Politics Radio & Music

Where's the urge to change the world gone? Where's the idealism? Where's the naîvety?

Over my life I’ve found myself motivated by music more than almost anything else. That push that the right song can give you more often than not is the thing that shoves my mood or sensibility forward. It’s a spiritual kick up the arse. It’s music as mood-enhancer – music as engine for mental change and transformation.

At the moment, I look around and I see a lot of routine. A lot of people doing a lot of things that they’ve done before. A lot of people (myself included) travelling around and around like a needle in a record. The opportunities to jump out of this routine seem only to be skips between tracks, silences before the next song starts. They’re not enough. Does a life change itself by going on holiday? Does a person become a better person by taking a break? Maybe the thing to do instead is to keep forcing yourself back to your work – even the work that we seem to skip over or fall exhausted from. Perhaps especially that work. Maybe the work that we do – that we do for ourselves or for the things that we believe in – is the life-transformative thing. Particularly when you don’t have a partner to get in the way. Particularly when it’s unlikely that you’re going to have a child.

It’s a weird conversation for a Friday night, and it’s inspired by something even weirder. It’s inspired by a kind of semantic implosion and a confluence of pop-culture imagery. It’s inspired by the monotony of yet another year of BBC’s Children In Need Telethon. It’s inspired by the upcoming appearance of the people from Fame Academy on that telethon – people with actual talent and ability whose aspirations and dreams are being turned into marketable products (isn’t that worse in a way – that it’s not their talent that’s for our consumption – that it’s their hopes?). And it’s inspired above all by listening to – for the first time in ten years – a bone fide musical relic of the early 1990s – Tears for Fears’ Sowing the Seeds of Love.

Bear with me, because this is a serious post about a vaguely dumb song. And I think it’s important. This trivial anthem – this vaguely silly, backwards-looking, cod-Beatles anthem – matters to me now in a way it didn’t at the time. It’s a song about action – liberal action – designed to be an way of energising people who want the world to be something to be proud of. It’s a call to examine your morals, your interests, your creativity. And while it’s utterly lacking in muso credibility, it does something that most liberal heart-felt songs don’t do – it points towards the possibilities of a better future rather than wallowing in the problems of the present. It’s trivial because it’s idealistic. But it’s brilliant for that reason to. Or maybe not brilliant – maybe it’s just nice that it exists…

Hear the line: High time we made a stand and shook up the views of the common man. It sounds patronising, but in my heart I have to accept I believe it. If you’re a worried man – then shout about it. Open hearts – feel about it. Open minds – think about it. Everyone – read about it. Everyone – scream about it ! I believe that too. [More lyrics]

The band that wrote the song basically split as a result of writing it. It was too intense, too committed a process to be an easy ride. The man who cared most about making it clean and pure – even if it was saturated in spritzes of pop imagery- had to care too much about the song if it was ever going to be finished to his satisfaction – if it was going to be a something worthwhile. Something not “for sale”. And whether you think the final result was crap or not, it was not routine – it was inspired by genuine feeling, a sense of need, of aspiration and of almost fanatically hard work… I wonder to myself – do we need someone now – whether in the micro-culture of weblogging, or in the greater creative world, or even in centre-left politics, to put that work in? I’m beginning to think so. We need a new ethic of creativity – or a return maybe to an ethic of transformative creative responsibility. And maybe that can start with the creative individualism of webloggia.

I’m going to end this rather epic post about trivial music, responsibility and the ethics of creativity by talking about another song – and pointing towards a kind of approach to our creative endeavours that has the capacity to break us out of our routine and our creative ruts – to help reinvigorate us all politically and productively. It’s called “Emile” by Pressure of Speech. It’s not a pop-song. It wasn’t released as a single. Instead it’s a bit of an odd little piece of music with some reading over the top of it by a man callled Emile de Antonio from a documentary about his life called Mr Hoover & I. It’s got some stunning phrases in it about creativity and responsibility – insights that I think apply to all aspects of our lives, but are perhaps particularly potent when looking at weblogs:

Perhaps the only thing that’s worthwhile is to make something that isn’t really for sale, except on your own terms – which is “I made it. It’s true. If you don’t like it, to hell with you. I want you to like it, or I’d be crazy, but I’d rather be crazy than have you like it because it was false – because it was what you wanted from me instead of what I wanted…”

Radio & Music

On Tom's Ten Tip Top Tunes…

Ten Tip Top Tunes for Tom: Being a list of songs that I’m listening to over and over again at the moment and which if you had less conscience and were prepared to (immorally) steal music through some kind of file-sharing application, you should probably download immediately. Bearing in mind that I couldn’t countenance such behaviour obviously.

  1. Lonesome Tears, by Beck
    The most played song I own (says Mr iTunes), Lonesome Tears has been played about a gajillion times since Sea Change was released last month. Best song on the album. Wonderful.

  2. Temptation, Heaven 17
    I miss power pop like this – escalating chords in this song quite alarmingly resemble the end of Lonesome Tears. I always wonder if the woman who belts out the twirly bits was brought in afterwards to spice up a slightly boring song or not…

  3. Nutbush City Limits, Tina Turner
    Because post-Ike Tina Turner may have been a great big-haired 80s power balladeer, but 70s Tina Turner was a spiky hardcore edgy song-belter with enough spine to scale many a dinosaur.

  4. Poplife, Prince
    Liking Prince only became a crime when Prince’s music became criminally awful. I’d suggest this was when he started thieving from temples. Personal opinion of course – many people like his crapper work. Nonetheless, there’s got to be a place in life for Pop Life. Because life it ain’t too funky. Unless it’s got that pop.

  5. Top of the World, Shonen Knife
    You know what’s great? Happy Japanese Punk-Pop Pixies singing bouncy Carpenters’ songs with quite bad accents. Kurt Cobain loved Shonen Knife. And then he killed himself.

  6. God Save the Queen, Sex Pistols
    The most tuneful and iconic of the Sex Pistols’ ouevre is just a bloody good laugh when you’re in the lift by yourself in the mornings (carrying your green soya smoothie with spirulina to your creative desk-job – sigh…).

  7. Get Free, The Vines
    “I’m gonna get free, I’m gonna get free, Ride into the Sun.” For some reason this and Randy Crawford belting out “Someday I’ll fly away” have been stuck in my head for the last few holiday-free months.

  8. The Killing Moon, Echo and the Bunnymen
    Donnie Darko biking down a moutain road in the early morning light cracking through the branches as 80s indie icons get cruelly kissed as the sky’s all hung with jewels. Fate, up against your will. Through the thick and thin. Whatever…

  9. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
    This boys too young, but he’s not too proud, to be singing these Elton John inspired blues. Back to the howling old owl in the woods. Hunting the horny back toad. I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the Yellow Brick Road.

  10. I’d Love to Change the World, Ten Years After
    From a film where liberal intellectuals kill all the right-wing bastards they can, until they meet the ultimate bastard, who then persuades them not to kill him, before killing them and becoming a satanic President of the USA. Everywhere is freaks and hairies, dykes and fairies… Good film…
Radio & Music Technology

How to fill a 5Gb iPod…

So here’s what the thing would be if I were really bored and absurdly anal on a Sunday early-evening… As an iPod early-adopter, I may be the last person left in the Western hemisphere with a mere 5Gb to fill. And I’ve ripped nearly 12Gb of my own albums onto my computer. So I clearly have a problem here – how do I choose what to put onto it? Of the 2822 songs currently on my Mac, only 535 songs have yet to be rated (star ratings out of five – rating songs is the new ‘alphabetising my record collection’), and these include several new albums I’ve bought recently along with some older stuff that I don’t really want to write off just yet, but at the same time can’t really say that I’ve demonstrated much inclination to listen to either…

There are several considerations – one being the highly frustrating way that the iTunes randomise function only randomises the first time you make a playlist – so you can’t have one list that changes dynamically. This is highly frustrating.

Quickly – some dumb figures: 5 star songs: 281, 4 star songs: 991, 3 star songs: 691, 2 star songs: 286, 1 star songs: 38. In principle the scoring mechanism that has evolved works like this – I would not be averse to listening to at any time any song that gets three to five stars. Two star songs are an irritation. One star songs are just irredeemably awful. One star songs are mostly from Moby’s “18” or represent the most self-indulgent of The Magnetic Fields’ oeuvre… Other considerations to bear in mind – classical music is interesting, but not always ideal for listening to on the bus or down the street, I add new music all the time and wish it to be represented on my iPod before I have had the chance to assign it a rating, humourous songs often become less humourous after a fairly short amount of time. There are many many other criteria in play here as well – so many in fact that ideally I would need someone to do some comprehensive analysis on the subject and return to me with a set of criteria that one could use as a basis for evolving appropriate smart playlists. Here’s my attempt so far…

  • 5-star songs:
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is 5-stars, Genre is not Educational or Classical, limited to 1210 Mb selected by random.
    Significantly, this represents essentially every single 5-star song I own except for a batch of scientific songs by Tom Glazer that may be empiracally wonderful but can become irritating, and classical pieces which are often simply too long to warrant inclusion.

