Michael Nesmith, Manchester Royal Northern College Of Music

This will necessarily be brief, because I only had four hours of sleep last night and I was incoherent even before seeing one of my musical idols. But I promised people a report on the gig, so here it is.

Much like the Beach Boys gigs in Italy, today was a day of coincidences. We’ve got a few people doing a six-week residency at my work, and just as I was leaving, one of them pointed to my Monkees T-shirt and said to me “My girlfriend [in the USian usage, for friend-who-is-female] got married by one of them. Mike… Nesmith, is it?” — Nesmith had officiated at her friend’s wedding. Not only that, but my colleague’s husband turns out to be one of The Golden Dawn, a classic 60s garage-psych band I like. So that was nice.

And then at the gig, after buying myself a T-shirt and a cut-priced box set of Nesmith’s last four albums (with free DVD), I took my seat — I had a great seat, third row centre. Not quite as close as Iain Lee’s description of being so close to Nez at Glasgow that he could see the shape of his penis, but then frankly that’s a good thing. Some things are better left to the imagination — or even better left unimagined.

I found myself sat next to the same person I’d been sat next to at the Monkees gig last year. I’m afraid I talked a bit too much at her, because when I’m this tired I have no filters, but on the upside she turned out to be a fan of classic Doctor Who and Canterbury scene prog, and generally to be a very interesting person. Who I’m sure I bored to death, but I shut up once Nesmith came on.

Nesmith’s show is absolutely stunning. His voice is almost unchanged since the 70s, and those rough edges it does have just give it a worn, comforting quality that, if anything, improves it. And he’s such a great natural singer that he manages to work around the limitations his age imposes in much the same way that someone like Tony Bennett does. He’s got a gorgeous, rich baritone, and I hadn’t realised just how *bloody good* he is until hearing him live.

He was backed by Joe Chemay, who he’s played with since 1979 (and who also played with the Beach Boys in the late 70s), on bass and backing vocals, and by Charlie Judge on keyboards and computers.

Because Nesmith has *radically* rearranged some of these songs, to incorporate electronic soundscapes, beats and samples. This has been the most controversial decision of this tour, but it’s both absolutely right and absolutely wrong. On songs like Silver Moon and Rio, it doesn’t work very well, and it ends up sounding a bit 80s cheese, like someone backing themselves with a Casio keyboard. But on the other hand, on Grand Ennui the result was something like Tom Waits by way of the Radiophonic Workshop, while Laugh Kills Lonesome became space age lounge music, something like Cornelius remixing Esquivel.

Possibly the most interesting reworking was Different Drum, which he performed in waltz-time, to a backing of accordion sounds, and which ended up sounding remarkably like Leonard Cohen.

I’d rather see a performer experiment and fail than not experiment at all, and the experiments worked more often than not. But for those who wanted him to do everything exactly as he used to, many of the most famous songs — Some Of Shelly’s Blues, Propinquity, Papa Gene’s Blues, Tapioca Tundra, Joanne — were done pretty much straight, and worked as well as ever. And the computers were also used on the last song to allow them to fly in Red Rhodes’ original pedal steel solo for Thanx For The Ride, which was a beautiful moment.

The songs worked better than ever, in fact — one thing that people have not properly mentioned in reviews is the way Nez has set the songs up. In order to make them fresh for himself and the audience, he tells a little… story isn’t *quite* the right word, maybe scenario?… before each one, describing a context in which the songs could happen. These are very visual descriptions, told in Nez’s wonderful Jimmy Stewart voice, and they do conjure up very vivid images in the head while listening to the songs. It’s easy to see why he took to making videos with such enthusiasm — the descriptions sound like storyboards for videos.

The interesting thing about these is that the contextualising does help give the songs new meanings. Some Of Shelly’s Blues and Different Drum, for example, are both songs I like a lot but which have a macho arrogance and callousness to them that makes it hard for me to love them. The settings Nez describes manage to remove that sting and make them both seem much more compassionate, empathetic songs, and all the better for it.

The best of these, though, was actually one he read from a book — Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s conversation about fate, writing and how art becomes the property of the reader, as recounted in Craig Brown’s Hello Goodbye Hello — which manages actually to make Tapioca Tundra’s lyrics make some kind of sense.

