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Posts from the ‘Music’ Category

Rock’n’roll is no place for subtlety

(note to self: This is a shallow and juvenile post. Playing bass is clearly retarding our personal development.)

Playing live is better than sex. It’s sweaty, noisy fun and I can go for hours. It’s hard, it’s fast, it’s slow, it’s tender, and there’s plenty of eye contact.

Yes, ladies, not only am I the one with the biggest, longest guitar in the bar but I know what to do with it, too. I sometimes even give it a bit of a spanking, because some people like to watch that kind of thing.

Looking forwards to working up a sweat with my band tonight!

Hipster music defined

Care of Berklee Music Blogs, and originally from Diesel Sweeties. This is very true. Hipsters, you are the death of all that is honest and joyful in the appreciation of music.

RIP Gil Scott-Heron

Wow, this was surprising news to come home to: Gil Scott-Heron has passed away. He and my friend Rory kept me going through many a retail assistant hour.

Here’s a man who combined speaking a message we need to hear, with music that needed to be heard. Decades it old it may be, but The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is still required listening. Here are his three utterly essential tracks:

  • The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
  • Whitey On The Moon
  • Johannesberg

They might not all sound relevant to the UK until you think about unfair income distributions.

I’ll be spending the weekend listening to his style and trying to hear his message.

Turn it up louder!

Rehearsal studios often have gear with odd layouts, as I found out yesterday when I plugged by bass effects gizmo into a tuner output rather than the effects return as planned. Normally if you plug your bass into an output jack, it gets you nowhere. But it turns out you can turn it up to 11, and the leakage from one circuit to another will get you by until you spot the problem.

If there’s one lesson in rock, it’s this: when things don’t seem to be working  – turn it up louder!

Screw the artists

I know the tech sector loves Google, automated curation, and algorithm-driven content aggregation. But essentially, the message to artists is: screw you. This is said in rather more appealing terms, of course. Witness Google’s launch of its music service:

We are open to discussion, as long as those discussions are aimed at creating a product and service for end-users that is on a sustainable set of business terms which represents a good value for users

– Jamie Rosenberg, director of digital content for Android

My uncharitable translation would be this: Our business is the automated aggregation of huge volumes of small advertising fees. So screw you, artists. We need your content for peanuts, because the creative process is too inefficient for our highly optimised, number crunching machine. With a market cap of only $178bn, Larry feels a bit tight for cash. We need to make every cent we can.

There’s a lot of people caught up in the excitement of the internet and fighting the big bad record labels. I don’t think they realise that the new business models they are infatuated with reduce artists to merchandisers and advertising agencies. They will be valued not by the quality and effort of their composition, but by their ability to sell T-shirts, hot dogs and sugary drinks.

A lot of young artists without financial commitments think the idea of free music and online exposure is great. A young audience tells itself that it’s all OK. Artists can make money from live performance, so recorded music should be just marketing material. Meanwhile, anyone that aspires to a normal life and family will give up. A profession where simply being talented and creative and hard-working isn’t enough holds no future for them.

The likes of the Open Rights Group will slice and dice industry data to prove to you that despite the wailing of big corporations about piracy, the music business is doing fine. Curiously, the advocates of new digital freedoms talk a lot about supporting creators .. but don’t bother themselves with including more than a few token artists on their boards and panels.

That might be why they don’t tell you is that it’s only fine for established acts like U2 and Radiohead. It’s cool for new bands like Two Door Cinema Club: good looking young guys, flush with the excitement of breaking into the scene. But it’s dying for the artists and artisans who just want to make a living from their art. If you’re not young, beautiful, or already rich – don’t expect to make a living from music. It will be a business for the privileged and for the safe, good looking X-Factor winner.

Unique voices like a Tom Waits or a Nick Cave might never have made it under the idea that you’re only worth what you can physically force the customer to pay. Early electronica composers such as Wendy Carlos might never have tried to break new ground. New art forms, unable to get people to travel a distance and buy a £50 ticket, might never happen.

