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Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Neil Cowley Trio have very nearly got a hit


I went to see the Neil Cowley Trio play a short gig in an underground garage this week. They did some tunes from their new album "Spacebound Apes". These days the words "new album" only cause excitement among the people who have made said new album. It's like back in the old days people used to come round and make you look at their holiday snaps. You paid attention largely to be polite.

Nowadays the precious currency is not the recorded music. It's the audience's undivided attention. That's a fact. You can waste your time mourning the world that's gone and is never coming back or you can take notice of the fact that new opportunities may arise from time to time in this new dispensation. People's attention can no longer be demanded but it can be piqued.

Neil talked about a tune called "Grace". A few weeks ago he noticed that it had been streamed 30,000 times on Spotify. He was quite gratified about that but he knew it wasn't going to amount to much. But then next time he looked it had gone up a lot. Then it went up even more. Next thing he knew it had been streamed over a million times, which is a lot for a barely-known British act operating in the space dangerously adjacent to jazz.

The reason it had been streamed this many times is Spotify had included that one tune in one of their playlists of new material. It had popped up on people's playlists and since they hadn't skipped it it appeared to have met with their approval. I've just looked again and the total number of times it's been streamed is over four million. That's not going to keep Adele up at night but it's not nothing.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Leon Russell was at the height of his powers in 1971

I was never a fan of Leon Russell's voice but as an arranger/producer/ringmaster he made a lot of great things happen. Quite a few of them happened in 1971.

He produced and played piano on "Watching The River Flow", which was one of Bob Dylan's great singles. He was the musical director of the Concert For Bangla Dash.

And he was instrumental in one of the very few blues/rock crossovers that worked and still works, Freddie King's 1971 album, "Getting Ready".

 It's got all Russell's signature touches: barrelhouse piano, swelling female choruses, the ear for a good song and driving rhythm. Best track is this one, which, I note, still sounded fresh enough to make the sig tune of the U.S. comedy show "Southbound And Down" a few years back. Take it away.

Friday, November 11, 2016

How a cheap marketing gimmick made Leonard Cohen a star

Seemed like my whole generation of college students bought "Songs of Leonard Cohen" in 1968.

Actually first of all they bought "The Rock Machine Turns You On". This was a cheap sampler album of all CBS's new "alternative" acts. Leonard Cohen's "Sisters Of Mercy" was at the end of side one. This was a time when Bob Dylan was writing happy songs and so there was an untapped market for a bit of dark. Leonard fitted the bill, particularly because he was an actual published poet. When Dylan was awarded the Nobel recently I couldn't help thinking it ought to have gone to Leonard Cohen. His songs had the discipline of poems.

I met him once, in the 80s at a party in New York, thrown by his record company to mark how many records he'd sold outside the United States. He wasn't a rock star; he was too polished, too comfortable with formality for that. Somebody from the record company made a speech. Standards aren't high when it comes to record company speeches. What I do remember is Leonard responding with one courtly-sounding sentence: "I'd like to thank you all for the modesty of your interest in my work."

Every time I saw him he always seem to be surrounded by a phalanx a beautiful young women, who clearly admired him greatly. That's one of the reasons I always got irritated with the jokes about "songs for swinging suicides" and the like. Far as I can see Leonard lived a full life and he always saw the funny side.

Thanks to the embezzlement of his retirement fund, he went back on tour late in life and got to enjoy a lap of honour such as no other artist has known. He died surrounded by his family, his affairs settled and his reputation higher than it had ever been.

I don't know if he knew the outcome of the U.S. election. This morning I heard him sing the line "There's a mighty judgement coming", which gave me a shiver. Then he adds "but I may be wrong." Cheers, old boy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Has Billy Joel appointed his successor?

Nice story here about Michael DelGuidice, a musician who went from being in a Billy Joel tribute band to being hired by Joel to play in his band and help him out with the vocals.

The best tribute bands are better than the bands they're based on because they work harder at it and as soon as one member can't do the job they replace him.

The best backing singers are better than the singers they back because they're younger.

A few years back I saw the bus carrying "The Glenn Miller Orchestra". Obviously none of the original musicians and clearly no Glenn. They're licensed by Glenn Miller Productions. They keep the sound alive and cater for the audience that wants to hear that sound.

Maybe Billy Joel Productions will be doing the same thing in the future.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Hillbilly Elegy" is a reminder just how foreign a lot of America is

Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how J.D. Vance made it from a very unpromising background - born into family of suspicious hillbilly folk transplanted from Kentucky to post-industrial Ohio, growing up amid domestic chaos with an addict mother and a succession of father figures - to an entirely new life as a successful lawyer and writer. It's been cited as a useful guide to what's persuading many Americans that Trump's the solution to what ails them.

He serves as an officer in the U.S. Marines, which helps pay for him to go to university and he gets into the law school at Yale, by which time you'd assume that he would have seen enough of the world outside Middletown, Ohio to be able to handle most social situations. It almost comes apart when at a dinner thrown by one of the big law firms who come to recruit at Yale he tastes sparkling water for the first time and is so unused to the taste that he spits it out in disgust.

No nation has a monopoly of insularity but one of the things about growing up in the UK is you're aware that there is a world out there bigger than the world of home. For a start there's the the other world you see every time you switch on the TV, which is usually America. You quickly learn the world is full of unfamiliar things, some of which you might encounter at some point, and you tend to be ready for them.

Monday, October 10, 2016

You couldn't make up the Jeremy Thorpe affair

Maybe A Very English Scandal is as good as it is is because John Preston couldn't publish it until Jeremy Thorpe died in 2014.

I like to think he used that time polishing his account of the Norman Scott affair until it gleams like a truly superior airport novel.

It couldn't be an actual airport novel. The story it tells is too tawdry. Instead of a climax it has a misfire. It's a misfire that fits perfectly with all the bungling that led to it. The two main protagonists both act as though the world owes them a living. Everybody else in the story is just used.

It's a story replete with English types no airport novelist would dare invent: Thorpe's cigar-smoking, monocle-wearing mother who lived on boiled eggs; the eccentric peer of the realm who played a saintly role in homosexual law reform and had badgers roaming free in his home; the chancer Peter Bessell who had to atone for his role as Thorpe's consigliere by living out his days in a one-room shack on a California beach; the extraordinary George Carman QC who could be mortally drunk at two in the morning and then rise in the morning to twist a jury round his little finger; the almost inevitable appearance in the narrative of Jimmy Saville.

I read it in a couple of sittings. It would make a great film. That'll never happen because no American could possibly begin to understand how weird England can be. Shame.




Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Farewell to the rock reference book

Before the internet I had to have rock reference books to do my job. If I wanted to know what year a record came out I had to look it up in a book. Ditto the spelling of the surname of a producer or the age some star was claiming to be. There was nowhere else you could go.

Some of these books, like Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden's "Encyclopaedia Of Rock", and the "Rolling Stone Record Guide", lived at the office because I needed them all the time. And in those days the market for rock books was quite small and so they had a habit of going out of print for years. If you lost one it was the devil's own job to replace it.

Today I put all my music books in one room so that at least I know where they are. I don't want to be searching for hours for a book about Black Sabbath, like I did yesterday. At first I was giving pride of place to the reference books in my sort but now I realise they're the ones I no longer need to have to hand. I literally never open them. Wonder if we'll ever see a rock reference book again.