Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Happy Weddingversary to @alexwilcock and @millenniumdome !

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 25, 2014

This is a busy weekend for me, hence no proper posts yesterday or today — every spare moment has been spent with people.

And tomorrow (well, thirty-four minutes from now) will be one of the busiest, as I’m going to the wedding of two of my favourite people, Alex Wilcock and Richard Flowers (who helps Millennium write his diary).

Tomorrow is their twentieth anniversary, but this year is the first year it’s legal for them to marry. I’ve known them both about six of those years, and I can’t think of a couple more suited to each other, or more clearly devoted to each other even after twenty years. And it says something about how much I like both of them that theirs is the first wedding I’ve attended as a guest in something like twenty-five years (in that time I’ve attended two other weddings — at one I was the groom and at the other I officiated).

So while I’ve not got time to do a proper blog post tonight, I just wanted to publicly congratulate them both.

California Dreaming: Happy Together

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 24, 2014

1967 saw the Turtles as practically a new band, with a new sound, and in search of a new song.

In early 1966, the band had seen the Lovin’ Spoonful play live, and had immediately found the missing piece of their style. The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most influential bands of the time, and one who hang like a ghost over much of the story we’re looking at in this book, as while they were not an LA band themselves they were, like the Beatles or the Stones, a band that all the LA musicians were aware of.

In the case of the Turtles, what they took from the Lovin’ Spoonful was their attitude. The Lovin’ Spoonful were a fun band, making what they called “good-time music”, and the Turtles decided that they were going to have nothing more to do with folk-rock, they were going to be a good-time music band too. The Lovin’ Spoonful were now as important to the Turtles as Louis Prima and Keely Smith or the Zombies.

This decision was accepted happily by their record label, White Whale, who instead of passing them P.F. Sloan folk-rock songs to perform started passing them P.F. Sloan Lovin’ Spoonful pastiches like You Baby. At first, this brought the band a certain amount of commercial success, but the band’s singles were charting lower in the top forty with each release.

To make matters worse, they had lost their rhythm section. Don Murray had (according to Howard Kaylan’s autobiography) grown paranoid and stormed off in the middle of a show, never to return, while Chuck Portz had decided that the band was clearly past its peak, and so he quit and became a fisherman.

The remaining foursome auditioned numerous drummers before settling on John Barbata, a jazz drummer who was one of the few people who could take part in drum-offs with Buddy Rich and not come out the clear loser, but for their new bass player they chose Chip Douglas, late of the Modern Folk Quartet.

This new, improved, Turtles spent the next eight months touring before going into the studio to record their new single, a song they had been trying out on the road for much of that time.

The new song actually came from Koppelman/Rubin Associates, the publishing, production, and management conglomerate whose major act was the Lovin’ Spoonful, and by all accounts the demo had been around almost every major band in the country and been turned down before the Turtles heard it.

The song, Happy Together, was by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon, who had previously been members of The Magicians, whose only single An Invitation To Cry had been a flop but is now considered a minor classic. This new song, however, was anything but a flop. It had a big, bouncy, major-key chorus in the Spoonful style, but it had a soft minor-key verse, which meant that Howard Kaylan could once again do his imitation of Colin Blunstone on She’s Not There, going from a soft, almost whispered, verse into a much stronger chorus. And best of all, it didn’t take itself too seriously — lines like “if I should call you up, invest a dime” were clearly funny, and the Turtles were nothing if not a funny band.

Chip Douglas created a carefully-worked out arrangement, starting with very light instrumental backing by the band with Kaylan’s voice front and centre, then in the second verse bringing in light backing vocals and a single piano embellishment under the line “invest a dime”. For the big chorus, he then has strings and horns come in, along with full-voiced backing vocals, and then in the rest of the song there’s a sense of tension and release as the song keeps dropping back to the quieter verses, but each time there’ll a change in the arrangement, with backing vocals anticipating the main vocal line in the third verse (a trick probably inspired by the Beatles’ Help!), Volman harmonising with Kaylan on the fourth verse while an oboe plays a countermelody (probably inspired by Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe), and then repeating the fourth verse but without Volman or the oboe.

