30 August 2009
There's much excitement in the music industry at the upcoming release of the remastered Beatles catalogue on CD. For people who own the earlier CD issues, there is some incentive to buy: there's a documentary on the first pressings, and the remastering has been carried out sensitively to enhance the sound without changing the music, according to Mojo magazine.
I can't help thinking they've missed a marketing trick here, though. At the moment, your choices are to buy the albums individually, or to buy a box set of them all for about £200.
What I'd really like to see is a subscription model. What if you could subscribe to The Beatles Remasters, and receive a new one in the post each month for a year? That works for the record label because it can effectively spread the cost of selling a high-ticket item, and so get more sales. It's also good for sales forecasting because the company knows how long the subscription will run for (14 albums). It would be an opportunity for EMI to build direct relationships with customers too, increasingly important at a time when record shops are going to the wall. For customers, it would be a great experience, particularly if accompanied by additional bonuses, such as notes on the Beatles timeline around that release, or period reviews - both cheap to produce.
Retailers could have stepped into this space too, but as far as I (and Google) know, nobody is doing this.
I wonder whether the record industry considered this and discounted it, or whether they it became locked into the old ways of selling music. That hasn't done them many favours in the recent past.
(Don't mind this: swp54kqdah)
01 July 2009
If you've been following me on Twitter, you might have seen that I've just signed a book contract. It's a non-fiction book that will be coming out early next year and I'll have more details to share soon.
In the meantime, I'm starting a free email magazine. Once a month, I'll write a short newsletter about interesting stuff I've found online. I'm looking forward to writing some snippets about online games, music reviews and so on and I'm hoping that the newsletter can work as a publication in its own right.
It will also provide me with an opportunity to tell people about my books when they come out, and hopefully to help start word of mouth around them where appropriate. The email newsletter will also enable me to keep in touch with people who don't visit this website regularly or don't subscribe to the RSS feeds or Twitter feed, but the focus will very much be on adding value. I want this to be a publication that people enjoy receiving and reading.
If you'd like to subscribe (thank you!), there's a form on the right hand side of this page right now. Just enter your name and email address, and (optionally) let me know what content you're most interested in on this site. When you click the button, you'll be sent an email with a link in it. You need to click that link to confirm your subscription, to make sure that people don't sign others up.
If you previously subscribed to one of my mailing lists, I'll drop you a line, but please do sign up using the form if you've got a couple of seconds. It'll save me a lot of time! Thank you!
27 June 2009
Most people who are into pop music have a Michael Jackson memory. Michael Jackson's "Bad" was one of the first tapes I had, and one of the albums I came back to when writing UoD. Back in 1987, I remember listening to the singles from it on the Radio 1 roadshow, while I was writing Amstrad games in the school holidays. I also remember myself and my brother being allowed to watch the then-new video for "Thriller" when a friend of my parents brought it around on a VHS.
I didn't expect Jackson to do his 50 gigs at the O2, but I didn't expect him to die either, so it's a bit of a shock to hear he's gone. In the same way that my parents' generation remember where they were when Kennedy and Lennon died, many in my generation will remember where they were when they heard that Jackson had died.
For the music industry, the passing of Michael Jackson must have been a day of mixed emotions. As a performer, he was electric. His dancing was so distinctive that many videos showed him in silhouette. Who else can get away with that? "Thriller" is the best selling album of all time (and probably always will be), and Jackson is one of a handful of performers who are cultural icons.
On the other hand, I'm willing to bet the Jackson records are on display prominently in every record shop this weekend. For a music business that's struggling to adapt to the new online economy, the sales boost that comes with a major star's death will be seen as welcome by some. Yesterday, Jackson had the top seven bestselling albums on iTunes, and held about 10-20% of the top 100 song downloads.
It's always struck me as odd the way record sales peak after a star's death. The fans already have the records, so these sales are driven by people who just never got around to buying the albums for the last twenty years or so, and then suddenly decide they quite liked some of them when the star dies.
Social networks played a big part in spreading the news of Jackson's death, and people's reactions to it. When Princess Diana died, online social networks weren't around as we know them today. Because most of my friends shared their views on Jackson's death, through status updates in Facebook and tweets on Twitter, it felt like a shared experience. As Jackson sang, "You are not alone".
Both The Times and The Telegraph leaped upon the Twitter feed of UK foreign secretary David Miliband, in which he said: "Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael." Only, it wasn't the real foreign secretary. It can be difficult to validate celebrity Twitter feeds (Valebrity attempts to fill that gap, and Twitter has started to validate some accounts itself). But a little common sense goes a long way. Some of the tweets from the fake Miliband include:
Another idea from Eyebrows, sack all the drivers and use McDonalds staff instead. He reckons Reagan would have done it. No Al!Many of the other tweets are gently satirical, but there are enough clues there for a journalist to work out they're looking at a fake. Even with the complexity of identity today, and the way that many people will have a professional and informal persona in different places, journalists are supposed to be skilled at fact checking. It's one of the ways they can add value in a world where information is increasingly free. If they can't filter the fakers from our own government ministers, how can we trust anything else they write?
09 June 2009
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Jean-Michel Jarre at Wembley Arena for a show that combined the best of his back catalogue with the spirit of last year's Oxygene tour. You can read my review of Jarre's 2009 tour here.
04 May 2009
I've just published an extended version of an article I wrote for a general interest magazine recently. The article is about how the record industry can fight back at a time when sales of recorded music are falling, and the industry has lost its monopoly on reproduction and distribution.
The article uses examples from Marillion, Radiohead, Prince, Nine Inch Nails, U2, Oasis, Depeche Mode, Erasure and others to show how the landscape is changing, and highlights the need to create fulfilling experiences around the music.
I wanted to do something 'serious' using some of the research I gathered while writing University of Death, so this piece is a snapshot of the challenges the industry faces today and some of the recent changes and innnovations it's seen.
30 March 2009
Prince has just launched his new website, Lotusflow3r.com. He's had a few websites over the years - one was a club website, where subscribers were posted some exclusive CDs throughout the year; another was a virtual shop, but the music was all DRM-crippled, so there are lots of reports of people who aren't able to play the music they've bought any more.
The new site has a somewhat vague proposition: $77 buys you downloads of the new triple album (which is retailing for $12 in the US, price in the UK to be determined), plus a t-shirt and early news of forthcoming gigs. There are said to be videos too, but it's unlikely you can download them, and there's no indication of how often they'll be updated. I'm not convinced, to be honest. And I'm a massive Prince fan.
The biggest mistake, though, is that Prince has overestimated how important his website is to other people. He expects people to spend a lot of time playing with a tricksy interface just to hand over their money. If you want to register, you have to mouse over and click things until you hit a 60x30 pixel image which opens this:
Aha! That looks like my ticket in. But what do I type into the boxes? There are no clues - you have to keep typing in things until you get it right. The answer is to close the ticket again, go and watch the video on the telly on the homepage, and then type in '1986' and 'Los Angeles'.
Why make people do that? Was it a fun experience? Not particularly. Did it make it easier to get to the real site content? Absolutely not.
If you're selling something, whether it's music or shoes, you've got to make it as easy as possible for people to buy. Just get them to bash in their contact details, their credit card details, and then let them get on with their lives. The content is supposed to be the entertainment. Not the interface.
(For more tips on creating successful websites, see my book Small Business Websites That Work).
09 March 2009
The Independent newspaper gave away the album "Better Than Heavy" by Mongrel on Saturday. It's billed as "A CD that makes history", the first time that a band has launched itself by distributing its debut album with a newspaper. The album itself is a hybrid of hip-hop and indie, and boasts 16 rappers on the track "Alphabet Assassins".
This development isn't quite as amazing as the Independent might have us believe. The group is made up from members of Arctic Monkeys, Babyshambles, and Reverend and the Makers. So the giveaway has a strong promotional hook inside the conventional record industry.
The model of distributing music for free with newspapers does threaten the conventional music industry. As the focus shifts towards the live experience, the value of recorded music is falling. But until newspapers start taking the risk of breaking genuinely new bands, that nobody has ever heard of, there will always be a place for the record label. A brave newspaper could take on the role of breaking new talent, but for now it's the name on the CD that sells the newspaper, and not the other way around.
(There's much more about the future of the music industry in my novel University of Death.)
23 December 2008
Okay, so calling it a single is perhaps a little bit of a stretch. But I've uploaded a piece of music I've written for the first time today, and I'd be delighted if you downloaded it and let me know what you think. It's called 'We work to earn our sleep' (a title which will be familiar to you if you've read 'University of Death'), and it's about two minutes long. The download includes an Easter Egg, too. I've created this track using a sample-based music tool, so it's different to the music I usually write using a guitar and piano.
Feel free to leave any comments in this thread. I'd like to release more of my music in 2009 (which is highly unlikely to sound like this track, incidentally), so this is partly an experiment to see whether this is a good way to share music and get feedback on work in progress.
22 October 2008
I think I just saw Lucy from My Life Story outside Sainsburys in Chiswick. After walking past, I looked over my shoulder to see if she had a violin case. But she didn't. Anyway, it prompted me to put April 1st on the iPod, which jollied my walk along.
Normally, I only see Rula Lenska.
For a limited time, you can download this new Black track (released online yesterday) for free. Colin's site still has the live album for free download too, including great interpretations of the hits Wonderful Life and Everything's Coming Up Roses.
30 September 2008
In the first of what I hope will be a regular monthly feature, let me bring some summertime into your life. British Summer Time is the new album from Sundae Club, and it's available for free download. I met the guys from Sundae Club at an ExileInside gig a few years back, so I was intrigued to see this album get a free release.
Hamstall Ridware from the band says: "It's a timely and spacey trip through the gates of a '60s airport with a Viscount sitting ready on the runway to transport you, the lucky traveller to rural Gloucestershire (the song Pies); to the industrial Midlands of 1950s Coventry (The Doddler) and 1970s Birmingham (Honey Bee); to the Far East of India and China via Germany (The Travel Trilogy) calling in on a New York apartment with flimsy walls (New Neighbours) and back home to Blighty. It's not so much Downtempo Lounge as all-tempo Departure Lounge."
Regarding the strategy of releasing the album for free, he adds: "The production costs of our first album 'Technostalgia' were high because we decided to use expensive packaging, so it took a fair few sales before we broke even. We decided to release this as a free download but invite donations in a Radiohead format. In fairness, about 60% of the people who have downloaded it have donated (donations range between £1 and 12) so we're already in profit... Except that even MP3 production costs aren't free really are they? You have to factor in the cost of the studio, equipment, time, music lessons etc etc! The idea is to assess demand for a 'hard' version of it and press-up another nice CD or even vinyl if we think we can sell enough."
For other acts looking to promote themselves, Ridware has some tips on what works. "Passing the word around on our mailing lists and blagging slots on radio shows [work well]," he says. "MySpace and Facebook once you've sorted out all the kids who just want to collect 'friends' and crap studios offering their services etc... We're featured in the US as incidental music on a web-based American Football show and there have been a few spin-offs from a track we wrote for a French singer who sold 450,000 copies of an album with one of our compositions on it."
The album's fabulous and I recommend you whizz over to the Sundae Club website to download your copy today!
If you've got any tip-offs for future free albums for this blog series (only legal stuff, please), why not drop me a line?
27 September 2008
I've downloaded iTunes 8, mainly for the grid viewing feature. This enables you to view your music collection by thumbnails. You wouldn't think it would make much difference, but it is a lot quicker to scroll through than cover flow view is, and it makes it possible to see more than 10 albums at a time. It makes the artwork into a much stronger navigation aid, and makes the artwork easier to appreciate too. It's already prompted me to play a few EPs that I don't very often listen to. Here's what it looks like:
However, there's a big drawback with iTunes 8. It turns all your music into an advert for the iTunes store. When you are viewing track listings, it adds an arrow next to each artist, album and track name which searches the iTunes store when clicked. In the typical 'list view' screen, you could have about 100 tiny advert arrows. These have always been "a feature" in iTunes, but now they've removed the tickbox that lets you switch them off.
Okay, so the software upgrade was free. But I've bought two new iPods over the years and the software is required to make them work. I've paid enough money to Apple to expect that the software would come 'free' and not become 'ad supported' in future.
From a usability point of view, it's terrible. With 100+ adverts on screen, it's easy to click one by mistake, which results in iTunes connecting (slowly) to the iTunes store and taking you away from whatever you're doing.
Interesting to note that there's no mention of this forced advertising on Apple's What's new page, and that it isn't even shown in the screenshot they have there.
Blog The Glitch has a technical hack for this problem. For some reason, there were two versions of the preference file on my machine, but it worked okay when I edited them both. It did leave the arrows on the current track playing, but you can get rid of those (and indeed all the arrows) by disabling the iTunes store as a whole in the parental options. So that's what I've done, too.
The end result? I'll probably buy a lot less music from Apple. There might be times when I enable the store again to shop there, but most of the music I've bought there has been from browsing through the store and coming across something unexpected. That'll stop. I'll also be much more suspicious of Apple software in general.
15 September 2008
Farewell then to Richard Wright, keyboard player and co-composer with Pink Floyd. He was instrumental in the creation of Wish You Were Here, probably my favourite album ever, and one I've always found myself drawn back to since I first heard it in 1989. Last year on David Gilmour's tour, it was a real thrill to hear him perform Floyd's debut single 'Arnold Layne' with fellow Floydies Gilmour on guitar and Mason on drums. The politics of the band probably stopped him contributing as much as he was able, but his tracks 'See Saw' and 'Remember a Day' are as fine as anything Waters and Barrett wrote in the psychedelic era. He's best known for contributing 'Us and them' and instrumental 'The great gig in the sky' to 'Dark Side of the Moon' as a songwriter, but he had a big influence on all the truly great Floyd albums from 'Piper' through 'Meddle' and 'Dark Side', through to 'The Division Bell'. There's no folklore surrounding Rick as there was with Floyd's first front man Syd, but Richard Wright leaves behind a rich body of music that will inspire many of us for decades to come.
11 September 2008
Anyone else get Paul Young's 1983 album No Parlez with the Mail this week, and think that track 8 sounds like the music from Animal Crossing on the DS? Oh, right. Just me, then.
05 August 2008
I've read a few reviews online of Guitar Hero on Tour and the new Korg DS-10 synthesizer for the DS, and there have been several uncertainties, which I can clear up.
Guitar Hero on Tour for the DS is great, first of all. The medium difficulty level is perhaps not challenging enough - I've only got through the first 12 or so songs, but I've completed them all on the first attempt. The hard level is a whole league more difficult, so the game levels aren't quite pitched right. But gameplay feels natural and the songs I've played so far are all good fun. I was surprised that I did know some of the songs although I didn't recognise them from the titles in the song list. The fret buttons plug into the GBA socket. One review I read said that it keeps falling out and is too small for adult fans, but when the support strap is properly tightened, I've had no problems at all and the buttons are the right size for my grown-up fingers. Playing with two hands (the other hand strums on the touch screen with the plectrum provided) feels natural and more engaging than simple two-handed button-based gameplay. If you've enjoyed the previous incarnations of the game, this feels like a home from home. If not, it's as good a place as any to start.
Secondly, Korg DS-10 does indeed support English by default. In fact, it doesn't appear to support any other languages. It's only available in Japan at the moment, and reportedly only available through Amazon in Japan, which is making it quite expensive to import. The manual is only in Japanese, but you should be able to muddle through okay - I've had no problems understanding the basics of the interface, although I still need to work out how to use the sequencer. So if you're up for some DS music making, you can import it with confidence. I previously previewed the Korg DS-10 here.
03 August 2008
There was a good family atmosphere at this week's Kylie Minogue concerts at the O2. Before she came on stage, the cameras were pointed at the audience, prompting the kids to giggle at their faces on the giant screen and the twentysomethings to flash their gold hotpants. With the mix tape playing before the show, and the crowd involved from their arrival, it felt more more like a baseball game than a concert. Perhaps that's because I usually go to rock concerts, and this was the best in pop music.
If any proof were needed of Kylie's broad appeal, you only needed to visit the merchandise stand. Goodies ranged from sticker sheets at a pocket-money friendly £2, up to signed coffee table books weighing in at £250. Every purchase came with a 1.2ml sample bottle of her latest perfume. She isn't just a singer, she's a brand.
And she's always been an actress, of course. There are brief moments where you see a flicker of something in her face that quickly fades, and you're left wondering how much of the real Kylie came out to play tonight.
I've seen Kylie before, back in 1997 when she was writing songs with the Manic Street Preachers and lost her core audience for a while. That was at the Shepherds Bush Empire, and a very different production to tonight's show.
At the O2, the scale of the show was much bigger. There were dancers and acrobats, glitter cannons, and balloons falling from the ceiling with Kylie's name on each one. Video screens behind the performers and under their feet across the whole stage made each mini-set look different. There were seven costume changes, including Kylie as a cheerleader while the dancers were American Footballers, and Kylie flying in on a giant silver skull wearing a red uniform.