With the odd cult exception known only to the technophiles – think Jonathan Coulton – there simply aren’t any stories of artists doing better with the new model. And let’s face it, part of his success is not because of his music but because his business model appeals to the new digital cults.

The age of digital media is reducing art to mere bits. It has no intrinsic value as the precious output of a human being expressing something meaningful, just the cost of transmission and storage. It costs a few pennies to store an album, and no marginal cost to download one over broadband. As far as the stereotypical technophile goes, artists who struggled to get a quid out of a monopolistic corporation should now settle for pennies at most from the larger, even more faceless, even less forgiving internet crowd.

Artists are caught in a perfect storm: corporate monoliths; a self-serving notion that technological might makes right; the Ayn Rand loving, free market fundamentalism of Silicon Valley. Will the left wing’s determination to destroy the notion of intellectual property (under the guise of fighting the establishment) prove to be the perfect Trojan Horse for the most remorseless market system ever devised by man?

I hope I’m wrong. But I believe the purpose of civilisation to rise above the hard maths and cruel biology of raw, physical law. Google sees them instead as a negotiation stance. Don’t Be Evil does not necessarily mean Be Good – it could just mean pure amorality.

Still, expect to see much discussion about how righteous advertising broker Google (market cap $178bn) is standing up to the likes of the evil entertainment company Warner Brothers (whose parent Time Warner is worth “only” $38bn).

Four Armed Lady Gaga Guitar

I’m going to suggest to my guitarist buddy Dave that we try to do this at a gig:

But only if he grows the beard.

Karmin Music

Nice cover here, hat tip to the Berklee Music Blog. Hip hop lends itself to sparse arrangements; this is as sparse as it gets. Absolutely love Amy Heidemann’s performance. Beautifully expressive expressions, if that’s not too redundant.



Of course, the reason this is getting huge numbers of views is probably yet another example of the success of whitified versions of black music…

The difference between equality and equal treatment

or, “A long post about short people”.

Randy Newman’s Short People was a surprise hit in 1977. Randy’s way of parodying prejudice is to write in character. Even with the over-the-top caricature in the song, it wasn’t always taken as intended. There was widespread criticism for the extremely negative picture it painted of the “vertically challenged”.

Here’s Randy giving a solo performance:

I’ll get back to the height thing later. Let’s talk about the circumstances of birth for a bit.

Let’s talk about privileges

It’s not the done thing, talking about one’s privileges. It needs to be done sometimes, though. Take the Liberal Democrats. The party is notably lacking in members with coloured skin or low incomes. An increasingly common question these days is, “How are the Lib Dems any different to the Tories?”. There are some sensitive aspects to this that aren’t being much discussed by the membership. Yet restricting the notion of “privileged” to the top few per cent is dangerous.

I could paint a picture of not being particularly privileged. My father was a town planner for the council; my mother a physiotherapist for the NHS. They bought a house after they got married, and live in the self same house over 40 years later. Even with two parents working, our holidays were just camping holidays in France. No flights, no hotels, and an exhausting 600+ mile drive from Glasgow into the bargain. When I learnt to play guitar, I taught myself on a hand-me-down acoustic that Mum once bought for herself; it was a year or two before I had earned the right to get my own electric guitar. It was yet another couple of years before I could afford an amplifier.

But, I’m wary of becoming a Laurie Penny. It could be politically convenient to focus on, say, the years I spent on minimum wage. My brief stint in youth work in Maryhill was the most worthy part-time job I’ve ever had to supplement a low income. I could regale you with tales of drinking and gigging in some of the roughest pubs in Glasgow. But that would ignore ten years living the ex-pat life in Hong Kong. And if the goal is to deal with privilege as a powerful social force, it needn’t mean emulating Laurie’s tales of slumming it to establish one’s right-on bona fides, all part of a career conceived at Oxford University to become a voice of the people.

Was she even a teen when Jarvis Cocker sang about Common People?

Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.

Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.