  • 4-star songs:
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is 4-stars, Genre is not Educational, Classical or Humour, limited to 650 songs selected by random.
    This represents 2.69Gb of the space on my iPod, except that since several of my smart playlists randomly select some of the same tracks, there is no particular benefit in specifying exactly how much space it should occupy. This is a fairly savagely cut selection from the 991 songs that I’ve given a full four stars too. There simply isn’t space to do otherwise. Note the addition of humour to the banned genre… Five star comedy may remain entertaining… Four star may not…

  • 4-star songs (running):
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is 4-stars, Genre is not Educational, Classical or Humour, limited to 200 songs selected by date added.
    Now we have to add an element of movement into the organisation of the iPod. Since we can only have a selection of the four-star songs that are available, a choice has to be made as to which ones will be chosen. A purely random selection that isn’t dynamically different each time would relegate some songs to obscurity, and more importantly would remain uniformly distributed – there would be no sense of progress… By choosing the 200 most recently added 4-star songs, I make sure that my iPod changes and responds to my daily whim…

  • Most Played:
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is better than 2 stars, limited to 300 songs selected by most played.
    This list has precisely the opposite function of the one above – to be a stable chart of songs that I seem to not want to be without. The removal of anything with a rating under 3 stars makes sure I don’t accidentally get stuck with something I’ve come to hate.

  • Recent Additions:
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is not 1 stars / 2 stars / or 3 stars, limited to 60 songs selected by recently added.
    Essentially this list is simply to catch stuff that I’ve added but have not as yet come to a conclusion about. The removal of anything with one, two or three stars means that I don’t waste time listening to stuff that I have come to a conclusion about, while anything that has yet to be rated remains included.

  • Recently Played:
    This smart playlist operates according to the following principles:
    My rating is not 1 or 2 stars / or 3 stars, limited to 40 Mb, selected by last played.
    Because it’s possible that I could have a song in my head when I leave my flat, and for it not to be on my iPod, I instituted a list that kept track of what had been listened to in roughly the last forty minutes and made sure that was always with me. A tiny additional list that has been a complete life-saver many times…

This feels a bit Open University-esque. It’s an almost total waste of weblog space as well. Except that I am serious – if someone out there has done some research into these things I’m sure that a company like Apple would be interested… A default ‘my music collection’ playlist that intuited what kind of things you actually wanted to carry around with you (with whatever obscure algorithm it used) would probably be quite appealing to some people…

Radio & Music

Cut-up musical culture…

Every medium for transmitting music brings with it new practices for listening to it – and these in turn filter back into the way we interact with it, categorise it, manipulate it. The earliest ways of transmitting music were memory and repetition – music at this stage was simple and rhythmic and easy to transmit (think nursery rhymes and folk songs) or was not designed to be played the same way twice – rhythmic drumming tropes playing off each other – again and again… Sheet music required musical literacy, access to instruments and – in the popular fora at least – very clearly separated the music (what’s written on the paper) from the rendition – the same songs might appear in versions for brass, piano, strings, woodwind, etc…

Recorded music brought with it a whole range of new issues. Transmission was now conducted at the level of rendition rather than the iconic ‘music’ level. But whole new ways of categorising music came along with the requirement of ‘grouping’ music into artist or theme, and placing it on two sides of plastic to be packaged as a product. And as the amount of product grew, the need for popular sense of categorisation emerged – was this rock ‘n’ roll, or bossanova? Tapes were more portable and resilient, but also bizarrely a backward-step in accessibility – gone was the random access mode of the record-player’s head. CD’s brought that back, and in the process removed the need for each side of an album to feel like a coherent entity. Albums ceased to be structured around two arcs that would last twenty minutes (records), moved past the longer side-structures of tapes (each side lasting potentially up to forty or fifty minuts) and settled on a CD format in which the listening experience is uniform, discrete and self-contained. Seventy-eight minutes played end-to-end created different listening arcs. And the randomise function? Songs began to be removed from the album-context, to be viewed once more as individual entities. But they weren’t fully removed – after all, a listening experience randomising one album still limited what music you might hear next – a Beck album will only have Beck tracks on it. No matter what order you decide to hear them…

