The meaning of ‘broadcaster’

I have commented before on the fact that I tend to prefer to receive my news and entertainment from publicly funded sources such as the BBC or CBC or PBS. I don’t believe that this is due to wanting to follow the official line but rather the fact that when I listen to the radio in particular, but also when I watch television I don’t always want to hear or see the familiar, expected or normal. Fortunately, there are presenters who epitomise these ideals, unfortunately, they appear to be getting rarer.

Two presenters in the UK who truly represented the ideal of a broadcaster were Humphrey Lyttleton and John Peel. I am expressing nothing new to anyone who listened to either of them to say that they were legends of their respective genres, bringing new music to at least 2 generations of people who would hide a radio under the bed sheets late at night and listen in to new and wonderful sounds.

Humph presented ‘The Best of Jazz’ for 40 years; each week his 1 hour show would introduce something new to even the most hardened jazz fan, whilst to me as the jazz neophyte it was all new. But the authority in his voice and the history of his playing meant that I wanted to listen and I wanted to like the music. Now, admittedly I didn’t like it all, but then that is the point of the broadcaster and it brings me neatly onto John Peel.

John Peel presented a show that towered over the independent music scene in the UK for three and a half decades. As he himself once put it “If there is an ‘up-and-coming band’ that I haven’t heard of; they aren’t”. He famously championed the Smiths, the Undertones and the Fall. But he also played a significant part in the development of the following:

  • Pink Floyd
  • David Bowie
  • Joy Division/ New Order
  • Billy Bragg
  • Blur

I could go on, but you get the idea- it is not a bad resume to have. The thing that staggers me is that not only was his influence immense, but the length of time he held it for was truly mind boggling. Especially when you listen to some of the, quite frankly, dross that he played. But the entire ethos of John Peel, and I like to thing of Humphrey Lyttleton too, was that presenters on a broadcaster should “not give people what they want but what they didn’t know they wanted”

And that to me is the beauty of radio and the ultimate downfall of the iPod. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am, unlike Alan Sugar, in no way saying that the iPod is dead or even likely to go away any time soon, in fact I have just seen a lovely little MP3 dream machine that I would love to find under a Christmas tree (preferably paired with a nice set of headphones too). But, here is the thing, unless I have been doing it very very wrong with my iPod you will never suddenly hear a track that you have never heard before, but that blows your mind, causes you sit down and just lose yourself in music for the first time. There are many songs that have the same effect even after repeated listenings (Johnny Cash singing ‘Hurt’ makes me cry every time I hear it on a decent stereo system), but I propose that there is still something just incredible about hearing a song for the first time.

Unfortunately, the majority of my praise for Humprey Lyttleton and John Peel is written in the past tense as they have both passed away. And in this era of fragmentation, market segmentation and focussing on the customer we are in danger of losing their like. There are radio stations and presenters who continue the tradition, and just as Humph and Peel were, they are shoe-horned into the late night slots, the out of the way schedule and the hard to listen to radio stations. But for people who like to hear something new, with absolutely no guarantee that they will like it, I suggest 6Music (available on digital radio in the UK and via the interweb throughout the world) and in particular Guy Garvey and Clare McDonnel or Alex Lester on Radio 2 (you might want to be a bit careful with the rest of Radio 2 though- it gets a bit cardigan cuddly middle of the road most of the time).

Complexity in Creation

Creating something, anything, that can be admired, enjoyed or simply used involves things that the admirer or user is frequently entirely unaware of. I remember sitting in a meeting with all the bright IT people at a mid-sized oil company and ideas, problems and solutions were being thrown out at a dizzying rate. By the way, I do mean all the bright people- in three years of working there it was the one and only time I saw everyone in the same room working to solve a single problem. What intensely complex problem was all this brainpower trying to solve? Simply to stop the need for a user to type in a password twice- yup that was all, but it took all of us to work out how to do this. Now this is also a reflection on the complexity of systems and the fact that unlike 300 years when an intelligent man (and unfortunately it was all too often only a man) could know the entire sum of human knowledge, no-one knows everything today. But as the solution began to develop I passed a note to the Chief Technical Architect that said “Nola has no idea what we are going through to solve her problem”

Well, it is the same in all forms of life: I listen to music and buy what I like, look at art (and even manage to buy the occasional painting) and watch movies and television (though I prefer to wait and watch them on DVD without any adverts). But really, I have no idea what goes into painting a masterpiece, composing a piece of music lift you out of you seat or directing a scene in a show that works so perfectly that you smile to yourself afterwards. Fortunately, though this lack of understanding does not stop me from appreciating them: the Rijksmuseum has a small (very secure) extension at Amsterdam Schiphol airport that is currently exhibiting 8 pictures by Vincent van Gogh. Having more than $10 million of painting in front of you is something that I could get used to, even if I don’t understand all the complexities of how the pictures were created. And the fact that entrance to the Rijksmuseum is free simply is the icing on the cake.

I get more opportunity to watch television than gaze at impressionist masterpieces; and still following through with my resolution to only watch ‘worthwhile’ television I recently watched the last 2 seasons (6 & 7) of the West Wing. When it first arrived on TV in 1998 the West Wing set the bar for smart, well written, well acted and fantastically produced television. And though most critics felt that is suffered a drop in form during the middle of its run, by the end it was completely back to its excellent best. I think that part of the reason that the ratings did not recover was the the plot lines were so complex, the dialogue so fast (and intelligent) and the advert breaks such low quality compared to the actual program that people gave up watching the broadcast show and simply waited for the DVD to come out (apparently this also happened with Alias). So although the show was broadcast in 2005 and I only watched it in 2008, and to use a line from the West Wing- let’s not knock me for coming late to the party and celebrate the fact that I came at all (courtesy of Sam Seaborn as he attempted to explain the budget to CJ in series 2 I think).

The final strain of this thought before the denouement (bet you weren’t expecting a word like that in this blog!) concerns music and in particular jazz: Although many of my friends are firm blues fans, I have always been more of a jazz guy. I tend to take it in small quantities, but there have been times when music has had such a profound effect on me that the fact that I don’t understand the intricacies of what I am listening too are entirely irrelevant. I spent several months on the Yemen/ Saudi Arabia border in the Empty Quarter. This was before the Internet or satellite TV: the only regular contact we had with the outside world was via the BBC World Service of the Voice of America; and the conditions were not pleasant on so many levels. The fashion these days is to talk about Health, Safety, Security and the Environment (HSSE)- well given that we were exploring for oil I can safely say that the Environment was taking a hit. As for the H, S and S; let’s just say that none of them were being met- raw sewage was being dumped close to the camp, dynamite was being used to blow things up and men who were barely more than boys were walking around with AK47’s and no fear of death. In this environment music and the escape it can bring from what surrounds you is almost essential. Where the music takes you depends on what you listen to and I discovered two bands that took me in opposite directions: I had never understood the attraction of the Doors; not that is, until I was in situation with guns, explosions and living far from home. Suddenly LA Woman (the full version) could transport me far, far from where I was. Which would typically be a good thing, except that where it took me, in my mind, was to a war zone in South East Asia where the Doors were heard for the first time. And that was not a good thing.

Taking me in the other direction- to calm, peace and a more mellow place, was Miles Davis and in particular a track called Bag’s Groove. I have said several times that The Doors came close to pushing me over the edge, but Miles Davis get pulling me back (well, him and Van Morrison). I am not sure why jazz has been able to play such a role in my life but the first jazz song that had impact in my mind was probably a track called Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. I think that my father owned the 7” single and I played it a lot as a small boy. Being the contrary character that I am, I was probably attracted to it initially simply because it was in 5/4 time (and though I didn’t understand what that meant) and that sounded different. And cool. And isn’t jazz all about being cool? Sure it is.

Except that maybe I overdosed on Take Five, maybe the unusual time signature threw me off or maybe I just didn’t understand how to use rhythms, the off beat, strangeness of it all the best effect so it disappeared from my conciousness, even after the track appeared on a CD I bought. And then I saw a scene on ep. 19 of series 6 of the West Wing: Picture in your mind the scene- its a Democratic Party Gala ball in the White House. Everyone is dressed up, bright lights are creating a dazzling background and the camera is whirling around people in full party mode. The conversations are rapid, often at cross purposes but occasionally subtleties emerge that were never seen before. And in the background, in 5/4 time a clarinet, double bass, drum solo and piano are perfectly syncopating to the action evolving before our eyes.

In 4 minutes of television involving 7 separate conversations using lights, dialogue, a swirling camera, television acting of the highest level and the perfect background soundtrack I remembered why Take Five is still such groundbreaking jazz and I was completely overwhelmed by just how many components go into making a scene work the way it did. Never mind the 90 minute meeting involving a dozen or so IT geeks to work out how to pass a password to a new system, the number of people and amount of time that must have been involved in creating the West Wing is truly mind blowing. I don’t understand the complexity of 1 of the components that go together to make that scene so wonderful, and maybe if I did the beauty would be lost on me- but for right here, right now, I just love it.

Comedy Talk Shows and Favourite Songs

Talk shows are a staple of modern day television and have been so for over 50 years: Johnny Carson defined the late night talk show for nearly 40 years in the US and Michael Parkinson similarly dominated in the UK for 25 years. Recently the trend has seen far more informal shows dominate, things like Jimmy Kimmel in the US or Jensen in the Netherlands (my dutch may be bad, but he conducts some of his interviews in english so I can watch along). In the UK this has been taken even further by a raft of talk show where the hosts are not even real people.

One of the first to do this was Dame Edna Everage who dominated talk shows in the late 80’s and early 90’s by mixing proper talk show conventions with some comedy that was only possible because the interviewer was actually a man in drag peforming as a comedy character. This approach was continued by Caroline Aherne/ Hook (a 20-something comedienne) who used her Mrs Merton persona (a senior citizen with few social graces) to ask truly outrageous questions; the finest of which was “So, Debbie, what was it that first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

And now we have Al Murray using his ‘Pub Landlord‘ character as a host of chat show. The problem for Murray is that, unlike Parkinson or any of the late night show hosts in the US he is unable to command the quality of guests that a show typically needs to be successful. Whether this is because the guests have wised up after the experiences of Dame Edna or Mrs Merton is not clear but it makes for less interesting television. On the other hand he has come up with a couple of cool gimmicks; including getting all the musical guests to play 2 songs: 1 is normally the latest single that they are promoting, the other must be from the band who are, in the opinion of the Pub Landlord, the greatest band ever: Queen. So you could get Bryan Adams doing Fat Bottom Girls or Katie Melua doing Crazy Little Thing called Love.

Or the one that I liked best because it is my favourite Queen song: KT Tunstall doing Hammer to Fall. Which got me to thinking about my taste in music- it is very rare for me to agree with what is generally perceived to be the ‘best’ song or ‘favourite’ song by a band or singer. I would guess that Bohemian Rhapsody will be far and away the most popular Queen song- but not for me. When it comes to the favourite band of my youth (I got all their albums): The Beat (or The English Beat, depending on what side of the pond you are on) Mirror in the Bathroom is what most people will pick- not me, I love Save it For Later. Whether it is the rather risque lyrics that attracted a 13 year old boy or not I don’t know, but to this day it is still my favourite. And someone no less than Pete Townsend agrees with me. And he knows a little bit about writing songs (although a lot less about what you should or shouldn’t do on the internet). I’m thinking that I should stop that analogy right there. Onto The Eurythmics: I am going to guess that Sweet Dreams would be up there, but I’d pick When Tomorrow Comes. I never seem to get it right.

All of which pontification on musical taste has no real conclusion but leaves me wondering if I am yet again out of step with the majority of the world. Maybe it is the wiring in my head that makes me understand databases, but I still don’t fit in. And you know what? I am happy with that.

Golden Age of Music

Partly inspired by the recent show Pop on Trial and more directly by buying a pile of CD’s (yes they do exist, in a real bricks and mortar shop too!) I wonder what we will make of the current crop of music. Personally, I think that after a few really low years in the early 2000’s (think overload of Pop Idol/ last hurrah of the manufactured boy band) pop has, as it has done so many times before, reinvented itself and saved itself from disappearing into its own insipidness.

In 2005 I had almost given up trying to find anything that really inspired me but as I wandered through Heathrow before flying across the pond, I came across a series of compilations that reinvigorated me completely: ‘The Bands 05 ‘& ‘The Album 05’ threw a plethora of bands into my consciousness: Athlete, Feeder, Doves, Stereophonics (OK, I knew them), The Killers (them too), The Libertines, Bloc Party, Embrace, The Thrills and more, many more. The music was raw; generally two guitars, 1 bass, 1 drum kit and vocals. The band’s names were 1 word or contained ‘The’ (which as ‘the Commitments’ says is always a good sign). The music was just fantastic- and it still is. The Bands and The Album series dropped off a bit in 06 and 07, but in came The Anthems. There are new names (Amy MacDonald, The Fratellis etc) and some names have survived (Kaiser Chiefs, Keane) and even a few dinosaurs (Fatboy Slim, Stone Roses and Paul Weller) make it onto the track listing. But by God they sound good.

All of which made me wonder what the woman at the checkout made of my selection of CD’s: 2 current compilations (with Razorlight, Amy Winehouse and Maroon 5 etc) , the singles collection from Suede, the remastered ‘Joshua Tree’ (because some albums are just so good it is worth having them on multiple formats) and the best of UB40 (memories of childhood).

I want to make a comment about Suede: The last time there was a similar defining moment in music (for me, anyway) the driving force was Suede. OK, Oasis, Blur, Pulp et al all came along and cashed in far much more, but without Suede performing Animal Nitrate at the Brits and blowing the audience out of their seats, it is debatable whether there would have been such a vibrant Brit Pop scene. My far more personal epiphany moment occurred in the Mean Fiddler- the song was the same, the audience erupted and the night goes down in memory as one of those perfect, unplanned moments.

Of course, when Brit Pop imploded we finished up with Pop Idol, but that is just the cycle that these things go through. Without Pop Idol ‘The Libertines’ wouldn’t have come along, The Killers wouldn’t have created a song/ video combination (‘Mr Brightside’) that was so good it made me late for work as I had to see the end of it and we wouldn’t be here now.

And now is a good place to be. So we shouldn’t complain too much. And I have got lots of music to go and listen to… Happy times.

Contents of a Library

In the past an extensive collection of books in a library was a sign of both education and wealth.

Today a library will more often be made up from DVD’s and CD’s as well as books; but with the availability of multi channel TV on Demand, Video rental (from stores or on-line), iTunes and music sharing what do you really want to buy to put in your library. I propose that the DVD’s  that we buy fall into 1 of 2 categories:

  1. Movies/ TV Shows that we truly will watch many, many times. Typically these will be children’s films (because kids will watch the same film again and again and again) or guilty pleasures that we use as comfort food. Basically anything by Pixar, Disney or Dreamworks falls into this camp.
  2. Movies/ TV Shows that we want other people to see on our library shelf.  You might not ever get around to watching these DVD’s (you definitely won’t watch them often enough to justify the cost you paid) but they show that you are familiar with Truffaut/ Shakespeare/ Welles etc etc. I know that I will never watch the original version of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ often enough to justify the price I paid for it (not least of which is because it scared the bejeezus out out me) but it sure do look good on the shelf.

And sometimes, just very occasionally we get a DVD that falls into both categories. And when you do, it makes you very, very happy.

Ear worms

Ear worms (as defined by KFOG) are those songs that get into your head in the morning and are still driving you nuts when you go to bed. Basically anything by Mika falls into this category.

But I had a pleasant one the other day, by a band from the 90’s that no-one remembers now: Londonbeat. The song was called “9am (The Comfort Zone)”  and it was just really nice. A nice ear worm.

 And now you know the word to describe that tune in your head.

Musical Convergence

Under the category of “whatever happened to…”

In the early 90’s music combined styles from all over: bhangra, reggae, rave etc. Proponents of this included Apache Indian, SL2 and probably loads of others that I don’t know about. I just wonder what happened to the whole movement, on account of “On a Ragga Trip” and “Boom Shack-A-Lack” were great songs (in fact Boom Shack-A-Lack makes a great wake up ring tone)

Or maybe it just grew up, after all Island Records who were one of the pioneers in moving reggae into global consciousness are now part of Def Jam who were influential in making rap into the dominant sound of today.

Johnny Boy

OK, so this is just bad wagon jumping, but check out and in particular the song ‘You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve’. Variously trumpeted as the greatest pop song ever, it reminds me of Voice of the Beehive (remember Monsters and Angels) or Belle and Sebastian (Lazy Jane Painter Line).

Whatever, it is a cracking pop song

British Subject

Many times in coversation I have stated that if I were to give up one of my passports (British or Canadian) I would not hesitate to drop the British one. I have never really been able to provide an adequate answer to this, and probably still can’t.

But, one of my formative bands was UB40 (Yes, I too wanted to be black when I was a kid) and thanks to the wonder of MP3’s and iTunes I am listening to all sorts of music that I haven’t heard in years. So, there I am, working away and along comes the song ‘Burden of Shame’. The lyrics go something like

There are murders that we must account for 
Bloody deeds have been done in  my name 
Criminal acts we must pay for 
And our children will shoulder the  blame I’m a British subject, not proud of it 
While I carry the burden of shame  (Repeat)

I must have been about 13 when I first heard those lyrics. Maybe they had an effect after all.