And then of course there are the wonderful, cascading, Beach Boys-inspired “bah bah bah” parts, straight out of God Only Knows but here repurposed to create pure exuberant joy rather than the fragile delicacy of the Beach Boys’ song.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful, track that’s derivative as hell, but derivative of all the best people. Douglas had learned his lessons well, and the track pulls together the Zombies, Phil Spector, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys into one perfect two-minute-and-fifty-four-second masterclass in pop music.

But the thing that tips the track clearly over into perfection is Kaylan’s vocal. The version used on the single is the first take, which he had believed was only a warm-up. As a result, he mocks the song slightly, over-emoting (could anyone really sound that sad while saying they’re “so happy together”?) and including a jokey line that Alan Gordon had sung on the demo — “how is the weather?” — that had never been intended to be part of the song. The band, Joe Wissert (the track’s producer), and engineer Bruce Botnick all persuaded him that his warm-up had been the take, and the result was the band’s only number one, and a track that is one of the fifty records with the most radio plays in history.

Chip Douglas had taken a demo with only an acoustic guitar and slapped knees for percussion, and turned it into a classic of sunshine pop. Clearly he could do great things with the Turtles. But he had other plans…

Happy Together

Composer: Gary Bonner & Alan Gordon

Line-up: Mark Volman (vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Al Nichol (guitar, vocals), Jim Tucker (guitar, vocals), Chip Douglas (bass, vocals), John Barbata (drums), unknown piano, horns, and strings

Original release: Happy Together/Like The Seasons, The Turtles, White Whale WW-244

Currently available on: Save The Turtles: The Turtles Greatest Hits, Manifesto CD and innumerable compilations

California Dreaming: So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star?

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 22, 2014

But is it about the Monkees or not?

With Gene Clark gone from the band, the Byrds’ star was fading. Without their lead singer and most commercial songwriter, their last two singles had only reached numbers 44 and 36 in the charts. Their imperial phase had only lasted a little under a year, between Mr Tambourine Man and Eight Miles High and the pop audience was already on the lookout for the next big thing.

So it’s unsurprising that the new wave of teen idol pop stars was something that the Byrds looked on with, at best, ambivalence. While they were hardly an organic, dues-paying, band themselves (having not played on their first single, and having a drummer who was chosen for his looks rather than his playing ability), nonetheless it galled them when, as Roger McGuinn put it, “We were thumbing through a teen magazine and looking at all the unfamiliar faces and we couldn’t help thinking: ‘Wow, what’s happening…all of a sudden here is everyone and his brother and his sister-in-law and his mother and even his pet bullfrog singing rock ‘n’ roll.’”

This experience inspired McGuinn and Chris Hillman to write a song mocking all these youngsters who were becoming rock stars by just having the right hair and attitude. Hillman had gone from not being a songwriter at all when the band’s first two albums were released to being their most prolific writer, and had come up with the bassline for the song while playing on a session for the trumpeter Hugh Masakela. Hillman and McGuinn then added the lyrics, which seem more passionate than crafted, with many lines having scansion that doesn’t quite fit the melody.

To produce the single, and the album Younger Than Yesterday for which it was intended, the Byrds turned to Gary Usher, who knew a thing or two about manufactured bands himself, having spent his time since he stopped working with Brian Wilson on producing bands such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Silly Surfers, The Weird-Ohs, and The Hondells, often working for Ben-Ven Productions, an independent production company owned by Nik Venet and his business partner Fred Benson. Possibly more to the point, he had recently produced Gene Clark’s first solo album.

