Reading - December 2018

The Guitar Magazine (January 2019 / Vol 30 No 4)
"Gear of the Year" edition; a bit disappointing since I've already read all those reviews during the year, and in any case I'm not in the market for anything new.
The Story Of Music by Howard Goodall (2013)
That this covers primarily Western instrumental ("classical") music doesn't stop this from being a concise yet comprehensive journey from its origins to the present day. He justifies the focus on Western music because it's the most complex and now the foremost musical form in the world - which rings true to me. Originally written to accompany the TV series of the same name (which I think I watched), this doesn't feel like a spin-off, but works well as standalone book, and is interesting and informative without being overly academic. Goodall has little time for labels (other than to point out how misleading many are) and the book is better for it. The main disadvantage of the book form is the lack of actual music, but the extensive Spotify playlists make that an advantage because you can explore at your own leisure. I've been listening to everything from plainchant to bebop this last week, and thoroughly enjoying it.
How Music Works by John Powell (2010)
This makes a nice companion to Howard Goodall's more cultural analysis, by focussing on the physics of, well, how music works: why certain notes go together while others don't, why scales are arranged the way they are and so on. It's written in a jocular way, which helps liven up what could be a somewhat dry subject, and although it's probably a bit longer than it needs to be, I definitely learned something.
The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit by John Seabrook (2016)
Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!


The Song Machine: How To Make A Hit

John Seabrook

Breaking news: some people write songs in order to make money!

On an internet forum I belong to, there was a discussion a few months ago about Ed Sheeran and the merits - or otherwise - of his songwriting. Views were split pretty evenly between those who liked the songs and admired his craft, and those who felt that there was something cynical and calculating about his approach. This latter group often acknowledged the quality of the songs while simultaneously claiming they they were devalued by Sheeran's openness about how he tries to write songs for specific occasions or groups - almost like it was a job.

In this overly romantic vision of songwriting, real songs, real art, comes from genuine feeling and life experience, written by one or maybe two people at most. The song comes to you, not the other way round. It's an oddly naïve viewpoint, which is ignorant of the simplest of facts of songwriting: it's hard work. Even something as personal, touching and sublime as Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" didn't just appear on a page; it probably took days or weeks of effort and, crucially, built on her years of previous work. It has graft, craft and technique, all used to make the song better, more listenable. And why not? Why wouldn't you want the song to be better?

Nevertheless, the theory of divine inspiration persists amongst many people. And of course, to them, the antithesis of real songs is "manufactured" songs, made by a "machine". It's a point of view that pervades this otherwise excellent book, from the title itself, through the ridiculously hyped-up jacket quotes ("unbelievable", "frightening", "unsettling"), to the heavy implication of manipulation and exploitation, both of artists and audience.

Unstated but accepted is the idea that this is not real music, not good music: it is successful because somehow it cheats, by being too addictive, too knowing, and too formulaic. And the people who make it! They'll try anything - like using many different combinations of people, or bringing in specialists in melodies ("topliners"), beats or lyrics. Don't they know that a song that has five people involved as writers isn't as good as one written by a single person?

Of course, any reasonable examination of the facts breaks down this somewhat silly idea very easily. Leaving aside the hit "machines" of yesteryear - Motown, say - from which many superb tracks emerged, the idea that pop music is worse because when you peer behind the curtain it turns out that there's lots of people working hard on making it as good as they possibly can, is clearly ludicrous. While there's money to made - and there still is, lots of it - there will be professional songwriters, and they don't operate by sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. They go out and find it. For every Cole Porter classic, there's a dozen average songs that no-one plays any more. But those classics are no less wonderful as a result.

Ultimately, the value of any art lies with those who consume it. All the women and girls for whom Katy Perry's "Roar" became an anthem are not wrong because it was the product of a collaborative, "factory-line" like system, that identified a need, a gap in the market. It doesn't matter: it means something to that audience; that's really all that matters.

Anyway, back to the book. Its slightly odd prejudices aside, this is still a fascinating insight into a particular segment of the pop music world - although, contrary to what it says, it is just a part of that world, so to say the producers are taking over is a little over the top. I knew the basics of a lot of this, but maybe it's a revelation to those who didn't (and hence the quotes on the jacket), and it's all described very well. Even better, the author has compiled Spotify playlists for each chapter - there's also a chapter about Spotify itself, which is a bit of an aside to the main subject, but worthwhile.


