Reading - December 2017

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
I'd forgotten I'd read this until I was a couple of chapters in. Its title is a bit misleading: outliers aren't outliers, not if you examine them in their proper context. The book's subtitle, "The Story Of Success", gives a better sense of the ideas here. The discussions about stand-out individuals like Bill Gates make the same point that I have made for a long time (albeit Gladwell makes it in a more structured, better argued way): people like this are not freakishly gifted in some magical way, they are normally gifted (which is to say, they are almost always exceptional anway) and incredibly lucky - because of when, where and to whom they born. Or to put it another way: you don't hear about the equally gifted individuals who aren't as lucky. Or to put it another way: history is written by the winners.
Guitar Effects Pedals by Dave Hunter (2013)
Despite being subtitled "The Practical Handbook", this fairly weighty book is a history book, user guide and technical manual, and maybe a few other things besides. The one thing it isn't is a handbook, being too big and heavy. That said, it's all very interesting. This time round, I like the final section of interviews with various makers, although a discussion with someone from BOSS/Roland would seem like an obvious addition, so it's a shame that hasn't been done.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 04)
Life To The Limit by Jenson Button (2017)
There aren't many autobiographies I'd buy in hardback as soon as they came out, but I've always liked Jenson Button for some reason. His book about his championship year (er, My Championship Year) is a good read and this is too. It's uncomplicated, unpretentious and uncontentious, much like the man himself. That might sound a bit boring, but if you're interested in the subject, it's a well-paced walk through the man's life and racing. There's a couple of interesting points scored; Button found Hamilton a bit off-ish, and although he doesn't quite say so, clearly feels Flavio Briatore is a nasty piece of work (he's right, of course). But in the main, it's about the racing. As always with these kind of books, it's difficult to get a sense of how much sheer effort was and is required to reach these kind of dizzy heights, but in fairness that would make a very dull read.
How To Build A Car by Adrian Newey (2017)
Newey's record as a designer speaks for itself, but it's interesting to have the insight into some of the events from the man himself. For example, at the time, I was very puzzled by his move from McLaren to Red Bull, but his explanation makes sense - basically, Ron Dennis was showing the overly-controlling tendencies that have subsequently shot himself and his team in the feet repeatedly over the last few years. So clearly Newey was right. He also doesn't have much time for the FIA, Max Mosely or Jean Todt. Interestingly, he is fairly quiet about Ecclestone, and he doesn't mention Briatore once, despite making it quite clear he believes Benetton were cheating outright in 1994. However, most of the book is about the cars he's designed, with about the right amount of technical detail for a layman to understand. I would have liked more pictures of the cars, but otherwise it's a good book for the F1 enthusiast.
Private Eye (No. 1459 / 15 - 22 Dec 2017)
I subscribed to Private Eye a long time ago - possibly 20 years ago - but little has changed, either in the layout and feel of the magazine, or, unsurprisingly, in the nature of the content. Parts are funny but my overall feeling on reading it is a sense of helplessness about the scale and persistence of greed, incompetence and stupidity in public and private sector alike. It's that feeling that led me to stop reading it in the first place. I know that only the bad things are worth reporting, and I suppose it's good to know, but blimey, it's a bit depressing!
The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)
This has been on my list of favourite books for ages now, and yet - assuming my records are correct - I haven't read it for a decade or more. Despite this, it's still really familiar, many of the phrases have stuck with me and the story is superb. It does jump around rather for the first half of the book, switching viewpoints and decades, but it settles down towards the end and becomes more linear, which is more satisfactory to read. Is it still a favourite? I'm not sure actually, but it is still excellent.


Kingdom Of Rust


Last in a quartet of latest (at the time) albums by favourite artists that I bought together (see Invaders Must Die, Yes and No Line On The Horizon), and probably the best of the bunch. Doves had a very distinctive sound and a wonderfully creative approach to what is still, at heart, guitar-based pop/rock.

Lead track "Jetstream" illustrates this very well, packing some cool noises, a great melody and a real sense of dynamics into its five-and-a-half minutes; from the choppy, tremelo-d guitar leading us in, through sublte picking on a guitar, with a kick coming in after two minutes, heavy phase on the hi-hat and some lovely floaty synth sounds, all building beautifully. It's a trick they repeat with the title track, an almost countrified two-step with strings and everything. Great stuff.

Everything here is very identifiably Doves, with hummable melodies and superb sounds. "10:30" stands out for me for its fantastic build and heads down rock in the middle. There's something controlled and yet borderline psychedelic about it which I love, and if I could, this is the kind of music I'd make. The slower tracks are also good, although not my favourite of theirs - I think they sounds very close to Elbow, who do it slightly better.

At the time of writing, Kingdom Of Rust is Doves' last album, which is a shame because all four of their releases are superb. Officially they are "on hiatus", but the three members have all subsequently released albums in separate acts, and given their level of success relative to Doves, I find it hard to believe that if they were happy to work together again that they wouldn't have done so by now.


No Line On The Horizon


First impressions: is this the dullest cover art ever? U2's web site calls it "striking". Er, OK, thanks boys, I'll stick with "boring". Given that U2 had generally been considered to have been going through the motions for several albums before this anyway, it seems like a ... brave choice.

Second impressions: the music isn't immediately striking either. Like another purchase at about the same period, Pet Shop Boys' Yes, this is an album from a band I've loved since my teens that I bought just because it was their latest; and again, it was the last time I did so, probably because the album didn't grab me straight away.

In fact, I was all prepared to write this album off as another from a band past its sell-by date (even one with as long a shelf life as U2), and I'd even written up a whole blog post to say so. But while I was writing it, the songs crept up on me. What U2 do, they do well, and what they do is arena-sized rock. A sense of the epic comes built in. If that's to your taste - and it's always been to mine, since 1984 and the first time I heard the War album - then there's plenty here to like.