To give some idea of how great Nez is as a live performer, when I saw the other three Monkees last year, even when they were posing for photos outside before the show, I was hit with a rush of childhood nostalgia. “That’s Micky! Off of the Monkees! Off of the telly! It’s MICKY!!!” — they were great, but they could have been godawful and I’d have loved them because I reverted to being eight years old.

On the other hand, when Nesmith mentioned the Monkees, which he did two or three times, I actually thought for half a second “Why’s he talking about the Monkees? Oh yeah! Michael Nesmith is Mike out of the Monkees, isn’t he?” — I was so lost in the music and the show that the fact that the little old man who was playing, talking and singing had a connection to a TV show I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult, of course) was about as important as what brand of shoes he was wearing. I was watching someone with a remarkable voice (and, other than Brian Wilson’s, the most infectious smile of anyone I’ve ever seen) performing songs that are equal parts Cole Porter and Hank Williams, that make up one of the most remarkable catalogues in modern popular music, and that’s pretty much all I was thinking about.

This has been a wonderful year for gigs. I’ve seen Neil Innes play to an audience of about fifty people, and the Beach Boys fill stadia, I’ve seen Ray Davies play Autumn Almanac with just an acoustic guitar, and Van Dyke Parks play Heroes & Villains with the Britten Sinfonia. In a year of wonderful performances by great eccentric 1960s songwriters, it’s impossible to choose a best, but Nesmith’s show was at least comparable to all of those.

He hasn’t toured the UK solo since before I was born, and has barely ever gigged, so it’s not likely you’ll get to see him if you’re reading this and haven’t (although he’s touring the US with the Monkees in a couple of weeks, doing a very different, but undoubtedly excellent, kind of show). But in the unlikely event you do get a chance, *GO*.

Setlist was Papa Gene’s Blues – Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun To Care) – Tomorrow And Me – Grand Ennui – Different Drum – Joanne – Silver Moon – Some Of Shelly’s Blues – Tapioca Tundra – Rio – Casablanca Moonlight – Crusin – Life,The Unsuspecting Captive – Marie’s Theme – Prison Closing Theme – Laugh Kills Lonesome – Thanx For The Ride

Why Blogging Has Been So Light Recently

…And by recently I mean the better part of a year now.

I’ve mentioned on here several times recently that I have health problems, but I thought it was probably worth explaining exactly what’s been up with me for the last year, and why firstly my writing has been of a lower standard than usual and secondly there’s been less of it.

Partly that’s because I’ve been doing stuff for venues other than this blog — I’ve done a lot of posts for Mindless Ones and I’m writing a novel that I can’t talk about here yet. But it’s also because last year I became extremely ill with work-related stress — my blood pressure rose to quite extraordinarily high levels, and I had a whole host of secondary problems.

Work have been very good about altering my job to reduce my stress levels, and earlier this year I had a few extended periods of sick leave to try to reduce the stress, and for a few months I’ve not really felt stressed in myself. But over the last few weeks the symptoms (which never really went away) have been coming back, to the point where right now I’ve got a horribly painful headache that I’m pretty sure is blood-pressure related, I can’t walk more than twenty yards or so without my back seizing up, I didn’t get to sleep til 4:30 AM last night, and I’ve been mildly paranoid. And so on.

This has two big effects for this blog. Firstly, I can’t concentrate as much as normal, so a three thousand word post which I’d normally dash off in a couple of hours may now take a week of ten-minute bursts of activity. That also means I basically can’t get involved in comment threads right now — my concentration isn’t up to it. The second is that I’m not discussing anything likely to make me more stressed, so political posts have been minimal for the last few months.

This will NOT last forever. One way or another I have to get myself healthier, and as soon as I *can* concentrate on writing I will do — writing is what I do. But in the meantime, bear with this blog being a little lighter than it was up until late last year, and bear with the occasional strange post written when I can’t really think straight through the pain of a headache. I’d hoped not to have to do a post like this — I’d hoped I’d have got better long ago — but I don’t know how much longer it’ll be before my old self is back.

The Wrecking [History] Crew

Proper blog post tomorrow, but I just wanted to rant:

One of the most annoying things in the world is the way the fantasies spread by Carol Kaye are destroying music business history. For years people claimed — because of Kaye and a few others — that the Beach Boys never played on any of their records, and the Wrecking Crew did everything. In fact the only albums where the Wrecking Crew played the majority of the instruments were Summer Days and Pet Sounds.

