, slightly clunky characterisation and lots and lots of talking. The final resolution - the finding of an inspiring, ancient document that turns out to be the US constitution - strikes me as unconvincing though, so it is interesting to read that Asimov thought so too, and only included it to satisfy an editor.
The Week (10 May 2014 / Issue 970)
The Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010)
Fascinating and depressing account of what led to the global recession in 2008, from the point of view of the few people who saw it coming. If you are dumb enough to believe that the free market should be allowed to be completely free, you need to read this.
The Week (17 May 2014 / Issue 971)
Mack The Life by Lee Mack (2012)
I'm not normally bothered about biographies, so, excellent title aside, I'm not sure why I picked this up. However, it proves to be an easy, amusing read and an interesting insight into the reality of one comedian's life - which is clearly (albeit obviously, when you think about it) harder work than it would seem.
The Week (24 May 2014 / Issue 972)
Guitarist (July 2014 / Issue 382)
Follow The Money by Steve Boggan (2012)
Amusing and charming high-concept travel book in which the author follows a ten dollar note around the US for a month. It was based on his original Guardian article (following a £10 note in London). Boggan obviously has the knack of getting to know people - or at least, he writes it that way!


Drive On

A Social History Of The Motor Car
L.J.K. Setright

Loose ragbag of prejudices and post hoc reasoning masquerades as academic rigor.

Everyone must have at least one friend like L.J.K. Setright. Possessed of a disconcerting number of outré opinions, steadfast in their rejection of alternatives (or indeed logic), they are resolutely convinced of their own correctness. I was talking with one recently, and he was insisting that recent studies show that if you stop training for a mere two weeks, then all your fitness is lost. So presumably if Mo Farrah misses a fortnight, I'll be able to run 5K faster than him. Of course.

As frustrating as these people are in person, it turns out they are more so in book form, where you are deprived of the option of attempting to argue with them. I suppose you can put the book down but it's not the same. Setright (he always refers to himself, pompously, in the third person, using just his surname) had a number of signature opinions which in his head were, I'm sure, entirely rational, and this book provides him with another opportunity to air them again, like a greatest hits album.

What are they? The Honda Prelude, or possibly the NSX, is the greatest car ever made. Front wheel drive is an abomination forced on us by sheep-like manufacturers copying VW. Rolls Royces are wildly overrated and have been since about 1920.  Most car manufacturers apart from Bristol and Honda are ruining cars. Diesels are evil. And so on.

Setright clearly knows his stuff and is passionate about the subject, which ensures the book is often interesting. For some reason, however, he seems to harbour a deep sense of injustice and resentment on behalf of the motor car itself, directed at, variously, the avaricious manufacturers intent on making money (how dare they), the vulgar and stupid public who asked for and paid money for all the wrong things, and the weak designers who resorted to giving the public what they asked for and should have known better.

If only all of them had asked Setright who, you could be forgiven for thinking, had been there all of the time advising of the correct route, instead of ranting from the sidelines of a magazine column with the full benefit of hindsight. After a while this becomes wearing, when reading for the fifth time how, say, Ford shunned the right thing ("right" according to Setright, judging them thirty years after the fact) in favour of the popular, money-making thing.

Setright has his fans still (he died a while ago now) but it's an acquired taste. I probably won't bother again.


Reading - April 2014

Guitarist (May 2014 / Issue 380)
Fugitive From The Cubicle Police by Scott Adams (1996)
As far as I can tell this is just all of the Dilbert strips from late '93 to early '95, packaged up in a book, and so as hit-and-miss as the strip itself. When Adams hits the nail on the head, it encapsulates the corporate experience perfectly. Sometimes it's just a little dull though.
Michael Schumacher: The Edge Of Greatness by James Allen (2007)
Released to capitalise on Schumacher's first retirement and hence not including his later stint at Mercedes. A balanced view on his controversial career and the man himself.
The Secret History Of Entertainment by David Hepworth (2004)
Not at all what I was expecting. Despite the grandiose title, this slim volume is a mildly diverting collection of showbiz factoids; reading for the littlest room. I think David Hepworth has a better book in him than this.
The Week (5 April 2014 / Issue 965)
The Week (12 April 2014 / Issue 966)
Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
Average Brookmyre (which is to say, still good), average SF.
The Week (19 April 2014 / Issue 967)
The Runaway Actress by Victoria Connelly (2012)
Pleasant, boilerplate chick-lit. Nice enough plot but not enough romance and a small twist that was telegraphed way ahead.
The Week (26 April 2014 / Issue 968)
Drive On by L.J.K. Setright (2002)
Informative but ludicrously opinionated and far too pleased with itself.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Highly enjoyable but a little shallow. Retro themes good fun.



Christopher Brookmyre

Brookmyre vs SF. Let's call it a draw

Isaac Asimov observed that to include science fiction in a list of specialized literary genres, such as westerns, adventure, thrillers, sports stories or romance, is to miss the point somewhat. Science fiction can be any and all of these things. Since it must first be a story (at least to be worth reading), it might be a western, like much early SF, or it could be a mystery such as Asimov's own ground-breaking novels The Caves Of Steel and The Naked Sun.

What makes it science fiction is not the type of story but the setting; to quote the good doctor again, that it "includes events played out against a social or physical background significantly different from our own". Anyone who reads SF knows that there's a lot of variety covered by this definition. Some books are really close to our own reality while some are vastly different. Some are more about the science than the fiction, others just the opposite.

Brookmyre says in his bio (presumably he writes it himself) that he "has established himself as one of Britain's leading crime novelists. This hasn't stopped people from nagging him to write SF instead." It's interesting, by the way, that he classifies himself as a crime novelist. Recent novels from "Chris" Brookmyre notwithstanding, I would have said that most of his output belongs in the "thriller" category, and that's exactly where Bedlam fits too. What we have here is not really a massive departure for him. It is easily identifiable as a Christopher Brookmyre novel in both style and substance. It's just set somewhere else that doesn't exist (yet) and so is SF too.

Unfortunately, as science fiction, it's fairly derivative. The notion of virtual worlds indistinguishable from the real world isn't new; the key texts here are William Gibson's astonishing Neuromancer (1982) and Neal Stephenson's wonderful Snow Crash (1992). The notion of multiple virtual worlds isn't original either: Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011) springs to mind (mainly because I'm reading it right now), but I'm sure there are others.

Also unfortunately, as a Brookmyre novel, it's average. This needs to be considered in context though - it's still good. The notion of all the virtual worlds being versions of old PC games is quite nice (and is very consistent with previous novels' obsession with first and second generation FPS games like Doom and Quake), the overall story hangs together and the characters are well drawn. It's as highly readable as ever.

I just feel that, in attempting to write SF, he's lost some of the essence of Brookmyre, but as SF it's not as detailed as I'd like. Still better than those dreary "Chris" Brookmyre crime novels though.

Update (2018): I've since re-read this book at least four times and thoroughly enjoyed it each time. I'm not quite sure why I was so underwhelmed the first time - maybe because the aforementioned Ready Player One was so good - but it's definitely worth noting that it's improved with age.



ZZ Top

Machine metal music

To the average rock fan, Billy Gibbons probably isn't a name that rings any bells. To the pop anorak, he's the guitar player and lead singer in ZZ Top, a Texas bar band who achieved a remarkably sudden commercial breakthrough with this album, Eliminator, its singles and the three made-for-MTV videos that went with them. But in rock guitarist circles, Billy Gibbons is, simply, a legend, known for his creamy tones and the fact that he (and his Les Paul) inspired one of the first artist-endorsed after market pickups (Seymour Duncan's "Pearly Gates").

I guess I need to hand my rock guitarist badge back then, because this is the first ZZ Top album I have ever listened to, and that only in the last few months. It's not quite what I expected. From a guitar perspective, there is some excellent playing and some fantastic tones, but what's really taken me by surprise is that this is, fundamentally, a pop album. Shorn of the rock colouring, most of these songs would have served perfectly well on any contemporary pop album.

In fact, in some respects they are fairly ground-breaking - for pop. There's clearly some early computer-based tools involved here; the music is too clean and too precise, the repeated riffs too identical, to be anything else. You could replace the guitar with keyboards and not lose the essence of the song. Yet the best of them have clearly grown out of the bar-boogie ZZ Top were known for.

The singles - "Gimme All Your Lovin'", "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs" - are classics and the best tracks here, of course, but I also rather like "I Need You Tonight", which has a wonderfully liquid guitar tone, heavy on the echo, effortlessly sustaining and fading into upper harmonics. It's the tone I aspire to when I play. The song is OK. The other album tracks kind of blend into one - good music, but not standing out much. Interestingly, possibly of most influence was the kind of guitar tone we hear on "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Dirty Dog", a heavily distorted, heavily phased sound much imitated through the 80s.


Reading - March 2014

God Explained In A Taxi Ride by Paul Arden (2007)
Where the greatest minds of history have failed, a former advertising executive unsurprisingly also fails.
The Week (22 February 2014 / Issue 959)
The Week (1 March 2014 / Issue 960)
Guitarist (April 2014 / Issue 379)
Crosstown Traffic by Charles Shaar Murray (1989)
I'm not a big fan of biographies, but although this has some of Jimi Hendrix's life history, it's primarily a cultural analysis of his influences and influence on rock music. Inspired and interesting enough to forgive the occasional lapses into NME style inky-speak (which, to be fair, Shaar Murray did help create). Full of wonderful little insights and easily fulfilling the basic requirement of any book about music: it made me want to go and listen to Hendrix's albums again.
Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre (2009)
Darker and with a higher body count (particularly of the good guys) that usual. Big target: organised religion and what it will do to protect its own hegemony. Compelling as ever, some nicely drawn characters, as ever, but a little less satisfying that some of his other books.
Running For Peak Performance by Frank Shorter (2005)
Concise but informative book about running. Contains some useful information about training that isn't running (weight training and so on), but generally no new info over other books I have read.
The Week (8 March 2014 / Issue 961)
The Week (15 March 2014 / Issue 962)
The Week (22 March 2014 / Issue 963)
The Making Of Pride And Prejudice by Sue Birtwhistle & Susie Conklin (1995)
This isn't just an enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at the classic 1995 BBC costume drama, but an insightful, er, insight into just what it takes to make such things. The first thing that strikes me is just how many people are involved - something that should be obvious to anyone who spends more than ten seconds considering the matter, but nevertheless easy to forget. The second is the sheer scale of effort involved in making it. Some poor soul has to note every single action and prop for continuity purposes. Now that's a job for someone with an eye for detail.
Can You Keep A Secret? by Sophie Kinsella (2005)
Sophie Kinsella's more famous "Shopaholic" series fails to strike a chord with me but this is a very funny romcom. It's firmly in the Bridget Jones vein of hapless woman caught in misunderstandings and mishaps partly of her own making, but all working out for the best in the end, and I could easily see it being made into a film. I enjoyed it very much.
The Week (29 March 2014 / Issue 964)
Make Room For Daddy by Andrea Edwards (1990)
The title Make Room For Daddy is one of the worst I know of, but that aside, this is one of my favourite romance novels, a sweet, gentle story set in Chicago about a baker and the man who moves in next door.


You And Me Both


Vince Clarke does what Vince Clarke does.

Formative, influential synth-pop ... yadda yadda yadda. Listening to this now, what strikes me most is the minimalism. Perhaps this was imposed by the technology of the day - and many of the synth sounds are classic, tinkly, early digital settings - but it makes for some very clean arrangements. Nothing superfluous, just a drum machine, a couple of Vince Clarke tracks, and Alison Moyet singing over the top.

When you get a song of the quality of "Nobody's Diary", which towers over everything else here, the stripped down arrangement sounds fantastic; the combination of Moyet's soul vocals and Clarke's electonics really gels. On my first few listens I thought that perhaps it didn't work for the other tracks on the album, but now I've got to know it there are some other good tracks. I particularly like "Walk Away From Love", a cousin (unsurprisingly) of early Depeche Mode singles "I Just Can't Get Enough" and "New Life", all jolly, chirpy keyboard riffs. I also enjoy "Happy People", featuring Clarke's rather sweetly adequate vocals.