Usher’s more experimental attitude would soon help push the band into new areas very far from their original folk-rock sound, but here what we have is pure 1966, a band clearly moving on into new musical territory, but with enough similarities to their earlier work that nobody could mistake it for anyone else. The main clues that the Byrds were going in a new direction were the addition of Hugh Masakela’s trumpet — the first time that the band had used brass on their recordings — and Chris Hillman’s bass, which had previously been low in the mix, being promoted essentially to the status of a lead instrument. The song also used sound effects — audience screams that had been recorded by Derek Taylor during the band’s 1965 UK tour– something that they had never done before. It’s clearly an advance, albeit an incremental one, on the band’s earlier recordings.

But there’s a big controversy about the song, one that still raises its head to this day — is it about the Monkees?

Both McGuinn and Hillman have said it isn’t, but songwriters aren’t always the most reliable guides to their creations. And certainly Michael Nesmith thinks it isn’t — he planned an interactive video (and later an interactive CD-ROM) based on the song in the 1980s. But it still ends up getting said, over and over, that it is.

It isn’t, of course. While the Monkees were definitely in the news at the time (the day that the Byrds started work on this track, in fact, was the day that they got a gold record for their second single I’m A Believer, November 28 1966), the controversy about them not playing on their own records didn’t start until Saturday 28th January 1967, when the Saturday Evening Post released an article “exposing” them.

In truth, the song is about the Monkees — but only to the same extent that it was about Dino, Desi, & Billy, the Grass Roots, Gary Lewis & The Playboys, Paul Revere & The Raiders, or, indeed, the Byrds themselves. The coincidental timing of this single being released just as the Monkees’ manufactured status became a big news item is actually to do with bigger cultural factors.

The end of 1966 and beginning of 1967 was the time when “pop” and “rock” were first starting to split from each other — a split which will play out over the course of the rest of this book. Rock was starting to be defined against pop — as “authentic” and “art”, as opposed to “manufactured” and “commercial” pop. The Byrds’ pop career was effectively over — they simply weren’t having big hit singles any more — and so they had to position themselves as rock artists rather than pop stars if they wanted to continue to have any career at all. The Monkees, meanwhile, were the biggest new pop band, and so would automatically be seen as what the rock bands were defining themselves against, even if, as we shall see, the reality was somewhat different.

Either way, the controversy managed to get the Byrds back into the top thirty, but it wouldn’t last. Their next single, a cover of Dylan’s My Back Pages would be the band’s last top forty hit. And there would soon be many more changes in the band…

So You Want To Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

Composer: Roger McGuinn & Chris Hillman

Line-up: Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), David Crosby (guitar, vocals) Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), Michael Clarke (drums), Hugh Masakela (trumpet)

Original release: So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star/Everybody’s Been Burned, The Byrds, Columbia 4-43987

Currently available on:
Younger Than Yesterday, Columbia Legacy CD

Linkblogging For 21/10/14

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2014
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We Need STV, Not “PR”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 21, 2014

(I hope the following is coherent — I’ve been sleep-deprived for much of the last week, and really don’t feel very good)

We no longer live in anything that could be made to convincingly pose as a two-party system, even if you squint a bit. Nor do we live in the two-and-a-bit party system we had from 1981 through 2010, where Labour or the Tories would get a massive majority and the Lib Dems would have a handful of seats.

At the next election, while the Lib Dems’ vote has haemmoraged, the party is still likely to get twenty or thirty seats — the same levels they were getting in the 90s — through targetted campaigning and the incumbency factor (I was predicting 35 until recently, and that’s still possible, but would require rather more competence in getting a liberal message out than we’ve seen). UKIP topped the poll at the European election and look likely to come third nationally, but seem unlikely to get more than (at the very most) one or two seats in the election. The Greens are polling better than they ever have, and may still overtake the Lib Dems in support, though I doubt it. And the Scottish National Party have more members than any UK-wide party now, I believe, with the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens all doing fairly well.