The setlist concentrated on her latest album X, which is no bad thing. It's a strong album, with the opening track Speakerphone, the singles Wow and 2 Hearts, and the album tracks Like A Drug and In My Arms being as strong as anything she's released before. The track Nudity didn't quite work, but it was the only misfire. The rest of the songs were drawn mainly from the albums of the noughties, which made for a consistent disco-led set. When the drums kicked in on an extended version of Slow, it was particularly powerful and I enjoyed hearing Love Boat, Can't Get You Out Of My Head, and Love At First Sight.
The unaccompanied introduction to Step Back In Time reminded us all she can really sing. This show was a proper live gig, with the exception of a playback rap on Shocked which masked a costume change while Kylie was backstage. Shocked and I Should Be So Lucky were rare concessions to the past, and the Deconstruction years were overlooked. I had hoped to hear Confide In Me, which would have brought a nice contrast to the set.
For all the show-womanship, the production was really about live music. The band was tight (including Kim Wilde's sister on backing vocals, trivia fans), and Kylie focused on the vocals. Her own dance moves were relatively limited to avoid exhaustion, where others before her have often chosen to mime instead. The whole show was uplifting and positive. Good, honest, family fun.
05 July 2008
|What I meant to blog about||What I would have said|
|Sticking Space Invaders to my wall||They look awesome, but it's very fiddly unfurling them if they stick to themselves. Get some but be careful.|
|Seeing David Gilmour and Ron Geesin perform Atom Heart Mother||The extended sections were great and the choir and brass sounded fantastic. It was a thrill to be one of just 900 to witness David Gilmour perform this for the first and probably only time during my own lifetime.|
|Seeing Roger Waters perform Dark Side of the Moon at the O2||Great show, but odd since the star only plays bass on most of it. The solo stuff worked better in many cases. After trying to get a ticket for months and only being offered crap seats, I picked up a first class seat two days before the gig, through Ticketmaster. 'Sold out' gigs are never really sold out.|
|Ripping vinyl||Some great stuff has never been issued on CD, including a lot of Prince 12"s. Being able to move music between media like this and enjoy the sounds I paid for some years ago is a good argument against DRM. Use Audacity.|
|Ripping tapes||Having a tape deck fitted in to your PC is the next big thing. For former walkman fans like me, it's an easy way to digitise all those albums I bought on tape and haven't re-bought on CD yet, and all those home recordings I made. I won my tape deck in a joke competition.|
|Gardening||We've got an allotment now. It started off with knee-high grass all over it, but we're slowly reclaiming it. This year we're growing courgettes, sweetcorn, cabbages, and rhubarb there, and in the garden we have squash, tomatoes and herbs. Cats are evil.|
|The novel World War Z by Max Brooks||This account of the Zombie war is written as a series of interviews with survivors. While the lack of a central hero or recurring character means it jumps around a lot, it is a great way to convey the scale of a planet under siege. An engrossing story, and an interesting format for fiction.|
13 June 2008
I was excited when I heard about Korg developing a synthesiser program for the Nintendo DS, but yesterday I got a chance to see and hear it in action at the London International Music Show. I can confirm it's very cool. It wasn't officially on display on the Korg stand, but a gentleman called Tatsuki was kind enough to demonstrate his own pre-production copy of it, which looked like it had been burned onto a generic homebrew card.
There have been other instruments created for the DS before, but this is arguably the first that has been designed to work for solo performance (unlike Jam Sessions). You can create loops (including basic drum loops), and sequence different patterns to build up more complex pieces of music. Most importantly, you can save your creations to the card. Using wi-fi, you can apparently play with up to eight others and share sounds, although my understanding was that they would need to have their own cards too.
The sound was extremely high quality. It was being amplified through decent speakers at the show, but it sounded crystal clear and much like I'd expect an original MS-10 from 1978 to sound. Not that I have a great idea of what that's supposed to sound like, but I mean that it sounded like an instrument and not like a toy.
The synth appears to use the interface well. When you patch the effects, for example, you touch one socket and drag a cable to another socket to patch them together. The touchpad can be used as a Kaoss pad emulator, which bends the sounds playing according to how you stroke the touchpad, and adds a bit more of a human touch.
Here's my photo from the show:
It's due for launch towards the end of July, but won't be getting a UK launch unfortunately. So I guess I'll have to import it.
If you want to know what it sounds like, check out the sample song on the official website. There were bits in there that sounded like parts of Oxygene.
Speaking of which, the show took place at Excel in Docklands, built on the site where Jean-Michel Jarre held his Docklands concert in 1988. I hadn't been back there in twenty years, and it was strangely moving to see the Millennium Mills building still standing proud on the other side of the docks.
11 May 2008
I've always been a keen magazine reader, the kind of person who checks the news-stands every day to see what's new and writes the on-sale dates of some magazines in his diary. Back in the 80s, I read Crash and Amstrad Action avidly; in the 90s, I bought either Melody Maker or NME each week (and often both); and today I read the glossy monthly music mags. One of my favourites is Record Collector, so I'm thrilled that they've published a four-star review of my novel 'University of Death' in the latest issue.
"Raising a number of surprisingly sophisticated issues, this book is enjoyably cynical about the seemingly cold-hearted and impenetrable nature of the record industry and peppered with a number of highly comical cameos from the cream of rock'n'roll, which ensures that it never feels like heavy going."
- Lewis Heritage, books reviewer, Record Collector magazine issue 350 (June 2008)
Record Collector is one of the magazines I trust to tell me about music and books I'll want to read, and it's one I look forward to consulting each month, so I really am delighted that their writer enjoyed my book and has recommended it to other readers.
29 March 2008
U23D is the first live action 3D Imax movie, and it captures the band in concert in Argentina on the Vertigo tour. After a dazzling few introductory minutes where the shots chopped and changed too quickly for my eyes to focus, the filming settled down and it was magical. You have access all areas: in the front row, on stage with the band and high above the crowd.
When you fly over the drumkit, it's clear enough to see the pulsating ripples in Larry's orange drink. When the camera flies back over the audience, you feel as if you're among them, watching Larry drum on one platform while Bono sings from another.
Pop video effects are used well, with shots fading into each other at different perspective levels. Mercifully, they've resisted the temptation to do too much 3D 'trickery'. There's an effective sequence where Bono reaches out his hand to you, and another at the end where the big-screen visuals fly in your face, but the effects help immerse you in the experience, rather than detracting from its realism, as is often the case with 3D films.
The 80-minute show draws on the band's whole back catalogue, including a surprise appearance of 'Miss Sarajevo', with Bono singing Pavarotti's lines brilliantly. The three songs from the band's most recent album 'How to dismantle an atomic bomb' were thrilling even though I didn't know them before seeing the film. My favourite U2 era of 'Achtung Baby' gets a good showing, but I surprised myself at how moved I was by some of the older stuff. I'd forgotten how much I liked songs like 'New Year's Day' and 'Pride' until the iconic riffs kicked in.
I saw the film in London at the BFI Imax, and it's running for another week there. I strongly recommend you go. Here's an official taster of what's on offer...
27 March 2008
Following the removal of several videos from youtube that (I believe) showed fans playing Jean-Michel Jarre's music on a keyboard, he's gone on record to say that the videos were not spiked at his request. He says fans are now free to adapt, edit and perform his work providing they give him credit. The terms of this are a bit vague - he just asks everyone to play fair, which presumably means you need to add value with your reproduction, and need to give him credit.
This is a landmark announcement: Jarre has recognised not only the power of the web to distribute content, but also the way it enables artists to engage creatively with other musicians who happen to be fans. Bands often invite fans to post widgets that stream music to their blogs under the band's control, but rarely do they cede this much creative control. It'll be interesting to see what works this announcement inspires. He's offering a prize for the three best works to emerge before the current tour ends, too.
24 March 2008
On Thursday, I went to see The Cure at Wembley. The sound suffered from apparently having no full time keyboard player (although, with nearly all the lights behind the band, pointing out at the crowd, they could have had a shire horse on stage and I wouldn't have seen it from where I was). On a couple of songs there were samples or keyboards, but the setup was basically two guitars, bass and drums. It gave a raw edge to songs like 'Never enough' and 'Love cats', with the drums really driving it, but the pace was relentless. On past tours, slower and more subtle songs like 'Apart' and the slow version of 'Close to me' have given the set more shape and variety. Songs like 'Hot hot hot' and 'Why can't I be you' sounded extremely sparse with all the synths and horns stripped away. With the sound being so basic, it was hard to get into many of the new songs (although, to be fair, many of them were probably just new to me).