I would describe it as mostly mellow, mid-paced rock, although that makes it sound duller than it is. The first two songs, "No Line On The Horizon" and "Magnificent", both have that restless, searching quality that Bono conveys so well when he sings at the top of his range. There's some quieter, moodier moments in "White As Snow" and "Cedars Of Lebanon". There's an inescapable reminder of older, classic U2 moments in many songs ("White As Snow" has definite echoes of "One", for example), but I suppose that's difficult to avoid when you have a full back-catalogue and a distinctive sound.

Sure, there are a couple of cringey moments - "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is the kind of meaningless paradox that appeals to shallow minds, while "Get On Your Boots" feels like a bunch of middle-aged men trying to be cool (although Edge's fuzzed-up riffing is pretty cool).

It's not a classic album and I'd be hard-pressed to name or sing the songs unaccompanied. But I'm still enjoying them while they're on. Not such a waste of time as I thought.


Wheels Of Fire


Oh dear

Cream's legacy and reputation is poorly served by their recorded output. The albums are mired in muddy production and marred by shockingly poor quality control. Wheels Of Fire is a case in point. There are a few jewels in the muck here, but they are obscured by period nonsense and self-indulgent wankathons.

What Cream actually did best, nowithstanding their influence on hard rock bands to come, was pop music. Sadly, by the time of this album, they were veering between cod-psychedelia and blues as a competitive sport, and very little comes off well by it. "White Room" is a good enough song to survive, and "Born Under a Bad Sign" is a nice cover. Of the live tracks, "Crossroads" has some stupendous guitar playing and a sense of energy that carries it through.

Everything else is awful, albeit in fairness, different degrees of awful. Tracks like "Sitting On Top Of The World" and "Those Were The Days" are average songs with odd arrangements. On the other hand, Ginger Baker holds responsibility for the two most pungent stinkers, "Pressed Rat And Warthog" - egregious sixties whimsy - and the excruciating "Toad", a fifteen minute drum solo. FFS. No-one should have to experience that.

Quite why this is in Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums list is honestly beyond me. Just get a Cream best of and you'll be much happier.



Pet Shop Boys

Clocking on for the day job one more time

This doesn't feel like an album that had to be made, rather just what the boys did to fill in time between other projects. It's very identifiably Pet Shop Boys: Neil's fey, surprisingly weak vocals, the heavily reverbed synths and the tastefully melancholy mood; it's just not very good.

It's all very lush and beautifully produced, but ultimately a little stale and lifeless. Neil Tennant's voice is a taste that I thought I had acquired, but found surprisingly grating this time round, and the rather forced melodies didn't help. Stand out tracks include "Love etc." and "The Way It Used To Be", but only for being a little less meh than everything else.

I have nearly every Pet Shop Boys album up until this one, but this is where the boys lost me. I bought the album when it came out but didn't bother listening to it, and now I've come back to it eight years later, I don't feel like I missed out.


Invaders Must Die

The Prodigy

This is probably one of the last times I bought an album simply because it was the latest by an act I followed. The Fat Of The Land is a classic, and had put The Prodigy into the category of bands whose albums I would automatically get. I must have bought this when it came out, listened to it once or twice and then forgot about it.

Why didn't I listen to it? Well, I think in part because on initial hearing, it's a bit Prodigy-by-numbers. You can play spot-the-similarity through the first few tracks; it sounds like Liam Howlett was deliberately referencing his own back catalogue, particularly tracks like "Smack My Bitch Up" and "Breathe". It's also somewhat monotonous; there's not much light and shade, or variations in tempo and mood - just the crushing, trademark Prodigy beats and crunches, and Keith Flint's unconvincing "edgy" attitude.

However, this time round - nearly nine years later - I gave it more time, and I'm pleased I did. Howlett has a superb ear for sounds and his sense of track structure is excellent. Many of the individual tracks are good, but unfortunately the album structure is less well sorted and as a result, it becomes wearing, like being bludgeoned around the ears for forty minutes.

The first three tracks ("Invaders Must Die", "Omen" and "Thunder") merge into each other with little to distinguish them, although it's a good basic sound and I particularly like the title track. "Omen" comes back later ("Omen - Reprise"), when it's much better: slower and moodier. "Warrior's Dance" also has some nice dynamics. Finally, "Stand Up" closes the album with something a bit different, a slower Big Beat kind of sound. (Oddly, I heard it soundtracking a BBC rugby show only a few days ago.)

What I also understand more this time round is the sheer craft. Having dipped a very tentative toe into making music with computers over the last couple of years, and having watched this great deconstruction of "Smack My Bitch Up", I feel I now have a much better appreciation of the talent, application and persistence involved in making music this way. There's so much going on in these tracks, so many tiny little sounds and samples, each of which is carefully shaped and placed.


Reading - November 2017

The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 03)
Terminally Single by Kate Jenkins (1991)
Sweet, but the heroine is a bit pathetic, despite being a career woman. This book is twenty-six years old, and starting to feel dated. The hero's behaviour would unquestionably be classified as harassment in the workplace, particularly in light of current news. Do recent events spell the end for office-based romances?
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
Famous, and understandably so - it's easy to read and digest, but oddly bitty and fragmented. The idea is that all these chapters - essays, kind of - together present evidence of the power of the unconscious mind, whether it's a good or a bad thing. But it feels like a bunch of different ideas and observations loosely linked by a theme, rather than a narrative that goes somewhere.


Abbey Road

The Beatles

I came to Abbey Road relatively late - which is to say, for some reason I was at least ten before I listened to it properly. Given that at seven I was putting A Hard Day's NightRubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper on constant repeat, it's an odd oversight.

Perhaps this late-coming is why it's never been such a favourite as other Beatles albums. It hadn't embedded itself into my juvenile subconscious in the same way. Or maybe it's because ... well ... it's not really quite as good?

For a classic album, let alone a Beatles album, it really does have a lot of filler. Fully half of the first side is bordering on awful. I know they had to let Ringo sing on a track but really, "Octopus's Garden" is just rubbish. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is trite and unpleasant. "Oh Darling" just sounds like Paul's trying too hard. It's even more puzzling when you consider that the remainder of those six songs are fantastic, in particular the ground-breaking "I Want You", real heavy music to a ten-year-old.