Ultimately, although there is one really good song and some perfectly acceptable ones, it's the quality and simplicity of the arrangements that shines through and makes work. Why I didn't listen to it at the time, I don't know - it's right in my era. At the time I bought albums by Depeche Mode, Howard Jones and Tears For Fears, all similar in many ways. Oh well, at least I've caught up now.


MXR Phase 90

Effective but limited classic

In my first year of uni, I bought my first effects pedal. For reasons now lost in the mists of time, and possibly the mists of (ahem) something more intoxicating, I chose to buy a phaser. It was a Ken Multi MPH-7, purchasable at Maplins for about thirty beer tokens.

It was by any discerning standards a terrible pedal. Made of cheap grey plastic, it was so far from the "true bypass" beloved of FX geeks nowadays that it had a noticeable effect on the sound of guitar even when switched off. Fortuitously though, it somehow sweetened the sound, on or off, and although capable of some fairly extreme sounds, worked best on more subtle settings. It was a great sounding thing.

I lost the Ken Multi a long time ago but I've been meaning to get another phaser for a while. Given what I liked last time perhaps I shouldn't have been quite so snobby, but this time I thought I would get a "proper" pedal rather than some no-name brand, so I was looking at brands like Electro Harmonix, Carl Martin and MXR. I tried a few out but in the shop it was a toss up between the EHX Small Stone and the MXR Phase 90. Eventually I couldn't resist the stronger sound and classic bright orange case of the Phase 90. Amazingly it cost about the same, in real terms, as that cheap Maplins phaser did all those years ago - and this is a US made pedal with a metal case and quality parts.

Unfortunately, once I got it home and tried it with my guitar and amp, I found that it wasn't quite as I had thought. It always distorts - even on a very clean tone. It's not just my gear either; there is lots of discussion on the net about this and there is even a well-recognised "R28" mod that involves cutting a specific resistor out of the circuit and supposedly goes some way to curing this. (I might try this if I can get up the confidence to wire it up to a switch rather than just removing it).

Luckily, where this does work is on overdriven and distorted sounds. Yes, the mid-range push is still there, but now it adds to the sound by making it just that little bit rougher, more distorted. It's very similar to the mild distortion added by a wah-wah, which also works well on crunchy sounds - in fact, it often sounds like an auto-wah, particularly on lead lines, changing the overtones and harmonies as you play. This is unquestionably where I would use it most and from this point of view it's a worthwhile addition.

Given the similarity in tonality, I was curious to find out what the combination of the Phase 90 and my old Cry Baby (a late 70s Jen Super with a white Fasel) would sound like. Turns out - terrible. These two pedals don't play nicely together at all. The similar mid-range boost from both pedals combines to produce an overly harsh, gratingly distorted sound. It might be useful occasionally for certain deliberately unpleasant sounds but I don't tend to go for those.

Lessons: I wish I'd read up about the Phase 90 more before I bought it. The shop try-out wasn't representative enough, but I should trust my ears more because I did catch a bit of these symptoms when I was trying it out. I should have tried more variants (e.g. the "script logo" version). But still, I'm happy with it for now, although I will probably try removing that resistor at some point.



Will Young

"Can't be arsed" cover art belies a mature pop album

Of all the twenty albums I bought on our recent excursion, this is the one that made it first to my hi-fi. I could have chosen some real classics, but the song "Come On" has been stuck in my head for a couple of months now and I wanted to clear it. Usually repeated listens achieves this. If it doesn't then you know you've got a good song.

Echoes isn't a classic album and I don't think it will de considered one in the future. However, it is as good a slice of contemporary, adult pop as you will find anywhere. It's got plenty of good tunes, impeccable production, finger-tapping beats and Will Young is in fine voice throughout. I could have sworn that there are some other people singing backing in places, but according to the credits it's all him. In some places he sounds eerily like Jon Anderson, in others a little like Jimmy Somerville.

What makes it stand out from other pop is an undeniable undercurrent of melancholy running through and pulling together the whole record. Given this, and given that all but one of the tracks (Kish Mauve's "Come On", ironically enough) are Will Young co-writes, it's hard not to draw conclusions about the state of The Artist's mind. Track titles like "Jealousy", "I Just Want A Lover", "Outsider", "Runaway", and "Losing Myself" don't make it sound like young Will is particularly happy.

Still, it makes for some good music. His voice is a delicate instrument rather than a powerhouse and suits the downbeat mood, which is nicely in contrast with the often upbeat music. In other hands a song like "Come On" - which I do still like after having listened to it (checking last.fm) 29 times in the last week - could end up sounding too celebratory. It's a desperate appeal to stop someone leaving, and Young's voice rides on top of the big drums and anthemic arrangement and makes it work somehow.

There are other good tracks - I like "Jealousy", "Runaway" (excellent bass line) and "Personal Thunder" - but the album as a whole also hangs together well and is a very pleasant listening experience. Apparently (I don't know Young's other records) this is a more "electronic" album than previously, and having Richard X on board as producer for all tracks probably makes this so, but to me this is just slick, modern pop. I'm not going to listen to this all the time but it hits the spot for certain moods.


God Explained In A Taxi Ride

Paul Arden

Where the greatest minds of history have failed, a former advertising executive unsurprisingly also fails.

Uh huh.
I don't want to sound judgemental, but this is a book only someone in marketing or advertising could have written.

First of all, there's the conceit and arrogance. History's greatest philosophers have spent years thinking about God and millions of words attempting to understand and explain the idea. But Paul Arden can do it in about one hundred pages? That seems unlikely. I'll accept that the title is both tongue-in-cheek and an eye catcher, but I still think he secretly means it.

Secondly, there's the simplistic, childish approach and layout. In advertising, there's value in presenting your ideas in short, punchy pages, because you're presenting simple ideas: buy this, think that. In philosophy, you're not trying to sell anything, and any attempt to reduce complex ideas to the level of an advert is bound to miss the point.

I find it difficult to understand why this book was published, other than the obvious and reductive reason that people might pay money for it. It's a collection of vague, random thoughts on God and religion, with no obvious organisation or direction. Here's a page that suggests building a mosque at ground zero; there's one with St. Anselm's proof of God's existence (with the footnote that the proof might require "another taxi ride to think about!", when in fact it could be countered by a child, or in a two panel comic). Each brief thought is given its own two page spread. The only insightful comment is marketing related, which speculates that Scientologists are perhaps more committed because they have invested more.

Finally, Arden gets to his point. Something caused our universe to come into existence, call it "creation" or "evolution" or "chance"; these are just names, as is "God". So why not call it "God"? But giving something a name doesn't explain anything - whereas actually, those other names do at least embody an attempt at explanation (and real explanations are complex).

This is a simple book for simple minds. It's tempting to say that it's by a simple mind. Paul Arden appears to have been a successful advertising executive, but judging by this and what I have seen of his other books, his skill is in stating the obvious in simple, attractive ways. There's no depth here - and, ultimately, no explanation.


Reading - February 2014

Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre (2004)
Dark but entertaining.
The Week (1 February 2014 / Issue 956)
Guitarist (March 2014 / Issue 378)
Going Deaf For A Living by Steve Lamacq (2000)
Amiable amble through Steve's music-related life so far. He has a few trenchant observations on the inanities and idiocies of the music business. He has a few interesting stories of encounters with bands on the indie-er end of the spectrum. He has an enteraining chapter on the infamous Gallagher brothers interview on Radio 1. A bit ho-hum overall though.
The Week (8 February 2014 / Issue 957)
The Week (15 February 2014 / Issue 958)
Things Can Only Get Better by John O'Farrell (1998)
Fever Pitch for political activists (not an original observation, obviously). Very entertaining, while making some interest points. First is his observation that "Labour was only a left-wing party for five or six years really", which I'm sure some would argue with but I can see the logic. Second is his assertion that he never wants to be an MP. Perhaps he never expected to win in Maidenhead in 2001 or in Eastleigh in 2013.
The Dead Of Jericho by Colin Dexter (1977)
About fifteen years ago I ploughed through all the Morse novels in one almost continuous go. Now I'm not sure why. This is slow and unsatisfying, both from a solution point of view (the main death appears to be a suicide and turns out to be ... a suicide), and from a character perspective, because Morse doesn't really develop at all. It suits a certain mood I suppose.
Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (2007)
Characteristically jolly, informative and succinct account of what we know of Shakespeare and his life - which is to say, not much, and this book is accordingly slim. Bryson also pours gentle scorn on those who would seek to make definitive statements about Shakespeare's thoughts, attitudes and deeds based on no evidence - in particular, those peculiar people who remain convinced that Shakespeare was not the real author of the plays. 
How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great! (Second Edition) by Dan Erlewine (2012)
Erlewine has an almost legendary reputation in guitar circles, partly as a result of this book and partly as a guitar tech to the stars. There's a ton of information in this book about setting up guitars, some of it I've never come across before in almost thirty years of playing and reading about the instrument. The level of detail involved in a setup is daunting. Now, if only this could be presented with the same level of quality as the Haynes guitar manuals, it would be perfect.