Similarly, I *keep* seeing people saying that the Wrecking Crew played on the Monkees’ hits. No, they didn’t.  Looking at their famous hits, The Candy Store Prophets played on Last Train To Clarksville, She, I’m Not Your Stepping Stone, Valleri and Words. New York musicians whose names we don’t know played on I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. And the Monkees themselves (sometimes augmented, but as the core of the band, and never by the Wrecking Crew) played on Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday, Goin’ Down and Randy Scouse Git.

Here, for the record, is every Monkees song on any of their studio albums or singles that featured mainly Wrecking Crew members (from a list of hundreds of songs) :

Papa Gene’s Blues
Sweet Young Thing
I Don’t Think You Know Me (first version) — not released til the 90s, but I’m being generous here
Mary Mary
The Kind Of Girl I Could Love
The Day We Fall In Love
Dream World
We Were Made For Each Other
The Poster
I Won’t Be The Same Without Her
Someday Man
A Man Without A Dream

I may have missed one or two, as I just scanned through the sessionographies, but that’s the lot.

The Wrecking Crew played on many, many great records. But no matter how often Carol Kaye chooses to lie through her teeth, they didn’t play on the Motown hits, they didn’t play on Light My Fire by the Doors, and they didn’t play on any of the significant Monkees records. They also played on far fewer Beach Boys records than people think.

My latest cloudcast

In which I continue to try to find the right balance between tuneful pop songs full of harmony and electronic burblings that go skree skronk bloop bleep. This week’s show includes the Monkees, Sun Ra, the theme from Horror Express, the Beach Boys, Gershwin played on the Moog, Waterson:Carthy and Van Dyke Parks, plus much more.

Can be found here.

Incidentally, sorry for the lack of replies to comments recently. My health is currently in a state where I can either write or comment, but not both. Unfortunately, all the writing I’ve been doing is for the novel, rather than stuff that can go on here. Bear with me.

Linkblogging For 20/10/12

I was out all day today, so no proper post, just links. Beach Boys post tomorrow, with luck.

Another Nickel In The Machine on the controversy over female tennis players not wearing stockings in the 1930s. I was particularly fascinated by the woman referred to as “the French hussy” for daring to play tennis without a corset in the early 1920s.

More from Debi on Arrow, the new Green Arrow TV series.

Lawrence Miles writes about the new series of Red Dwarf. I’ve not watched any of the new series yet, because I thought the series deteriorated so badly by series 7 that I couldn’t bear it. Miles hits the nail on the head as to one of the reasons here (the other, related reason is the constant ‘jokes’ about Rimmer having non-mainstream interests). I’d heard much better things about the new series than about anything since series five, but I’ve been fooled before by people saying “X has got better”, but Miles’ description of the difference between this and the previous series may have convinced me to give it a go.

The Aporetic looks at how his Irish ancestors got classified as ‘colored’ in early 20th-century Virginia.

And Millsabout on the Twitter fetishisation of Scientism.

Toppermost Of The Poppermost

One thing that always nags at me is a sense that I should have *some* idea of what is going on in the pop-cultural world. This is one of the reasons I watch new Doctor Who, despite everything — a way of keeping in touch with the culture.

Because even before the internet, I’ve always created my own separate cultural world, rather different from that of my peers — I was the only kid at my primary school in the late 1980s to own an eight-album Glenn Miller box set, for example. And over the years, I’ve cut myself off more and more from the mainstream. Not, I hasten to add, in a hipper-than-thou way — I have no feelings of superiority about it. It’s just that I live in a major city with access to a lot of stuff, and I have the internet, and so I just gravitate towards stuff that interests me.

But it means that in a cultural sense, I have literally no idea what’s going on. I listened to some popularish bands in the mid-90s, and even bought the NME until about 1997, but the last time I actively *chose* to be exposed to any currently popular music was in 2001, I haven’t ever owned a TV in my adult life and haven’t shared a house with someone who did since 2004, and I haven’t been in a job where I get exposed to any popular music or the TV in five years. I’ve also not read a full newspaper — as opposed to just the sections that interest me, online — in several years. Some of the music I’ve bought since then may have also been popular, and I’ve heard bits of Radio 2 and Radio 6 because my wife likes Radcliffe and Maconie, but I’ve been completely disconnected from popular culture to the point where I have no idea what’s going on in the worlds of TV or music at all.

That’s not to say I don’t listen to new stuff — it’s just that the most exciting new albums of the year so far for me have been the ones by Nelson Bragg and Stew, neither of which I think have had much rotation on MTV (is MTV still a thing?)