Then there's the second side. After "Here Comes The Sun" (about as good as a song can actually ever be) and "Because" (disposable) comes the much-vaunted medley. A medley of songs that weren't quite finished or good enough to make it as whole pieces. It actually only starts to make sense with "Golden Slumbers", more than half way through. Then, I'll grant you, it's superb. The duelling guitars on "The End" are just fantastic - and then we get that perfect ending couplet: "And, in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make". (Which they then spoil by having a joke song follow it.)

Still, I suppose the fourth or fifth best Beatles album is still good, eh?


C'est Chic / Risqué

1978 / 1979

If all you know of Chic is "Le Freak" and "Good Times" then you might assume that they were a pure disco party band. However, as Nile Rodgers - a man who seems to be everywhere these days - has stated, their ambition was to present a whole, sophisticated image (hence the name). So in fact, despite the globe-straddling dominance of their most famous tracks, they don't really represent what Chic were really about.

More representative of both albums' feel are the lesser-known singles such as "I Want Your Love" or "My Forbidden Lover": groove-laden but laid back and infused with an undercurrent of mournfulness. Album tracks like "Sometimes You Win" or "Can't Stand To Love You" are much more in this vein, while full-on ballads like "At Last I Am Free" and "A Warm Summer Night" fit the relaxed mood much better.

Overall, then, the feel of both albums is surprisingly a lot less immediate than I expected, given the band's reputation. Indeed, my initial impression was one of slight disappointment. But a number of repeated listens have brought out the appeal in tracks like "What About Me" - a nice groove - or "Savoir Faire" - a smooth instrumental with some very tasteful guitar soloing.

Talking of guitar, as the last surviving male member of Chic, Mr Rodgers has become the face of the band, and there's no doubt he's a superb and unique guitarist. However, the real engine behind the music is unquestionably Bernard Edwards, whose wonderful, funky bass winds, bubbles, growls and powers through the grooves, forming the backbone around which everything else hangs.

Released in consecutive years, during which Rodgers and Edwards seemed to be doing a million other projects too, these two albums are not identical in feel but do form a very consistent whole. And while they are not disco party albums, they are satisfying listening.


Reading - October 2017

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett (1989)
One of the earlier Discworld books (seventh, in fact), and teeming with ideas as usual. None of the "regular" characters appear, but the themes are familiar, as is the way the pace increases towards the end until it feels almost rushed. I bought this secondhand a long time ago but as far as I can remember, I have never read it until now, for some reason.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 02)
Guitarist Guide to Effects Pedals edited by Owen Bailey (2013)
A mixture of useful primer and slightly pointless articles. Still interesting though.
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
Not read since 2014, according to my notes. No idea why. Anyway, still great. Polished it off in about a day.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman (1990)
One of my favourite Pratchetts, partly because it's set in the real world (for some definition of "real", anyway). There's a Point, of course, but it doesn't overpower the story.


Reading - September 2017

Wrapped In Tinsel by Margaret O'Neill (2000)
A short novella really, and a fantasy in all respects, from the impossibly perfect country hospital setting and the eccentric but good-hearted locals, to the beautiful heroine and rugged hero. No danger or doubt here but the characters are nice enough to make you care, and I liked that it was set in England.
North Face Of Soho by Clive James (2006)
In this fourth instalment of autobiography, we finally reach a part of Clive James's life in which he is doing things we know about - writing TV criticism and appearing on TV. What strikes me now, as well as (as always) the economy and elegance of his writing, is how busy he was. In addition to what was effectively a full time job writing for The Observer, he wrote plays, poetry, travel articles and more besides. It emphasises something I think is often minimised in autobiographies: the sheer amount of effort required to have achieved what is celebrated. Less stated, but clear, is that this was at the expense of seeing his family, something he appears to regret but nevertheless felt necessary. Witty and wise, this is a superb read.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 01)
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson (1989)
Bryson's first travel book, and only his second overall, but already possessing his distinct voice and tone. Manifestly not a guide book or even a particularly useful way of finding places to go, just a highly personal journey. I'm not a fan of travelling at all really, or even books about travelling, but I do like Bill Bryson.
Lunarbaboon by Chris Grady (2014)
Still funny and sweet. Nice breakfast-time reading.
Flying Visits by Clive James (1984)
A collection of travel pieces written for The Observer between 1976 and 1983. Wonderfully, now available online in its entirety, including two whole additional pieces that are not in my copy. Given that it was 29p second-hand, it's still great value for money, as is any Clive James book. His pithy phrasing was clearly transferred directly to his TV show, as was the casual "foreigner-ism" (it seems too innocent to call it racism, although many would) that dates it more than anything else.
Lunarbaboon 2 by Chris Grady (2015)
Contains two of my favourite LB cartoons, "Hugging" and "Spoil". Oh, and "Winner". "Nature/Nuture" is funny too. As is "Aspire". Oh, they're all good!
Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson (1991)
Bill does Europe. Necessarily a bit more fragmented than The Lost Continent (which I have in the same volume), since it covers more countries, but funny and interesting.
This Is Pop by Ed Jones (1999)
Subtitled "The Life and Times of a Failed Rock Star" and purporting to show what life is like for the majority of bands who never make it, the irony is that The Tansads (shit name) got a lot further than most bands ever do: a record deal and three albums. Nevertheless the catalogue of disagreements, frustrations, annoyances, disappointments and very occasional highlights will be familiar to everyone who's been in a band. Actually my experiences in bands have been mostly positive, but it's only ever been a hobby for me. And I find it hard to believe that the highlights for Ed Jones were so few and far between as they appear to be here, otherwise why carry on for four years? Still, he clearly feels aggrieved, as the book was written as a combination of catharsis and revenge - primarily against The Tansads' band leader, who Jones regards as responsible for much of the failure - but he has enough self-awareness and intelligence to make it an amusing and enjoyable read.