But still you’ll never get it right ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night

Watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your Dad he could stop it all

Inequality will not be dealt with by acting as if people must forego nutrition and decent housing before they can have worthwhile views. Nor with the more mainstream Labour approach of simply ignoring the Oxbridge effect. In an age where relative poverty affects far more people than the absolute variety, we need to shift from posturing at the extremes to a frank discussion about just what advantages different people enjoy.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful

This is my list of primary advantages: I’m white, British, naturally suited to academia and privately educated. Not a bad list in the UK at all. Even so, I think it is fair that I stand with most in laughing at the idea of Kate Middleton as a “commoner”. My family background was not awash in money; schooling for my two brothers and I was an incredibly expensive investment for my parents compared to those who afford the school fees but still have a detached house and a BMW in the drive. But of course I still recognise the advantages it has given me, and not by my own efforts.

Others might do well to do the same. Some families of similar incomes and backgrounds have chosen a state education for their children – but also more and bigger cars, houses and holidays. There are those who stay in council housing, and spend their money on being the big man on the estate. All these approaches confer some similar advantages: a certain kind of confidence, a way of speaking that combined with society’s racial and gender biases leads to freedom of choice and financial reward. There are people in the Lib Dems, I’ve noticed, who repeat the 7% figure of privately educated individuals as if that fact alone means they have not enjoyed any particular boost in their own lives. How often is the dearth of candidates from a low income background addressed?

Reaching the top shelf

All of this gets rather fraught, so let’s get back to Randy and another advantage I was born with: not being a short person.

It might seem a trivial and vain thing to point out, but not so. I’m 6’ 2”, and if statistical studies are to be believed, I owe a percentage point or two of the money I’ve earned to this fact alone. Were I American, it would play an essential role before I could get elected President, and has a similar impact on elections around the world. Women in general find it attractive – you can consider this a particularly trivial and vain point, if you believe that matters of sex don’t have much impact on general human behaviour.

All that has nothing to do with anything I’ve done. It’s the combined result the DNA I was gifted at birth, and Mum feeding me well (believe me when I say this is not a sexist take on gender roles in parenting; Dad’s taste in food is as healthy as you might expect of a Glaswegian!).

How does this relate to being a Liberal Democrat? Well, to take a similar function of simply being born, consider intelligence. It’s generally not acceptable to talk about it too much, but some people are born smarter than others. From the productivity of computer programmers to the pay scales of lawyers, this difference reveals itself in cold, hard figures. 50% more IQ points produces 600% more income. I’ve plucked those figures from the air – and don’t get me started on the problems of using IQ as a measure of intelligence – but the fundamental point remains.

From hard fact to soft thinking

It is noticeable to me that many highly intelligent and influential people seem to draw a very stupid conclusion from this kind of phenomenon. They act as if comparative values reflect absolute realities.

I am a taller than about 95% of the human race. You could say I have a tendency to look down on people, for I am exceptional. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can reach a shelf 10’ off the ground. And if there are answers to be found in the cupboard of life, they are kept on shelves at least that high. Like everybody else, I need help to find them and it doesn’t matter how similar they are to me, in height or anything else.

As a more serious scenario: it’s all well and good that Ed Balls is smarter than the rest us, but that doesn’t mean he really understands what’s good for the economy. There is an unfortunate tendency to almost deify the man (it’s usually a man) at the top, and to convey authority upon them that has not actually been earned.

Labour and the Tories constantly make this mistake; it is built into their party structure. Their wonderfully brilliant Oxbridge ministers are treated as if being tall means you’re 10’ tall. (To be fair, the Lib Dems aren’t immune. Vince Cable is tall, too.)

Keeping the good stuff safe

The financial sector has an even more dangerous attitude: not only do they act as if they’re 10’ tall, they ferociously defend a system where all the good stuff is kept 7’ off the ground. So while the global economy might repeatedly collapse as they regularly overstretch themselves, in between crises an increasingly large slice of wealth is stored in places where increasingly few people can get to it.

They are living the high life in several metaphorical senses.

