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.