Reading - November 2018

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson (2007)
A very nicely concise synthesis of what is known about William Shakespeare, without scholarly pretension or unnecessary speculation - but also, oddly, without much sense of what makes him so revered. Perhaps that's taken for granted.
1971: Never A Dull Moment by David Hepworth (2016)
I really like this book but it reads like Hepworth talks, which doesn't work quite as well on the page. Oddly, having listened to a sample of the audio book - read by the author himself - it sounds stilted by comparison with his usual fast-talking, sardonic style. So it is that contentious statements, which come across in broadcast as being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, tend towards boorishly arrogant in written form. This goes double for the central theme, that 1971 was "Rock's Golden Year". David Hepworth turned 21 in 1971. I turned 21 in 1990; I think you could write an equivalent book about the latter year and make the same claims for things that "changed musical history".
Nothing Is Real by David Hepworth (2018)
If the subtitle - The Beatles Were Underrated And Other Sweeping Statements About Pop - shows a certain self-conscious flippancy, then little of the text exhibits it, to its detriment, I think. I agree with much of what he says, particularly about the primacy of pop music over any attempts to intellectualise it, but some of the aforementioned "sweeping statements" put entertainment value over accuracy. Still, it's nice to have some of Hepworth's pieces for The Word magazine in book form (particularly since I was forced to get rid of my magazine collection last year); and in fact, I could have done with more - this is a surprisingly and disappointingly slim book. Maybe he's holding some over for Volume 2.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven (2008)
The selling point for this book is the outrageous language and situations; extravagant sex, lorry-loads of drugs and a tiny bit of rock'n'roll. Funny, but a bit too in love with its own shock value and a bit light on actual plot. The characterisation is vivid but somewhat one-dimensional, although if some of the characters are cliches that's possibly because they are in real life too. It's a satire, obviously, and so - I hope - exaggerated for effect, although I fear not as much as I wish.
The Guitar Magazine (December 2018 / Vol 30 No 03)
Never Say No To A Rock Star by Glenn Berger (2016)
An insider's look into the studio life in 1970's New York. Berger gives a good sense of the madness of the life as well as, unusually in books on this subject, the sheer amount of hard work being a studio engineer. Sure, working a tape machine isn't exactly mining coal but it's technical, exacting and draining. The book interleaves stories of stars with the author's love affair with recording music. Entertaining but if I'm honest, I could have done with a little less of his own story.
The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)
A highly readable and compelling thriller. Whether it's believable is perhaps a different matter. The picture Forsyth paints of the Soviets, in particular, is probably coloured by his own political convictions - although it does ring true - and in particular his portrayal of the Labour Party as being on the verge of takeover by the hard left, which sounds more like a paranoid right wing delusion. What is indisputable is that although this was published a year after the 1983 election, it correctly predicted when the next would be, which is interesting. Maybe Margaret Thatcher was a fan.
The Case Of The Restless Redhead by Erle Stanley Gardner (1954)
I used to read the Perry Mason mysteries a lot when I was in my teens. I'm not entirely sure why - they are formulaic, hopelessly dated - in fairness, this one's 65 years old! - and hard to believe. Nevertheless, as combination whodunnit and courtroom drama, this is easy to read and is ideal bedtime reading.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018)
They say "write what you know", and Helen Hoang has surely followed this advice. So in this sweet romance, we have a heroine who is autistic (as is Hoang), and a hero of Vietnamese descent (as is Hoang). Both of these unusual elements add to the story; I was concerned that having an autistic central character would be a bit gimmicky, but as a device to analyse love, it works really well, because she needs everything explained to her. It helps that the main personalities work well and that the story, although fairly conventional in romance terms, feels realistic, with convincing secondary characters. I enjoyed it very much and read it very quickly, which is always a good sign!


II (Föllakzoid)


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

Great cover though.


Irish Tour

Rory Gallagher

Driving blues-rock in excelsis

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reading - October 2018

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


Reading - September 2018

A Blink Of The Screen by Terry Pratchett (2012)
A collection of short stories, from juvenilia to miscellanea; inevitably something of a mixed bag, but readable nonetheless. The Discworld pieces are the best, of course.
The Economist (September 1st-7th 2018)
The Economist (September 8th-14th 2018)
The Vinyl Detective: The Run-out Groove by Andrew Cartmel (2017)
I loved Written In Dead Wax and so when I found out there was a second book in the series I was very keen to read it (and very obliged to my friend Nat again, who lent it to me). However, this one has taken me much longer to finish. I think this is partly because it is, in essence, very similar to the first one, and reading it so soon afterwards meant that it had lost some of it novelty. Another part, I think, is that one of the characters has the same surname as me, which is hardly a common one, and every time I came across it, it brought me up short and somehow made it harder to enjoy. There's a third book, but I think I'll give it a few months before I read it.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 30 No 01)
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987)
Douglas Adams is of course primarily famous for The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and primarily that from the books. So I've always found it slightly ironic that the H2G2 books are themselves not very good. For me, they bear too many marks of having been manhandled from the original concept - the radio series - into book form. Adams could write though, as this, the first Dirk Gently novel, shows. Chock-full of interesting ideas as usual, but all now within a coherent, satisfying structure.
The Sacred Art Of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre (2002)
Just a really good story.
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Volume 1) by Bryan Lee O'Malley (2004)
The film of this is superb and so I was moved to find the original source material - but I have to say, I'm disappointed. Partly this is because I don't really get graphic novels. Maybe I'm reading it in the wrong way, but as a story, this is barely enough to get your teeth into - it took me about twenty minutes to read. Given that it's a graphic novel, perhaps I should spend more time looking at the pictures; but they're so simple that I can't see that they add much more. Still, as an item of interest because of the film, it's interesting: partly because of how much has made it into the film, and partly by how closely the scenes, and indeed characters, match the original drawings. Except, oddly, Scott Pilgrim himself, who doesn't look anything like Michael Cera.
The Education Of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten (1937)
I was surprised to find out how old this book is - but despite what might today be considered rather broad stereotyping of other nationalities, there is little in it to date it.  The endless manglings of  the English language are very amusing and the characterisations of immigrants are fond, as would be expected from a man who was one himself.


