A Brief Thought On Class, and Critical Reaction to Jerusalem

I’m going to be posting a proper review of Jerusalem on Mindless Ones tomorrow, when I’ve had time to finish thinking about it, but my review will probably not be touching on one of the main issues of the book, which is class. For that reason I thought I’d better make a separate post in reaction to the Guardian review of it, which includes this telling paragraph:

The problems are still here, too, though: the chapter narrated by prostitute Marla, obsessed with Jack the Ripper and Princess Di, seems to confuse expletives with authenticity, including 32 f-words – to take one page, chosen at random – and five c-words. This is caricature, not characterisation.

I had two reactions to this. The first was to remember the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about critics: “A prick in the hands of Pinter is a punctuation point, a marvellous moment, an epithet, the end of an extremely witty line; whereas a prick in the hands of Cook and Moore is just a gratuitous prick… one feels it’s being abused.”

The second was to think about going to university, and for the first time having a social circle made up primarily of middle-class people. I remember when the TV series “The Royle Family” first came out, I was very impressed by it. But I talked to my sister, and she said “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to watch that programme. It’s just people acting normal. If I want to see people acting normal I can just see that anywhere.”

A week or so later I mentioned the series to a friend from an upper-middle-class background who was studying for an English degree. She said “Oh, I hate that programme. It’s so unrealistic. Nobody lives like that.”

The fact is that a lot of people really have no idea at all how other social groups live — how they talk, how they behave, what their concerns are. And for a Guardian arts columnist, the depiction of how a great chunk of real people talk — the people who don’t live in the major cities, who don’t have jobs in the media, academia, or politics, whose concerns revolve around survival and family rather than around the verbal gameplaying that makes up so much of culture — is so far from their experiences as to seem like caricature.

When I read that chapter, I heard the voice of the viewpoint character in my head. It wasn’t in the Northampton accent she would have — I’ve never been there, and know nothing about it — but it was a very real voice nonetheless. It was a voice just like those of some of the people in my own family — the ones who have succumbed to addiction or alcoholism, the ones who have been unemployed all their lives — and many of the other people who live in the small town they’re from, the people whose horizons are circumscribed by that area and who may never travel even as far as London in their lives. It’s the voice of the people I’ve worked with when I was working on a psych ward — the people whose idea of getting a good job and making something of themselves consisted of getting work filling potholes in roads. It’s not my voice — not any more — but it’s a voice that is, in truth, more familiar to me than the voice of Guardian leaders and arts journalism, the voice of privilege unearned that is also privilege so unseen that it seems perfectly normal.

And even to talk about working-class people in this way seems to condemn them — the very language we use when talking in an academic register, or the register of formal writing that I use for my blog posts, is full of contempt for people whose lives aren’t about having a “career”, or about what is called “the life of the mind”, as if people working in factories or on building sites or as sex workers or unable to find a job at all were in some way mindless.

Moore’s book doesn’t do that. It’s a deeply, deeply, humanistic book, and it treats the concerns of homeless people, sex workers, working-class mothers of six, in exactly the same way it treats the concerns of celebrated artists or of failed poets or of saints. Their lives matter because they’re people, and because people matter.

And people matter even if they have a vocabulary that’s smaller than that of someone who works for a broadsheet newspaper. Even if their vocabulary contains two words that are used by pretty much everyone.

The page the reviewer chose isn’t at random, incidentally. I can tell exactly which one it is. The page he’s thinking of is the one which contains the following paragraph:

It’s all just FUCKING SONGS and FUCKING BIRTHDAY CARDS, you cunt, you old cunt. DON’T YOU FUCKING TELL ME, RIGHT, don’t you fucking tell me because YOU, you’ve got NO fucking right, no fucking right. You sit there with your fucking SPLIFF, your fucking GAN-JAH, fucking smiling ’cause you’re monged and saying to chill out. YOU WHAT? You fucking WHAT? I’ll fucking chill YOU out, you old cunt. Fucking leave YOU with your face in stitches and your ribs all kicked in, see how YOU like it, you fucking, FUCKING…

That’s the only section with anything like the density of obscenity the review talks about, and it’s a short stream of consciousness section where a heroin-addicted sex worker who is descending into psychosis is shouting angrily at someone who isn’t there.

