Archive for April, 2010

The Who: NO SUBSTITUTE

April 30, 2010

When Roger Daltrey tells us it might be over for The Who, we’d better believe it.

Pete Townshend has suffered from partial deafness and tinnitus for many years, and the condition is now so bad it’s impacting on his work in the studio as well as on stage. Roger Daltrey has told Uncut magazine, “If carrying on is going to mean Pete going deaf, let’s stop now.”

Roger has had his own problems in recent times, having been forced to cancel performances with voice problems. He says he’s sorted his problems out “and I’m really enjoying singing again but you have to be realistic – I am 66 years old.”

The Towshend/Daltrey creative relationship has been a unique one, a career defined by their individual talents joined “at the hip” by fate but individual talents perhaps also muted by that union they couldn’t escape.

Very early in the group’s career their manager, inspired by the Beatles, recognized the need for original songs and handed Pete Townshend a tape recorder to help the guitarist develop his songwriting skills. Townshend became the first songwriter to deliver near complete demos of his songs for his group to reproduce in the studio and on stage. It was that way throughout and over the years Townshend has let us hear his original versions.

Townshend turned out to be a very intelligent songwriter, expressing his own inner and outer existence in song. But fate meant that someone else was voicing his very personal creations. Not just any voice, one of the great rock and roll voices and interpreters of a song. Pete Townshend wrote his anger filled “My Generation” after his beat up car was removed as an eye soar on the Queen Mother’s travelling route. Roger Daltrey gave “My Generation” its stammer of frustration.

The Who made their reputation as one of the great live acts. Arguably they might have become just as successful on just the strength of Pete Townshend’s creative imagination. Inevitably that’s where Townshend wanted to retreat. If Townshend had his way The Who would been dead and buried a long time ago. Daltrey patiently but determinedly stood on the sidelines keeping the Who in our minds ready for the reunion which inevitably came.

Ultimately Tho Who’s legacy is torn between its two extremes. Townshend and Daltrey’s solo efforts were no substitute. In the studio the group was inconsistent. They might have made more great albums, but could never be questioned on stage. The stage cost Pete Townshend his hearing and may have cost us his music.

What I’m listening to: Bullet For My Valentine (Fever), Lucinda Williams (Car Wheels On A Gravel Road),  R.E.M. (Murmur)

TO BIEBER OR NOT TO BE

April 28, 2010

Justin Bieber’s are the unluckiest fans in the world. Last year police shut down a New York event over fears of crowd safety and this week it happened AGAIN in Sydney.

If Sydney’s three song performance had gone ahead the assembled fans would have been happy, but it wouldn’t have made world news. A cynic might think that’s a bit suspicious. Once is careless, twice is “form”.

What it does of course is reinforce the thoughts of an unfolding “Bieber Fever”. The conventional press is generally ambivalent about music. One thing that grabs their attention is kids screaming and fainting in the streets. Where is that old headline? Ahh Beatle Mania. How many times over the years have pop “manias” been manufactured by managers and record companies with the press happily falling in line for the sake of dragging out that old headline? The fact that Bieber, at 16, has America’s No.1 album isn’t newsworthy.

Some things are the same over and over again. Some things change significantly. Unquestionable “pop” idols have always needed to have a modicum of their fans’ parental approval, to enable the consumption of the music and merchandise. If Mum secretly has thought that the pop star in question is a bit of all right too, she’s going to put up with (and support) her daughter’s vicarious love. With each generation the “generation gap” shrinks. Parents and their offspring now live on the same planet. My guess is that these days – and this seems to be very much the case with Justin Bieber – Mum very well remembers her own pop passion, wants her daughter to enjoy the same experience, and, rather than just putting up with it, actively encourages it.

If we look carefully we might find in “Bieber Mania” an aspect of the modern parent, the one that’s prepared to dress their pre-pubescent daughter in “sexy” clothes, the one aggressively coaching from the sports sidelines, parents reliving or living something of their own life though the life of their child.

Beatle mania just happened. I can’t think of another “fever” that hasn’t spread without a helping hand. So let’s not get TOO excited about Justin Bieber mania, but at the same time let’s let the kids enjoy their excitement without a bunch of adults spoiling it.

What I’m listening to: New Pony Club (The Optimist), The Cult (Sonic Temple), Matthew Sweet (Girlfriend)

MUSIC IN A WORD:THE GREAT LYRICISTS

April 26, 2010

Earlier this month country music legend Hank Williams was given a special Pulitzer Prize citation for his lifetime achievement, based on a confidential survey of experts in popular music.

It’s taken a bit of time. Hank died in 1953. No-one was more responsible for turning “hillbilly music” into “country music’. He forced that redefinition by giving country music heart and soul, words. An elitist award at best – presented achievements in newspaper journalism, literature and musical composition –the Pulitzer has struggled with the latter. For a long time only classical music was favoured. Then jazz, once dismissed as barbaric, even subversive, was recognized. Two year ago there was a breakthrough when Bob Dylan was awarded an “Honorary” (not music) Pulitzer. Now Hank Williams.

How long is the list of great “literary” lyricists waiting to be recognized? More importantly, what’s happened to the “art” of words in music? Who are the great culturally significant lyricists of our time?

Our mind immediately turns to rap, a music form as reliant on words as it is a hypnotic beat. You can’t spit out so many words so quickly, as rap requires, without having a way with words. Tupac Shakir stands heads above the pack. He is to rap what Bob Dylan’s great hero Woody Guthrie was to folk music, the benchmark against which all others will be measured. Guthrie captures a moment in American society, as does 2Pac.

Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and John Fogerty also deserve honourable mentions. John Lennon and Leonard Cohen gave us a look into their worlds rather than our own. Morrissey and Nick Cave toy with our minds through words. When it comes to females Patti Smith was there once but time has taken away the passion.

When you look at however, in the era of technology driven music, and technology based consumption of music words have taken a back seat. Now, words are not enough.

 What I’m listening to: Jakob Dylan (Women And Country) , P.J.Harvey (Rid Of Me), The The (Mind Bomb)

PAUL McCARTNEY LEAVES THE BEATLES (AGAIN)

April 24, 2010

Paul McCartney defection must send shivers through the ailing EMI Group Ltd.

McCartney has struck a deal with independent record label Concord Music Group that takes his solo work away from the Beatles’ longtime label, EMI Group Ltd. How long before the Beatles recordings follow?

Just a few weeks ago EMI, desperately looking for ways to restructure for the sake of revenue thought they’d come up with a clever plan, to license its music in Canada, Mexico, and the US to one of its rivals, the Universal Music Group. If the deal had gone through EMI would have been $US400 million richer. EMI’s parent, Terra Firma, owes equity partner Citigroup $190 million from its purchase of the recording company. It must find that money by June 12th. If they don’t Terra Firma loses EMI to Citigroup. The Universal deal, although it had all the appearance of a shifting of the deckchairs on the Titanic, would have “helped”. But the deal didn’t go through, at the very last minutes, the day before it was due to be signed. Someone had the smarts to check EMI’s contract with EMI and discovered that their contract with the Beatles and other acts forbid EMI to license their records to another company.

Just last month EMI found out in a court action taken out by Pink Floyd that EMI’s contract prevented them from selling single tracks from albums the band considers complete works. If there’s one artist EMI can’t afford to lose its the Beatles. Without them, EMI is almost valueless. The Beatles have sold 30.2 million copies in the U.S. last decade.

In 1976, six years after Paul McCartney announced the Beatles was no more (see earlier post), the individual Beatles were free to take their solo recordings elsewhere. George Harrison immediately formed his own non-EMI label Dark Horse. Ringo went to Polydor. John Lennon, who was “watching the wheels” ended up with Geffen. Paul McCartney alone stayed loyal to EMI and was rewarded with a secret handshake higher royalty from the Beatles back catalogue than the rest of the group.

It was good business for Paul to stay “sweet” with McCartney. When the Beatles principles, McCartney Starr and the widows of Lennon and Harrison met on business EMI had an ally in “Sir Paul”.

McCartney finally left the “fold” three years ago with ‘Memory Almost Full’ when Paul joined Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon on the Starbucks ‘Hear Music’ label. It seemed a good idea for these “heritage” artists being ignored by the established music industry. Buy a coffee at Starbucks. Listen to music. Buy their exclusive albums.

But it was only a good idea at the time. When the global financial crisis hit Starbucks rationalized its outlets, drastically, so much so that a disgruntled Carly Simon unsuccessfully took the company to court for not living up to her promises to her.

So now. McCartney’s  ties with EMI have been severed. He’s now removed his solo catalogue and given it to Concord Records, founded as a jazz label in 1972 and in 1998 was acquired by television producer Normal Lear’s Act III Communications. The label has since grown beyond its roots to release high-profile albums artists, ranging from Robert Plant to Ray Charles. Concord’s annual revenue is estimated at around $100 million; its U.S. market share is just shy of 1%. McCartney and Concord will reissue the Wings album “Band on the Run” as the first release under the global arrangement. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

Radiohead and the Rolling Stones have also left EMI in recent years. What next?

What I’m listening to: Avi Buffalo (Avi Buffalo), Retribution Gospel Choir (2) Joy Division (Closer)

MUSIC: THIS YEAR’S MODEL

April 20, 2010

We do live in exciting times for music.

Everyone knows the current industry “model” isn’t working. No-one really knows the definite path forward. Lots of people are looking for their version of the path forward. We may hit on THE path. We may set off on a number of paths.

On one hand the major record companies are still blaming downloading for their woes while some artists see ready access to their music as a promotional tour for live performances and the sale of merchandise. To offset their losses the record companies want a share of the live revenue and merch, as well as the music. Some artists are forming their own record companies. Everyone’s busy taking care of their own interests, some for survival, some selfishly.

 When Madonna got into bed (not literally) with events company Live Nation she potentially sidelined the careers of future Madonnas. The way things “used” to work (in theory anyway) was that when a label landed a superstar like Madonna, that allowed them to invest in new talent. Madonna’s action took away that revenue stream from her connections.

I must admit, the “business” probably hasn’t operated that way for some time. Now when a label finds itself with a major artist the money seems to go into that artist – money begets more money. Every high profile video is potentially another artist’s album. Money spent demands more money to be earned. Tomorrow’s artists are left waiting on the doorstep.

Instead of waiting for their turn, they’re starting to take matters into their own hands. Perhaps they’re in the process of creating a new model and the major record companies will lose their control.

 The old A&R (Artist and Repertoire) function at the major record companies isn’t what it used to be. Independent labels are left to make the discoveries and take the risks. Then the major labels step in and offer their services to take those artists to the next level. What happens to the original risk-takers? Some of the major record companies in America have rewarded major artists by allowing THEM to discover, nurture and sign new artists. It becomes a case of who you know.

Conversely the Jack Whites of the world find themselves in a position to make the best of both worlds, major and indie. Jack’s formed his own label, Third Man Records, where he records his sideline acts like The Dead Weather, gives a chance to new artists (The Black Belles) and furthers the careers of a legend in Wanda Jackson. And he’s got White Stripes. Hopefully Jack’s Third Man activities are profitable, but in effect he’s doing what the major record companies used to do but don’t do any more, using success to invest in the careers of others.

The danger is that we lose a structure, a logical ladder artists climb. At the moment some of the rungs of that ladder are broken. Some go nowhere. We need to ensure that whoever starts the climb can go as high as they possibly can.

What’s been missing in all of this is the end product. We’ve been encouraged to consume music rather than “own” it. We download because CDs largely aren’t worth having. They just occupy space. Since the advent of the CD we’ve been given little to “treasure”. Physical releases are just carriers of music, not part of the experience.

Times have changed, and you can’t hold back the tide of time, but for a moment let me take you back to the experience that was The Beatles’ “Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

 There were no singles. The title of the album was part of a concept which extended to the cover art. Inside the packaging were “cut-outs” to enable you to become part of the “Sgt.Pepper” band. The album opened with the song “Sgt.Pepper” and closed with “A Day In The Life”, which itself ended with that famous extended piano note .. and then as the needle ran off into the end groove some sound “junk” repeated over and over until you lifted the needle off.

Download that!

What I’m Listening to: The Tallest Man On Earth (The Wild Hunt), Celibate Rifles (Sideroxylon), The Killers (Hot Fuss)

INDEPENDENT RECORD SHOP DAY REFLECTIONS

April 17, 2010

It’s National Independent Record Shop Day. Are we whistling into the wind, wishing for something else that’s been taken away from us, which we’re trying to hang onto in vain like a ghost of something that’s died, or can this be as, we hope , a cry for sanity from The People Who Love Music?

Independent Record Shops, like that small venue that gives a singer or a band a chance to stand in front of an audience for the first time, are the nursery of tomorrow’s music. How many musicians found each other standing shoulder to shoulder browsing through record shop bins and revealing a taste for similar music? How many then exchanged names or numbers and formed bands, or at the very least found a kindred spirit? Independent Record Shops is where we’ve traditionally gone to find the music that’s hard to find, or the music we end up finding which changes our perspective on music, maybe even changes our lives.

Will they always be there, or are the independent records shops destined to go the way of vinyl and the album itself – a nostalgic notion?  It’s hard for them to survive. Their consumers don’t interest the major record companies, and as the gap widens between the majors and the small labels, it gets harder for that “boutique” shop to exist. We know that more music is being made than ever. It’s so easy to records something and to press a few CDs. The card table at the door after the gig is the obvious choice, but you’re selling to the converted.  But then what?  The big store won’t stock it. The independent record store might. But how many such records can it stock?

I hate being negative about the music industry. I hate calling it an industry. I want music to remain a cultural force, a means by which people express themselves and thoughts are transmitted and shared. I want music to be something that excites, on disc, on stage and in the audience. Everything we do should be aimed at those goals, but what are we to make of the report by Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, and its claim that 1 million plays of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” had earned the singer just $167 from European streaming service Spotify.  Spotiy has cried foul, saying that this  was an out of date figure, that it only represents Swedish earnings, that Lady Gaga’s royalties were split with another writer, etc etc  but tellingly what Spotify didn’t do was come up with an alternative figure. And the record companies line up to get in bed with them.

Bottom line, who’s looking after Lady Gaga’s interests? Who’s going to show tomorrow’s Lady Gaga the incentice to embark on a music career? The music “business” has let music down, and so have we. We download, we listen like thieves. We steal from those we love and expect the fame to be enough for them.

What I’m listening to: Dillinger Escape Plan (Option Paralysis), Franz Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand), The Band (Big Pink)

WILL EMINEM SAVE RAP FROM THE BLACK EYED PEAS?

April 16, 2010

Eminem’s timing is good.

We’ve yet to hear what’s in store for us when he releases his just-announced ‘Recovery’ album, but it’s bound to clash head-on with the friendly rap rethink the Black Eyed Peas’ success represents.

No matter what you think of Eminem he both popularized rap and revolutionized it. While his fellow rappers tended to romanticize, dramatize and glorify “street life” or boasted about what was hanging around their necks, bling and women, Eminem took his tracks somewhere we could actually relate to, sometimes uncomfortably violent, sometimes even tender and compassionate. There’s been a lot of fiction in his work as well, but there’s been the glimmers of real life, his own life. He’s been inventive, funny, confounding, compulsive.

It’s amazing when you think about it that this trailer trash white rapper has had such a profound impact on rap. He consistently leaves his black brothers in his wake as a recording artist and as a producer, and the next significant white rapper is … virtually non-existent. Eminem is, black or white, the biggest selling rap artist of all time.

We weren’t supposed to get ‘Recovery’. We’d been told to expect ‘Relapse 2’ a continuation of that earlier album most of which was created while Eminem was under treatment for sleeping pills. As he worked on he realized that the songs he was creating didn’t fit the ‘Relapse’ mood any more. That’s what makes Eminem relevant. He’s governed by what he’s feeling, not by what he wants us to think of him.

Will Enimen’s ‘Recovery’ be rap’s recovery as we knew it after the Black Eyed Peas intrusion, or has the scenery already been changed forever?

What I’m listening to: LCD Soundsystem (This Is Happening), Sonic Youth (Goo), Sly And The Family Stone (Stand)

Keith Richard : DEAD OR ALIVE?

April 14, 2010

Ronnie Wood is probably being more than a little mischievous with his revelation on his new Absolute Radio show, that Keith Richard has trouble remembering how to play ‘Paint It Black’.

What are we supposed to think – that Keith’s mind has gone the way of his looks? How could Keith possibly struggle with a song we have all known intimately for decades? Easy.

 Long ago I realized that a musician’s relationship with his/her music isn’t the same as ours. I was at a performance where a much loved singer and songwriter took “requests” from his audience. The show consisted of whatever songs his fans wanted to hear from him – and there were a number of occasions during that show when our hero had to be reminded and prompted about songs and lyrics that he’d forgotten, but the audience obviously hadn’t.

When we love a song, or in the good old days, loved an album, we the fan have listened to it over and over again, many many times. The creator of that music doesn’t do that. He’ll imagine that song, refine the idea to the point of recording it, and then maybe perform it live, at most a few hundreds of times compared to our thousands. The artist can also move on and never think about that song again. Or if they do play it, the creative musician will play that song differently every time in order to stay interested.

We might expect our musician heroes to be human jukeboxes. If they’re half way decent musicians that’s exactly what they can’t or won’t allow themselves to be. The minute they become robots on stage their careers may not be over but their creative relationship with music is definitely over. That musician will never write another song we’ll want to hear.

If Keith Richard can’t remember how to play ‘Paint It Black’, that just tells me he’s still thinking about the next song he’ll write, and not consumed by a song he wrote 40 years ago. We might be but he’s not. If the truth be known it’s Keith Richard who’s kept the Rolling Stones’ musical spirit alive all these years. Without him they might have become the Rolling Bones a long time ago.

What I’m listening to: MGMT (Congratulations), Stone Roses (Stone Roses), Cream (Disraeli Gears)

Powderfinger: THE DAY YOU LEFT

April 12, 2010

 Powderfinger, Australia’s most successful group of the last decade and a half, are ending their career the way they’ve conducted it throughout, with grace and dignity.

The announcement that the upcoming ‘Sunset’ tour will be their last is no bombshell. We’ve been expecting something like this for some time. There’s no controvercy, no bitterness, no recriminations. The same line-up has seen Powderfinger through its 20 years of life. Bernard Fanning’s solo album ‘Tea And Sympathy’ came with the band’s blessing, and despite its success Bernard happily returned to the band’s fold. We’re not seeing the end of Powderfinger because its outstanding lead singer is leaving.  When Powderfinger told us they were shutting shop because they’d achieved everything they could we can believe it.

They found a “sound” and once successful with it, Powderfinger did everything possible to keep themselves and us interested, experimenting at the edges without going off the rails.

Powderfinger leave after all that time, after all that success, without having become media identities, without really reaching superstar status. They didn’t become celebrities because of the kind of people they are – happy to the music do the “talking”, happy to establish personal lives at home in Brisbane  away from the hub-bub of big city life. Despite their sales they won’t be given legendary status, because Australian music  will never see the days of Cold Chisel or Midnight Oil or Hunters And Collectors again.

Powderfinger didn’t see “alternative” airplay from Triple J for a long time.  They were never particular favourites of commercial radio stations either. Despite the fact that they have sold around 2 million albums they only managed four top ten hits – nothing to do with the music. If anyone justified across the board airplay it was Powderfinger, but that doesn’t happen any more. As radio programmers carve up music into their demographic niches a lot of music you MIGHT hear falls through the cracks, and Australian music in Australia has been the main causality. Powderfinger prove it. Their sales status was never reflected justly by media support.

Internationally Powderfinger could never gain a toe hold, and again that’s no reflection of the band or its music. Australian music has a long history of its biggest acts “missing” out on global impact. Inxs were the exception. Men At work was a happy fluke. Midnight Oil was Midnight Oil. Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham, Skyhooks. Australian Crawl and even Silverchair, some of the biggest artists Australia has ever known  for one reason or another never found offshore audiences.  Or sought it.

 In today’s world we might wear the same baseball hats but we don’t listen to the same music. Music’s still a tribal experience. But increasingly less so. Powderfinger represents the end of an era. Australia may never have a band of its own with that measure of popularity again.

What I’m listening to: Eddy Current Suppression Ring (Rush To Relax) , Midnight Oil (10-1), The Drones (Havilah)

The Beatles: AND IN THE END

April 10, 2010

Forty years ago on this day Paul McCartney announced to the world that he was leaving the Beatles. It was an arrogant and audacious action on his part. McCartney was in fact the only member of the Beatles who hadn’t quit by April 1970.

Ringo Starr and George Harrison had both already left on different occasions – largely because of Paul McCartney – and been encouraged to stay. John Lennon was gone in spirit, his attention elsewhere. He’d long ago not bothered to work on any of George Harrison’s songs and probably would have just concentrated on his own Beatles’ contributions if it wasn’t for the intense creative competition between Lennon and McCartney which had driven the group throughout their career.

When McCartney was first invited to join Lennon’s Quarrymen group – John didn’t do it himself but royally had a mutual friend extend the invitation – Lennon made a mental note not to let McCartney take over. At that stage, in 1957, John Lennon was just making it up as he went. Paul McCartney however could sing like Little Richard, could play guitar properly and was writing his own songs. John Lennon knew Paul McCartney was going to be an asset.

As well as singing like Little Richard Paul McCartney also introduced Broadway songs like ‘A Taste Of Honey’ and ‘Till There Was You’ to the Beatles’ repertoire. He was always in danger of pushing the Beatles’ music in that direction. John Lennon recklessly rushed to see what new thing was around the corner. That difference was part of the Lennon-McCartney magic.

The Beatles started dying in 1967, when their manager Brian Epstein committed suicide. After a period of grieving the band met and decided not to replace him. They weould make career decisions themselves. They went to work on the “White” album, and the rot started to set in. Their next significant project was then something Paul McCartney dreamed up during a plane trip between America and England, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’. Paul McCartney was starting to assert himself over the group, in the studio telling Ringo and George how he wanted things to be done, sometimes even just sidelining them and playing their parts himself. That was then the backdrop to ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Abbey Road’, recorded in that order, but released the other way.

Complicating relationships even further was the recognition that they DID need business guidance. Paul wanted his Eastman in-laws’ legal firm to take care of things. Lennon in the same cavalier way he’d handed the ‘Let It Be’ tapes to Phil Spector to “fix”, talked Ringo and George into signing with Allen Klein. Oh-oh.

Paul McCartney didn’t just quit on this day. He didn’t just issue a statement. He hijacked the Beatles. His announcement came with the press release revealing the release of McCartney’s first solo album and came in the form of a Q&A where he was both the interviewer and the interviewee. After discussing the new album with himself McCartney came to the heart of the matter.

 Q: “Is this album a rest away from the Beatles or the start of a solo career?” PAUL: “Time will tell. Being a solo album means it’s ‘the start of a solo career…and not being done with the Beatles means it’s just a rest. So it’s both.”

 Q: “Is your break with the Beatles temporary or permanent, due to personal differences or musical ones?” PAUL: “Personal differences, business differences, musical differences, but most of all because I have a better time with my family. Temporary or permanent? I don’t really know.”

Q: “Do you foresee a time when Lennon-McCartney becomes an active songwriting partnership again?” PAUL: “No.”

The rest of the Beatles begged him to delay the release of his album, so it wouldn’t get in the way of ‘Let It Be’. They knew it would be the Beatles’ last official release and wanted to do it with dignity. They sent Ringo as emissary, but it did no good. As Paul had told us it was the end, although the legalities of it all took many years to resolve, and then, when the rights to the Beatles records came up for renewal McCartney negotiated a higher royalty for himself.

Now there are just two. John Lennon was assassinated. George Harrison died of lung cancer. Ever since, McCartney has done his best to channel to himself all the good will music fans still have for the Beatles. He wants us to believe that relations with him and the others were “friendly” in the end, but throughout the whole journey the “cute” Beatle has been too cute by half.

What I’m listening to: Slash (Slash) , the White Stripes (Elephant) , Morphine (Yes)