The resonance we feel, the response we have, and the way we categorise and separate different songs and different types of songs is fundamentally linked to the medium through which we hear them. Which is what makes the experience of listening to music through something like an iPod so extraordinary. Many of my friends migrate whole albums over to their MP3 players – and continue to listen to them as separate blocks, chunks of music. But I don’t understand this at all. My approach was immediately to treat my music collection as categorisable only by the fact that these songs all to a certain extent are ‘mine’. As my co-worker Dorian has commented – they are linked in as much as they are some kind of soundtrack to my life…

This produces some astonishing cut-ups – songs thrust together that don’t seem to be belong together on paper, but which flow together extremely well when you’re listening to them. Take this morning’s passage into work for example:

  • “I’m Your Boogie Man”, KC & the Sunshine Band
  • “White Noise Maker”, Frank Black
  • “Pilots”, Goldfrapp
  • “Oi Provenza il mar, il suol”, Giuseppe Verdi (La Traviata)
  • “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”, Prefab Sprout
  • “Little Lies”, Fleetwood Mac
  • “Honky’s Ladder”, Afghan Whigs
  • “Tear Me Down”, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  • “Manhattan”, Dinah Washington
  • “Crash”, Primitives

There are at least six separate genres in that short selection, but by dint of ‘rescuing’ them from their context and placing them together in sequence, the specifics of those genres – the things that keep the separate if you will – merge and smear. What becomes pertinent is increasingly what unites them – a taste, a sensibility, a listener – and I think this is increasingly why sampling culture and artists like DJ Shadow find themselves working in a genre-less space, and why such a space is likely to increase radically. The walls are tumbling down – and do we have technology to thank? Or blame, for that matter? And what will be the next push in media transmission to extend the tendency even closer towards fluidity of use?

Radio & Music

Aimee Mann returns (and no one saw fit to tell me about it)…

I don’t know what’s worse – that Aimee Mann should have just released a new album or that no one saw fit to mention it to me. If I wasn’t such a crumbling wreck of proto-senility of course, then I’d have known about it etherically, like all “young people” do about the things they care about. Aimee Mann’s always been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me – the icon of the emotional and insecure female singer-songwriter being a bit of a Big Gay Cliché and everything. But over time I’ve come to accept that you’re allowed to listen to music like this and still retain some grasp on your masculinity if you balance it with a good heady dose of the Sex Pistols, The Pixies and some relatively hardcore dance stuff. Quite how this meshes with my current Bobby Darin obsession escapes me…

In related linkage, it’s worth checking out Aimee Mann’s new site – it’s all a bit Flash-heavy, but it’s quite stylish and includes large amounts of well-assembled audio clips and the like – plus it looks (although I don’t believe it is) partially designed by Daniel Clowes of “Ghost World” fame.

Radio & Music

On the bankrupcy of music

In the spirit of the Royksopp video for “Remind Me” comes a new infographically inspired video for a song by Legowelt. As videos become more and more spectacular and sophisticated (Michel Gondry’s work being particularly astonishing), I increasingly begin to wonder about the music that they are being attached to. Surely the songs cannot cost that much to assemble or perform? Certainly nowhere near as much as the videos must cost to make. Has the promotional device outstripped the product in creativity and artistic value? More at Barbelith

Radio & Music

Musical Juxtapositions…

Putting all your favourite songs onto an iPod throws up a few interesting juxtapositions. You’re happily wandering through Clerkenwell listening to The Sisters of Mercy in a kind of retro-bohemian, Berlin goth style and you’re feeling quite self-satisfied in a homo superior “doesn’t get enough sun” kind of way, and then Randy Crawford explodes into your ears with a heavy dose of Street Life. I’m just saying it’s strange, is all. Not bad.

Strange songs on my iPod:

  • Im Nin ‘Alu, by Ofra Haza
    One of those bizarre songs that you listen to on “Now That’s What I Call Fucking Bizarre Pop Music” when you’re twelve, but don’t realise that it’s not normal pop music like Duran Duran, and so you get all excited by it and listen to it over and over and over.

  • Voyage Voyage, by Desireless.
    As above – another weird ‘turned up on a tape I bought when I was fourteen’ song. This one sticks in my head particularly because Nicky Campbell said something really rude about them on Top of the Pops in 1986. I think he was suggesting that the lead singer wasn’t very attractive or something. It was around this period that he said of Lisa Stansfield’s “All Around the World”, that the poor singer still couldn’t find her child despite an extensive global search. How I laughed.

  • Housequake, by Prince.
    They’re like relics, these songs. Crusty, freakish and old.

  • Ghostbusters, by Ray Parker Junior.
    I can play this on the piano. By which I mean that I can play the bit that everyone can sing in their heads, not the bridge bits that no one really cares about. Typically, my piano teacher made me learn to play endless dull tunes with names like “Marjuka Number 5” when I was a kid, despite the fact that I kept asking if there was any piano music for the theme tune to “Murder She Wrote”. I learnt to play “Ghostbusters” when she wasn’t looking, and then I showed her that I could play it, and she made everything more difficult from that point on. Plus, when I got a note wrong, she’d sweep her hands under my arms and moan “No, No!” until I wanted to cave her head in with a brick.

  • You Spin Me Round, by Dope rather than Dead and Alive.
    From the soundtrack to American Psycho. God only knows why I have this. It’s like Nine Inch Nails shagged 80s Europop by an alien radiation emitter and gave birth to some kind hideous hybrid pop-dance-rock monster of tacky proportions. “You spin me right round baby, round, round, like a record, baby, right round”. For some reason this reminds me of a short-term piece of contract work as a temp in an defence contractor in Norfolk.

Get thee to Limewire, my friends, and build your own screwed-up music collective of the weird taste of Tom. For without these songs bouncing around your psyche, you can’t hope to understand the depths to which I’ve plunged…

Radio & Music

Introducing the Megway…

Jason finally reveals what Danza/WHAT is, and all I can say is I’ve got to get me one. They look neat! [And yes, I was in on the joke, I’m afraid].

Radio & Music

My first impressions of my iPod…

I just got an iPod. I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and the angst of my financial situation has always consumed me. But a momentary glimmer of financial light appeared, and rather than invest in my future I decided that the time had come for frivolity once more. And this glimmer coincided with the fortuitous arrival of said tech item at my local Micro Anvika.

So I’m busy making a pact with Matt that he’ll be there when I do the evil deed, and Rob overhears my evil scheme and decides he wants in. And rightly so, because it’s going to be an epic trip…

So we hop on a bus after a crafty fag and emerge bouncing and over-caffeinated at Tottenham Court Road. The iPods are almost throwing themselves off the shelves and into people’s grubby little mitts. I get the second to last one. They only came in that morning… Matt’s waiting outside, because he didn’t realise that we couldn’t wait for him. Rob accidentally buys himself a Sony Clié. And then we went and ate pies in a pub and it was really nice.

Then miraculously (and only two hours after we left) we’re back in the office, and I discover that the iMac I work on doesn’t have a firewire port, so I’m left frustrated for still more hours. I fiddle around for a while longer at work and run home to play.

Ten minutes later I’m hideously disappointed. And then half an hour after that, I’m bouncing with excitement once again. Then Kate comes home and we watch Bridget Jones’ Diary on video, which she got through the post at work today. Last time we watched it, it was a rough cut – and there’s this great bit in the middle of the fight where the screen goes all black and it says “FACE POV / DARCY” or something similar and it kind of spoilt the flow. This time, however, I have to confess I really enjoyed it. Although I now find myself consigned to the mass population of this country who want to bone Colin Firth. But I digress…

It’s almost midnight and I have to sleep and this entire post is over-excited arse, but who the hell cares, right? Woo. My iPod is full to bursting with dodgy MP3s of crappy songs from the eighties and I’m kind of tired and I’m going to bed, exhausted and happy and who needs a goddam boyfriend anyway?!

Radio & Music

Is this a Big Gay Song?

Question – is this Sisters of Mercy song actually a big gay song?

Something Fast

all the things
we never needed
i don’t need them now
all the things
were always confidential
and hidden from me anyhow

you can stand all night
at a red light anywhere in town
hailing marys left and right
but none of them slow down
i seen the best of men go past
i don’t want to be the last
gimme something fast

God knows everybody needs
a hand in their decision
some of us are not so sure
i seen his own held out
for a ride on television
i think he’s still in Baltimore

you can stand all night
at a red light anywhere in town
hailing marys left and right
but none of them slow down
i seen the best of men go past
i don’t want to be the last
gimme something fast