The Liberal Democrat philosophy really is different. It builds into its very structure a reflection of the nature of things. The shelf is in fact not 10’ off the ground but even higher, and only with a large group of people actively contributing can we reach it. Thus we have democracy built into the policy making process.

Let’s not get too proud of ourselves, however. Lib Dems are not immune to holding beliefs that can prevent an objective view of reality. I believe that diversity is one such area, and in particular those who hold any form of positive action to represent a form of unfair advantage.

The difference between equality and equal treatment

In a limited, mathematical sense this concern for absolute fairness is fair. But every female or asian or black or lesbian or low income individual in the nation has some way to go before they catch up with the advantages I receive simply for being a tall white guy with a mainstream accent. The broader mathematical concern is that decision making by a diverse group is measurably superior to that of a group that resembles itself. Further, narrow definitions of “meritocracy” statistically result in the top tiers being populated by people with advantages not just from gender and racial bias, not just social or educational background, but also trivial issues such as height and perceived attractiveness.

Do minor advantages matter? When there are only a few spaces at the top, and the reward system is “winner takes us” in nature, absolutely. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the “de’il tak’ the hindmost” issue that keeps people on the poverty line. The right wing declares that inequality is the necessary consequence of different people being willing to make different efforts. To the extent that is true, however, the degree of inequality is the result of rewarding circumstances more than work.

At the Lib Dem conference, there were a few young women sat behind me who were disappointed to be possibly the only people in the entire hall voting against the diversity motion. I admire their determination to do earn success by their own efforts, to reject both unfair advantage and being patronised. These are noble aspirations. But strong principles have a habit of breaking the world down into artificial compartments. What makes sense in one context does not always translate to the whole. The advantages that people like me receive tend to tunnel into the subtext, undermining the goals more openly declared. They will continue to do so for a generation or more, so deeply buried are they in our culture.

As long as the measures adopted are reasonable – such as the Leadership Programme to develop “diversity candidates”, if you’ll pardon the clunky phrase – these principled women should take some comfort in the fact that any unfair advantage is smaller than the ones I’ve already got. Ones that I couldn’t even refuse if I wanted to.

Deciding on merit, not DNA

Perhaps it is patronising of me, as a tall person, to offer assistance to those who are shorter. I don’t mean it to be, though. My 5’ 4” Mum would have a few sharp words for my 6’ 1” Dad if he started calling her “little lady”. But she’d also tear off a strip if he became reluctant to fetch something from a high shelf because she’s a capable, independent woman perfectly capable of getting it herself.

In a competitive world where small advantages can deliver outsized returns, it’s perfectly reasonable to actively compensate in such key areas as candidate selection. When people live their entire lives with a predominantly white, male, middle class Parliament, they will instinctively favour similar candidates. It’s a mental association that was not their choice to make. And that’s before we raise other challenges such as the four c’s.

A small ladder up really does no more than allow everyone to be judged on their merit, and not their DNA.



Totally addicted to bass

I successfully auditioned to join a band as bass player last week. That was remarkably gratifying. After strumming guitars for twenty years, I guess it’s not so amazing, but after putting a fair bit of effort the last year or two specifically into the bass it was nice to turn in a decent enough performance.

My first full rehearsal was on Tuesday night. Playing bass is fun!!! I’m used to rehearsing and gigging, but now it’s with an instrument I can really move round the room with. I don’t think the cool as, mean and moody look is going to be my thing.

This summer will be my Summer of Boogielicious Bombastic Bass!

This Land is Your Land

It gets right to the heart of what this country is supposed to be about .. There’s a lot of people out there who’s jobs are disappearing. I don’t know if they’d feel this song is true anymore. And I’m not sure that is, but I know that it ought to be.

I’d like to do this for you reminding you that with countries, just like with people, it’s easy to let the best of yourself slip away.

I do seem to be righting very long posts lately. Another quick one, however. I forget how it went, but one of the Lib Dem Glee Club songs reminded me of this beautiful clip: