When a didgerididn’t

I recently dug out the mixes from a soundtrack I wrote back in 1992 for a series of self-hypnosis videos by a blossoming superstar in the field, Paul McKenna.

The soundtrack was based round a didgeridoo, which was a logical choice given that the purpose of the music was to take the subject into trance, form a background for their relaxed state and then bring them out. The other instrumentation was piano, sax, percussion and nylon string guitar.

With the drone of the didgeridoo, I was limited to chords that worked with its single note tonality. The didgi player had two instruments, each “tuned” to a difference note, so some variety among the tracks was possible. It was an interesting challenge that produced surprisingly musical results.

Unfortunately, the recording was rejected by the production company, with one comment being that it sounded “too Australian”. Eventually a synth-based “new age” soundtrack was used, which was less interesting. However, in this case, being less interesting probably better fulfilled the brief.



Brand Awareness

Much as I hate to say it, Nigel Farage scored a points victory over Russell Brand at their recent BBC Question Time appearance together.

It had been billed as a kind of Mayweather v Pacquiao confrontation, but “Teflon” Nige exited the ring without a mark on him, while the self-appointed People’s Champion was left bruised and flailing on the canvas.

The most destructive blow was landed by a member of the audience, who challenged the open shirted middleweight to put his money where his mouth is and stand for parliament, where he might be able to make a practical difference. Brand’s off-the-frilly-cuff reply was embarrassingly lame and brought groans of derision from the audience. Farage smiled knowingly. One more round to him and he didn’t even have to break sweat.

Although he’d like us to see him differently, Mr Farage is a politician and a supremely effective one when it comes to dealing with the media and the public. He’s in the heavyweight division, alongside Boris Johnson and previous champions such as Tony Blair. Firing soundbites of indignation against these political pugilists is as effective as throwing cocktail sticks at a Panzer.

I’ve seen passionate but undisciplined rabble rousers become very effective in political spheres, without sacrificing their integrity. However, I’m not sure Russell has it in him. Ultimately his message is a negative one. People don’t just want hope, they need it. Farage works hard to offer that … at least he does to those who are the right kind of person.

So Russell, you need to change your brand a bit. While trashing the rich, the corporations, politicians and the democratic process itself, come up with something that you and the many who agree with your basic standpoint can be FOR.





We Could Be Heroes

One of the most exciting ventures this year has been joining Paul Antony’s David Bowie tribute band Pop-Up Bowie.

Paul looks uncannily like the Thin White Duke, sounds like him and also has the moves. No wonder he was voted the UK’s Number 1 Bowie Act at the 2013 National Tribute Awards.

We played in Paul’s home town of Swanage a couple of weeks ago and the crowd was up dancing to Jean Genie, Heroes, Modern Love, Boys Keep Swinging and of course Let’s Dance.

I’ve always been a fan, but it’s only when you start playing the songs that you realise just how clever they are. Maybe it’s the vaudeville or European influence, but Bowie uses threes a lot, where the conventional rock/blues choice would be four. I don’t mean time signature, but rather the number of times a phrase repeats. I didn’t realise until I started having to count the bars, but then why would you – it would spoil the moment.

Judging by the response we’ve had in various theatres and arts centres around the country, there is clearly a market for Bowie’s music in a live context. Here’s hoping it goes on to even better things in 2015, possibly taking the show to audiences in Europe and Scandinavia.


Jimi and the B chord

From time to time you hear a story that is jaw-droppingly cool.

Last night I was chatting to a friend at the relaunched Waffle Club and the conversation turned to our first attempts at learning the guitar. He said that when he was 14 or 15 he was in a London music shop with a schoolfriend. Trying out the various exotic instruments and forcing his young hand into seemingly impossible contortions, another man in the shop came over and showed an interest.

My friend said that he could play E and A, but really struggled with B. Any guitarist will tell you that accomplishing a decent sounding barre chord was a major hurdle for the embryonic musician.

“Try this,” said the man, who demonstrated a couple of easier shapes for B that didn’t involve the unnatural stretch of the index finger. He went on to say that he was playing in a club that evening and invited the two boys along – aged 14 or 15 remember.

So who was this kindly guitar guru? None other than Jimi Hendrix.


The Ghost of TV Past

Today I found evidence of TV before it was populated by the general public, all engaged in some sort of contest for survival on the road to minor celebrity. Whether it’s baking cakes, singing karaoke, going to car boot sales, or doing up their house, so much of what gets on telly these days is as competitive as it is voyeuristic as it is judgemental.

On YouTube, I found an old black and white edition of the BBC’s Monitor programme, chaired by Huw Wheldon. Orson Welles, Peter O’Toole and an unidentified elderly actor sat, smoked and talked about Hamlet – the play, not the cigar. That was it – simple, but extraordinarily captivating. There was no jeopardy, no put downs by a judge, no back story, no excitable and orgasmic studio audience. However, they did agree that the ghost is the most difficult character and that because Shakespeare himself played it, he must have been a very fine actor.

The programme came from a time when the Reithian principle of informing, educating and entertaining was still the Corporation’s guiding light. Paternalistic yes, but enriching also. It’s a spirit kept alive on BBC4 and whatever other mistakes the BBC makes (and there have been many), it is the only broadcaster capable in the modern commercial world of maintaining a place for “difficult” television.


The Ivors: A special day

Yesterday was my favourite day of the year … the Ivors.

It’s been my privilege to be involved in the production for a number of years and it’s always wonderful just to be in the room, let alone get to work on it. Awards shows often get a bad press and having watched many on TV over the years, I don’t think they make great television.

Apart from a couple years in its infancy, the Ivors has never been televised. As a result BASCA, which owns and runs the event, has sacrificed much potential PR profile and the Ivors remain largely a well-kept secret for the world outside the songwriting and composing community. However, it’s a sacrifice that should never be shirked, as it’s the intimacy of the event (if a show for 1,200 people can ever be called intimate) and the very lack of television cameras that keep it special.

Randy Newman, recipient of the Special International Award, said it was “inspirational” for there to be a whole day dedicated to a celebration of songwriting, while Songwriter of the Year Calvin Harris said it was the highlight of his career … and he’s had number ones in almost 30 countries.

One of the things that I find most gratifying about the Ivors is that it throws up endless connections, friendships and relationships that span generations. Marty Wilde presented the Ivor for Outstanding Achievement to Justin Haywood to complete a circle that started in the sixties when Haywood answered an advert in Melody Maker and ended up joining Marty’s band The Wilde Three. Noel Gallagher received his Outstanding Song Collection award from Ray Davies. Two absolute giants of British songwriting and as Davies pointed out, leaders of two rebellious bands and each having to deal with a brother in the group.

There was a kind of sibling connection between Chris Martin and Gavin Rossdale, as the Coldplay singer presented the Ivor for International Achievement to the Bush frontman. The friendship was there for all to see.

All around the room, old friendships were renewed. On my table was Vicki Wickham, former manager of Dusty Springfield and legendary producer of Ready, Steady, Go. Ray Davies came over to say hello, followed shortly by Peter Gabriel.

It was also a huge pleasure for me to meet the utterly delightful Nona Hendryx. It’s hard to explain the Ivors experience, but imagine being shut in a room with a good sprinkling of your heroes for company. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday in May.



Sliding Doors

I had lunch today with a friend who I used to do a lot of work with, but who I haven’t seen for almost 20 years.

There was much to catch up on – who was doing what, who had married who, and sadly, did you know so and so had died? One of the consequences of getting older is that your career sits in a broader context. We’d met when I played guitar in a production of Godspell he was directing. He went on to direct two shows for the youth theatre group that my dad ran, before moving into TV and video production and many other things.

I became a sound engineer and then after being made redundant and becoming a freelance composer, he was pivotal in providing jobs that got me started. Although you can never say how things would have turned out had we never met, it’s hard now to see an alternate course if he hadn’t given me a much appreciated leg-up in those early years.

As we reminisced, it seemed a different time back in the early eighties … or maybe it was just that we were younger and had no real experience of failure to limit us. Crazy ideas were had, they were put into action and to a greater or lesser degree, they worked. It was, we both agreed, a special time and a fun time.

Then we traced back to how we first met and it was one of those Sliding Doors moments that involved a mutual friend falling off a horse, not being able to do a production of Godspell that my dad was directing, hearing of another production once she’d recovered, auditioning and getting a part, the production being short of a guitarist, me going to a party at her house where I met the director, him asking me if I wanted to play in the show, me saying yes … and the rest is history.

