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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

It was the fickle, style-obsessed London media that made a star of Tom Petty

Oddly enough, London was the making of Tom Petty.

When their first album came out in 1976 it made no impression in the USA. Their manager Tony Dimitriades, a Greek Cypriot born in London, just happened to be visiting his family here at the time when he read an enthusiastic review of an import copy in Sounds.

He went to see a British agent, showed him the review and he decided he could get the band a support slot with Nils Lofgren, who was due to tour the UK.

They came in Spring 1977 and went down so well that they stayed behind to play headlining shows of their own. They did "Top Of The Pops" and "Whistle Test" and got on the covers of NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, achieving in that short period national prominence that would have taken years to achieve in the USA.

What's more they went back to the USA as the band that the British had taken to and with punk credentials that would never have occurred to anyone over there.

Maybe it was the leather jacket he wore on the cover. Whatever, it worked. Of course it couldn't happen today. You only miss gatekeepers when they're not there anymore.

Monday, October 02, 2017

House price shock 1980s-style

We bought our first house in 1982. It was a four-bedroom place in north London.

An uncle of mine asked what it cost. When I told him he caught his breath and rocked back on his heels. He didn't have much experience of house prices outside Yorkshire.

He thought about it for a moment and then found a silver lining. "Still, I expect you'll also get a double garage for that."

I explained that there was no garage of any kind. Properties on suburban streets in London didn't work like that.

He went away shaking his head that we would ever pay such a ridiculous sum of money for a house, even in that there London.

How much were we paying?


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Questions I didn't get round to asking Jimmy Webb

Just got back from talking to Jimmy Webb about his memoir "The Cake And The Rain" at Waterstone's. I'm looking at my notes and realising that while our conversation touched on such topics as Frank Sinatra in a onesie, the night he left a party with Little Feat, became involved in a road race in the Hollywood Hills and totalled an unbelievably expensive motor car, how he wrote his first hit in his head while driving to the beach, what it was like as a 17-year-old to stand in front of the cream of Los Angeles session men and conduct his own arrangement and why there's a solid fiduciary reason why "Hey Jude" is as long as it is, these are just some of the things I didn't get round to asking him about.

* Singing for the first time in public at Hugh Hefner's place for his TV show "Playboy After Dark".
* Why Richard Harris was incapable of properly singing the title of "McArthur Park".
* Watching the Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square from the penthouse on top of the Playboy Club in Park Lane.
* His disastrous in-concert debut in Los Angeles in 1970 where Le Tout Hollywood turned up to watch him fail – and he obliged.
* His private conversations with Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong.
* Being sneaked into the control room to watch the Beatles record "Honey Pie".
* Taking part in a naked orchestral concert with, among others, Joni Mitchell.
* Nearly killing himself shooting the cover of "Lands End".
* How he became one of twelve writers credited on "Famous" by Kanye West.
* Lots of other stuff involving famous beautiful women, expensive cars and cocaine.

Still, it's all in the book.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

There's no such thing as new music. There's just old music you haven't heard before.

The other day somebody asked me the "what are you listening to right now?" question. This questions assumes that I'm one of those people who spend their weeks ploughing through the latest releases. There was a time I had to do that and it almost killed my love of music. I envy Bob Harris who always says that his favourite record is whatever he's just heard. I can't do that.

In addition to this we now have access to so much stuff we haven't heard it seems absurd to give any special respect to whatever happens to be new.

There was a live example this morning. I was reading Michael Chabon's "Telegraph Avenue" which starts with a guy in a record shop going through a crate of old jazz records. He's delighted to find one by Melvin Sparks. Because I'd never heard of Melvin Sparks I fired up the album he was talking about on Spotify and really enjoyed it. It was made just before his death in 2011.

I was just enjoying that when my son messaged me to say he was enjoying "Living On A Thin Line" by The Kinks. This was recorded in 1984 but he'd heard it on a Sopranos soundtrack, which came out sixteen years later in 2001.

Like I should have said to the woman who asked me what I was listening to right now. There's no such thing as new music. There's just old music you haven't heard before.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The ten best single words in Steely Dan's songs

Chuck Berry prided himself on being able to use words you didn’t often find in pop songs. So did Bob Dylan. And Joni Mitchell.

But nobody did it better than Steely Dan.

In memory of Walter Becker I launched a Twitter search for the best single words used in their lyrics.

I’m not counting actual place names like Guadalajara and Hackensack; nor made-up places like the Custerdome.

I’m not using real people’s names like Cathy Berberian or Thelonius.

These are the ten best single words in Steely Dan lyrics, as chosen by lots of people on Twitter and put into order by me. Why not? It's my blog.

  • “Squonk” in “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”
  • “Oleanders” in “My Old School”
  • “Scrapple” from “Josie”
  • “Kirchwasser” from “Babylon Sisters"
  • “Merengue” from "Haitian Divorce"
  • “Skeevy” from “Cousin Dupree"
  • “Bodhisattva” from “Bodhisattva”
  • “Spoor” from “Rose Darling"
  • “Dolly” (as a verb!) in “Haitian Divorce”
  • These are all great suggestions but my winner is still “piastre” in “Doctor Wu”. 

There’s lots of fascinating reading about references in Steely Dan songs in the fabulous Steely Dan Dictionary.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Funny how podcasters never talk about the kind of advertising they get

I listen to a lot of podcasts for my Guardian Guide column.

Traditionally podcasts have been a tough advertising sell. Nobody knows whether the figures they claim are reliable and even if they are nobody can decide whether they're surprisingly big or surprisingly small.

However since the success of Serial the profile of the big podcasts in the USA has grown. The people who host them are well-known; they're refugees from press or politics, know how to put themselves over and sometimes even get invited on TV chat shows. The biggest podcasts now have backers who are paying the talent and hoping they can make their money back through advertising.

These adverts are the kind of thing it would be very difficult to buy on traditional media. They're the kind of thing you might have come across in the early days of TV when the host would break off to hymn the virtues of a brand of cigarettes or a detergent. What the advertiser wants is the presenter recommending their products to the listener. Some podcasters can do this with a straight face. Some can't. They'll learn the hard way.

What's more interesting is the kind of advertising these podcasts attract. This tends to be aimed at cash-rich childless couples, the sort who like to think of themselves as "time-poor" (as if any sub-set of the population has more time than any other) and are immensely attracted by the idea of contracting out any of their domestic requirements to a service they can interact with without talking to a human being.

In this post Uber, post-Deliveroo world you can get anything delivered to your door because it's taken for granted that one is simply too busy on Instagram to actually go to the shop in the High Street and get it.

Inevitably this means that the shop on your High Street closes and the retail sector shrinks further with predictable consequences for the local environment and the job prospects of people who are never going to make a living out of the digital economy. 

Clearly none of these podcasters could change any of this even if they wanted to.  It's just I've heard them opine about so many things that I can't believe that they haven't at least raised an eyebrow at the manner in which they may be benefitting from changes they otherwise deplore.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Donald Trump is facing the kind of crisis all media brands face

Donald Trump's obviously no politician. He's not a businessman either. He's a media brand.

All his inveighing against the media is understandable because, like everyone else in the media, he's obsessed with the media.

He was invented by the media. He was invented specifically by Si Newhouse, the boss of Conde Nast, who got the idea that Trump had done well on the cover of GQ and thought he might have a book in him.

The book, The Art Of The Deal, was created by Tony Schwartz whose story of how it was done is definitely worth reading. The book successfully promoted the false idea that Trump was some kind of deal-making genius, when in fact he was a laughing stock among property developers

Enough people bought that idea for NBC to subsequently hire Trump as the figurehead of "The Apprentice". These programmes built him up into some kind of superhuman figure. As somebody said, he eventually became a poor man's idea of a rich man, a weak man's idea of a strong man.

Between them these two mainstream media companies built the brand that he was able to ride to the White House on a wave of brand synergy beyond the wildest dreams of the Harvard Business School.

His current travails remind me of what happens to all media properties when they come under pressure. What do they do? Stick or twist? Do they try to reach out to a new audience and risk alienating the audience they've already got or do they settle for delivering higher satisfaction to a shrinking core? This used to happen on magazines all the time.

It's even more intense on TV. TV success is always way more personal. TV stars who feel their ratings slipping do the only thing they know how to do, which is turn themselves up to eleven.