Some of this I’m very glad about, some of it I’m much less happy about — I’ve often said that I wish the two main parties in the UK were the Lib Dems on the liberal side and the Greens on the authoritarian centralist side — but all of it’s a fact. It’s looking incredibly unlikely that any party will even get as high a share of the vote as the low share the Tories got in 2010, when they got most votes but couldn’t get a majority without going into coalition with the Lib Dems.

In fact it’s possible, though not likely, that the following absurd situation could happen next time — the Tories come first in popular vote, but second in seats, Labour come second in popular vote but first in seats, UKIP come third in the vote but get no seats at all, the Greens come fourth but also get no seats, and the Lib Dems come fifth but get enough seats that they get to be the kingmakers who decide what party or parties form the next government.

I don’t think that’s going to happen — I think the Lib Dem vote will recover enough, and UKIP’s vote will drop off enough at an actual election, that those two parties will be pretty much neck-and-neck in the popular vote in May, with the Greens a distant fifth — but it’s not at all unthinkable.

Three years ago, after the massive failure of the AV referendum (still the most upsetting public event of my lifetime), William Hague was crowing at Conservative party conference that electoral reform was “dead for a generation”. Now the political system has become so chaotic and unpredictable that we’re starting to see kite-flying articles in the Tory broadsheets talking about how the Tories should consider putting “PR” into their manifesto for the next election. I don’t think that will happen, but electoral reform is not looking anything like as unthinkable as it did after the referendum — and if something as blatantly stupid as the scenario I outline above happens and we don’t get reform, I could see riots happening.

The problem is that the kite-flying we’re seeing talks about “PR”, not about a specific system. And this is dangerous. It’s partly the fault of the Lib Dems, for spending decades talking about “PR” rather than systems — and that was something that helped sink the AV referendum, when a load of thick bastards who thought they were being clever said they’d only vote for “full PR” without really knowing what the words they were saying meant.

There are actually at least three criteria that, in my view at least, need to be met to consider a voting system truly representative. Proportionality is one — the result should lead to roughly the same proportion of representatives for each party as there were people who voted for it — but it’s only one, and to my mind the least important of the three. The system should also be preferential — it shouldn’t discard as pointless all the votes that don’t go to the top two candidates, which the Biggest Loser system we’ve got now does — and it should allow people to vote for specific candidates, or more to the point *against* them. If you’ve got an incompetent representative, you should be able to get rid of that person even if they’re in a generally-popular party, and conversely if you’ve got a good independent candidate they should be able to win even without being a member of a party.

AV was my second-favourite choice, because it had both those latter two conditions. It isn’t proportional, but it is preferential, and it allows you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Other voting systems have these aspects in different measure. The only one I know of that has all three is the single transferable vote, or British Proportional Representation (to give it the name which would possibly sell it to more voters, and by which it used to be known). This is the system that the Lib Dems have always advocated, and it is also the one that the Electoral Reform Society, among others, campaign for.

And we need to start advocating for British Proportional Representation now, and constantly, and explaining the difference between that and just “PR”, which isn’t “full PR”, but is “only PR”. There are many proportional systems out there, and some are profoundly undemocratic. The Bloody Stupid d’Hondt System (to give it its full name) that we use for the European elections, for example, is hideously undemocratic even though it’s proportional — voters get to choose from lists of candidates chosen by the parties, with no control over which individual their vote helps elect. This moves control and accountability away from the voters and toward the party leaders. We all remember times when unpopular individual politicians from all sides have been kicked out by their local voters because of their personal unpopularity, even when they’ve been important figures in their parties (naming no Michaels, Peters, or Lembits). We’ve also seen, less often but occasionally, strong independent candidates get elected. Having a PR system like d’Hondt would ensure that that could never happen.

We need proportionality, but it must be balanced by the ability to vote for individuals. We need to make sure that if we do get electoral reform as a result of the current mess, it’s not a stitch-up that transfers power into the hands of four voters named David, Ed, Nick, and Nigel.

No to PR, yes to STV.

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