Reading - August 2018

The Chandler's Ford Story by Barbara Hillier & Gerald Ponting (2005)
Short history of the town, but then the place is not particularly old. At one point it says that "generations of schoolchildren" have been told how the body of King William II, also known as William Rufus, was carried up our road on its way to Winchester. But, given that the oldest school was established in 1881, it can't have been more than four or five generations. Interesting if you live here though!
The Economist (4 August 2018)
Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson (1984)
Short, but informative and useful. Bryson explains in clear, non-technical terms how phrases and words should be used. He's broadly in favour of retaining words that provide useful distinctions, even if those are minor. He also points out that language changes, and so it would be interesting to consider how it has changed since this book was written. For example, under "data", he notes that the "shift is clearly in the direction of treating data as a singular", which is clearly now true; although I was amused to notice that The Economist still treats it as plural, and sounds silly for doing so.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 20 No 12)
Marshall's new Origin amps, Lowden's GL-10 electric guitar.
Cider With Roadies by Stuart Maconie (2003)
For some reason I had it in my head that I hadn't read this for years, and reading it again didn't make me change that opinion. But according to my records it was only four years ago. Although I enjoyed the book (again), it clearly isn't that memorable!
The Economist (11 August 2018)
Brother Ray by Ray Charles & David Ritz (1978 / 2004)
The first time I read this, it was a copy borrowed from the Central Library in Manchester, and someone had laboriously gone through the entire book and carefully scribbled out every single swear word or offensive (to them) phrase. Given the way the book is written, which is very much in Ray Charles's own voice, this meant there were barely any pages left untouched by the mystery censor. Nevertheless, it didn't take away from the story, which is superbly enjoyable; so it has been a real pleasure to come back to it thirty years later - this time, thankfully, in unsullied form. It really is a remarkable story, even if the author is perhaps liable to painting himself in a favourable light, and entertainingly told.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (2003)
Part diatribe against lax punctuation, part guide to improving it, and nicely light in tone. I think my job - writing code - gives me a preference for precision in language and so this book appeals to the pedant in me.
The Economist (18 August 2018)
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)
Having enjoyed the film, despite its differences to the book (watching on an enormo-screen in 3D probably helped), and then again on DVD recently, I thought I should revisit the novel for the first time in a couple of years. Still great, more satisfyingly retro and geeky than the ever-so-slightly generic film, and obviously with both a good and romantic ending.
The Economist (25 August 2018)
Reel History: The World According To The Movies by Alex von Tunzelmann (2015)
An amusing and insightful, if necessarily somewhat selective, wonder through the history books as perceived via the lens of Hollywood. Obviously showing up the more egregious lies and mistakes is way more fun, but one is left with the view that most historical films are mainly complete rubbish. Also, I don't think she likes Mel Gibson much.


Reading - July 2018

But Seriously by John McEnroe (2017)
Brief - I read it in just over a day - but entertaining, this isn't a start-to-finish story of McEnroe's life, but rather a set of chapters about different aspects of it. Although primarily focused on his post-retirement activities (for his time as a player, see Serious), he nevertheless also goes back to talk a bit about how he was as a person back then and how it affected him now. The book skilfully conveys McEnroe's personality while still managing to flow well from section to section, which I assume is down to some (unaccredited) professional writing help. There's nothing earth-shattering here (he's a bit rude about the BBC's revamping of the Wimbledon highlights show in 2015, albeit entirely with reason) but enough spice to make it worth reading.
The Secrets Of Love & Lust by Simon Andeae (1998)
This somewhat over-salaciously titled book is - as indicated by its its less sensational but more accurate previous title of Anatomy Of Desire: The Science And Psychology Of Sex, Love And Marriage - not a manual or guide, but instead, a pop-science summary of sexology. That is, why do humans indulge in sex and relationships, not how. It's also very interesting. If you take the scientifically orthodox view that all behaviours are the product of millions of years of evolution, then they all have a "purpose" that must lead back to reproductive success; so what is the purpose of love, lust, orgasms or sexual enjoyment? The book attempts to answer these questions in a reasonably concise way. The author also has some scathing words for how societies, religion more specifically and Christianity in particular have attempted to co-opt, divert or pervert these natural forces that they see as a threat.
Dead Famous by Ben Elton (2001)
It's interesting to compare this novel with another that sends up reality TV, Christopher Brookmyre's  A Snowball In Hell (2008). In both cases they take the idea to a logical satirical conclusion, namely murder, live on telly; but while Brookmyre invents his own shows, Elton appears to have just ripped off Big Brother, lock, stock and barrel. And this is my main problem with Ben Elton - too much of his humour just hits painfully obvious targets, using cliched characters. The narration is uneven too, switching erratically between viewpoints from paragraph to paragraph. Nevertheless, as a story, I found it very readable and I really wanted to know whodunnit, so credit where it's due.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 11)
The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler (2004)
I'd heard about this book a while ago and even contemplated reading it once or twice before, but this time when I saw it on the shelf at our book exchange, it seemed like the right time to take the plunge. I'm pleased I did; it's a gentle, sweet and amusing vignette of a year in the lives of five friends who decide to form an all-Austen, all-the-time book club. While that seems like a limited idea for a discussion group, it's an ideal setup for a novel that needs a defined end. We learn about the backgrounds of all the characters, who are well-observed and interesting, and see them change over the duration. It's all unremarkable but engaging - just like Jane Austen's books, of course.
Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre (2000)
Chosen as a reliably good read when I was in an unimaginative mood. Good fun as ever.