Can't fault the choice of songs, though: Opening with 'Plainsong', playing a rocked-up version of 'Push', 'Prayers for rain' including a long howl of 'Raaaaiiiiin', and pretty much all the hits present and correct. 'Lullaby' and 'Friday I'm in love' got a raucous reception, and it was slightly surreal to see The Cure being treated by many of those around me as a party band.
One of the jokes in 'University of Death' is about how people never buy music just for music - it's always an accompaniment to something else, and at the last few gigs I've been to, there have been lots of people who were 'only here for the beer'. If you're chatting through 'Prayers for rain', you're in the wrong gig. Perhaps instead of limiting demand by pushing ticket prices ever higher, we should make concert-goers sit exams about the bands they want to see? After all, we consider it reasonable to make people sit exams for schools, universities and jobs, where there's far more at stake. Who could possibly object to five multiple choice questions on Disintegration before being allowed to buy a Cure ticket?
23 February 2008
I had my first interview about my novel 'University of Death' yesterday. It was a strange experience being on the other end of the interview: usually, I'm the one trying to pose questions that will make the interviewee stop and really think hard about giving an original answer. This time, I was the one thinking 'gosh - didn't expect to be asked that'.
Although there were surprises, it wasn't too difficult. The journalist was well prepared and extremely professional. She gave me time to answer without interrupting and left a nice long pause after I'd replied to check I really had finished speaking (just like I do when I'm doing interviews).
I gabbled away no problem, but at the end had a suspicion that I hadn't answered the question some of the time. It's easy to do: you get so carried away with all the stuff you could say, that you fail to bring it back to why you started talking about that stuff in the first place. I was caught in the middle of a writing deadline frenzy when the phone rang, which didn't help, but for the next one (he says, presumptiously), I'll try to slow down and speak much more in 'bullet points'. And I'll use a notepad so I can write down the question at the start to make sure I'm actually answering it.
One of the questions I was asked was whether I'd been in a band before and whether that's where the whole 'struggling band' storyline came from. I hadn't expected that.
I was in a band at university for about a term, but none of us took it very seriously. There were four or five of us, and we had nothing in common except that we all wanted to play at least one gig. We used to rehearse in my tiny campus bedroom (without the drummer).
There was a singer called Zoe, a guitarist called Richard, a drummer we borrowed from another band, and me on keyboards. There might have been someone else - I can't remember. We played in the students' union bar on a 'band club' night, and there were probably about 30 people there. We only played covers: 'Thinking about you' by Radiohead, 'Weather with you' by Crowded House, 'More than Words' by Extreme, 'Twist in my sobriety' by Tanita Tikaram and 'Wish you were here' by Pink Floyd. You could have called us lots of things, but 'punk' wasn't one of them. The setlist was a distillation of what four people with nothing in common could agree on, and what we could reasonably attempt with our limited talent. We put as much imagination into our name as we did the setlist: we went out as a covers band called 'Blanket'.
I remember it being too dark to see the keys properly, and remember my fingers being sweaty and sliding on the keyboard. But once we'd got through the first song (can't remember which it was) and got some applause, it all got a lot easier.
At the end, this guy came up to me and told me that 'Wish you were here' was his favourite song ever. That made me nervous. I knew I'd fumbled one of the notes at the start and I knew how I felt about my favourite songs: pretty defensive. "Thanks for playing it," he said. "I love that song and I've never heard it live before. That was brilliant." He'd had a few, but he meant it. We'd made his night. And he'd made mine.
My experience was completely different to the performers in the novel. I wasn't good enough to wing it, so I had to concentrate on what I'd practised and repeat that. The characters in my novel (even those jamming in obscurity) are all talented musicians, who can play intuitively and really relax into a performance and turn it into something creative, feeding off the energy of the crowd. In many ways, Simon's band Goblin is an ambassador for all those fantastic bands on MySpace who have about 50 fans and who deserve a bigger audience that just isn't there for them.
I didn't tell the journalist all this. I just told her I was in a band at uni, but we didn't take it very seriously and we weren't very good. But maybe, for that one night, we were good enough. If that guy heard his favourite song played live, and it made him feel something, then perhaps the odd bum note and complete lack of chemistry on the stage don't matter. If you're in the audience, half the gig's in your head anyway: it's about how you respond to the music, and the thoughts and feelings it evokes in you.
University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now
03 February 2008
I meant to write this before Christmas, but didn't get around to it. Now I have...
The red and white lights of cars travelling on the Champs-Elysees combined with the blue Christmas lights in the trees to make a twinkling French flag. My schoolboy French and a swift internet browser had got me ticket number 94 to see Jean-Michel Jarre performing Oxygene in Paris. As I approached the theatre, near Place de la Concorde where Jarre entertained a million in 1979, there were spotlights reaching up from the theatre's pillars, reminiscent of the lights used at Docklands.
I collected my ticket. As the man on the desk whistled Oxygene IV to himself, I studied the cardboard model of the auditorium. I was in row four. Not bad. Not bad at all. The theatre sat 1000 and was a surprisingly intimate venue for a musician more noted for using skyscrapers as projection screens.
The 45 minute ambient piece 'Waiting for Cousteau' was played in the foyer and theatre before the show. There were a few familiar faces from the Teo & Tea showcase in the audience, which I attended in March.
When the curtain went up, there was an egg shaped chair on the stage which spun around to show JMJ sat on it. It was a nice entrance, but there was no reaction from the audience until he spoke. The weird thing about theatre gigs is that people treat them like plays, and only clap at the end of the acts or when prompted. He delivered a spoken introduction (in French, but with a short English greeting to foreign visitors), brought on the band, and then set up at one of the banks of synthesisers.
There's always been an element of, shall we say... 'computer assisted performance' about a JMJ gig. Quite a few fans maintain that the Teo & Tea showcase was mimed, although it felt pretty real to me at the time. The full spectacle of the typical Jarre concert could only be achieved using some kind of computer synchronisation, but I choose to believe the music is mostly live, most of the time. With your favourite bands, as with religion, faith is everything.
For this show, there would be no fancy slideshows or lasers to hide behind: just a lot of analogue instruments and four musicians. It's trendy for bands to play albums from start to finish at the moment, but that robs the set of most surprises. For Oxygene, one of the first albums I owned, it was good to hear the spontaneity in this performance. Three new variations were included too, which were previously only released on DVD, and the whole set was concluded with one of the tracks from the 1997 sequel album to Oxygene.
At one point, a mirror was lowered over the stage so that everybody could see what was being played. It was odd to see the bass notes on the right hand side of the keyboards, but it reinforced the feeling that this was real. During the show, Jean-Michel played a theramin, some kind of weird stick instrument and a number of other instruments and synths. When he played, he concentrated hard. There was the feeling that this was a show where he was taking real risks and things could go wrong.
The crowd cheered for Oxygene IV, which was an odd reaction. I would have thought any real fan would be mostly tired of it by now (as I am), and would prefer the more mellow Oxygene II and Oxygene VI. But the hit single did sound fresh and the bassline was hypnotic.
Last year, Jarre released a re-recording of Oxygene, including a DVD edition that filmed the performance in 3D and provided red and green glasses for watching it. The 3D effects were fun but gave me a headache after a while. The film (also available in a flat version on the 3D disc and separately) is a fine memento of the show I saw. Alongside the DVD edition, a single CD edition of the re-recording was released.
JMJ's now announced that he's going to tour this production worldwide, with gigs announced in the UK, Denmark and Belgium. To promote this, he released the Oxygene re-recording for free with the Mail on Sunday the other week. It's an approach that Prince tried with his new studio album, but it seems JMJ's trying to have his cake and eat it. This isn't previously unavailable material, as Prince's album was: it's a CD that was released for sale just eight weeks ago. Those who bought the album in December are going to be a bit miffed to find it's available for free now. There might well be shops carrying stock that is now virtually worthless too, given that you can buy the CD on Ebay cheaper than you could have bought the newspaper. (The DVD content is still exclusively available through retail).
Newspapers have a unique channel for distributing millions of copies of an album. I'm pleased that some of my favourite acts can reach new audiences this way, but isn't it time for newspapers to start being a bit more creative? The day that an up-and-coming band releases its album for free through a newspaper, and the newspaper has the vision to recognise the opportunity there, will be a scary day for the music industry. Until then, giveaways are basically publicity stunts and artists should be careful whose hand they bite.