It may well be that the Guardian reviewer has truly never met anyone who talks like that, so to him it may well be confusing expletives with authenticity. It may well be that to him this reads like caricature, not characterisation.

But I know a lot of people — people who won’t read Jerusalem, because the idea of reading a book at all is an absurd one, let alone a 1500-page literary novel — whose reaction to that section would be, if they ever did read it, “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to read that. It’s just people talking normal. If I want to hear people talking normal I can just hear that anywhere.”

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Jimmy Webb at RNCM

Jimmy Webb is one of the true greats of songwriting, one of those names who other writers will bring up when asked who they admire. He’s never had the public recognition he deserves, perhaps because his work straddles the border between easy-listening pop music and country ballads, possibly the two least-appreciated musical genres in existence, but when he is at his best, he produces music unlike anything else.

Unfortunately, Manchester seems to be a city that doesn’t know greatness when it hears it, as the RNCM was only half-full last night, with maybe two hundred people turning up for Webb’s one-man show, Still on the Line: The Glen Campbell Years. The small audience, though, didn’t stop Webb from giving his all in one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.

It’s important to note that this was a one-man show, not a solo gig. The two-hour performance was dominated by storytelling, with each song introduced by long anecdotes about Webb’s career and his relationship with his friend Glen Campbell, and he only performed eleven songs in full during the show — though he was sat at the piano throughout and broke into little sections of other people’s songs — everything from “Surf City” to “Southern Nights” to “Suzanne” — to illustrate parts of the anecdotes.

But this wasn’t just someone rambling — it was a properly structured, multimedia, show, with anecdotes illustrated by photos or video footage, including a wonderfully bizarre Chevy commercial Webb wrote and arranged for Campbell’s TV show — the first time they worked together:

During the two hours, Webb talked about listening to his transistor radio while ploughing the fields of his father’s farm (hearing “two girls for every boy” on “Surf City” and having to stop the tractor because that was what he’d always wanted), about writing “Honey Come Back” in his head while working cleaning tables in a restaurant and thinking that he’d invented the idea of the last word in one line being the first word in the next, about his Baptist preacher father threatening a radio station manager with a gun for not playlisting “Up, Up, and Away”… but above all about Glen Campbell.

Webb told the story of hearing Campbell’s early single “Turn Around, Look At Me” while still a teenager, and actually praying that one day he’d write a song half that good and have it sung by someone as good as Campbell. The details of the story may not be entirely true (he talked about hearing it on the radio right after “Surf City”, and “Surf City” came out two years later) but the feeling clearly was — one thing that came across in everything he said, even when talking about their political differences (Webb is left-wing, Campbell a hawkish hard-right Republican) is the immense respect he has for Campbell, not just as a singer but as a person.

It was moving, but also odd, to hear the way Webb talks about Campbell. For those who don’t know, Campbell is still, technically, alive — but he has Alzheimer’s so advanced that none of the person he was is still there, and can no longer speak, comprehend what others are saying, or recognise his closest friends. Webb talked about Campbell in the past tense a lot of the time, and sometimes seemed to catch himself and say “is” — and sometimes didn’t. A couple of the stories touched on Campbell’s illness, but for the most part the focus was on celebrating who he was, and his musicianship (Webb considers him one of only three truly great singers of his generation, the other two being Nilsson and Jack Jones), rather than who he is now.

Webb is not only a great songwriter, but one of the great *thinkers* about songwriting. His book Tunesmith is one I recommend to anyone who wants to do any kind of creative work, as it’s simply the best nuts-and-bolts guide to songwriting in existence, and maybe the only truly useful one.