Reading - June 2018

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre (2013)
Having recently re-read (and watched) Ready Player One, this sort-of companion piece (probably only in my mind) needed reading again. Good fun.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 10)
The Book Of The Year by No Such Thing As A Fish (2017)
Subtitled "The Weirder Side of 2017", the NSTAAF crew - James Harkin, Andrew Hunter Murray, Anna Ptaszynski and Dan Schreiber - gather the oddest facts and events into an A-Z of, well, weirdness. Very entertaining.
Wednesday The Rabbi Got Wet by Harry Kemmelman (1976)
I read this via Libby, which I can now run on my shiny new phone, but I realised I'd read it before because I actually own it! It's of a piece with the other Rabbi Small novels, a very acceptable whodunnit with an American Jewish flavour.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
I haven't read this for ages and I remembered it as an amusing, sweet twist on a fairy tale. However, this time, I find it somewhat irritating. The fiction of its being an abridgement of a classic novel is maintained throughout, with Goldman's interjections about his (also fictional) life, and while the overall pretence was funny the first time around, his breathless, chatty style wears thin and feels like it gets in the way of the narrative flow. Goldman has said that the device allowed him just to write just the "good parts" of the story and make disjointed leaps from one to another, but too many of them feel like they could have been removed. My edition is the 1999 25th anniversary edition that includes the first chapter of Buttercup's Baby, which is, if anything, even more annoying. (As an aside, I mentioned William Goldman to a good friend of mine once and he said, "Oh, I hate that guy." On being asked why, he said that he couldn't forgive him for ruining The Princess Bride with this abridgement. I tried to explain that there was no original book, but he wasn't having it!)
Sex, Sleep or Scrabble? by Dr. Phil Hammond (2009)
As I understand it, this is a collection of the most amusing and interesting questions that Dr. Hammond gets asked during his comedy tour (since he is also a comedian). Gently amusing throughout, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but consistently informative and interesting. As good a compendium of general health tips as any, with a particular emphasis on sex and sexual health, as befits both the author's own interests and the likely interests of a well-refreshed audience shouting out mildly risqué questions.
The Ultimate History of Fast Cars by Jonathan Wood (2002)
A typical Christmas gift type hardback book, heavy on the glossy pictures and, despite being called "The Ultimate History", out-of-date less than a year after publication - which is why it cost me only a couple of quid. Nevertheless, an competent-enough summary of lots of interesting cars, with only a few odd omissions (no Caterham Seven?) and relatively little of the poor copy editing that usually plagues these kind of photo compilations.


Newport 1958

Mahalia Jackson

Like most people, probably, I think I'd claim to know gospel when I hear it, but I wouldn't have identified this as such. This is just Ms. Jackson singing by herself, with minimal - but effective- backing instrumentation, primarily from a piano and occasional organ. Where's the mass choirs and fevered chanting?

All of which shows how much I know. My entire knowledge of gospel is the five minutes it takes James Brown to sing "The Old Landmark" in The Blue Brothers, so it's fair to say that I am not the best informed about the subject. Listening more carefully, as well as the obviously church-based lyrics, the chord progressions are very typical of gospel - at least, I assume so, because it sounds like early soul. What is striking is how funky some of it is, and you can see the direct line from "I'm On My Way" to Ray Charles's "Hallelujah I Love Her So", and from there to the sixties' twin peaks of Motown and Stax.

Mahalia Jackson's voice is fantastic and the whole thing sounds great fun. She's also sweet when the audience is clapping and she says "You make me feel like I'm a star" - although surely she was, since otherwise why would she be at Newport Jazz Festival, for the second time?

Needless to say, this isn't something I would have chosen to listen to or even known about had it not been in a list in a book, so I'm grateful to have been exposed to it. I'd even probably listen to it again some time.