Shopping 22 February 2014

In which a middle aged man indulges himself.

Wish we were here!
Yesterday Brian and I made our annual pilgrimage to Berwick Street and took in the usual haunts of Sister Ray, Reckless Records and the Music And Video Exchange. We also found a couple of new shops too: Sounds Of The Universe on Broadwick Street (very pricey and not so good for rock and pop, which is my main interest) and Phonica on Poland Street (again, no mainstream stuff, although there were some rather nicely packaged albums that I might have taken a punt on if they weren't fifteen whole pounds).

So, the albums came from the usual three shops and encompass some of the usual suspects - nothing outré here, just cheap albums I hadn't got round to buying before or hadn't heard of until recently. They were:
Kings Of The Wild Frontier by Adam And The Ants (1980)
Prince Charming by Adam And The Ants (1981)
I've been meaning to buy these albums almost since they came out. Hey, I'm only 33 years late to the party.
Fields Of Fire (The Ultimate Collection) by Big Country (2011)
I've broken my own rule here and bought a compilation rather than the original albums. I just wanted "Wonderland" really. I probably should have been more patient.
Carried To Dust by Calexico (2008)
Parent album of "Red Blooms", one of my favourite songs from the 00s.
Tago Mago by Can (1971)
I don't know anything by Can, and there it is in the 1001 Albums list, so here it is.
Pearl by Janis Joplin (1971)
"Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz".
Angel With A Lariat by k.d. lang And The Reclines (1987)
Shadowland by k.d. lang (1988)
k.d. lang's first two albums were not present in my collection, for some reason. Odd given how much I like her third, fourth, fifth etc.
Houses Of The Holy by Led Zeppelin (1973)
I know this album well, thanks to my student days, but still didn't own it until now. Plugging another gap in my collection.
The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers (1994)
I'm a sucker. This is a limited, 10th Anniversay edition of an album I didn't think I owned, but already did. Probably the first time I've ever bought something twice by mistake.
Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev (1998)
I own the two significant singles from this, bought at the time ("Opus 40" and "Goddess On A Hiway"), so not sure what the album will add. Let's see.
Days Of Future Passed by The Moody Blues (1967)
"Precursor to prog-rock", it says here. Also 25% of the trivia question: name the odd one out, from Days Of Future Passed, Ulysses, 2001: A Space Odyssey and 24.
Words And Music by Saint Etienne (2012)
Bought entirely for overwhelmingly geeky awesomeness of the cover (see above).
Phaedra by Tangerine Dream (1974)
"Like The Orb without beats," say Brian, and who am I to doubt him?
Scott 4 by Scott Walker (1969)
Another classic.
White Blood Cells by The White Stripes (2001)
Actually what I wanted was The Raconteurs.
You And Me Both by Yazoo (1983)
Can't go wrong with a bit of Vince Clarke.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere by Neil Young with Crazy Horse (1969)
CSN&Y notwithstanding, I'm still not sure about Neil Young. Giving it a go.
Echoes by Will Young
Bought for £2, purely for the single "Come On", which I really like.
Eliminator by ZZ Top (1983)
Billy Gibbons is a Guitar God.

Accompanied by good beer, good chat, some surprisingly nice fish and chips (The Duke Of Argyll comes up trumps again) and more beer and chat, it was another good day. Shame South West Trains spoiled it slightly.