Reading - August 2017

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski (2014)
An oddly interesting (even to a non fan) statistical analysis of various facets of what the authors insist on calling "soccer" (although, to be fair, this is the US edition), following the similar approach taken in baseball and described in Michael Lewis's Moneyball (which I now intend to read, despite having even less interest in or knowledge of baseball than I do of football). Also has the longest subtitle of any book I have read: Why England Loses, Why Spain, Germany, and Brazil Win, And Why The US, Japan, Australia - And Even Iraq - Are Destined To Become The Kings Of The World's Most Popular Sport. (spoiler: England lose because they're a relatively small country.)
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 28 No 12)
Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
For some reason I had it at the back of my head that I hadn't fully followed the plot of this, despite being, on third (or fourth) reading, pretty straightforward. Enjoyable stuff as always.
The Time Traveller's Guide To Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer (2012)
This second instalment in Mortimer's Time Traveller's series is as well-researched as the first and equally capable of setting the scene. Yet I found myself struggling to finish it. I think history's not really my thing. Nevertheless, I'm pleased I read it, since it is interesting to see how things have changed.
The Rough Guide To The Titanic by Greg Ward (2012)
The subject of the Titanic came up in conversation with B and so I felt like re-reading this.
White Picket Fences by Tara Taylor Quinn (2000)
A sweet (aren't they all?) romance, albeit with a few too many trailers to the next installment in the series, and a few too many soap-opera-like entanglements. But the main characters are engaging and the story satisfying.
Make Room For Daddy by Andrea Edwards (1990)
Comfort reading. Love conquers all. Awww.
Uncommon People: The Rise And Fall Of The Rock Stars by David Hepworth (2017)
David Hepworth is a superb writer of opinion pieces. His stock-in-trade is the long essay, whether it's for a quality daily, a publishing weekly or his own blog. Here he tackles a book length discussion of the state of the rock star by breaking it into individual pieces about various examples of the type (Lennon, Bowie, Dylan, Elton, etc), each illustrating a facet of the condition. The central contention - that the age of rock stars is over - feels like a sop to the need for publicity rather than a genuine point to be made. Meanwhile the structure of a chapter per year, required to allow Hepworth to write his trademark essays, is sometimes forced. So despite each chapter being a good example of his distinctive style and ideas, as a book it feels somewhat disjointed; a collection of articles rather than a cohesive whole.
Follow Me Home by Leona Karr (1998)
Stand-In Mum by Marie Ferrarella (1999)
Heiress Apparent by Kayla Daniel (1993)
Seduced In Seattle by Kristin Gabriel (2002)
There was a shelf of books to read on holiday, which was nice, but most were very unappealing, so I ended up bingeing on lightweight category romances (including Heiress Apparent, which I actually brought with me). They're easy to read and mostly nice enough, but they're short and in many cases written by people who don't write professionally (or, at least, not much), since some obvious mistakes are made, obvious even to me. In particular, viewpoint switching in the middle of sections - and sometimes mid-paragraph - is something I find extremely grating. Still, the book equivalent of all the doughnuts I ate over the week away - nice at the time but leaving a slight pall of regret.
Bad Boy by Olivia Goldsmith (2001)
A bit cliched with respect to how girls prefer bad boys, and the reverse Pygmalion thing is a bit obvious, but well written. Clearly intended to be a film although it didn't seem to become one.


Shock And Awe: Glam Rock And Its Legacy

Simon Reynolds

This substantial book - almost 700 pages - was a very welcome surprise birthday present from my good friend and all-round Bowie nut Brian. It's nothing if not thorough in its coverage of the subject, covering the bands themselves and reaching out into all sorts of related areas to examine the wider impact glam rock had on the music that followed.

So, who was "glam"? The inside cover lists the artists covered. It's a short list - and of the twenty-six names, a quarter aren't glam at all, but formative influences, broadly concurrent acts or later ones. There's about half a dozen bands that could really be considered "glam" - and of these, David Bowie, whose name runs through the book as if it was a stick of rock, is arguably not glam anyway, and certainly not after about 1973.

There's plenty of material about the core glam bands - primarily the ChinniChap acts - and lots about the Bowie adoptees Mott The Hoople, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. But despite the length of the book, I'm left with the impression that, actually, there wasn't much of an impact at all. Glam rock was a short-lived phenomenon in a small environment. In much the same way that punk was primarily a well-publicised but very localised movement, glam created a lot of media fuss for all the usual reasons - outrage, novelty - but surprisingly little output or lasting effect.

It's an interesting, if somewhat rambling, read, and I enjoyed it, but am left with the feeling that there's a shorter, more relevant book struggling to get out.


Reading - July 2017

The Guitar Magazine (Vol. 28 No. 11)
A slight rebrand (or rerebrand, since it's gone back to its original name) but no reset for volume or issue numbers.
Shock And Awe: Glam Rock And Its Legacy by Simon Reynolds (2016)
Long at half the length.


Reading - June 2017

Guitar & Bass (July 2017 / Vol 28 No 10)
The Week (3 June 2017 / Issue 1127)
The problem with the daily news media is that it's obsessed with what's happening right now, when in fact the real stories often takes days or even weeks to emerge. And the problem with daily newspapers is the same, plus that they are universally awful, full of acres of space-filler advertorials and unnecessary opinion pieces - and that's without mentioning the overt and appalling bias of nearly all of them, and their increasingly desperate delusions of relevance.

When I discovered The Week about six years ago, it seemed like the ideal answer - just the most important facts about the most important stories, each week. It's still the best news digest I've come across, but this is my last one. It's expensive for what it is - over £100 a year for a slim magazine each week - and it's not exactly a digest of the week's news; it's a digest of the week's news media. This means that alongside the actual news item, we get a summary of how it was reported, and as much space is given to the hot air produced by the rent-a-quote whores in rags like the Daily Mail or The Sun, as to more considered opinions in the Torygraph or the Grauniad.

Even in this compressed form, I'm tired of the predictable and tedious bias. I'd rather just have the facts. These days, I find myself skimming the BBC News site a couple of times a day; it's balanced (if you disagree, all you're really saying is you wish it was more weighted towards your opinion), well presented and informative. And free.
BBC Radio 6 Music's Alternative Jukebox (2014)
Presumably, "well compiled, written and designed" is too mainstream.
Memoirs Of A Fruitcake by Chris Evans (2010)
This second volume covers what what was probably Chris Evans' most notorious period in the public eye - from buying Virgin Radio, to taking over the Radio 2 breakfast show. He's obviously had some great times and some bad times, and worked hard and played hard. He skims over the bad times and the hard work, and gives us lots of vignettes about the good times and the play. Each chapter is short and easily digestible. Great fun, doesn't outstay its welcome and more than a little envy-inducing.


BBC Radio 6 Music's Alternative Jukebox

Lloyd Bradley (writer)

Presumably, "well compiled, written and designed" is too mainstream

BBC 6 Music has been called a "dedicated alternative music station", although it prefers to describe its music policy as including the "cutting edge" and "ground-breaking" music of today and the past. Unfortunately, defining any of these terms is a bit like nailing jelly to a wall. Jeff Smith and James Stirling (respectively, Head of Music and Editor at 6 Music) give it a bash in the introduction by referring to an "alternative spirit", but this hardly improves our understanding.

The patchiness of the choices doesn't help us either. Giant mainstream hits rub shoulders with wilfully obscure world music. Obvious tracks that form the bedrock of today's "indie" mentality are overlooked in favour of below-par album tracks. It's all very odd.

For example, the only Velvet Underground track included is "Who Wants The Sun", a trite piece of pop whimsy from Loaded. Granted, that's an alternative to the usual VU classics, but not a very good one. If someone's coming to "alternative" music for the first time, they'll need to know about "Venus In Furs" and "I'm Waiting For My Man" - or, if you must, "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll". Listening to "Who Wants The Sun" won't give any insight into an alternative spirit, or into why VU are so revered.

There are a number of selections from 6 Music presenters but otherwise no mention is made of who chose these tracks. However, poor Lloyd Bradley was clearly then handed a giant playlist and given the daunting task of saying something meaningful about each one. Too many of the brief write-ups are ham-fisted and it seems clear that he was struggling; there's no NME cliche left on the shelf, or trite observation left unsaid.

So a patchy selection is then poorly served by what's written about them. To cap it all off, the design and layout of the book appears to have been done by sixth formers who have just discovered clip art. It's a bit tacky, a bit cheap and a lot unsuitable.

There are many tracks here I've not heard before and working my way through the playlist on Spotify is good fun. But the book is below par. Just listen to the songs.


Reading - May 2017

The Week (29 April 2017 / Issue 1122)
Guitarist (June 2017 / Issue 420)
I've been buying Guitarist since the mid-80s, apart from a break in the early 90s, and I've been a subscriber since the late 90s. I still have all of the issues - over 20 years worth of reviews, interviews and general guitar porn. I hate to think or calculate how much I've spent on the magazines. But this is my last one - I cancelled the subscription. I don't need two guitar-related titles a month, and Guitar & Bass is more interesting, varied and in-depth. I'm also going through the back issues prior to recycling them. It's kind of sad (possibly in both meanings).
Guitar & Bass (June 2017 / Vol 28 No 09)
The Week (6 May 2017 / Issue 1123)
It's Not What You Think by Chris Evans (2009)
I'm not a big fan of autobiographies (or biographies, for that matter), and one of the reasons is that too many of the subjects are long on their own magnificence and short on their sheer luck. Chris Evans' first volume is refreshingly different in this respect. Without selling himself short, he's quick to acknowledge how fortunate he's been - in his friends, his timing, and his talents. He's clearly worked hard and long to achieve what he has, and it hasn't been without sacrifices; he's a study in the truth of the maxim "the harder you work, the luckier you get". An enjoyable read, made more so for me by the fact that he clearly wrote it himself.
The Week (13 May 2017 / Issue 1124)
The Week (20 May 2017 / Issue 1125)
The Time Traveller's Guide To Medieval England by Ian Mortimer (2009)
This seems to me to be a genuinely innovative approach to history (not that I've investigated this extensively), and one that makes it a lot more accessible. There's an amazing amount of historical detail and research here, but by wrapping in the approximate form of a guide book, Mortimer has made it much easier to digest.
The Week (27 May 2017 / Issue 1126)


Solo of the Month #27

May 2017

We have a slice of what is probably a middle of the road rock ballad this time round. As the middle eight finishes it sounds like someone should be chiming in with "You know I love you, I always will ...".

The chord progression is simple: G, C, D. Maybe too simple. I found it really hard to hang any kind of interesting idea onto this. Also, I was slightly put off by the fact that the obvious - no, the cliched - sound over this is a smooth overdrive, which is what I expected everyone else to use, and I know there are people who are much better at that kind of playing than me. The main thing I can do is use my imagination to come up with something slightly different.

Since this is in G, I normally think in Em, in terms of shapes on the fretboard anyway. This also means that quite a few of the harmonics at the 12th, 7th and 5th frets will be valid notes in that scale. It turned out that the smooth overdriven sound (EXH Soul Food on max boost into the Tech 21 Double Drive running on full "class A" gain, and the MXR Carbon Copy providing some subtle delay) made the harmonics sound pretty epic, so that gave me a good intro. Then a simple repeated riff using basic notes from the chords did the rest.

I don't think it's particularly inspired but then, if I'm honest, I don't think the backing track is either. Apparently it's the middle eight from an existing full track, with the vocal and solo stripped out, and I think some of that context would have helped inform the solo. Anyway, here's what I ended up with.


Reading - April 2017

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Brave New World is generally acknowledged to be a more perceptive and accurate look into the future than the (probably) better known 1984. While Orwell foresaw totalitarianism as forced control, Huxley correctly predicted voluntary (albeit largely unconsciously so) control. What both considered likely though, was that such control would exercised by a central, unelected government, whereas what we have ended up with (if you leave aside conspiracy theories) is a similar result through pure sociological drift. Although, to be fair, we still have five hundred years for things to change until we reach the year in which the novel is set.
The Week (1 April 2017 / Issue 1118)
Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale with Stan Redding (1980)
I think I saw the film first, but bought this book soon after. It's an amazing story but loses some impact on the page because of the matter-of-fact way it's told. The sheer cajones and brass neck of the guy is astonishing, but after the fiftieth account of how he cashed a phony cheque, it wears a little thin. Still, it was an entertaining and easy afternoon's read. This film tie-in edition has an interesting little catch-up interview with Abagnale himself at the end.
Asterix And The Soothsayer by Goscinny & Uderzo (1975)
A little light reading over breakfast. Given how much and for how long I have loved Asterix books, I don't know why I didn't and can't get into graphic novels. But there it is.
Asterix And The Golden Sickle by Goscinny & Uderzo (1962 / 1975 (English))
Another bite-sized installment of Asterix, not read it for ages. Gently amusing and imaginative.
Guitarist (May 2017 / Issue 419)
Republican Party Reptile by P.J. O'Rourke (1987)
Plus ça change ... despite being 30 years old (and hence some of the pieces collected being older than that), there are articles in here that could have been written this year or last year. O'Rourke is funniest when he's being scathing about real life subjects; some of the deliberately comic pieces here are dated and forced. The standout articles for me are "Ferrari Refutes The Decline Of The West", an account of a journey across the US in a 308 with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner ("Julian Weber" in the book), and a highly amusing telling of a trip to the USSR with a group of American socialists. I think I was introduced to this by my friend George.
The Men From P.I.G. and R.O.B.O.T. by Harry Harrison (1978)
Jolly kids sci-fi from one of my favourite authors as a child. I read this to Z - I think the next book needs to be The Stainless Steel Rat.
The Week (8 April 2017 / Issue 1119)
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (1961)
I was wondering about reading this to Z next so I had a quick flick and got drawn in again. I'm not going to read it to him - it's a bit too grown up - but it's a great romp that's not really dated at all ... apart from some reference to something called "camera film". Anyone any idea?
Guitar & Bass (May 2017 / Vol 28 No. 08)
Asterix And The Goths by Goscinny & Uderzo (1974)
I'm not sure why, but this was always one of my favourites, way back when. Silly, as usual, but a nice way to pass a breakfast.
Asterix In Britain by Goscinny & Uderzo (1966)
I think this is the first Asterix book I ever read and for some reason I own it in at least 3 different languages. Lots of clever references to British customs, some of which may be the translator's work but not all - the inclusion of a game of rugby is amusing. Great fun.
The Week (15 April 2017 / Issue 1120)
The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison (1978)
I seem to be revisiting series of books I read as a child this month. This was, if I recall correctly, the first Stainless Steel Rat book I read, and loved the amusing, irreverent take on science fiction. In fact, it might well have been one of the first science fiction books I read.
Asterix And The Laurel Wreath by Goscinny & Uderzo (1972)
More jolly japes.
Asterix And The Roman Agent by Goscinny & Uderzo (1970)
I like this idea, of someone who is so unpleasant that people around him just start arguing.
The Stainless Steel Rat For President by Harry Harrison (1982)
Only "science fiction" in the loosest sense - really this is a short thriller for teenagers and those with little time. Jolly good fun though.
The Mansions Of The Gods by Goscinny & Uderzo (1971)
Asterix And The Big Fight by Goscinny & Uderzo (1966)
My last two Asterix books. What I haven't mentioned yet is the superb translations, by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge. The text is full of puns and jokes, many of which must surely be specific to English since they wouldn't work in French.
The Week (22 April 2017 / Issue 1121)
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World by Harry Harrison (1972)
Amusing, time jumping, short novel. Probably the last one I'll read now for a while, as the formula is getting a little wearing.


Solo of the Month #26

April 2017

This month's backing track is a medium paced, poppy sort of chord progression to start with, but then in the second half it moves through a more jazzy sequence of chords, which all resolve nicely back to the original.

I can usually work out what the base key of a track is, but this one had me stumped and, for the first time, I had to ask what the chords were. The first section is straightforward enough, it turned out (Emin7, A7, Dmaj7), but the second was completely beyond me. Still, once I knew the key, I could do the rest by ear, since I don't really have the theory to work out the "proper" notes.

I have a new toy, a Frederic Effects Unpleasant Companion (mk II), which is an absolute fuzz monster, so whatever I did was going to include that if at all possible. I had Ernie Isley's superb work on "Summer Breeze" and, in particular, "That Lady" in mind, and the simple signal chain of the Unpleasant Companion and an MXR Phase 90 gives something very close to that tone.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to work out a few lines for the solo, but this was a short piece with two clear sections and it didn't take long at all. A little practice to get it all in one go, and I was there.

I recorded it without reverb and added it in Reaper using the TAL Reverb 4 plugin, which is a nice and simple, to give a properly spacey feel. Finally, I'd fluffed the ending very slightly by not allowing the note to ring as long as I wanted, so I added a synced delay (iZotope DDLY plugin) on the last couple of seconds to extend it slightly.

Here's the final result:


Pedal Power 2017

Nearly two years ago, I surveyed my effects pedal estate. Here's an update, and what's striking (to me) is how much has changed. Gone are a few old favourites I'd hung to for years, decades even - sacrificed to the obsession with new things (and the realisation that I never used them). However, I haven't bought anything new for months so I thought it was worth documenting what I have.

Cry Baby Super Wah [1]
This now needs a replacement potentiometer, but I'm somewhat nervous about doing it myself. If it was working properly I'd probably use it more.
Korg AX1G [2]
I've had this multi-effects box for ages, but I forgot about it last time, because I hardly ever use it. It was cheap and cheerful at the time, and now it seems very out-dated, but it offered a lot of bang for the buck, including as it does a bunch of simple but effective settings and an expression pedal, in a small footprint. Good fun. I can't remember where I got this or how much it was though.
MXR Phase 90 [3]
A simple, good quality effect. Adds a nice, certain something to the sound.
MXR Carbon Copy [4]
This is always on my board and has in fact supplanted any chorus pedals, because I prefer the sound of the delays being modulated rather than the direct sound, and it's a more subtle and very good quality chorus. Also fantastic as a simple, longer delay on lead lines. A modern classic.
BOSS FB-2 Feedbacker/Booster [5]
Despite what it says, this isn't a Metal Core, but an FB-2 with a replacement switch cover because the old one was broken. The FB-2 is something of an unappreciated pedal and it's tempting to say that if a boutique company came out with it now, it would get rave reviews. As a boost, it's very versatile, and the ability to add sustaining feedback at any volume (or even at no volume, via the amp's direct output) is great.
Mission Engineering VM-PRO [6]
A buffer and volume pedal. Somewhat expensive for what I needed really, but it's wonderfully solid and the action is super-smooth. Pro quality.
Moog EP-3 [7]
A few of my pedals have the ability to use an expression pedal, so eventually I caved in and went for this very reasonably priced example. Great fun with the Pitch Fork, which basically turns it into a Whammy.
TC Electronic Flashback X4 [8]
Having bought the Carbon Copy [4], I realised that, while it's a great pedal, what I wanted for some things is a longer delay. This has a number of different delay types, including a modulated 2290 (TC's famous rack delay), multi-tap (instant Edge!) and a looper too, which is good fun. It's rather big and I can't figure out how the expression pedal is supposed to work with it, but the delays are superb and you can edit sounds via the PC app, so it's incredibly versatile.
TC Electronic Hall Of Fame [9]
I wanted a bunch of different reverbs and this just does the job. I keep the reverb on the amp off (it's digital anyway) and run this last, in the loop. Originally I'd bought a HOF Mini, which is great if all you want is a "set and forget" reverb sound, but I like being able to adjust things more. This also works with the TC PC app.
Electro Harmonix Soul Food [10]
I think this is a bit of a modern classic, for all that it's a copy(ish) of the Klon Centaur. It adds a certain something to any sound, whether as a clean boost or adding "more" to another drive. The one thing I am not as keen on is its standalone drive sound, which is a bit harsh.
BOSS TR-2 Tremelo [11]
I was specifically after a square wave tremelo, which is why the Joyo trem I had last time got sold on. This BOSS model is simple but effective, and can do a basic amp-like, subtle trem, or an aggressive hard choppy trem. Ideal unless you're after something really different ... like the Super Pulsar [17].
Tech 21 Double Drive [12]
I saw this up for grabs on the board and it had been around for a while with no takers. Tech 21 isn't one of the favoured brands of the board (it definitely does have favourites), which must account for it, because it was an absolute bargain at £45. It's a superbly versatile overdrive that (along with the amp drive) has pretty much removed any desire for more drive pedals.
Mooer Blues Mood [13]
I bought this drive new, which was a mistake, because it was expensive, and it turned out I didn't really need it once I'd bought the Douuble Drive [12] a few weeks later. I've had it up for sale for a while but no-one seems interested - odd, because the BOSS Blues Driver is a board favourite, and this is a copy of it. Still, while I have it, it's another option.
Electro Harmonix Big Muff Pi Tone Wicker [14]
Everyone needs a fuzz and a Big Muff is where you start. Does what you expect.
Electro Harmonix Pitch Fork [15]
Multiple intervals - octaves up and down, 3rd, 4ths, 5ths etc. Great fun and, with an expression pedal, much like a Whammy. A bit digital in nature but some very cool effects.
Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 Plus [16]
Once you have this many pedals, particularly the higher-draw digital pedals like the Flashback [8], things can start getting a bit noisy with a daisy chain power supply. This does the job perfectly. Expensive but absolutely worth it.
Electro Harmonix Super Pulsar [17]
Only a couple of weeks after I bought the BOSS Tremelo [11], this came up second-hand. I'd been wondering about getting one for a while and I couldn't resist. It is incredibly flexible - as well as sine wave, triangle wave and square wave tremelo, you can make it work to a pattern you define, it can change depth or speed based on the volume of the guitar ... and it can take an expression pedal too. I haven't managed to use it in a track yet though!
Mooer Graphic G [18]
I saw Dan & Mick on That Pedal Show discussing graphic EQs, and then this came up in the classifieds. Pretty close to the industry standard BOSS pedal in function but nice and compact, and useful tailoring a tone.
Bright Onion Pedals Mini Looper [19]
Simple and effective.
3Leaf Audio Proton [20]
A bit of an indulgence - a superb example of an envelope filter, but quite niche. Popular with bass players, apparently.
Phase 45 Clone [21]
A very subtle but nice phase sound, with a mod to kinda do a Univibe sound.
Ken Multi MCP-7 [right]
Bought new from Maplins in the late 80s for about £40 (equivalent to £80 now), this is obviously a BOSS CS-2 clone but in all grey plastic. I hadn't used for literally decades until recently when I tried it - and it still works, and surprisingly well. Definitely worth keeping for those occasions when I want a compressor.
Frederic Effects Unpleasant Companion [product page]
My most recent acquisition is this completely bonkers fuzz, based on the "classic" (it says here) Shin-Ei Companion FY-2 Fuzz. Whatever. Far wilder than the Big Muff, but a fantastic "guitar about to explode" sound. 

Shopping 8 April 2017

Retail therapy

I haven't been listening to previous purchases as much as I expected, and probably haven't given them enough of a chance if I'm honest. So this time round I decided I would buy fewer albums and divert some of the cash into a pedal (or two) on Denmark Street. Nevertheless I still found myself browsing and taking a chance on a few albums. Here's what I ended up with this time:
Green Onions by Booker T. & The MG's (1962)
Soul Limbo by Booker T. & The MG's (1968)
I have McLemore Avenue by these guys, their own take on Abbey Road, and it's nice stuff. I thought a couple more in the same vein wouldn't go amiss.
Whirlpool by Chapterhouse (1991)
A shoegaze classic of course, but one that I don't really know, as evidenced by the fact that when I got home I realised I already owned it. Doh!
Garlands by Cocteau Twins (1982)
Early 'Twins that I don't have in my collection, despite having been a big fan for a long time.
Wheels Of Fire by Cream (1968)
Odd half studio, half live double album. Some great tracks but feels a bit contract filler to me.
Crosby, Stills & Nash by Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)
A classic album, which is probably why I already own it. I must be getting old.
Alice's Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie (1967)
I've known this for ages thanks to dad, and it's a bit of a classic, or at least the title song is.
The Inner Mounting Flame by The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin (1971)
This could be either superlative, influential guitar jazz-fusion or utter tripe.
Octahedron by The Mars Volta (2009)
Modern prog, as far as I am aware.
No Room For Squares by Hank Mobley (1963)
I'm a sucker for Blue Note covers. Hey, who isn't?
A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead (2016)
One of the finest bands ever, full stop.
I Wasn't Born To Lose You by Swervedriver (2015)
Swervedriver have possibly the best name in rock, and a great back catalogue. Whether this reunion matches up remains to be seen.
Future Disco Vol. 8 - Nighttime Networks by Various Artists (2015)
Can't go wrong with a bit of disco, although I imagine this isn't really the same. Happy to have a listen at £2 though!

What pedal did I buy, you ask? Well, thanks for asking. After spending an enjoyable hour or so browsing along Denmark Street (possibly for the last time ever if what I've heard about it's redevelopment is correct), I splashed out on the utterly bonkers Frederic Effects Unpleasant Companion, a superb remake/update of the "legendary" Shin-Ei FY-2 Companion Fuzz (no, I'd not heard of it before either).


Reading - March 2017

Guitarist (March 2017 / Issue 417)
The Week (4 March 2017 / Issue 1114)
Guitar & Bass (April 2017 / Vol 28 No 07)
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
I read this often - at least, I thought so, but I can't find any note of this for the last several years, so maybe this is the first time in a while. For something now over two hundred years old, it is still a wonderfully easy read and an absorbing story. And I do like a happy ending.
The Week (11 March 2017 / Issue 1115)
The Week (18 March 2017 / Issue 1116)
The Week (25 March 2017 / Issue 1117)
Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
A twentieth century classic for good reason. I've been reading it to Z for the last few months and although it took him a while to get into it, by the end he could hardly wait to find out what happened. The fact that it's fifty years old does throw up some dated aspects, but not as many as expected.
Different Seasons by Stephen King (1982)
I got this collection of four novellas from the library specifically to read Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redepemption, the source of the film. The film follows it closely, so there's nothing new in it and I think the film is more powerful (although this may of course be because that's what I saw first). The other stories - two of which have also been turned into films - don't really appeal. King is a superb story-teller of course, but mostly he tells stories I don't want to know about - they're too unpleasant. I found myself being drawn into the next story, Apt Pupil (also filmed) but peeked at the end and decided I didn't want to read it, so I left the book there.
Guitarist (April 2017 / Issue 318)


Solo of the Month #25

March 2017

Here we have a simple 4 bar repeated pattern in E major, with a rock 'n' roll feel. It seemed to call for a rockabilly style, which is unfortunate since I can't play that at all.

In fact, the first question for me was whether I should use a major or minor scale. The track itself is purely major chords, but a major scale felt far too polite and not rock 'n' roll enough. A minor pentatonic isn't "right" but it does fit with the expected feel of a piece like this, so that's what I went with.

To give it the right sound I set up a slapback delay on the MXR Carbon Copy, with lashings of reverb from the spring emulation on the TC Hall Of Fame, and a single coil (tapped) setting on the neck pickup which gave it the right wirey-ness.

I worked over the track many times, making up for a slight lack of ideas by repeating a few notes over multiple changes (I'm sure I've heard Rory Gallagher do this ...). I particularly struggled with some of the quicker playing at about 38 seconds, but I was pleased with my ending. Sometimes I piece the solo together from multiple takes but this didn't have any gaps, so I had to practice the whole thing enough to get it acceptable when played right through. Once recorded, I just balanced the levels a little in Reaper and that was it.

And et voila:

I didn't do the two months' SotM before this, due our kitchen refit - the first I've missed in almost two years. The amp and pedals were packed away, but I still intended to record it with an amp sim in the box. In the end I just didn't have time.


Reading - February 2017

The Week (4 February 2017 / Issue 1110)
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre (2001)
I've lost count of how many times I've read this (or other Brookmyre books), but it still works for me - funny, thrilling and fantastically plotted.
The Week (11 February / Issue 1111)
Guitar & Bass (March 2017 / Vol 28 No 6)
The Week (18 February / Issue 1112)
The Week (25 February / Issue 1113)
Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon (1996)
I bought this about 20 years ago, while working in the US. Its subtitle is "The Origins of the Internet", which explains the contents better than the main title, and it's a very thorough story about we got from the original, tiny Arpanet to what we had in 1996 - when the internet was just about starting to go mainstream. What's happened in the last 20 years could fill another book. Hopefully it would be a little less plodding than this one.


Reading - January 2017

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
B was reading this for school so, having never read it, I thought I'd give it a go. I'd thought of it as proto-horror, in the same category as Dracula or Frankenstein, but in fact it's both much shorter (it's a novella) and milder than I expected. The basic idea is so well known that perhaps it loses its impact. Entertaining enough, with a clear moral.
Guitar & Bass (February 2017 / Vol 28 No 05)
The Week (7 January 2017 / Issue 1106)
The Week (14 January 2017 / Issue 1107)
London Bridge In America by Travis Elborough (2013)
The story of the sale of the "old" London Bridge (it wasn't that old) to a town in the US is mildly interesting but the basic facts aren't that complicated. A lot of padding and tangential detail has been needed to make this book into anything more than a pamphlet, which doesn't help the central narrative.
The Week (21 January 2017 / Issue 1108)
Guitarist (February 2017 / Issue 416)