Reading - May 2018

Songwriting For Dummies by Jim Peterik, Dave Austin & Cathy Lynn (2010)
This was a bit of a grind. There's some interesting stuff about the mechanics of songwriting - the section on song structures in particular was new to me - but it's not well-written, and didn't carry me with it. Most annoying is the fact that Jim Peterik appears to have only contributed by adding multiple quotes throughout the book, and each time he does, the quote is credited to "Jim Peterik, author of 18 Billboard hits, including (blah blah blah)", which is ridiculously repetitive and redundant, and just makes him seem like a one of those insecure people who keep reminding you about what they've done: "I wrote 'Eye Of The Tiger' you know!"
The Perfect Neighbour by Nora Roberts (1999)
I'm part-way through a number of books I'm finding hard to digest, so for a bit of light relief I picked up this sweet little snack of a book. Nothing fancy, just something to entertain for a short time.
The Joys Of Yiddish by Leo Rosten (1968)
This came from C's grandma a couple of decades ago - at least - and I've started reading it many times. It's great for dipping into, being basically a selected dictionary, but hard to read much of in a sitting, and as a result I'd never actually made it far. This time I was determined to finish it - even though it took me about three months! It's amusing and educational, and worth it for an insight into American Jewish culture in the US, certainly that of thirty-forty years ago, which, lest we forget, is still a very influential voice in Judaism.
Are We Still Rolling? by Phill Brown (2010)
I learned about this via the Spirit Of Talk Talk book. Phill Brown was the engineer on Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis's solo album, but before that he'd spent twenty years working in London studios, primarily for Island Records, engineering a host of classics by the likes of The Wailers, Robert Palmer, John Martyn and many more. The book is an autobiography, but centred on his recording experiences. The world of the music business in the seventies sounds as bacchanalian as legend would have it - clouds of cocaine, parties every night and women everywhere - but equally, plenty of hard work, at least for an engineer. It sounds like he started falling out of love with "progress" during the eighties and isn't entirely happy with the music business any more. It's also notable that the band he most consistently references throughout the book is Talk Talk, and the experience of recording their last two albums sounds particularly intense, and it casts some valuable light onto the process, even if it reveals nothing of the reasons for it (as a techie, he seems to have little insight into the artistic process). An interesting read for a music geek like me but probably a bit niche for most people.
Can You Keep A Secret? by Sophie Kinsella (2003)
I last read this about four years ago. I grabbed it one evening when I just needed something to read before sleeping, rather than spending half an hour trying to choose a book. I enjoyed it last time and I enjoyed it this time. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, it's sweet and the central character is quite endearing.
Get Fit Swimming by Kelvin Juba (2006)
I'd like to start swimming again properly, because I'm not running regularly and I think it's because, really, I'm not that bothered about running, despite its convenience. So it's good to have a reminder of training approaches to swimming, and there's some useful summary information about land-based work too.
The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)
Light and fluffy, but sharp and so beautifully honed. Reading it isn't the same as watching it, of course, but it's a good read anyway. Other than the classic 1952 film, I probably last saw this on stage in the 1995 Old Vic production, about which I remember little other than the famously silent "handbag", and being a little underwhelmed.


Solo of the Month #36

The backing track this month sounds like something from a sixties spy thriller (although only to me apparently, judging by the other entries). I'm thinking of things like Get Carter (not actually from the 1960s, I know), The Persuaders, The Ipcress File and so on.

Hence I have attempted to create "Theme from Unknown Man", the title sequence from a little-known TV series shown for 3 weeks only on ATV Midlands in 1969.

In my simplistic way, "spy theme" boils down to semi-tone intervals and lashings of plate reverb. So I fiddled around in Am and added grace notes a semi-tone above or below where the main notes were until I got a melody that sounded suitably mysterious. I played the first half in 3/4 across the 4/4 beat to make it sound interesting, and the second half in 4/4, but shorter phrases, to make it sound like it was going faster.

Production wise, this was straight into the audio interface and all effects in the box: JS 1175 compressor (one of the many compressors in Reaper), a bass amp plugin that came free with Computer Music, TAL's Dub II delay, Acon Digital Verb (also free with CM), and a (free) valve exciter thing to sprinkle a little pixie dust over the top. (I haven't gone for many paid plugins yet!)


Reading - April 2018

Spirit Of Talk Talk by James Marsh, Chris Robert & Toby Benjamin (2012)
Talk Talk are one of my favourite bands and I bought this luxurious book in a moment of madness. It's a three part book: a band history, a broad selection of quotes from famous musicians, and  detail about the cover art, the latter unsurprising given that James Marsh is one of the authors. I guess I bought this hoping it would somehow enhance my enjoyment of Talk Talk's music (particularly given that there's never going to be any more), but of course that didn't work. Details about the artwork are interesting but parenthetical, and the many, many quotes diverting but largely irrelevant. And knowing that the participants came from pretty mundane backgrounds doesn't change how marvellous the music sounds - which is really what it all comes back to.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 8)
Presumably these guys know their market but this month there are no guitars under £1500 reviewed, and I found the ridiculously uncritical look at PRS's carbon-copy of a Strat somewhat grating.
Set The Boy Free by Johnny Marr (2016)
I really enjoyed this, a big book but a very straightforward read. Marr doesn't get into any technical depth about his work - perhaps understandably for an autobiography aimed at the mass market - but you get the sense of how hard he's worked. The Smiths accounted for only about five years of his career, and there's plenty he's done that I wasn't aware of, so lots to go and find.
The Best A Man Can Get by John O'Farrell (2000)
By turns insightful and moving, and annoying. Parts of it read like excerpts from stand-up shows that never quite made it, which, given the author's past (and present?) as a gag-writer for a number of well-known shows and figures, could well be the case. Funny in parts, true in others, and the ending is a bit sudden and too neat, but it's enjoyably short and easy to read. 
The Tao Of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (1982)
During the Great Book Excision of 2017, I saved this because, despite not having read it for twenty years or more, I remembered it as a sweet, charming digression into Taoism, as illustrated by the tales of Winnie-The-Pooh. Since I am sure the book hasn't changed, I suppose I must have done, because reading it now, I find it trite to the point of vacuity. Hoff's assertion that you can do the Right Thing if you will only clear your mind and listen to your Inner Nature isn't really different from memes on Facebook declaring that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it; both embody wishful thinking that sounds lovely but says nothing. In addition, the idea that there's some sort of perfect ancient Eastern wisdom that we have somehow diverted from is clearly bollocks. (And in an odd coincidence, I found my sister also read it, for the first time in decades, but entirely independently, at the same time!)
The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel (2016)
My friend Nat dropped this on my desk one morning and said I had as much time as it took him to get a coffee to read the first few pages. He thought I'd like it, and he was right. I'd ordered it (from the library - only 70p to reserve a book!) within the hour. The idea is fun - basically a murder mystery centred on records - and the execution good, although I thought it was a touch too long. For some people, the tendency of pretty young women to throw themselves at the narrator might spoil it but I like that.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)
I've been reading this in spare moments on my phone for the last couple of months and have finally completed it. I originally read it in my teens, in a Reader's Digest condensed version, and while the overall shape of the story remained with me, most of the details haven't, so it's nice to revisit it. That said, I didn't find it a particularly compelling read - but as a way of passing the time while waiting for other things, it was fine.


Reading - March 2018

4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie (1957)
A Miss Marple mystery that potters along quite amiably. An easy read.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 07)
Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (1988)
I like the witches, particularly Granny Weatherwax, and I haven't read this for ages. The Discworld books are often described as making people laugh out loud, but this is the first time I've read one that I remember finding genuinely funny in places, as opposed to gently amusing. The snippets of scripts that are written by Hwel, the playwright (a dwarf) are really well-done parodies.
Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett (1993)
I fancied reading this because I know it quite well, and I always enjoy re-reading books. However, I've probably over-done this one. I enjoyed it, of course, but I knew what was going to happen too much.
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995)
So, onto another Pratchett, this time one I hadn't read in a while. This features the witches again, and a good-natured send-up of opera and theatre-folk. It feels a little insubstantial though, for some reason. I'm going to give myself a rest from the Discworld for a little while now.
Call The Midlife by Chris Evans (2015)
The third and least interesting volume of Chris Evans's life; less of an autobiography this time than an extended pondering on lessons learned as he enters the "second half of his time on earth". I found it rather shrill, particularly towards the end, as we hear again and again about how great his life is. He's very keen to air his new-found wisdom - such as "everyone should run a marathon!" - without apparent consideration that while such knowledge is right for him, it won't necessarily be right for everyone. Still, much of interest and pretty readable. It finishes with the announcement that he is taking over Top Gear, which is a bit of a shame since it means we don't get any analysis of that whole episode - but maybe that's for the next book.


Solo of the Month #34

There are only three chords in this month's backing track, and the third one only crops up twice anyway. That doesn't mean it sounds monotonous though, it's a jazzy, minor feel vamp, loosely based on the progression from "Unchain My Heart".

The root key here is Gm, but the other chords bring in other notes and scales and - as ever - I don't have the theoretical basis to be clear what would be "right" here. I little improvisation over it shows that keeping in Gm pentatonic sounds about right, but a bit dull. The other approach is to work out what notes are in the chords and work with those (in fact, B, whose knowledge of music theory is better than mine, suggested this as well). I probably should have done this to advance my knowledge and understanding, but I didn't have the time and couldn't really be bothered.

I experimented for a while with variations of the chords at different positions to see if the transitions inspired anything, but couldn't quite make it work to my satisfaction (one of the other participants did the same and ended up with a gorgeous sounding spy theme, much better than I would have been able to do). However, during this, I hit on the idea of playing with octaves, and decided to make this the basis of my solo.

I played through the track multiple times and eventually the shape of the solo worked itself out. So I suppose we could consider it "composed" rather than improvised. I recorded it in sections so I wouldn't forget it, and then played along with myself to get the whole solo in my head. I liked the sound of this, so I decided to have two guitars at points. The important thing there is that the two guitars are two different takes, not just the same take duplicated, because the tiny differences in timings and intonations is what gives it a sense of space.

The final take is a single pass through, since I'd learned the whole thing, and the second guitar is used to "pop" some of the key notes, as well as providing a harmony in the last four bars. Both guitars were recorded dry, just through the amp. I added a bit of EQ and compression in Reaper, but no reverb since it sounds nice without it. I used a touch of reverb to the harmony guitar to give it a slightly different position in the track. Finally, when it got to the harmonies in the last bars, I panned the guitars slightly left and right, to emphasise the change.