This was brought home to me a bit when watching this year’s Grammys, in order to see the Beach Boys’ reunion performance. Other than Coldplay, who I’d rather not think about, I’d not heard of any of the other people during the section I saw. Not just not heard — not heard *of*. And that’s probably not a good thing — a shared culture is something that aids communication, and I don’t actively want to be cut of from any mutual comprehension with the rest of humanity.

So I thought I’d put that at least slightly right by listening to the current top 10, and liveblogging my results here. Either I’ll find something new and exciting I like (and you can all laugh at me for thinking that this decade’s equivalent of Jive Bunny is new and exciting) or I’ll be completely bemused and wonder why all the young persons like this skiffle music.

I emphasise here that I have *NO* context for any of this. I’ve just looked at the names of the artists in the top ten, and of them I remember Rhianna as a name of one of the people on the Grammys this year, I’m told that Adele is someone my father-in-law likes, and I’ve seen references online to Gangnam Style but thought it was a meme of some description. I’ve not even vaguely heard of any of the rest. If I sound clueless, it’s because I’m genuinely clueless, not because I’m being condescending — I suspect that rather a lot of these songs will be things I literally can’t comprehend, in much the same way that someone in 1967 who hadn’t listened to the charts since Here In My Heart by Al Martino was number one wouldn’t have been able to cope with Strawberry Fields…

I’ll listen to all of these through Spotify or, if I have to, YouTube.

Anyway, at number ten is HALL OF FAME by SCRIPT FT WILL I AM. This sounds unpleasant. It actually sounds like a combination of several different, separately unpleasant, styles of music. The looped piano part sounds like something that bad indie bands used to do to sound meaningful, when I used to listen to bad indie bands. The sampled drum sound — this horrible gated snare — was probably horrible on the original record it was on. And I have no real way to judge the rapping, knowing almost nothing of hip-hop (the only rapper I can say I’ve actually enjoyed is Baba Brinkman, and that probably discounts me from ever having an opinion), but I am told that it’s a genre that has some great writers with profound things to say, so I’m assuming these dull platitudes are not an example of rapping at its best.

And to top it off the vocals are heavily autotuned, an effect which sets off various sensory problems for me (it wrecked the otherwise lovely Beach Boys track From Here To Back Again for me this year, for example). This just sounds unpleasant and I can’t imagine ever wanting to hear it again.

At number nine is I CRY by FLORIDA. The backing music sounds vaguely like the sort of stuff my sister used to listen to in 1994 — Whigfield and all that kind of thing — except that the vocals, again, are horribly processed. There is a rapper on this, too, but I can’t actually hear what he’s saying because there is a hugely distorted rhythmic bass noise that drowns out every second syllable. He seems to be better at rapping than the last bloke though.

There’s also nowhere near enough musical material here for its 3:44 running time. Horribly repetitive. Even if I liked this sort of thing, I wouldn’t need to hear the chorus *nearly* that many times.

At number eight is TURN AROUND by CONOR MAYNARD FT NE-YO. This has the same synth-electric-piano sound everything used to have in 1990, and the same overbearing four-on-the-floor bass drum that all bad pop-dance music used to have. The lead singer sounds like he’s doing a Michael Jackson impression, but again is slathered in autotune. What’s going on with the autotune on all of these? When you couple together the way that the vocal tracks are spliced together phrase-by-phrase it’s like listening to a Speak And Spell machine. Is this what people like now?

And again, you could cut at least three choruses off this without losing anything.

At number 7 is TROUBLE by LEONA LEWIS / CHILDISH GAMBINO, which is at least promising as Childish Gambino is a great name. Not quite up there with Pornsak Pongthong or Wade Von Grawbadger, but definitely a good name.

This is more Intense Indie-Band Piano, but the singer sounds more like Mariah Carey or someone, very melismatic. And then it turns into something vaguely disco-y instead. And more autotune on the chorus. I dislike that melismatic vocal style, but this Lewis woman clearly has a decent voice, and it seems a terrible idea to slather the autotune all over it. And then there’s the horrible Phil Collins gated-reverb snare drum sound. This is the second song so far with that sound, which I hoped had died with the eighties.

At least this one doesn’t repeat the chorus over and over and over again — structurally it’s perfectly sound.

At number six is LIVE WHILE WE’RE YOUNG by ONE DIRECTION This is completely unexceptionable pop music of a kind that could have been a hit at any time in the last forty years. Sonically it’s clearly ‘now’ — those autotuned backing vocals, for example — but with the appropriate production changes the song could have been recorded by the Archies or the Knack or the Bay City Rollers. The guitar riff actually reminds me of Should I Stay Or Should I Go by The Clash.

This does absolutely nothing for me, but I at least see what it is that people are liking about it. This track’s mostly selling to teenage girls, right?

At five is ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN by ELLIE GOULDING. Now this makes sense to me. There’s a sort of Kate Bush/Bjork/Joanna Newsom thing going on with her voice, and musically it sounds almost late-70s McCartney in the verses, albeit on a bad day.

Don’t like the backing track — too clean for me, too synthy — but this is a *very* impressive vocal performance on a technical level, going from the Bjorky stuff to a quite raspy pseudo-soul thing. I imagine this Goulding person is one of those self-consciously quirky singer-songwriter types who probably thinks she’s an elf or something, and I doubt I would ever want to listen to an entire album by her, but this is the first track where if you told me that person had done some stuff I’d like that I’d believe you.

At four is DIAMONDS by RIHANNA. I have heard at least one song by Rhianna before, as I remember the name from the Grammy awards. I don’t remember being impressed.

And immediately we get the same piano sound we’ve had all over half the tracks so far, a drum that sounds like a piece of machinery, an autotuned backing vocal part, a lead vocal pieced together phrase-by-phrase with no emotion behind the vocal and lyrics that are mostly about self-aggrandisement, and endless repetition of the chorus at the end. I’ve only heard seven songs in the chart at the moment and I could already make one of these records, I think. Am I actually missing something, or is this all really bad? I’m genuinely curious here — I know I don’t have any context at all for this stuff, but at the same time I can’t imagine what context would make this sound good…

At three is GANGNAM STYLE by PSY, which I’d thought was an internet meme rather than a song, but apparently not.

Or maybe it is. The backing track is Eurodance, and there’s someone rapping in some East Asian language, while the backing vocals sing “Hey sexy lady”. This is the kind of thing Clive James used to make fun of on his show. Is this some sort of cruel joke against whatever country this comes from, because this isn’t remotely good or even interesting as a piece of music?

At two is SKYFALL by ADELE. Given that the new Bond film is called Skyfall, and that Adele is apparently someone acceptable to sixty-year-old Midwestern men, I’m guessing this is the new Bond theme, and will be exactly like every other Bond theme.

It’s also not on Spotify, so I’ll have to watch the video…

Yep, it’s a Bond theme. Slightly worse lyrics than normal (the scansion’s all to cock in the first verse, streSSES allo-VER THE place, and there’s no way to make “sky fall” rhyme with “crumble” no matter how hard you try), and the vocalist has a *REALLY WEIRD* accent — her vowel sounds are all over the place — but otherwise pretty much exactly how you’d expect a Bond theme to sound.

And at number one is DON’T YOU WORRY CHILD by SWEDISH HOUSE MAFIA / MARTIN. I must say, before listening, that the name “Swedish House Mafia” doesn’t fill me with confidence, and Martin isn’t the kind of name that leads you to expect poptastic thrills. But I’ll listen anyway…

And it’s yet more of the staccatto piano chords, autotuned vocal and thudding four-on-the-floor kick drum. And the same rather disturbing lyrics about how special (in a completely nondescript way) the singer is.

I swear, I came into this completely open-minded, and expected to be able to laugh at myself not understanding the young persons’ pop music, and I wrote all this in one draft, live, as I was listening. And at the end, I’m horribly depressed.

Because either I really am *exactly* the kind of philistinic old man who used to say “you can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl, and it all sounds the bloody same and you can’t hear the words”, or it really *does* all sound the bloody same. And I don’t know which of those two conclusions would be more depressing.

There’s so little variety there — synth piano (and synth-string pad), four-on-the-floor kick drum, melisma and autotune used to hold together a vocal performance pasted together phrase-by-phrase, get someone to rap a bit over the middle eight… at least four of the songs, if I’m remembering right, were even based on the dang-dang-dang, dang-dang piano chords that were a cliche of what I think was called handbag music twenty years or so ago.

Please tell me it’s just me. Please tell me there’s actually something of value in here, some way in which this music is enriching people’s lives that I’m just not understanding. Because I’d much rather be wrong than have pop culture really be that loathsome.