More from Jean-Michel Jarre
16 December 2007
I lost count of the number of copies I bought of My Life Story's debut album 'Mornington Crescent'. I used to give them to friends all the time. I was an evangelist for the band. But while many of my friends were converted to disciples, others didn't quite get it. Despite having great songs and arrangements, the album didn't quite capture the band's energy or the sophistication of the live sound. It works much better as a souvenir of the live show, than it does as a promotion for it.
When the band split up seven years ago, it was the end of an era. In the preceding five years, I'd seen the band dozens of times. I was at three of the four 'Month of Sundays' gigs at Dingwalls. I spent three New Years Eves with the band, and was with them for election night in 1997, when a swingometer was used to pick the songs that would be played. If there was a gig taking place in London (or as far away as Bedford), then I was either there or out of the country. Support slots (and co-headlines) introduced me to Kenickie, Babybird, Bikini Beach Band, Gretschen Hofner, Orlando and many more great acts. Inevitably, I was at all of the three consecutive gigs that brought the curtain down in December 2000.
After My Life Story, Jake started a new band called ExileInside. In contrast to My Life Story's trademark orchestral sound, the ExileInside albums were more synth and guitar-led, designed to be played by a four piece rock band. There were hints of this direction on the final MLS studio album, where the orchestra didn't play on some of the tracks. I caught most of the London ExileInside shows too, and they were great. But there was no doubt it was a new band: they weren't about to burst into 'Motorcade', less still something like 'Garden Fence Affair' or 'Megaphone Theology'.
Last year, Jake reunited My Life Story to play a one-off gig. The atmosphere was overwhelming. So many people had waited so long to hear that My Life Story sound again.
This Thursday, My Life Story played their only gig this year at Shepherd's Bush Empire. The gig marked the coming together of ExileInside and My Life Story when Jake performed an acoustic set drawing on both back catalogues as his own support. It reflected the 'Month of Sundays' where the string quartet played a set before one of the MLS gigs, and also brought ExileInside to a wider audience. Accompanied by a synth piano, cello and his own guitar, Jake played MLS classics 'Claret' and 'You Can't Uneat the Apple' alongside ExileInside songs 'Antiques', 'Butterfly Wings' and 'ExileInside'. Apart from a short acoustic interlude in one of the ExileInside gigs, it was (I think), the first time the new and old songs had been brought together like that.
The main show was as great a party as ever: 'History of the world on ice' was a treat, and all the classics were present and correct. 'Angel' (which sometimes sounds a bit scratchy live), sounded fantastic - perhaps the best I've heard. I was at the front for the whole show, and got a number 10 thrown by Rox into the audience during '12 Reasons Why'.
The only disappointment is that we're told there are no plans for future MLS gigs (which recent experience shows doesn't necessarily mean they won't happen), and there were no video cameras at the show. With the DVD link on Jake's new website, I was hoping this one would be filmed for posterity.
The good news is that there could be a solo tour in March, which is particularly welcome now that Jake is comfortable with playing the best from his whole back catalogue. By using the MLS brand name and fan loyalty, Jake can introduce new listeners to the ExileInside project. The first EI album is perhaps the best album he has created (even if many of his best songs are on other albums and b-sides), and deserves a wider audience. Until then, there's a new acoustic album out called 'Written Large' (the first album to be released under the name 'Jake Shillingford'). You can sample it on Jake's MySpace page here and order from the ExileInside website. There I go, evangelising again. Some things never change.
- Sean's My Life Story photos
- My ExileInside interview
- My Life Story interview
- My Life Story E-single story
02 December 2007
University of Death's MySpace page is live, including some blog posts by Dove and a soundcheck recording from the Berlin gig. If you're on MySpace, please add University of Death as a friend.
The mini-site for the book is now live too. I'll let you know on this blog when I add new content to it.
07 November 2007
Prince is a genius, officially the second greatest mind working in rock and pop music (after Brian Eno), according to Creators Synectics, a global consultants firm. I've been a fan since 1989 and firmly believe he's our greatest living musician.
He works hard and deserves to profit from his creativity. He has a right to stop people making unauthorised copies of his music products. I wish he wouldn't stop people posting videos online, but he's in the right and they're in the wrong, so that's how it goes. It gets silly when he sues people for posting 30 second clips of their babies bouncing to 'Let's go Crazy', but I support his right to stop people posting his old music videos.
But what will he achieve by telling fan sites they can't use his photo any more? He probably doesn't even own the copyright to the photos (which will belong to the photographers, unless stipulated otherwise by contract, which it certainly won't have been in the case of fan photos). Surely it's taking the mickey to say they can't use images of album covers, given the sites exist purely to talk about his work? Demanding compensation from these sites, which are run by volunteers out of love for the man and his work, is ridiculous.
Following the media coverage, I hope he will focus his lawyers on genuine copyright infringements, rather than on legitimate use of materials for commentary and review. An artist like Prince, who has been more outspoken than most in his 30 year career, should appreciate the importance of free speech and support it. Copyright laws were not created to suppress commentary and should not be abused to do so.
You can show your support for the fansites at Prince Fans United.
30 October 2007
I pass this billboard on my way to work every day:
Ten years ago, someone like Gwen Stefani would have been promoting some variety of fizzy drink. This billboard, in which she becomes the face of HP printers, shows how artists are being creative in finding new revenue streams as CD sales fall. It's also interesting to see something as mundane as a printer being sold as stylish, in the way that the cars and alcohol on neighbouring billboards are. Apple's been in the furniture business for some time, selling computers on how they look rather than how they work, but they've been the exception rather than the rule.
This deal is a win-win because it enables Gwen to market her image without compromising her ideals (there's no junk food on her rider). HP benefits by associating Gwen's colourful image with its printers and drawing attention to them. I don't remember seeing an advert for rival printers on the street. Maybe HP's competitors don't even advertise because they don't have a campaign worth shouting about.
The Spice Girls have also struck a smart deal. They have sold half a million copies of their forthcoming greatest hits CD to pants firm Victoria's Secret. It's firm sale, so the shop can't return them if there's no demand. That's a pretty good pre-order level for a pop band that disappeared six years ago. Victoria's Secret benefits from some brand association, but more importantly will get customers coming into the shop to buy the CD who might never otherwise have stepped foot inside. I'm guessing that Spice Girls and posh pants customers are a similar demographic.
It seems everything is up for grabs in the music industry, with Radiohead even inspiring Sir Cliff Richard to experiment with demand-sensitive pricing. (Radiohead reportedly made $6 million on day one, incidentally). Madonna has followed Robbie Williams and signed a deal that combines touring and merchandising with music sales. For artists with their best (or at least most popular) work behind them, such deals are good business sense.
03 October 2007
Radiohead is letting fans decide how much they want to pay for the new album 'In Rainbows'. The 'honesty box' approach will enable the band to reach out to new listeners or lapsed fans, who might be prepared to buy the album for a few pounds but would never buy it as a new release CD. If people download it for a penny, Radiohead presumably makes a short term loss because of the cost of hosting the files and serving the sale. But the band has set no minimum price. You can download for free if you like. The band, like Prince and The Charlatans, presumably sees the merit in giving away music to build an audience for shows and other projects.
NME says its readers are planning to pay an average of a fiver, which reflects the true value of most albums in this post-Fopp and post-ebay era.
As well as the download, there is a box set that includes the album on vinyl, CD and download (wot, no tape?) along with artwork and extra tracks. That costs forty quid. Clearly this will become a desirable item and many will discover Radiohead's music later and want to acquire one, but I'm not sure how much the value of this item will climb from its already steep price. This package will enable the band to keep most of the value that usually goes into the dealers' pockets when genuine special editions are traded at record fairs.
This time there is no record label, so anything you pay Radiohead over and above the cost of sale is profit to the band. If I pay them three quid for the new album, that's probably a couple of quid more than they got when I bought each of their major label albums.
So why haven't I placed an order for the album yet? I've been a fan since the early days. 'Kid A' is one of my favourite albums ever - one of the few I can loop over and over again.
The problem is that there's no indication of what format the digital album will be in. Will it work with my iPod? Will I be restricted from copying to another iPod if I get one? Can I burn it to CD to play in the car? It might only last as long as Radiohead's website does. That happened with Prince's digital store - try reactivating any songs bought from him in Windows Media Player format, and they won't work because Prince turned off the authentication server when he redesigned his website. Fans who have acquired new computers or audio devices can no longer play the music they've bought on them.