This was a bit of a struggle, mainly because I couldn't hear anything over the track for a long time. But the end result, a product of a solid three hours right at the end of the time allowed, is something I'm rather pleased with. It's understated and works with the track rather than sitting on top of it, I think.


Reading - February 2018

The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 06)
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2003)
Granted there's a lot to condense into one book here, and full marks to Bill Bryson for not only trying, but making it understandable, readable and entertaining - but this is a long book and I'm afraid it drags a little in places. The facts involved are amazing, of course: it's impossible to really get your head around the timescales and distances involved in a universe, and there's plenty to get your teeth into (17 pages of bibliography if you're really interested). Unfortunately it all came at me so fast it seems to be leaking out again just as quickly.
A Snowball In Hell by Christopher Brookmyre (2008)
Just grabbed for something easy and entertaining to read.
Get Fit Running by Owen Barder (2005)
Always worth checking back. This time I'm reminded that I should be scheduling one easy week in every four in my planning, and an easy month once a year. My target, in getting back to running, is to be running a 5K in mid-March, but this might be a bit too soon.
Parker Pyne Investigates by Agatha Christie (1934)
Dated as anything - it is 84 years old - but a nice little collection of short stories. These feature "Parker Pyne" but could just as easily have been Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot.
Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe (2014)
A brilliant idea, done brilliantly and done amusingly. Not only does it sustain, as an idea, but it is also genuinely educational. My only gripe - and I don't see how it could have been avoided - is that, because of the format, much of the writing is very small (and I need reading glasses), and the book is large and so cannot be read in bed, which is where I do about 50% of my reading.


Solo of the Month #33

Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" is the inspiration for this month's backing track, and apparently it's also the source of a fair amount of online debate about what key it's in. The chord sequence is D / C-add9 / G, so D sounds like the home key to me, but the chords would be G major. Different people hear it different ways, and I guess that's part of what makes it a memorable track.

I know the song of course, but I deliberately didn't listen to it while I was trying to find something to play over this, so that I didn't get unduly influenced. A clean-ish tone seemed appropriate to go with the strummed chords, and to start with I tried D major pentatonic (which in my head is the same as Bm pentatonic), then I tried it again with a capo the 7th fret on to see if I could get some interesting open notes contrasting with higher notes. Unfortunately nothing was working and nothing sounded fluent, so I left it for a few days.

When I came back to it, I thought I'd try something different. In fact, everything different. Instead of a clean tone, I went for the scuzziest, messiest sound I could (courtesy of a Fredric Effects Unpleasant Companion); instead of playing up the neck, I just used the bottom string (tuned down to D); and instead of trying to make a solo out of it, I tried to make a riff. I think I had something White Stripes-y in my head. Once it was done, I added the same notes in again, two octaves up for a bit of contrast.

With this kind of sound, the guitar doesn't matter as much, but what I had in hand at the time was the Yamaha SA2200. It was recorded dry; I tried adding some reverb or delay in Reaper, but the sound is so filled out that it swamps anything subtle. I settled for a bit of EQ to take the bottom and top ends out and emphasise the mids. What we have isn't brilliant, I don't think, but at least it's a bit different!


Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy

Elton John

An odd assortment

I'd always lazily assumed that I knew most of Elton John's output, or at least the good stuff from the seventies. But here's an album from two years after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and I only know the sole single from it, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight". The remaining nine tracks are entirely new to me.

One problem - OK, my problem - with listening to an album that contains a mixture of the very familiar and the unknown is that it's too easy to judge the new tracks as inferior because they haven't had time to "bed in" to my mind. So I've given this a few weeks on fairly heavy rotation, which solved the first problem, but has revealed another: it's a concept album.

Actually, I was aware of this before I listened to it, and in any case, I have nothing against concept albums in principle. Hopefully we're well past the idea that they are all bloated, indulgent nonsense (thought in fairness, plenty are). Some of my favourite albums have a clear theme: The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, Marvin Gaye's What's Going On or even, according to some commentators, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road itself.

In all these cases, the theme isn't allowed to affect the quality of the songs, however preposterous the story is (hello Tommy!). Here, though, it doesn't help that the story in this case is - apparently - Taupin and John's own story. I say "apparently", since the references are fairly opaque and you'd have to be very familiar with their lives to know. Without that knowledge, the lyrics become fairly meaningless. Again, don't get me wrong: lyrics are very much a second-class citizen in my pop world and I really don't insist on them meaning anything. But somehow these seem to promise meaning without delivering it.

It seems like the concept has been given too much priority over good songs - like Elton and Bernie wanted so much to get their story out there that they forgot that, for everyone else, it's not that interesting. Maybe that's what happens when you've become superstars. It sounds like the story came first and the tunes were bolted on afterwards. I know in some respects this is actually how the pair worked: Taupin delivered the lyrics and then Elton put a melody round them - but usually the music would be sympathetic to the lyrics. Here it sounds like Elton had some tunes knocking around already and just thought they would do. As a result, while there might be a lyrical theme, musically the album is all over the place.

Having given it a lot of time, I can hum along with most of the tracks and Elton's a proven tunesmith so there's plenty to enjoy from that point of view. But nothing's grabbed me particularly and I wouldn't call it a classic.


Total Competition: Lessons In Strategy From Formula One

Ross Brawn & Adam Parr

All is fair in love, war and Formula One, apparently

I used to love watching and reading about Formula 1, but the interminable politics eventually started to spoil it for me, and the more that came out about the behind-the-scenes jockeying and negotiation finished it off. The ludicrous situation that exists now, in which some teams have an officially sanctioned unfair advantage over others, is just untenable.

Nevertheless this is the third F1-related book I've read in the last month or so, and all were by people from the era in which I did follow it most actively. This isn't exactly a book about Ross Brawn, but then again it isn't really a book about anything else either. If it had a more sensational title it would be something cheesy, like "The Secret Of My Success", since what it purports to reveal, through a somewhat wearing question and answer format, is how Brawn achieved the results he did.

Although he has a technical background (and has in fact designed entire cars himself), what Brawn clearly truly excels at is management and strategy: not just race strategy, but - effectively - championship strategy, the long range planning and execution that is needed to win consistently and regularly. In the book he provides a number of insights into how he did this. There's nothing particularly surprising here from a management point of view, but his views on the specifics of that with respect to the sport are interesting, and possibly none more so for me than when it comes to the politics - that very thing that's turned me off.

Brawn says that the politics is inseparable from the sport, because if you want to win then you need a strategy, and the key part of any strategy is create the environment in which to win. Winning a race is merely the last detail in something that was prepared many months before, and any team that wants to win will use any technique it can. That might be exploiting a loophole in the regulations, or using your influence to shut one down because a competitor is using it. It could be arguing for rules to be tailored to your strengths in the name of safety. In short, it might be a whole bunch of things that aren't racing at all.

Brawn always struck me as an honest, fair, principled man, but I'm starting to wonder a little about this. He obviously does what he does for the love of it rather than the nevertheless very generous pay - much like the drivers themselves, as he observes at one point. But if you're that single-minded about success - and he's clear that you have to be - then you have to be prepared to turn a blind cheek to some of the more unsavoury characters and antics involved. I think he's still doing it, even though he was (at the time of publication) out of F1: for example, Briatore is described as "colourful" (presumably "grade A cunt" was cut by the editors).

The book is interesting, but the format grates after a while and I can't say I came away with an increased respect for Ross Brawn, I'm afraid. Maybe it lets a little too much light into magic, or maybe I'm just jaded.


Reading - January 2018

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
I last read this for English Literature O Level, which gives you a rough idea of how long ago. Obviously the broad plot is well known, but perhaps it's no surprise then that I remember so little of the details. It's a classic, of course, and I enjoyed reading it enough, but I can't say that I thought it was amazing.
Total Competition: Lessons In Strategy From Formula One by Ross Brawn & Adam Parr (2016)
All is fair in love, war and Formula One, apparently.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 05)
What If? by Randall Munroe (2014)
A very enjoyable collection of the online column in which the xkcd head honcho takes illogical questions to logical extremes, usually ending with the annihilation of the world.


Solo of the Month #32

Although I love playing the guitar, I'm not a big fan of "guitar music", by which I mean the Steve Vai's of this world. However exciting the playing and sound, it has to be in the context of a good song, because outside of that, it's all a bit meaningless. As a result, there aren't many guitarists of whom I would say I was a big fan, and who I've tried to emulate. However, there's a few whose playing I've absorbed more than others, purely by dint of listening to music that features them, and probably none more than Larry Carlton.

Carlton is not widely known outside the guitar fraternity, but a legend within it, for his tone, taste and timing. In particular for me, it's his playing you can hear in much of Steely Dan's later seventies work (although they used lots of guitarists) and especially Donald Fagen's superb solo album from 1982, The Nightfly. He's the very essence of a supporting playing, enhancing the music rather than showcasing his ability. Listen to "New Frontier" or "Ruby Baby" and marvel at how the guitar winds around the performance, never intrusive but always beautifully judged.

So when this month's Solo of the Month backing track turned up, a clever pastiche combining, to my ears, the two Fagen tracks named above, there wasn't really much else I could hear over it other than Larry Carlton's elegant phrasing. Unfortunately, it's a very difficult style to pull off well, and also it's very easy for me to fall into default phrasing. I tried to think of something completely different but failed.

As a result, I felt like I struggled with this one and I'm not hugely happy with the it. Because of its jazzy feel, it's not a straightforward minor pentatonic and since that's where my knowledge of theory largely ends, I can only do things by ear. I copped a few licks from looking at tab from "New Frontier", then played over the backing track again and again until something started to emerge. As a result, it's a bit of a mix of my standard licks and others. There's lots of space because I felt that's what it needed - and if you listen to Carlton playing on those tracks, that's what he's doing too, so I think that's his influence. If I'd had more time, I would have done it again, because the timing's not particularly good in places, but it's OK.

I recorded it using the Yamaha SA2200's neck pickup, straight from the amp with no effects. I added a little eq (small boost around 5K, removed the bottom end) and added a rather nice "Studio A" reverb from Acon CM Verb (free with Computer Music) for some subtle air. Bit of balancing and here it is: