Archive for August, 2010

The Gospel according to ARCADE FIRE and KATY PETTY

August 14, 2010

There are no rules governing the music industry – that’s what I enjoy about my continued involvement, you never quite know what will happen next – but right now we’re looking at a great divide. While the industry’s number crunchers watch the ghost of past fortunes slip through their fingers, there is no obvious road to Damascus on offer. Look at the two artists dominating our attention at the moment – Arcade Fire and Katy Perry.

As I’ve said before – again and again – the music industry itself has much to answer for. Pirating is just part of their (our) problem. With the same steadfast we-know-what’s-best determination with which they engineered the shift from vinyl to compact discs, having completely mishandled the arrival of mp3 files, they’ve put music’s future in the hands of the online retailers, possibly killing “the album” in the process – good for the retailers, bad for music.

So here are Arcade Fire, against the odds, delivering an “album”, a conceptual assembly of songs. In years to come Arcade Fire, unlike many of their contemporaries, will potentially be able to perform “The Suburbs” in its entirety, just like their predecessors, Bruce Springsteen and so forth more and more now find themselves paying homage to their classic albums in concert. “The Suburbs” has been created as an entity, we’ll listen to it in its entity to get its full impact and that’s how we’ll see this group of songs for the rest of time.

Arcade Fire have delivered an album when the album is supposed to be dead, when vinyl is supposed to be dead. “The Suburbs” has debuted at No.1 in England and the US.  Incredibly vinyl contributed 4% of the first week sales in America.  How did Arcade Fire launch ‘The Suburbs’? With a webcast live concert from Madison Square Garden.

If Arcade Fire were listening to the industry this is probably NOT the way they would have been told things ought to be done.

Let’s look at Katy Perry instead. We’ve graduated from wanna-bes, to wanna-bes-graduating in “Fame” schools to the Lady Gagas and Katy Perry’s who’ve served apprenticeships INSIDE “the machine”. Both were looking for careers in music and wound up writing songs for other artists who had “the machine”s attention before they won that attention for themselves. In Katy’s case, on whose terms?

Katy Perry’s new album ‘Teenage Dream” will dislodge Arcade Fire from the top of the album charts around the world.  How did she launch her album? By lying naked on a cotton wool cloud.

What I’m listening to:

Frazey Ford (Obadiah): The Be Good Tanyas singer in bluesy Bessie Smith low fidelity

Damien Rice (O): In retrospect the string arrangements are a bit cheesy, but a magnificent work of singer-songwriter introspection

New York Dolls (New York Dolls): One of the great rock albums. Every time we thought rock’s fire had died, someone breathed a hurricane onto the embers. This was one of those moments.

John Lennon: IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY (FOR NOW)

August 9, 2010

Today in 1980 John Lennon recorded the song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” on day six of the “Double Fantasy” album recording sessions. A week ago producer Jack Doulas introduced the backing musicians to the “mystery” artist he’d booked them to work with.

 By coincidence rather than design Douglas recently had to return to the same room where he recorded “Double Fantasy” and said goodbye to Lennon 20 minutes before he died. He has remixed “Double Fantasy” for 2010 re-release. The remixed version starts with a dedication from John never heard before. The original album started a Tibetan wishing bell, the final touch added to the recording. Ironically John Lennon’s first post-Beatles studio album and now the last started with the same bell sound.

“Double Fantasy” ended John Lennon’s five year silence. After a number of miscarriages Lennon and Yoko Ono agreed to try again. She would have the child if he agreed to take care of it for the first five years. Ono had made a similar deal with one of her two previous husbands, Tony Cox. Today’s “Double Fantasy” song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” was written for the result of that agreement, John and Yoko’s son Sean Ono Lennon. The song begins with John comforting his son from what is presumably a nightmare. The Beatles’ 1968 album closed with ‘Good Night’ a lullaby for Julian Lennon written by John and sung by Ringo Starr. John Lennon also had his first son in mind when he started writing the “Double Fantasy” songs. He sent demos of his new songs to then 27-year- old Julian to get his reaction.