What was obvious from the book is that this is not one of those people who’s just got one natural talent but no other real ability of note — he’s clearly someone who turned a great mind to the songwriting process, and who could have been equally successful in any other field to which he’d turned his mind (and if I were to have any criticism of him as a songwriter it’s perhaps just that — he’s a craftsman, and some of his work sounds crafted rather than inspired; there’s a feeling of conscious choice rather than necessity occasionally). And so it’s fascinating just to hear him talk — and it helps that he has a wonderful speaking style, with something of Garrison Keillor’s rural charm.

But the highlight of the show was, of course, the music. Webb has never been the greatest interpreter of his own music, but he has a stronger voice now than many of his surviving contemporaries, and is a much better pianist than I’d realised. Opening with a slow ballad version of “Galveston”, ending with a long piano coda (which he followed by playing a portion of Campbell’s recording, to show the immense difference in styles), he then played an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace”, as an example of the kind of thing he’d play for his dad’s church — before playing a long, semi-improvised, set of variations on it to show what he’d been taught about arrangement and harmonising by his piano teacher.

For “Honey Come Back”, Webb spoke-sang the verses and got us all to sing the choruses, and then on “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” he played to a backing track and video, creating an artificial duet with Campbell. He talked here about Campbell’s career as a session musician, and projected a list of his credits (mostly correct, a few where Campbell didn’t play on it but it’s an understandable mistake, and one that made no sense whatsoever — I don’t see how anyone could think Campbell played on anything by the Velvet Underground — but the list as a whole gave a reasonable impression of what kind of records Campbell played on.)

“Up, Up, And Away” followed, and then came “Wichita Lineman”, another duet with a video of Campbell.

“The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress” was a highlight of the show — one of Webb’s less well-known songs, but one of the best things he’s ever written (and far better than the Heinlein story from which it takes its title).

“Highwayman” came next, with a story about how Campbell had wanted to record the song, but that when he’d taken it to Capitol they’d played him “My Sharona” instead and tried to get him to do that.

Next came “Postcards From Paris”, which was the last Webb song Campbell ever recorded, as a bonus track for his final album.

The show proper ended with “Macarthur Park”, performed mostly solo by Webb, but segueing into footage of Campbell playing it on TV, playing one of the most astonishing guitar solos I’ve ever seen.

After a standing ovation, Webb performed “Time Flies”, one of his most beautiful ballads (from a musical he co-wrote with Ray Bradbury — one thing I’ve always noted about Webb is how much of a fan of literary science fiction he actually is, and how much of that comes across in odd places in his songs). That one is not associated with Campbell normally, but Webb talked about Rosemary Clooney’s performance of it, and how she had performed it when she guested on ER, playing an Alzheimer’s patient who couldn’t remember anything except songs. Apparently the last thing to go in Campbell’s own mind was the music, and he could remember songs long after he’d forgotten everything else.

After the show, Webb came out and did a signing and photo session (for free — not one of those “meet and greet” sessions where you pay two hundred pounds and don’t get to make eye contact), and was utterly charming with everyone, as he had been on stage. A performance like that — and an attitude like that — deserves a bigger audience than he got, and better promotion (there’s been basically no promotion of this tour anywhere that I’ve seen). He’s playing Dunfermline, Glasgow, Dublin, Bury St. Edmunds, and Milton Keynes over the next week and a half. If you can, go and see him.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 5 Comments

New Piece Up on We Are Cult

My friend James Gent has started a new website, We Are Cult, and I’m going to be contributing the occasional piece for it. My first one there is up tonight, a look at why the Monkees’ TV show was important.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Batposts Up

There are two Batposts up — a new one on Patreon for the typical red-blooded American teenagers, and an older one on Mindless Ones for the fine finny freeloading fiends.
(I’m hoping to have a post on the Monkees up on the new site We Are Cult tomorrow, a review of Jimmy Webb at the RNCM on Tuesday, and the next Beach Boys post on Wednesday).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Beatles: Live at the Hollywood Bowl

In 1977, the last Beatles album to be released during John Lennon’s lifetime was released. Until today, it had never been legally issued on CD.

There’s a relatively good reason for that. In its original incarnation, at least, Live at the Hollywood Bowl was the kind of album it’s very difficult to love. Three shows — one in 1964 and two in 1965 — by the Beatles had been recorded at the venue, on three-track tape. At the time they’d been considered unusable, but when the Star Club recordings were about to be issued against the band’s will, Capitol decided to put out a spoiler release of the best tracks from the recordings — and as the first “new” Beatles music for seven years at that point, it went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic.

That album has had a bad reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved. The performances (chosen and mixed by George Martin) were, for the most part, very good — rough around the edges, but in an exciting, punkish, way, rather than the bad kind of sloppiness — but the performances were rather drowned out by the sound of seventeen thousand teenagers screaming. Given the inadequate amplifiers the Beatles were using at the time (about as powerful as the one I used to use when playing club gigs to fifty people — and that was mocked by other musicians with better gear playing the same venues), it was a miracle anything was audible at all.

The album was never released on CD or download, and the vinyl and cassette versions have been out of print for decades (I got my vinyl copy when I was eleven — it had already been out of print a while at that point, but copies could still be found on the shelves). While there’s been a small amount of demand by fans for it to be released, it’s clearly an album everyone involved regretted ever releasing.

However, Giles Martin (George Martin’s son, who’s been involved in the audio work on Beatles releases for the last decade or so, originally assisting his father, whose ears were failing in his later years) has done something quite remarkable (with the help of a four-person team). Taking the same master recordings that were used for the 1977 release (along with four further performances, added as bonus tracks), he has “demixed” them — used audio extraction software to extract the different instrumental and vocal parts to create a pseudo-multitrack, which he then remixed into something that is *significantly* more listenable than the original album.

Where the original recording sounded like seventeen thousand people screaming while the Beatles played through a tin can, this sounds like the Beatles playing while seventeen thousand people scream. The screaming can’t be removed from the recordings (and probably shouldn’t — it adds to the atmosphere) here it’s the background, rather than the foreground, and that makes a tremendous difference.

I’m no audiophile — I have neither the equipment nor the ears for that kind of thing — but as soon as Ed Sullivan’s “and now… here they are… THE BEATLES!” ends and the first notes of “Twist and Shout” start up, there’s a profound, instantly-noticeable, difference.

A recent Guardian article compared the original release of this material to Psychocandy by the Jesus & Mary Chain, and I can see why — the album was, basically, a blast of high-frequency white noise. The screams merged with the guitars, which in turn merged with the frantic hi-hat thrashing that was all that was audible from Ringo’s drumming. The bass — well, what bass? Whether because of the quality of the original tapes, or because it was mastered for post-OPEC vinyl (and remind me some day to write my blog post about how the OPEC crisis actually spurred the adoption of CDs a decade later…) you couldn’t hear the bass at all on half the tracks. The other half, the bass was almost all you could hear, but not as a melody, just as an overpowering buzzing hum. The stereo imaging was weird, as well, but the main problem was simply that it was a wall of trebly hiss.

Here, from the first notes of “Twist and Shout”, you can hear both guitars — one (I think John’s) is very slightly out of tune. You can hear the bass. *YOU CAN HEAR WHAT’S BEING PLAYED*.

Sometimes this is utterly revelatory — “Ticket to Ride” in particular sounds like a totally different recording. You can hear the reverb on John’s voice from playing in such a cavernous venue, you can hear Ringo’s toms throbbing away, and best of all that one-note bass drone, now placed properly in its context in the mix rather than overwhelming everything except the screaming.

Even on lesser tracks, like “Boys”, you can hear Ringo’s drumsticks clicking (I think against the rim of his snare). But throughout it all, the important thing is you can hear the performance, properly. All four people on the stage, singing and playing.

I don’t want to overemphasise the quality here — Martin and team have worked miracles in some senses, but they’re still working with the same inadequate recordings, and you can’t put something on the CD that isn’t on the tape. The screaming is still louder than one would want, and this is still four people playing who could barely hear what they were doing. George’s backing vocals are still often adenoidal and off-key, and it’s still never going to be the album one would point to to show why Ringo was a great drummer — he keeps time throughout, of course, and has impeccable rhythm, but for most of it it’s all he can do to thrash at the hi-hat and keep the kick drum going, in a vain hope of keeping the band together; there’s no room for subtlety or musicianship there, and it’s easy to see why he in particular didn’t want to carry on touring.

So Giles Martin and his team haven’t managed to make a silk purse out of this particular sow’s ear, but they have possibly at least managed to make a serviceable handbag. It’s still an album that has to be explained and contextualised — these are rough-and-ready performances with a lot of screams from the audience — but what it isn’t is an album that has to be *excused*. Once you have the context of Beatlemania, it’s a record that can be listened to with genuine pleasure, rather than frustration.

Unfortunately, the packaging lets the whole thing down badly. While the sound quality has been improved enormously, the cover and booklet are essentially a commercial for Ron Howard’s new documentary about the band — “Eight Days A Week: The Touring Years” appears in bigger letters on the cover than the album’s title does, and roughly every third sentence in the booklet is about how you really need to see that film — only in cinemas, September 15! — a film which had already annoyed me a little with its promotional material by its ahistorical revisionism having the Beatles’ success only start when they hit the US. (I’ll still be going to see the film in the cinema, but not to see the film itself, which I suspect will have nothing we haven’t seen a million times before — rather I’ll be going because they’ll also be showing the Beatles’ full Shea Stadium performance on the big screen, which will be worth seeing). I understand that the documentary is the principal reason the album has been reissued, but there’s no need to turn the packaging into a crass commercial.

So it’s a flawed package, in more ways than one (and really, from an historical perspective, it’d be nice if they released the complete Hollywood Bowl recordings rather than a 17-track selection), but it’s one that at least does justice to the Beatles as a live act at the height of their success.

Twist and Shout (short version)
She’s A Woman
Dizzy Miss Lizzy
Ticket To Ride
Can’t Buy Me Love
Things We Said Today
Roll Over Beethoven
A Hard Day’s Night
All My Loving
She Loves You
Long Tall Sally
You Can’t Do That (bonus)
I Want To Hold Your Hand (bonus)
Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby (bonus)
Baby’s In Black (bonus)
This blog post is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 9 Comments

Some Thoughts on the Lib Dems’ Current EU Plans

(I’ve pushed the Batpost and Beach Boys post back a couple of days, as I had a blood pressure headache yesterday and then news happened today. They’ll be up tomorrow and Friday).
I’ve mostly stayed away from the subject of “Brexit” on this blog, mostly because I don’t want to fall out with people about something neither they or I can change. A lot of people on both sides have very strong views, and see any disagreement about them as being an attack on their core identity. I’ve already lost friends because of the relatively mild things I’ve said on my own Facebook about it, and while I think there are circumstances where losing friendships is a reasonable price to pay, a disagreement over political decisions made at levels no-one I know can affect is not one of those circumstances.
One distinction I *have* always been at pains to make, though, is that while I am a Remain supporter (and my position there has only hardened as more information has come in), the people who voted to leave did so from a huge variety of motives, and can’t all be characterised as fascist Little Englanders.
(Which is not to say, of course, that fascist Little Englanders didn’t vote to leave. In much the same way as the old quote from John Stuart Mill — “not all Conservatives are stupid, but all stupid people are Conservative” — the leave vote contained much more than those people, but it did include them).
The leave voters had a variety of motives, from those who just wanted to “send them back”, to those who were voting in the hope of removing some of the pro-capitalism elements in the EU’s founding treaties and bringing back the post-war Keynesian consensus; from those who want to bring about a low-regulation Singapore-style economy built on the exploitation of the poorest, to those who are so poor, and who have been so ignored by every government of my lifetime, that they’re willing to take any risk in the hope, no matter how faint, of improving their lives.
This is one of the many reasons I was against the referendum in principle (and indeed am against all referendums) — the question being asked simply wasn’t reducible to a binary yes/no. If the kind of left-wing utopia portrayed by some supporters of “Lexit” had been a realistic possibility, I may well have voted to leave myself. As it is, my political instincts told me that the intended result by those Leavers in positions of power was rather closer to the “crush the poor under my bootheels” one. Maybe I’m wrong — I certainly *hope* I’m wrong, since the result didn’t go my way.
But that distinction is one that the Lib Dems, unlike pretty much everyone else involved in the argument, appear to have recognised, if Tim Farron’s most recent articles are anything to go by. Farron has based these on the policy proposals that will be put to Lib Dem conference later this month, and as a democratic party we may well vote against those proposals of course, but I suspect they will be broadly acceptable to Lib Dem members.
The idea is a simple one. The Lib Dems will continue to support membership of the EU — anything else would, in fact, be against the party’s constitution, and would require a constitutional amendment — but will not be pushing for a simple rerun of the referendum we just had. Quite rightly, the argument is that you don’t just keep rerunning a referendum until you get the result you wanted.
Nor will the party be pushing for an early general election on the issue — if nothing else, given Jeremy Corbyn’s recent comments about the single market, the Lib Dems are now the only pro-EU UK-wide party, and unfortunately the chances of a Lib Dem landslide any time in the next few years are minimal.
What the Lib Dems will be pushing for is a referendum *on the final agreed terms of exit*, once those have been negotiated by the government. The choice then would be “exit on these terms” or “remain” — and the Lib Dems would campaign for remain as a party (though individuals of course may not).
Given that we’re accepting referendums as a legitimate way of making decisions — which I’m very unhappy about, but can do little to change — this seems to make sense to me.
Crucially, it’s *not* about rerunning the previous referendum. The referendum we just had was one where one side was pointing to a single, concrete, state — the deal we had with the EU at the time — while the other side was pointing to every conceivable state that could be described as “Brexit”, which could encompass everything from Singapore-style ultracapitalism to a Trotskyite workers’ state (many of the small Trotskyite parties actually campaigned for leave) through to the “soft Brexit” many politicians are now arguing for, which is essentially “keep everything the same, except stop having the right to elect MEPs and have a different passport”.
It’s only right that the people get to say yes or no to the final deal. It may well be, for example, that the deal that gets negotiated is one which keeps single market access and also has the UK becoming members of Schengen — those who voted leave to keep out immigrants would get the opposite of what they wanted. Alternatively, if Jeremy Corbyn gets his expressed wish of access to the single market but less regulation around what kind of involvement the Government can have with regards to subsidising failing industries, the free marketeers will not be very happy. And so on.
That’s not the same thing as rerunning the first referendum, and it goes both ways. I can easily imagine deals being made that would be enough to get me to say “OK, that’s actually better than being in the EU would be”. I don’t think that the people currently in government are likely to make such a deal, but I can imagine it happening.
At the moment, the British public is split very close to 50/50 on the issue, and that showed in the referendum result — and right now, a lot of people are angry, on both sides. But as Tim puts it, “voting for a departure is not the same as voting for a destination”. It may well be that the politicians in charge can find a destination we can all agree on — or one that we can all agree is a disaster. Either way, if, as it appears we must, we have to regard the referendum as a legitimate way of making that decision, the people should get to decide where we’re going, ideally before we get there.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Linkblogging For 04/09/16

Batpost tomorrow, Beach Boys post Tuesday — and linkblogs today.

I may have linked this one before, but it’s come to my attention again — the shit pyramids of King Sneferu

A Batman: The Animated Series episode synopsis written by a textbot — Batman Loves Him A Criminal

The effect of the new rules on the Hugo Awards

Charles Stross talks about strange real people from history, and how their existence affects genre writers

OpenOffice may finally be shutting down. Thank God for that. David Gerard’s arguments in this thread are precisely those I would make. (I don’t use Wordalikes at all given the choice — I use LyX for everything — but the situation of the last few years has been intolerable).

Peter Watts on a difficult decision regarding a censorship request

Nick Barlow on “Open Britain”

The general method for solving problems

And finally, a short clip of Stanley Unwin interviewing Frank Sidebottom:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment