Quincy

Quincy is a 2-hour film about Quincy Jones, directed by his daughter Rashida Jones and Alan Hicks. It debuted on Netflix in September.

Compared to the BBC’s two-part documentary The Many Lives of Q from around 10 years ago, Quincy is an intimate, almost home-movie-ish affair. Rashida Jones and Hicks divide their film into two parallel strands: one that follows present-day Quincy as he produces a stage show to commemorate the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and one where, in voice-over, Q talks about how he got to be the most famous living record producer, and a man so powerful he can just name his cast for the aforementioned stage show and know they’ll drop everything to be there.

It starts, though, with a serious health scare. We begin with scenes of Quincy enjoying various parties, always with a glass in his hand. It isn’t long before someone asks him if he’s going overboard. He says he’s fine. Cut to Quincy in a hospital bed in a diabetic coma. After this near-run, Jones cut out the alcohol and concentrated on work.

As we find out during the biographical sections, Quincy Jones has always worked. To a fault, really. His need to keep working, keep finding new worlds to conquer, is more or less blamed for both his inability to sustain his marriages and the serious bouts of ill health that have punctuated his adult life, including the brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in 1974. The other shadow over his life, one that The Many Lives of Q didn’t discuss at all, was his mother’s serious mental illness, which led to her institutionalisation when Quincy was a child. She subsequently reappeared in his life at various, usually inopportune, times, and Jones remains clearly deeply ambivalent about her.

The film is at its strongest when it shows present-day Quincy putting the show together, and at its most moving when he walks around the soon-to-open museum, looks at the exhibits about the legendary musicians he knew and worked with, and remarks on how they’re all dead, apart from him. Conversations with his fellow living legends (Herbie Hancock, et al) revolve around how old they all are now.

Elsewhere, there’s a little revisionism going on. The film spends comparatively little time on the records for which he’ll always be remembered (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad, Donna Summer, George Benson’s Give Me the Night and of course We Are the World), the work he produced as an artist (The Dude, Walking in Space, etc.) and the innumerable movie and TV scores (The Italian Job, In the Heat of the Night and Roots, which hardly was mentioned at all). Sinatra is over-represented; Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan under-represented. The Many Lives of Q, with its more linear structure, gives a clearer view of the man’s astonishing career.

Yet, while flawed, Quincy is a success on the whole. Few films about icons give away much about the private individual, and this one definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve got a sense of the man behind the platinum records and Grammy Awards. That’s a trick perhaps only Rashida Jones would have been able to pull off.  Would Q have let his guard down around Asif Kapadia or Alex Gibney? Unlikely. Quincy is definitely worth your time, but if you can find The Many Lives of Q, watch that too. Watch it first, in fact. The extraordinary body of work will make you care all the more about the extraordinary man behind it.

 

 

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The Posies @ The Garage, 19/10/18

The Garage is my kind of venue for a rock show. A well-proportioned room, no seating and a stage only a step or two up from the audience. It’s small, sweaty and intimate – not ideal for anything other than loud rock gigs, but great for those.

Fortunately, that’s what the Posies had in mind. Always a tougher proposition live than on record, they came out in purposeful mood, smashing into Dream All Day with a full arsenal of scissor kicks and windmills. The mix was loud but pretty well balanced. If the vocals were occasionally a little on the quiet side, it was no big. It was a rock show, after all, and thanks to a good relationship between guitars and drums, the music had all the physical impact you’d hope for.

Next up was Dear 23‘s Any Other Way. The recording of that song is gorgeous, with rich reverb and a lovely depth to the guitar sound. On Friday, the band attacked it hard, giving it a feral edge. Ken Stringfellow even broke into Grohl-style screams. Not subtle, but very effective. Please Return It, one of my very favourite Posies songs, was excellent too, but I was a little sad they didn’t pair it with Throwaway as they did when I saw them two years ago at the 100 Club. The sequencing of those two on Amazing Disgrace was perfect, and Throwaway was a surprise non-inclusion in the set. Perhaps Jon Auer’s just a little tired of singing it.

A brace of songs from Frosting on the Beater – Definite Door and Love Letter Boxes – went down very well with the crowd, who were mostly long-time fans, and showed the band’s ability to be heavy and fluid at the same time. Both songs feature surprise rhythmic changes in their choruses, and the rhythm section handled both with aplomb.

An excellent version of Auer’s World slowed the tempo and sonic assault, and was followed up by possibly the highlight of the night. Jon and Ken explained how they came to work on Dear 23 with producer John Leckie – veteran producer of XTC and Magazine albums and then at a career highpoint with the success of the Stone Roses’ debut – and then dedicated an unamplified version of You Avoid Parties to Leckie, who was standing in the audience a few feet away from us. It raised the hair on my arms.

The contrast between that naked performance of what is a pretty stark song and Auer’s So Caroline (a highlight from the brilliant Blood/Candy) only made the latter sound more celebratory, although one of the guys (I can’t remember whether it was Jon or Ken) undercut it by joking they’d detected a collective wince every time they sang “close enough to remain“.

Next was a surprise. Mike Musburger, who was authoritative and powerful behind the kit all night, was replaced by Posies fan Lawrence Salisbury for a version of Going, Going, Gone from the Reality Bites soundtrack. Salisbury had backed the band’s reissue campaign on PledgeMusic and his reward was to be a Posie for a song. He did a pretty great job of handling all the changes in dynamic and the big fills at the end of the choruses and was obviously having a blast doing it. The audience was noisily appreciative of his efforts.

Support act Anna Wolf then joined the band on stage to guest on two Blood/Candy highlights: Licenses to Hide and The Glitter Prize. I’m a big fan of both songs and was pleased to hear them, but while, Wolf’s presence did add an extra something to the vocals, her rather theatrical singing voice didn’t blend all that well with Jon’s and Ken’s, and was sometimes a little distracting.

Everybody is a Fucking Liar (from Amazing Disgrace) and two more from Frosting on the Beater, Flavor of the Month and the deathless Solar Sister, brought the great set to a strong end; the latter two were particularly strong, and, for those paying attention, ensured that the encore would end only one way.

The band came back quickly and ground out a fuss-free version of Song #1, a twisty-turny track from Amazing Disgrace that itself would have made a good set closer. Another highlight followed: the band’s wonderful cover of Chris Bell’s shattered, shattering I Am the Cosmos, possibly the best song Bell ever wrote (and that’s saying something). Few singers could inhabit that song and do the intensity of its emotions justice, and Auer is one of them. He and Stringfellow are still ludicrously underrated as singers.

They then played a frantic, lightning-speed version of Grant Hart from Amazing Disgrace, the band’s tribute to the late Hüsker Dü drummer and singer. The tempo, while impressive and fitting for a song about a legend of hardcore, was possibly too brisk for its own good; the band made such a racket that the vocals, for the only time that night, became indistinct. Anyone not familiar with the song would have struggled to identify it amid the white noise.

Not to worry, though. Burn & Shine finished things very strongly. Auer’s pysch-grunge epic is a perfect set closer, and manages to encapsulate so much of what was great about the Posies in the 1990s: the muscularity of the drumming, the intensity of the guitars, the indelible melodies, the peerless harmony singing and, when the occasion warranted, the scabrous lead guitar playing of Auer. By the end of the song, his guitar had no strings left on it and Musburger’s cymbals had taken a hell of a beating. My eardrums, too.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned Dave Fox’s suit. He had quite the suit. I wish I had a picture.

 

 

Geoff Emerick RIP

Geoff Emerick passed away on 2 October.

It’s basically impossible to overstate the importance of Emerick in the history of audio engineering. Born in 1945, he took over the engineering of Beatles sessions at Abbey Road in 1966. His first session as the band’s lead engineer, the first for what would become Revolver, was on Tomorrow Never Knows. That’s quite an auspicious start. The technical achievements of that session alone – the thunderous slack-tuned drum sound, the tape loops, the heavy compression that made Ringo’s cymbals sound like they were being played backwards, the vocal effect on Lennon’s voice, achieved by running it through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet designed for use with an organ – would ensure that Emerick went down as an AE immortal. It was just his first session.

Time and again, Emerick broke the rules of engineering to give the Beatles the effects they wanted. The band, and sometimes George Martin, may have been the architects of these sounds and effects, but Emerick (as well as Ken Scott, once Emerick quit Beatles sessions in search of more regular hours and a less poisonous atmosphere) was quantity surveyor, clerk of works, builder, carpenter and electrician all rolled into one. They commissioned the house; he built it. I mention “rules of engineering” above – at Abbey Road in the 1960s, they were literally rules, and Emerick could have been fired for his experiments in sound if the studio management had known exactly what he was doing with their expensive equipment to make these records. He invented an arsenal of techniques and effects that are still in use today, often by using equipment in a way no one had designed it to be used. Engineers in that era had to be familiar with their gear at component level, and Emerick was no exception.

Emerick’s career may have not matched up to its early years, and the fallout from the book he wrote 10 years back (in which he was relentlessly critical of George Harrison and frequently dismissive of Martin, seeming to only have much time for McCartney – the only Beatle to employ him once the band split) was ugly. But Emerick remains a giant in the field. His work transformed the practice of audio engineering. As long as people are recording sound, his work will be studied and he will be remembered.

International parkrun Day

Yesterday was International parkrun Day.

Fourteen years ago, 13 amateur runners and a handful of volunteers led by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, gathered in Bushy Park, West London, to run a 5km course on a Saturday morning. Sinton-Hewitt was a keen runner but, injured at the time, was unable to run, and was looking for a way to keep running as a central part of his life while he was injured while giving something back to the community he loved and valued so highly.

The Bushy parkrun grew so popular that in 2007 Sinton-Hewitt eventually gave in to those who kept asking him whether it could be trialled at other venues, too. There are now more than 500 parkruns in the UK, and more than 1600 worldwide. Since April, there has been one in the park next to my road, which is hugely lucky for me; running tends to drift in and out of my life based on. how busy I am with music and work, so momentum is everything. At the moment, I’m in the habit of running twice a week, and I hope to keep it that way. A Saturday-morning parkrun less than five minutes’ walk from my front door is a godsend.

I don’t want to be an awful bore or a fitness bully, so I’m not writing this to badger anyone into taking part; I enjoy running, but that doesn’t mean everyone else has to. For me, going for a run is not just about keeping fit and healthy; it’s a celebration. Six years ago, I couldn’t run at all, and it looked likely that I never would again. So the fact that I now can is something I cherish. I love the feeling of accomplishment, the feeling of strength and above all else the feeling of movement itself.

While my reasons for going along are perhaps a little unusual, what’s great about parkrun is that any reason for doing it is as valid as any other. I’ve taken part in organised running events elsewhere (as recently as this morning), and while they’ve been well organised and friendly, the spirit at them is different. parkrun is very explicitly a run, not a race. Of course, many people who take part want to push themselves and go faster and get PBs, but parkrun is no more geared to the club athletes who run sub-20 than it is the people who want to jog slowly, or even walk, around the course while having a natter with a friend. All are welcome. And because the volunteer roster at each Parkrun includes a tail walker, no one comes last.

I understand those who dislike organised exercise, and find it a bit too much like school PE lessons. But for me, parkrun is the easiest way to see the best parts of humanity. Crucially, it’s free and Sinton-Hewitt vows it always will be, and it inspires an obvious sense of community in those who turn out. People take their turn at volunteering, and runners unfailingly thank the volunteer marshals and timekeepers (I lost count of how many people said “Thank you, marshal” as they ran past me yesterday when, really, my sole contribution to their run hadn’t been to wear a hi-vis jacket, clap and occasionally whoop, and acknowledge those pushing buggies round the course as “buggy dudes”). At a parkrun, runners congratulate and encourage each other, staying behind after they finish to clap and cheer others as they come in. You see smiles and hear laughter everywhere.

Yesterday, I didn’t run, as I’d already committed to a 10k in my hometown of Southend today, so I volunteered as a way of being involved. Like many acts of volunteering – or possibly all – it wasn’t entirely altruistic. I did it because parkrun depends on volunteers, since it doesn’t charge for participation (or for anything), so it needs volunteers, and doing it once in a while is a quid pro quo. But even more than that, I wanted to be there because nothing else I do locally makes me feel more a part of my community than parkrun, and nothing else I’m involved in is such a pure social good with, as far as I can tell, absolutely no down side.

For more information about parkrun, go here (if you’re in the UK) or here.

 

 

 

 

The concert hall vs the microphone & loudspeaker

Here’s a quick aside.

Last night I went to the Barbican to a performance of Gustav Holst’s Planets by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ben Gernon and with between-movement remarks by Brian Cox. This was to mark the centenary of the first performance of the suite. I’d have preferred Cox to have spoken at the start and the music to have been performed without interruption, but it was still a fun evening that I enjoyed a lot.

It was also an evening where I realised how much my appreciation of certain aspects of The Planets has been coloured by the recordings through which I became familiar with the music.

Recordings of classical music function differently from pop recordings. The pop recording – since the early to mid 1960s at any rate – has not functioned as a straightforward reproduction of a musical performance. It’s an art form in itself, one not assumed to be inferior (or, it should also be said, superior) to the same song performed live in concert. Pop fans are comfortable with the idea that a song heard on the radio would sound little like the same song performed live, and that any or all elements of the vocal performance and arrangement may differ, even in terms of the basics like tempo and key.

Classical music engineers have, in contrast, striven to create as clear a reproduction of the performed music as possible, ideally putting themselves in service of the conductor’s vision of the music by recording it as neutrally as possible. (Terms such as “neutral” would be hotly debated by audiophiles and the recording engineer community, but I’m arguing in broad strokes here, so go with me on this.) The choices and preferences of the engineer and producer would scarcely come into it, and listeners at home should hear what the conductor would have wanted them to hear in the concert hall.

Neptune, the Mystic is one of my favourite pieces of music, and I’ve written at length about it here before:

This is music of unimaginable distances and patterns we’re far too puny to discern. Its most chilling moments come shortly before the female chorus enters. We hear a dark, barely discernible rumble accompanied by arpeggios on the celeste. Harpists play continuous ascending and descending glissandos before, finally, the cellos and oboes play an ascending melody that just won’t resolve; Holst repeatedly leads you up and then away from where you feel the point of resolution should be.

It came as something of a surprise to me, when hearing it performed in the concert hall last night, that my love of this music is so informed by the specific recording I know best: Charles Groves conducting the Royal Philharmonic at the acoustically wonderful Watford Town Hall in 1987, recorded by Telarc Digital.

Telarc were the first classical label aboard the digital-recording bandwagon, working with Thomas Stockham and his Soundstream recorder in the 1970s, so these guys wrote the book on digital recordings of large ensembles. Their 1987 Planets sounds excellent. But no recording can truly recreate what it sounds, and feels, like to hear music in an auditorium. Some of the otherworldly mystery I love so much in Neptune, the Mystic seems to me now to come from that recording. Its somewhat attentuated low end allows a slight dominance in the treble register – the harps, flutes and celeste – that make the music so, for want of a better word, spacey. Further away. Mysterious. Dangerous. The sense of threat carried by the low strings is felt more than heard, which makes it all the more troubling.

In the room, the same passages of music sounded muscular and earthbound, balanced more equally between high and low. Obviously this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and one not wholly down to the conductor’s choices. The fact remains that music heard acoustically hits your ear differently to music mediated by recording and playback technology. What’s surprising to me is that I prefer the mediated version. It’s closer to what I want the music to deliver emotionally.

 

Everything is Free – Gillian Welch (and, increasingly, others)

I had another post planned. I’m working on it. But I saw this the other day and it sparked some thoughts. So here’s something a bit more off the cuff.

I’m delighted by anything that gives increased exposure to Gillian Welch. God knows she deserves it. Everything is Free is one of the finest songs on Time (The Revelator) – Welch’s best record, and the album that I’d unhesitatingly pick as the best released in the first decade of the 21st century.  I can fully understand other songwriters wanting to climb inside the song and inhabit it.

But here’s the thing. Have they earned its anger at the changes in the music industry that threatened to destroy Welch’s livelihood as she was writing the song? And should the target of whatever ire these artists feel be the same as the one at whom Welch targeted her wrath nearly twenty years ago?

Welch made her first album five years before Everything Is Free was released. She came up in a very different industry to the one we have now – an industry that was predicated on the sale of physical product and in which gig and merchandise revenue were supplementary revenue streams at best. She then found that the music industry had no answer to Napster and file-sharing services, that a generation of young music fans were no longer willing to pay for her music or anyone else’s, and consequently saw her royalties from physical sales plummet.

Meanwhile a generation of digital prophets were telling her, Hey, it’s cool. Music should be free. Just get out there and gig and you’ll make your money that way. You can easily understand how galling such Pollyanna-ish nonsense was to anyone who understood the economics of live performance for any artist who isn’t U2 or the Rolling Stones.

Josh Tillman (Father John Misty), Anaïs Mitchell, Courtney Barnett, Phoebe Bridgers and the others who have recently performed Everything Is Free, either with Welch or solo, came to prominence in the post-Napster world. Tillman and Mitchell, the eldest of the crop, were both born in 1981, so were both around 19 or 20 when Everything Is Free was released, presumably in college and with access to the internet. Did neither of them ever share files, or accept CD-Rs from friends? Neither worked as professional musicians under the old receive advance–recoup advance–make profit model. And neither, to be frank, have had the experience of having a promised income whiffed away from them by changes in technology and consumer behaviour.

If I sound unsympathetic, let me assure you that I’m actually deeply sympathetic to those who work in industries that have been disrupted by the internet. I understand it first hand. I’m a copy-editor, so I work in a sector that has already seen wave after wave of editors and writers lose their jobs in the newspaper industry, and I know that what I do will probably not exist in 20 years, even for those of us that are still left at the moment; at some point, enough people with hiring and firing powers will decide that automated tools do the job well enough to make us obsolete. Yeah, it sucks. Yeah, I’m angry about it. But I’ve been doing this a long time; anyone who decided to be an editor in, say, 2012 owed it to themselves to find out the way it’s all going, work out if it was actually a viable way to make a living and then make their life choices based on that knowledge.

As much sympathy as I have for Welch – and it’s a lot – I don’t feel like anyone who knowingly went into the post-Napster music industry can now make the same plaint about diminished income streams and being expected to work for free without being a least a little disingenuous. What did they think they were signing up for?

And so we come to our last point. Over the last decade, the music industry, and the media generally, has moved away from an ownership model to a subscription one. People who stopped buying physical copies of records decided that, while perhaps they’d have preferred to carry on downloading from torrent sites, £10 a month to Apple, Google or Spotify was a price they’re willing to pay for unrestricted access to their catalogues. Now, that money, billions of it (€17.4 billion of it in 2017), isn’t reaching the artists whose music keeps the whole thing rolling. But that’s a very different problem, and it’s not the problem that Everything is Free is a response to. Everything is not free now; everything is yours to stream for £9.99 a month, plus data.

All of us who prefer the convenience of a streaming service, whether a paid subscription or a free one, all of us who shared files, and burned CDRs, we can’t honestly have it both ways. We are part of the problem, along with the tech companies and the record companies who are once more getting fat off the kind of money they probably didn’t expect they’d be seeing again. If Tillman, Mitchell, Bridgers et al want a song to raise awareness of the shittiness of unpaid (or very poorly paid) labour within today’s music industry, I’ll share the hell out of it and bang the drum with them. But let’s focus our energy on the problems that exist now, not the battles that have already been fought.

That’s how you stop; Alastair Cook’s 33rd Test century

Those hardy souls who made it through the three paragraphs I devoted to the final few matches of Alastair Cook’s career as an England cricketer at the beginning of my piece on Joni Mitchell’s How Do You Stop will no doubt be delighted to know that Cook did score that final test century, scoring 147 in his last ever innings.

He finished his career with 33 Test centuries and 12,472 runs at an average of 45.35. He batted for 37,308 mins, or 621 hours, 48 minutes. He hit 1,442 fours, plus three all-run fours, 11 sixes and four fives. He faced 20,038 dot balls, scored 3803 singles, 980 twos and 281 threes.

Those 33 Test centuries and 12,472 runs put him so far ahead of every other English batsman in history that I imagine most of his records will stand for decades.

Yesterday the England crowd, many of whom would admit if they were honest that Cook was never their favourite batsman, were palpably willing him to reach 100, and the ovations that greeted him when he reached his century and when he finally got out 47 runs later lasted so long that Cook eventually had to sheepishly shush the crowd so the match could continue.

So, in an ideal world, I guess that’s how you stop.