“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” repeats the lines “Every day in every way/It’s getting better and better”, inspired by the mantra of French psychologist Émile Coué, who had his patients repeat “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better” over and over again as part of therapy. Some listeners take Lennon’s use of the line as a reference to his improving relationship with Paul McCartney. Four days after the “Beautiful Boy” recording session, during the eighth day of recording for the “Double Fantasy” , Paul McCartney apparently called John Lennon to suggest a collaboration, but John is not informed of the call because Yoko Ono would not allow the call to be put through.

What I’m listening to:

Richard Ashcroft(PPA and The United States Of Sound): The best Madchester groove/trip album in years.

Pete Yorn (Day I Forgot): Excuse the Scarlett Johansson collaboration. Pete York is the real deal. If Springsteen was the new Dylan, Yorn might be the new Bruce.

The Who (My Generation): One of the great rock albums of all time. The greatest? The Who at least were never as powerful as this again. They became arty. This was music to trash instruments to.

Eminem and Lady Gaga: IN ANOTHER PLAYGROUND

August 7, 2010

The role of the music video has clearly changed, as illustrated by the unveiling  of Eminem’s ‘Love The Way You Lie’ video this week when the song featured has already been No.1 around the world for a month a half. Lady Gaga’s groundbreaking ‘Video Phone’’ also appeared subsequent to the song’s release. Clearly the strategy has changed.  Once videos were made to promote songs. Now their purpose seems to be to promote artists. There’s a difference.

We’re talking of course, in the case of Enimem and Lady Gaga, about artists who are in a position to keep us hanging on, so that the release of a video can become an event, separate from the issue of a new song or album.  Others still need a video as their possible one shot to attract our attention to their latest song and themselves.. What Eminem and Lady Gaga have had spent on  ‘Love The Way You Lie’  and ‘Video Phone’  represents would might have been spent on opening the door for a newcomer. Nothing new there, but the gap is widening. More and more  it’s a case of the haves and have nots. Only stars like these can create such elaborate promotional tools for the sake of it.

There’s another aspect to both  ‘Love The Way You Lie’  and ‘Video Phone’. They legitimize the star unions involved. So much of what happens in the recording studio is a lie. Again and again we hear artists featuring on the songs of others without ever physically being together. In fact that’s rarely the case. Again it’s a done more to get our attention rather than for creative reasons. Lady Gaga with Beyonce? Enimen with Rihanna? Katy Perry with Snoop Dogg? I’d like to heard that. And we did. And if you’re big enough, if you’ve got enough clout, you can make that audio lie a reality in a video compounding the illusion.

What I’m listening to:

Tired Pony (The Place We Ran From) – Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody finds an alternate vehicle for his melodic outpourings

The Editors (in This Light And On This Evening) – An (over?)  melodramatic update of Jim Morrison

Matthew Sweet (Girlfriend) – One of the most satisfying pop albums of all time.

Dylan and Michael Jackson: PLUNDERING THE LEFTOVERS

August 1, 2010

What do Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan have in common?  Both have recorded much more than we ever heard. Michael Jackson recorded 20-30 songs for every album, and even though he didn’t have an official record contract for the last three years of his life, and was distracted for the four years before that, there is evidence of songwriting and recording by Michael Jackson during these “missing” seven years.

Recording Bob Dylan was once described by one of his producers as like “trying to capture lightning”. Bob famously comes up with a number of versions of every song and the one we happen to hear in the end is often just the one we happen to allowed to hear. His record company vaults are full of unreleased tracks, which used to be a headache for Dylan but isn’t now.

That backlog made it virtually impossible for Dylan for contemplate moving to another record company.  He did briefly in the 70s, recording one studio album (‘Planet Waves’) and a live album, possibly as a show of strength but he quickly hurried back soon after. The problem was that Columbia could have kept raiding the cupboard for years. While contracted to the company Dylan can control  the output.  Dylan’s official “bootleg” series is the obvious compromise finally arrived at. Slowly the shelves are being cleared, at the same time satisfying our thirst for the old Dylan and giving Bob himself the freedom to amuse himself with the present. Which he has.

In October, Sony Legacy will  be releasing The Bootleg Series Vol. 9, and a box set of the first eight Bob Dylan albums in mono. Bob’s Leeds Music and Witmark demos dating back to 1962 are expected to be included.

In November Sony – no coincidence, there aren’t many majors left – is also releasing a “new” Michael Jackson album, the first in a  10-album, seven-year deal the Jackson estate agreed with Sony BMG in March 2010. When he died the previous June MJ was without a contract, hanging by a Beatles thread to the Sony Corporation and in serious financial trouble. Within hours of his death he’d become a money-spinning industry.

The ‘new’ as-yet Jackson untitled album reaches back to that leftover material from the 80s, reconnecting us and Jackson with his heyday. There will also be material he recorded in 2006 around the time of the ‘Thrilller 25th Anniversary’ project with Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am. Well, you would wouldn’t you, considering the Black Eyed Peas’ commercial appeal?  Just this week ‘I Got A Feeling’ became the first song to reach the 6 million mark in digital downloads.  

Beyond that there are the hard drives Jackson left behind, filled with unheard music. His manager Frank DiLeo claimed that the singer’s vaults contains more than 100 completed and unreleased songs, including collaborations with contemporary artists Akon and Ne-Yo.  There’s an  album’s worth  of new Michael Jackson songs which “belong” to Rodney ‘Darkchild’ Jerkins.  Jerkins is a family friend.  For Jackson’s ‘Invincible’ CD, his last official album Jerkins produced six songs, including the hit “You Rock My World.” He and Jackson subsequently worked on more than 200 tracks and “musical ideas” over three years. Perhaps Jerkins could play spoiler and hold them back from the “new deal”, but Jerkins is a career producer – he’s currently working with Britney Spears – and there’s no way he’d shit in his own nest and damage his future for the sake of a handful of contentious millions.

However,  there are still a few loose threads which might just unravel the best laid plans of the corporate machine. It took many years to clear up Jimi Hendrix’s leftovers and bring them all together under safe “control” under one roof. Despite the instant Jackson industry and Sony’s eager re-embracing of their lapsed hero not everything is in their keeping. 

In 2006 there was an announcement that Jackson had signed a contract with a Bahrain-based label called Two Seas Records. Later Two Seas said that the deal was never finalized. Are there some recordings that date from that period which might be contractually compromised?

And then there’s sister La Toya who IS a proven spoiler – she said Michael was a child molester when she needed the headline – and maybe she WOULD take a financial opportunity if there is one to be taken. In the immediate  aftermath of Michael Jackson’s death, within hours,  it was La Toya of all people who rushed to her brother’s rented home  to “rescue” the hard drives of unreleased songs. Are the all songs contained thereon now amongst the material safely in the family’s keeping?  Jackson’s manager, Frank DiLeo, said he was “pretty sure” they are.

There are even songs ‘intended’ for Michael Jackson. Ne-Yo was sending Jackson three or four drafts a week prior to Jackson’s unexpected death. What’s the fate of the submissions that were never touched by MJ?

There IS a positional minefield inside all of this, waiting for unscrupulous exploitation. History can easily repeat itself. Way back in 1971, when the Jackson 5 shot to fame and success, a record company the brothers had momentarily recorded for released a Jacksons-style single by Ripples And Waves, even adding a “with Michael” to the label credit. We were supposed to think it was the Jacksons and THAT Michael. It wasn’t. It wasn’t the Jacksons  and there was no-one called Michael in the group. That single, “Let Me Carry Your School Books”,  wasn’t a success but if you look at some Jackson 5 histories they’ll tell you Michael and his brothers DID once record as Ripple And Waves.

 What I’m listening to: Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (Dark Night Of The Soul),  Snow Patrol (A Hundred Million Suns),  The Kills (Midnight Boom)