If the Radiohead downloads are good quality MP3s, that's great. But they shouldn't really expect people to part with money and preorder an album without telling them where it will play and how it will work. I care about that more than the track names. The concept of a Radiohead album I understand - it's over 30 minutes of music by Radiohead, probably split into songs. What I need to know is whether it will work, and whether it will still work when I want to play it years later. In that sense, the vinyl's a much safer bet.
The album's out on Monday, so those who have taken the gamble will find out then what format's on offer, and the word will doubtless spread. Until then, buyer beware.
30 September 2007
A few years back, it seemed computer games were the new 'rock and roll'. Now, it seems rock and roll is the new 'computer games'. With Guitar Hero 3 in development, and axe meister Slash booked to write music for it, it seems everyone wants to play at rock god where once they played at spaceman and soldier.
Jam Sessions for the Nintendo DS is the latest music-led game. 'Sing and Play Guitar' it screams from the cover, with the promise of 35 songs on the back. That turns out to be stretching things a bit, because all that's included from those songs are the lyrics and chords. There's no backing track or melody line, so you're basically strumming by yourself like some lonely indie kid in his bedsit. The song collection seems compiled to hit every demographic once (Eros Ramazotti?), which means you're unlikely to know a lot of these songs unless you have pretty eclectic tastes. And if you don't know the song, it's impossible to guess the timing or melody, so you don't get very much out of their inclusion. It's not like Guitar Hero where you can start off never having heard of some heavy metal number, and finish up loving it.
But if you think of Jam Sessions as an instrument, it's much more promising. The guitar samples sound realistic and there are a number of effects so you can make them sound all spacey or grungey if you don't fancy a clean acoustic strum.
The controls work like this: You hold down a direction button to select a chord from your palette. You then strum the stylus across the virtual string to make it ring. The upstroke and downstroke sound different. With eight chords assigned to the directional pad (diagonals are included), and the left shoulder button used to switch in another palette, you can have up to 16 chords available during one jam session.
I spent a happy half an hour strumming away and playing with the effects and if you're a bit musical, you'll probably enjoy it too. It certainly makes it easier to play some of the finger-mangling chords in my Prince music books.
You can record your performance, although each recording slot is fairly small. It's counted in strokes, but unless you're playing a real dirge, you're only going to get about 30 seconds out of each slot. You'll do better using a line out and recording it on your PC.
The controls can be fiddly. I found the diagonals difficult, because if you slip there's a good chance you'll trigger a wrong chord. For most songs, you'll be able to assign the chords you need to the up/down/left/right buttons (plus the same buttons in the additional palette). You can save your palette combinations.
There are over 100 chords available, which is plenty for most people. The variations appear to be major, minor, major 7, sus4, add9, minor 7, minor7 flat 5 and diminished. Jam Sessions really missed an opportunity here: if it were possible to configure your own chords (even just a handful of them), it would make it possible to play just about anything. As it is, it can be irritating to find that you can't play a particular song because one tricky chord's missing, or because you can't do any inversions or chords with bass notes, and it's a song where you really notice the difference.
There are a few other missed opportunities: the most obvious is the lack of support for looping and layered playback. There are plenty of themes included, although it might have been nice to be able to doodle your own customisations. It would have been interesting to have a wider range of samples too, rather than sticking with the guitar. A simple drum machine would have added quite a bit too, as would the ability to play pure notes rather than just chords. But perhaps the interface is fairly basic because the cartridge is already taken up by the existing samples, which do sound great.
Jam Sessions is a fun piece of software, and as long as you're happy to consider it an instrument rather than a game, you'll enjoy it. There's an amplifier available separately, if you really want to crank it up. I'm not convinced Jam Sessions is what non-musicians need for their first introduction to performance, but I do think it's a handy tool/toy for people who already know a bit about chords. Of course, you can't beat thrashing away on a real guitar (the DS isn't as responsive if you're really hammering it quickly, for a start), but this is a good and cheap way to experiment with guitar sounds and effects. Perhaps I'll use it on my first album, one day...
Jam Sessions is available now
28 September 2007
The greatest start to a show ever: the lights go out, the crowd goes wild, and a spotlight picks out four men in suits. As they march into the arena, through the audience and through the stage door, they play some mad ragtime tune on the horns. By the time they emerge on the stage at the centre of the hall, the place is already going wild. And Prince isn't even here yet.
This was the second of six Prince concerts I attended this summer, and it included the song that came to symbolise the whole tour for me: 'Joy in Repetition'. In the time it took to perform 'Joy', he could have played two or three hits. But he went with what the fans would love, a relatively obscure but popular album track from 1990. The lyrics were changed too: 'Four letter words will not be heard on this stage tonight', he promised. The bad boy era is over.
Billing the show as 'the greatest hits for the last time' was mischievous, then. He wasn't ripping through the singles for the casual fans, so much as playing his best tracks and attempting to entice new listeners to them.
Nor did the new album 'Planet Earth' get much of a look in, even though everyone there was getting a copy for free and had probably already got one from the newspaper giveaway. In fact, after the first night, he hardly played anything from the new album except for 'Guitar'. You can't help wondering just how much he loves 'Planet Earth', and whether that was a factor in his decision to give it away. Let's not forget he played 'Jughead' on the Diamonds and Pearls tour, after all.
The set was peppered with cover versions, including 'Le Freak', 'Come Together', 'What a Wonderful World', 'Crazy' and 'Your Song'. These were perhaps an attempt to create a show that could appeal even to those who had never heard a Prince song, and also afforded him the opportunity to pop downstairs for a drink and a costume change while the band played without him. After a few nights, though, I didn't feel I needed to hear 'Crazy' ever again, much as I loved Shelby's singing on it.
Prince claimed he'd rehearsed 150 songs, which would be seven unique songs for each of 21 nights. He clearly didn't do that. Most of the setlists were built around a core of songs with a few surprises thrown in. A blistering 'I feel 4u/Controversy' pairing was played every night I went and was even used to open the final show. 'Purple Rain' was played every night, perhaps a concession to the casual fans. Opening the concert with it (as he did twice when I went) seemed to kill the atmosphere stone dead (too slow, too soon), but at least he'd got it out of the way. I wasn't really feeling that song until the final night, although to his credit every performance of it sounded improvised and new.
So, how to get through the back catalogue and send the punters home happy? How about sampling some of your old singles and playing the samples? The first night I saw him do this, he went over to the keyboard and triggered a sample of a song like 'Sign of the Times' just long enough for the crowd to flip out. Then he walked away saying 'y'all can't handle me'. Kinda funny. But not very. He could have played (ie, properly played) a song or two in the time he spent winding everybody up. But as the tour evolved, he started to sing on top of the samples and this part of the show made more sense. It was a way to play tracks that the current band wouldn't be ideal for (including 'Sign of the Times'), and to keep it spontaneous. Even if it did seem ill at ease with Prince calling out 'this is real music, people!' and 'you can't do this on a computer!' during the horn improvisations later.
The piano set, where he played properly and sang along, was much more successful. Among the most exciting three seconds of a concert ever was when he sang 'Until the end of time' and let a piano rendition of 'Adore' unfold for the first time. The final night's set with 'The Beautiful Ones' showed he can still do the scream, too.
For lapsed fans, there were plenty of treats. Most of Purple Rain got an outing, including a cheeky playback of the riff to 'Darling Nikki'. 'Sign of the Times' got plenty of love, too with a rocked-up version of 'U got the Look' a highlight. 'Kiss' was presented as the ultimate hit most nights, with Prince teasing the audience by naming other songs he might play before trumping them all with that famous jangly riff. 'Girls & Boys' and 'Sometimes it Snows in April' got a frequent airing too. If you were a fan between 1984 and 1987, you were welcome here.
There were also new songs to discover, for me at least. The now-deleted 'Gold Experience' album had passed me by when it came out, but a stunning performance of 'Shhh' inspired me to get it on ebay. Many who were there before me consider it to be his greatest album of the 90s and I can see why now.
Was it worth going six times? Definitely. I only planned to go twice and then kept adding tickets as they became available. VIP tickets for the first night went on sale on the same day for the standard £31.21 (instead of the £235 our neighbours were charged). Up close, the view was fantastic. Seeing his expressions (and those of his charming dancers The Twinz) set up the show for the nights we were more distant. Playing in the round meant that any seats in the Lower Tier had a great view. Although he tended to play towards the pointy end of the symbol-shaped stage, on the night we were behind the band, he came around to see us plenty of times. The only disappointing night was when we were in the upper tier - high enough up to touch the girders in the roof. The atmosphere was dead because the crowd around us couldn't really be arsed to enjoy themselves. That's the downside of playing on such a big scale: you get the kind of people who'd rather buy a hotdog than listen to the legendary Maceo Parker do a solo. It was nice to see the whole stage at once, though.
Every night was special. I saw Prince play bass on the only night he did that, saw a rare acoustic guitar set, saw him play electric guitar, keyboards and samples. I heard 'Joy in Repetition', 'When U Were Mine' and 'Anotherloverholenyohead' on the only nights they were performed in the main show. I heard all the songs he did on this tour except for a few, and so many of them mean so much to me. I didn't go to a Prince concert just to be entertained: I went to be moved, and I was.
I was lucky Prince chose my home city as his European base for this summer. And that I was able to experience so much of it, from the opening chords of 'Purple Rain' that first night, through over ten hours of stage time, to the closing notes of 'Girls & Boys'. After the final show, I made my way up to bed, exhausted but happy, by the light of a purple glowstick.
20 July 2007
My friend Julie has taken up the baton and compiled a list of 100 bands she's seen live, following my post in March. I think you can learn a lot about someone's personality and past from the bands they've seen, and writing my own list brought back many great memories. If you write a list, let me know in the comments and I'll link it here.
I've updated my list today with Sex Pistol Glen Matlock who I saw in Ruislip a few months back and the bands I saw at Live Earth. There are a few new bands that I previously forgot I'd seen as well, including Daniel O'Donnell and Gina G. Can't imagine how they slipped my mind.
08 July 2007
Even if many critics weren't, the Earth was on our side yesterday as we stood on the pitch at Wembley to witness the London leg of the Live Earth concerts. We had the finest weather we've seen in weeks.
The show began with the SOS All Stars, including the drummers from Queen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Foo Fighters. About thirty drummers beat out various rhythms, initially based loosely on the morse code for SOS, and later including Queen's 'We Will Rock You'. The video screens showed film of an ailing planet, and cute animals looking directly at us, through the lens, to intervene.
Phil Collins is mothballing Genesis after they conclude the current tour, so it was an unexpected treat to get to see them play what is likely to be one of their final dates. The short set had the instrumental 'Behind the lines' and 'Turn it on again' for the old school fans, and Land of Confusion (apt for the day) and Invisible Touch for the new-era fans. Phil Collins was on fine form, and when he sang 'she will fuck up your life' in Invisible Touch, he did it with all the feeling of a man who's recently been divorced.
After seeing Razorlight, I'll be paying more attention to them in future. They rocked the venue and had proper songs to boot. Snow Patrol were entertaining enough, but inessential listening at home. For me, the most striking part of their set was how moved by it all the woman in front of me was. She had goosebumps (no, she wasn't cold), and she was doing the 'oh my God!' thing at the first few notes of every song. It was symptomatic of how some people cope with the physical exhaustion of standing around all day, though, that only a verse after whooping she was texting her friends again as the band played on in front of her. Or perhaps she just had a limited attention span.
David Gray played a short and sweet set (all the sweeter for being short, I imagine), and concluded it with 'Que Sera Sera'. That might be apt for 3pm at our national football ground but is an absurd song to play at an event that wants to stir up a revolution.
The Black Eyed Peas know how to party. I don't have any of their records and only vaguely remember their hit from a couple of years back. But they had fantastic energy, which was welcome after Paolo Nuttini's laid-back set. Will.i.am sang a rap song he had written about the day, which was striking. Although Paolo Nuttini had sung 'What a wonderful world', this was the first real creative statement about the environment to come from the stage.
I don't have a single Duran Duran album, but I've got about 15 of their songs. (One of the great things about iTunes is how it enables you to make virtual albums by playing all the songs by one artist). I'm having an 80s 12" phase at the moment, so I was looking forward to their set. They didn't disappoint. Simon Le Bon's voice was as strong as ever and a set that started with 'Planet Earth' and included 'Ordinary world', 'Notorious' and 'Girls on Film' was perfect. It's easy to see why the band is still packing out arenas when it tours, twenty years on. When they took the stage, Simon Le Bon said: 'Hands up, anyone who didn't arrive today by private jet'. He reached for the sky, along with the crowd on the pitch, a pointed dig at other bands on the bill.
The Red Hot Chilli Peppers were a disappointment. Since I've got several of their albums, I expected to know more of their set and only knew the concluding 'By the way'. The rest of the set was noisy and formless to my ears. Similarly, the Beastie Boys were hard listening. I couldn't make out the words from where I was standing, and even the great 'Intergalactic' was just a bunch of noisy shouting. One of the Beastie Boys' best assets is their wit and that was completely lost yesterday. I hadn't expected to find both bands so much better on record than on stage.
Metallica played both of the songs I know from their catalogue and were game enough to join in when Spinal Tap invited all the bass players in the world onto the stage. Spinal Tap's bizarre lyrics and bad luck with props confused a woman near us, but for anyone who's seen the film, it was a rare treat to see the band live. The songs stood up musically as well. The presentation might have been shambolic and the lyrics deliberately naieve, but the show was mighty fine.
The Pussycat Dolls were well choreographed and half-dressed, which is presumably why they're successful. Foo Fighters played a blinder. They got everyone dancing, perhaps in part because people could see the end of a long day coming and had drunk a fair bit. Dave Grohl dedicated one of his songs to Al Gore.
And then came Madonna. She took a few creative risks: she wrote a new song for the event ('Hey you', which was not as bad as it might have been) and put together a great arrangement of La Isla Bonita with Gogol Bordello. It was pretty special to hear that song live. Her set was a great climax to the whole day, even if she did let herself down by swearing at the crowd, something she doesn't dare to do on the records she wants to sell.
The new Wembley is a good venue. The crowd management was efficient and smooth. They had free drinking water taps and were giving out pint plastics so that you could take your own drinks onto the pitch. Despite some heavy-handed warnings on the ticket (they own the copyright in any photos you take, apparently, which I've never seen before), people were allowed to bring cameras and pretty much anything they wanted except bottles and cans.
So, a great concert. But did it raise awareness of a climate in crisis? Like Live8, they asked people to text in to show their support, but by the end of the concert had only received the equivalent of half the stadium's capacity in responses. For an event that was going live to 2 billion people by TV, that's not much. Perhaps it was because the pledging system was so complex (people texted different words for different pledges) and the number wasn't on screen all day. They might have had more luck if it had been about just one thing - getting governments to listen, for example.
But the whole point is that it's about lots of little things you can do: change lightbulbs (although I don't understand whether I should do that now, or wait until my existing bulbs spark out), use the tube, recycle waste, and so on. During the day, in the short gaps between bands, there were films to explain steps that everyone can take, and art films to warn of the consequences of not doing so. I don't know if these were screened on TV, or whether they just cut to inane chatter instead. I have my suspicions that they might have edited them out.
They had a lot of obscure celebrities come on stage to read an autocue and repeat the message about energy reduction, people like Queenie from Blackadder and Boris Becker. Terence Stamp (who he?) got a particularly cool reception as the last one on stage, after a whole day of this. It would have been better if these people had spoken about what they had done, instead of lecturing us. At least Geri Halliwell spoke about how having a child has changed her perspective and made her think about the future of the planet more.
I'm guessing that the rich (as a rule) pollute more than the rest of us, so it's hard to take lectures from pop stars unless they stand up and say they're changing themselves first. Genesis played in Manchester yesterday night after opening in London, and I doubt they bought a return train ticket (they're in Twickenham today). This month's Mojo magazine says they travel by private plane on tour and that each gig uses enough power for 2,600 homes. I suppose you could argue that more than 2,600 people see the gig and so are not at home. So perhaps gigs that bring people together actually save energy? Or perhaps not.
There were repeated announcements asking people to use the recycling bins provided, but I couldn't see any bins of any kind. There were piles of rubbish on the pitch at the end. If I was a cynical person, I might have thought the announcements were just there for the benefit of TV viewers to show them how green the event was. At one point, some people linked together as many plastic cups as they could to make a snake that stretched over the heads of the crowd. Which just goes to show: if we all work together, we really can achieve anything.
Live Earth has been criticised for its own carbon emissions, but the organisers claim they've worked had to minimise energy use and that proceeds from the concert will be invested in carbon reduction programmes. The first challenge is to get people to notice the problem and take it seriously. Live Earth has, I hope, helped to highlight the climate crisis. Sometimes you have to invest some carbon to save some carbon, and, as was pointed out during the day, the concert was only the start. The event's success will depend on how many people will now change their energy use.
06 July 2007
According to the NME, Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas has denied reports that she will mention Candie's clothes in song lyrics as part of a sponsorship deal.
The NME says: "It had been suggested she had signed a deal with clothing brand Candie's that would involve her including the fashion line in the lyrics of her songs."
Where had that been suggested? Well, this curiously blank page, for a start, which on Monday 2 July had the headline 'Fergie signs product placement deal' and the RSS subheading 'Black Eyed Peas star Fergie has signed a new deal to promote products in her songs'. It said: "The deal is a first in pop music - rather than namechecking the Top Shop-like brand, Fergie's contract states that she will write songs from scratch that specifically promote Candie's."
And the publisher of that page? The NME.
Is that what qualifies as a correction? Zapping the error-prone post out of history and then publishing a post that talks about 'media reports being wrong', without saying where they started? And to think, I was going to use NME as a credible source for a story I'm writing.
29 June 2007
Desperate times make for strange allies, which is why Prince is partnering with the Mail on Sunday. His new album 'Planet Earth' will be given away free as a covermount with the conservative tabloid on 15 July 2007, before the album has even been released in the shops. I can imagine the two million readers spluttering tea all over their croissants as they catch snippets of Prince's bad-boy lyrics. The paper has reportedly stumped up half a million pounds for the rights to the album and is encouraging Prince fans to pre-order the paper. The deal has royally teed-off distributor BMG, which has pulled out of its deal to distribute the album to UK shops as a result.
Prince has also made his new single 'Guitar' available as a free download [link no longer available] in a promotion with O2 for a limited period. And that's free as in 'no money' and free as in 'no controls' too - it's an MP3 with no restrictions on how you can use it. O2 took out a quarter page full colour advert in Metro to advertise the promotion.
For Prince, these are smart deals. It's a long time since he had anyone putting any serious money into promoting his work. The last couple of albums had great distribution, but that just made it easy for existing fans to buy it. They didn't reach out to many new listeners, even though they marked something of a return to form following a few years of patchy output (albeit touched by genius, at times).
Prince could just upload his music to the web and give it away, but then who's going to pay for the cost of producing an album and sustaining the artist during its creation?
With this deal, Prince can afford to give his album away to as many people as possible. To give an idea of scale, this deal will put at least 2 million copies of his album on the street on day one. His greatest creative achievement 'Lovesexy' has only sold 4.82 million in nearly 20 years, according to Wikipedia. (His bestselling album 'Purple Rain' shifted 22.8m units, according to the same source).
Does this devalue the music? Undoubtedly. Most free CDs end up in landfill unplayed, I suspect. It's hard to argue that people shouldn't copy music if you're giving it away with the telly pages. Since there's no distribution deal in the UK for the album at the moment, these free CDs will probably trade briskly on Ebay for a penny plus postage.
Does this deal devalue journalism? Yes, it probably does, also. The Mail on Sunday, in common with most newspapers, seems confused about what business it's in. Clearly, publications are in the business of distributing advertising and this could be seen as advertising. But increasingly, newspapers foist unwanted films and CDs onto listeners who have no choice but to bin them. With this move, the Mail on Sunday is basically conceding that it doesn't matter what their writers produce; what sells papers is a good covermount. While this deal might introduce some Daily Mail readers to Prince's music, it seems unlikely many who buy the paper for the CD will become regular subscribers.
But these are desperate times. At work, we're mourning the loss of our local Fopp, after the chain announced it was closing. It's becoming hard for record shops to survive. They can't compete with the range and pricing of Amazon, and the bargain basement of second hand back catalogue CDs on Ebay. I bought many albums in Fopp, including several that I heard for the first time in the store and wouldn't otherwise have considered buying. Without record shops, brand is likely to become even more important when it comes to shifting units online because you can only sell what people already want. People don't browse just to see what's there in the way they do in a store, and you can't force shoppers to listen to the lastest releases online.
Prince has shown he can build his brand in today's ailing music industry. He's taken a first step towards changing the economics of his business, earning money through concerts and giving away music to build demand for tickets. But he might just have burned some bridges along the way. It remains to be seen whether the record industry or Prince has the more sustainable model in the long run.
27 May 2007
When I get a new CD, I study the cover and read the inlay. The artwork is part of the creative product, as I see it, and I like to know (or at least read) who arranged the strings and so on.
My iTunes experience has been sterile by comparison: a list of albums and artists, much like a spreadsheet. So this weekend, I decided to use the feature to automatically download artwork for all my albums from the iTunes shop.
It's a good job I did. I didn't realise how out of touch I had become with the acts I love.
Prince is like a chameleon, reinventing himself for each project with a new haircut and a style transformation. You can hardly keep up with his constant image changes. I certainly don't recall this one, from the Batdance single:
I love 'Let me entertain you' (when the trumpet comes in over the fade at the end, it's one of the greatest moments in pop music ever) and 'Angels' is a great singalong. I'm not as struck by some of Robbie Williams' other songs, but I'm prepared to give him a lot more slack now I know that he recorded 'Millennium' as a ten-year old boy. It's damn fine, considering:
Memo to self: if I ever meet Robbie and want to thank him for 'Entertain' and 'Angels', don't give him a banana. He doesn't like them.
It's a long time since I saw my CD single of 'Chocolate Salty Balls', a 90s Christmas chart hit for Chef from the cartoon series South Park. I don't remember this sleeve, so I guess it must have been repackaged. I think the one in the middle is Chef. He's lost a bit of weight, but he looks like he's getting into the spirit by chewing a couple of salty balls:
We've all got treasured memories of the 80s. But how to sum up the decade that gave us Spandau Ballet, The Jam, Simple Minds and The Art of Noise? How about with a picture of German punk theatre outfit Antiteater? 'This is the 80s', apparently:
I realise now how newspapers cheat us when they give us free CDs in flimsy cardboard wallets. Yeah, they claim they're paying the artists but they're definitely ripping us off! My sleeve for 'The 20 sexiest songs ever!' was just text, without any pictures. It should, it seems, have looked like this:
When I need to rock out, I like to play 'The best rock album in the world ever!', which kicks off with Kiss blasting out 'Crazy Nights' and takes us through Stiltskin's 'Inside' and Alice Cooper's 'School's Out'. It's a serious business playing the 'best rock in the world'. You can almost hear Meat Loaf's scowl. At least I can now turn to the sleeve for a bit of light relief:
10 May 2007
If you're a Prince fan, you're probably buzzing already at the man's plans to play 21 gigs at the Millennium Dome in August. In fact, if you're a real hard core fan, you might be at Koko tonight where he's following the press conference with an intimate gig. This post isn't for you, though.
This post is for the others: those who don't go to gigs often, or maybe have only been to one or two gigs ever; those who don't consider themselves Prince fans, but like a few of his songs; those who haven't even heard a Prince album, perhaps; those who have lost touch with him after liking his early stuff.
And it's to urge you to just go to the gig. Tickets are a very reasonable (and somewhat daft) £31.21 plus the usual booking fee and postage arm-twisting. You even get a free copy of his new, as yet untitled, album for that.
I've seen Prince four times before: Wembley (1990), Manchester (1992), Brixton (about 1998) and Hammersmith (2002). They were all great. Wembley was a stripped down greatest hits set, riding on the back of Batman. Brixton was a party all the way, with Chaka Khan and Larry Graham supporting. Prince joined in with his support acts (yelping "You playing my song, girl?" as he spun on stage with a guitar for 'I feel for you') and a human beatbox act blending all the night's acts seamlessly. Hammersmith was his difficult period, playing almost all new stuff, but was worth it for a jazzy rendition of Pop Life and a stunning solo acoustic set of mostly unreleased songs, as well as the highlights from The Rainbow Children.
So I know what I'm talking about when I say he puts on a great show. And it's not like I haven't seen a few other bands, either. Prince is one of the best live acts there is today.
The guy is a one-off. He claims to have rehearsed 150 songs for this tour and says he will be doing a different gig each night. He plays guitar, keyboards and (occasionally) drums as well as singing and he's damned good at all of them. In September last year, he reportedly did the splits at a show, which is not bad for a 48 year old. Word on the forums is that he's got his mojo back and the PR people claim he's playing his greatest hits for the last time.
This is your chance to see one of our finest living musicians, performers and songwriters doing his thing. If you're even curious, go along. You won't regret it. Tickets for the O2 gigs go on sale Friday 11 May at 9am here. Keep an eye on the official site and the unofficial forum for news of other gigs.
(Oh, and I don't get a kickback or anything for these links. I only want you to have some fun).