So an absolutely pivotal period of my career can be traced back to an accidental fall from a horse. My friend said the same thing. The identity of the horse is lost to history, but it’s fascinating how one apparently small and unconnected event can have such a massive impact on the direction of people’s lives. It’s a good argument in favour of destiny. Or maybe when you examine any momentous outcome – meeting your husband or wife, getting a life-changing career break, finding your dream home – it can all be traced back to a random and improbable sequence of events.

Who knows where we’d all be if Barbie had decided not to go riding that day.



Troggs Comedy Gold

I was at The Soundhouse last week dubbing the audio for the Ivors A/V.  During the many diversionary conversations with Phil, one of the owners of the studio and the engineer for the session, we got on to the subject of the Troggs Tapes.

An unwritten rule of recording studios is that when two or more sound engineers get together, lines from the legendary bootleg shall be performed.  Some of the lines are as iconic as the best of Monty Python: “You have done it tonght,” “Ronnie, split your hands,” “Did you do what Larry Page said?”, “Sprinkle some fairydust on the bastard,” “It needs a fuckin’ 12 string on it,” and of course the unforgettable, “Dubba dubba dubba dum.”

I told Phil that I was the engineer who edited the 11 minute original down to four minutes, when Dick James Music decided to release the recording on 7 inch vinyl. I was about 24 and hadn’t been an engineer at DJM Studios for very long.

The EP, which must now be worth a few quid to a collector, sounded as good as I remember it … and still made us laugh out loud. In truth, the comedy value is greatly enhanced by Reg and the others’ west country accents. I didn’t do an “F” count, but there was one “C”. Nevertheless, I hope someone has made it available on iTunes or Amazon. For the recording studio fraternity, it’s right up there with The Parrot Sketch and Tony Hancock’s The Blood Donor, while we shouldn’t forget the role it played in the inception of Spinal Tap. Thanks for the comic fairydust Reg.



Driving a train? Child’s play

I was squeezed into a carriage on a train from London Bridge to Peckham Rye today. Hordes of remarkably good humoured commuters (maybe because it was a Friday) listened to repeated announcements that the train’s departure was being delayed as they were waiting for a driver.

Eventually a father said to his young son, “Maybe you should drive the train.” “I can’t,” came the reply, “I’m only six and you have to be at least  13 to drive a train.”



Genius, or is it just Balls?

Just watched Ed Balls on BBC2’s Budget Special. Apart from the unblinking stary eyes, which are always a little disconcerting, I’m finding his position on the economy increasingly confusing.

He says the Government should borrow more in order to drive growth, then criticises it for government borrowing having risen above its projections. He, like most on the opposition benches, goes on endlessly about the “tax cut for millionaires”, i.e. the reduced top rate of income tax. Yet it’s still lower than in any year of the last administration and moreover, the Shadow Chancellor refuses to commit to putting it back up to 50p should Labour return to power. In addition, certain Labour MPs speaking in the House today acknowledged that lowering the tax on beer would actually produce more income. “Dynamic taxation” as the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it.

I’ve long believed that the attack on the top tax rate issue is much more to do with the campaign of Class War than the real purpose of taxation policy, which is to raise the maximum amount of revenue for the country. I’m no expert, but the figures appear to confirm that you get more out of the rich in cash terms by applying lower rates of tax … however counter-intuitive that may sound.

We have to accept that we are in a very deep hole, which has been dug over decades. If the financial meltdown of 2008/9 showed anything, it’s that the worlds’ economies were built on billions of pounds worth of IOUs and non-existent money. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Well it happened and it’s going to be a long and painful clamber to the surface.

In the freelance world, we’re used to fluctuating income. It’s hard for us, or indeed anyone in the private sector, to feel sympathy for public sector workers whose pay rises will “only” be 1% for the next couple of years. The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Maitland was on Sky News last night saying that some people in the organisation he works for had their salaries cut by 50%.

I’ve been a professional composer since 1985 and in the last couple of years I’ve done jobs that on a per minute of music basis have paid less than my very first commission 28 years ago. A 1% annual increase? In the words of Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen, “I dream of a 1% increase.”