Archive for January, 2010

Fitting up the news

January 30, 2010

Thanks to my colleague Tomi Isaacs for alerting me to Charlie Brooker’s fine parody of the typical television news report. It made me realise how little has changed in TV news since I worked in it in the 1980s, except that the graphics are better and cheaper satellite time and technology means that ‘live’ has become so over-used that it is meaningless. (The ‘live’ two-way with a correspondent standing outside a deserted government building in the late evening is surely a target for Brooker for another day.)

Nick Drake, a man out of time

January 24, 2010

Of course there’s something remarkable about the fact that an evening of music by a singer who died thirty-five years ago and sold a handful of records while alive can fill London’s Barbican, and as I watched Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake it made me think both that Drake was lucky to have such a devoted fan as his producer, Joe Boyd, and also wonder why his songs have found their audience now. Boyd curated the Way to Blue shows this month in Brighton, London, and Warwick (and last year in Birmingham)  and, famously, extracted a promise when he sold his Witchseason label to Island Records that Island would keep Drake’s three LPs in print no matter how dismal their sales.

As to why we’ve learnt to love Drake’s songs since his death, I think they were simply out of time when he wrote and recorded them between 1969 and 1972. The times were still fairly optimistic – although they started getting darker just before his death in 1974. (Crosby Stills Nash and Young were the most popular singer-songwriters in the world at the time; Bridge Over Troubled Water was the biggest selling album in the UK in 1970 and 1971). In contrast, his songs are complex, with unfamiliar tunings and chord changes, and are lyrically introspective.  And perhaps audiences needed to get used to complexity as well.  According to Joe Boyd’s memoir White Bicycles some of that complexity came from his mother, Molly, whose own songs (written for friends and family) also show unexpected chords and tunings. Vashti Bunyan sang one of them at the Barbican, a bittersweet song about memory and distance (“I remembered firelight, you remembered smoke”.)

The format of the Way to Blue shows runs like this: a house band, which included the formidable bass player Danny Thompson, jazz pianist Zoe Rahman, and Neill MacColl (Ewan’s son) on guitar; a string section (Robert Kirby’s string arrangements were integral to many of Drake’s ongs); and a rolling cast of vocalists taking a few songs each. As well as Vashti Bunyan, they included the cult hero Robyn Hitchcock, once of the Soft Boys, Green Gartside (of Scritti Politti), and several younger performers, including Teddy Thompson, who demonstrated that Boyd hasn’t lost his eye for talent.

The singers were slow to engage with the audience – the first few numbers, excellent through they were, felt like watching a rather high class human jukebox – but warmed up after Krystle Warren told a ‘man walks into a bar’ joke. Some stand-out moments: the duet between Zoe Rahman and Danny Thompson on an improvisatory instrumental version of One of These Things First; Krystle Warren’s extraordinary gospel-jazz infused performance of Time Has Told Me, which made me understand why Joe Boyd once hoped to get Roberta Flack to cover it; Lisa Hannigan’s interpretation of Black Eyed Dog, accompanying herself on what looked like a harmonium, the band driving the whole thing along as relentlessly as Fairport’s Matty Groves; and Scott Matthews’ version of Riverman, filled with Rahman’s rippling piano. Some of these were new arrangements by the show’s musical director, Kate St John.

There were mistakes, inevitably. Green Gartside started one of the obscurer songs by admitting that he had forgotten most of the words in Brighton the previous night, then proceeded to sing it perfectly. Teddy Thompson, on the other hand, though much the most charismatic singer on show, lost his way completely in one of his songs. He stopped, apologised, and started again. It didn’t matter.

Satire makes a comeback

January 19, 2010

The Conservative David Cameron posters are just asking to be parodied, and sure enough, at the mydavidcameron site people are doing just that. The number of parodies seems to be increasing by the day. There’s even a template to download the background picture, and advice on which font you need to use, if you want to make your own.

Meanwhile, I’ve blogged before about the attraction of the ‘last days of Hitler’ film Downfall as a magnet for football parodists. Not just football, it seems. The same section of Downfall (is there a template for this somewhere as well?) has also been used for several good satires on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time (this one I reckon to be the best), and by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to parody film studios’ attitudes to US copyright law. Language warnings, in case you’re offended by swear words. And by the way, the director of Downfall is amused by the ‘meme’ he’s inspired.

I could do a short discursion here about the way in which satire emerges when there is a gap between public official discourse (in media and politics) and what people are feeling, thinking, and saying privately. But maybe I’ll do that another time.

Update, 21st January: The physical world follows the virtual one, according to the Daily Telegraph. An actual outdoor Cameron poster in Hereford has been ‘adapted’ to make Cameron look a lot more like Elvis, and ‘with suspicious minds’ has been added to the copy. .

The parody poster at the top, from mydavidcameron, is by Nick Stradling.

Love and power

January 17, 2010

When I visited the eco-village at Kew Bridge, I noticed this quote painted by the gate. For the past six months the protestors have been occupying land by the river which the property company St George PLC would like to turn into gated apartments for the rich, despite the community credentials which they claim (yes, the company sponsors Brentford Football Club) on the hoardings outside (see below).Eco-village activists talk on youtube about their reasons for occupying the site, and there’s a facebook group as well.

I took the pictures, and they’re published here under a Creative Commons licence.

We want Miles

January 5, 2010

Anyone who’s interested in jazz knows that the shadow of Miles Davis falls right across the jazz world of the second half of the 20th century – but it takes a visit to “We Want Miles“,  the retrospective at the Cite de la Musique in Paris, which I had the chance to visit just before Xmas (it runs to 17th January) – to remind you how big and long that shadow is.

He was, famously, playing bebop with Charlie Parker and Gillespie at the age of 18, and recorded The Birth of the Cool before his 23rd birthday. Kind of Blue, the biggest selling jazz record of all time, came a decade later. By the end of the 60s, with In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, he remade jazz (with a little help from his producer, Teo Macero) as it collided with rock music.

Part of his secret was that he only worked with the best. In the early part of his career, these included (as well as Parker and Gillespie) Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane. By the time of Kind of Blue, he had become the elder statesman, picking up the best young talent, such as Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, John McLaughlin, Jack de Johnette, and Marcus Miller. The list goes on.

And with the best arranger as well; Gil Evan’s role in the early recordings from Birth of the Cool to Miles Ahead is influential. It’s possible to hear Davis’ 60s and 70s sound as a way to create in his electric work the same depth that Evans achieved through his careful orchestration. It helped that Miles was, as he would tell interviewers, “blessed with perfect time”.

One of the revelations of the Paris exhibition is also one of the simplest exhibits: a timeline of his whole career showing all the musicians he collaborated with (my not very good photographs are below). The larger the name, the closer the collaboration. There have been some events at Cite de la Musique to mark the exhibition, and as people such as Marcus Miller have come in to play, they’ve been signing the wall, a kind of living exhibit. I’m hoping that when it goes to Montreal in April, the wall and signatures will go as well, rather than just being repainted in the new location. There’s music everywhere in the show – including a great video of a concert at Parc de Villette, right by Cite de la Musique – but somehow it is the camaraderie of the collaboration, crystallised by the autographs of his musical partners, that brings Miles, and his vast creative enterprise, to life.

Even if you can’t get to the exhibition, the website’s worth a visit (good pictures and a good selection of music, with commentary in English). And there was an interesting article in The Guardian about why Davis liked Paris.

I took the pictures, and they’re published here under a Creative Commons licence.

From Imre to Imrie

January 4, 2010

When you learn about screenwriting, as I did a few years back, you learn that most Hollywood films, and many others, follow a three act structure, with critical events diverting the story at the end of each act. As I read the biography of the great screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, written by his grandson Kevin MacDonald (who is also a documentary film-maker), it was striking the way in which his life also played itself out in three acts after he had arrived in pre-war Germany. MacDonald emphasises this by prefacing sections of the book with Pressburger’s changing versions of his name.

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