Monthly Archives: September 2019

RIP Robert Hunter

So siloed are the Grateful Dead and the band’s fan subculture that, outside of their few classic-rock-radio staples, little of their music is heard by a mainstream audience, certainly in the UK. I can count the people I know who are into the band on the fingers of one hand, and one of those people is American and another one is me.

Consequently, the band’s accomplishments aren’t so much undervalued here as not recognised at all. Even serious musicians don’t know much about Jerry Garcia’s dazzling guitar playing. Even students of rock lyrics don’t know about Robert Hunter, how he could be cosmic, earthy, playful, poignant, allusive and elusive, all in one song. All in one verse sometimes.

If they knew, if they had heard, they’d know who we just lost is someone who should be held in the same esteem as anyone from the pop era, whether your hero is Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Rakim or Nas. They might need to scrape a layer or two of crusty cynicism away first, to hear him properly, is all.

I’m not a lyrics guy, on the whole. As long as they’re not distractingly bad, I pay them little mind unless I hear something extraordinary. Hunter was that.

Robert Hunter died at his home on 23 September.

iPod, still – phone storage, streaming

Last week, while I was on holiday in the US, my iPod Classic (about 12 or 13 years old now) finally gave up the ghost on me. It would no longer charge or recognise that it was plugged in. I tried replacement cables and different USB sockets, all to no avail.

It was the end. But the moment had not been prepared for.

I’ve hung on to an iPod this long as it’s invaluable for carrying around 16 bit/44k mixes of recordings I’m working on (at the moment, that’s an album I’m finishing off with James McKean, an EP Mel and I are recording, and a bunch of random stuff of my own). If I’m working on mixes and test driving them, so to speak, as I travel around, I don’t want to hear them as MP3s – if I could store them at 24 bit, I would. But without a working iPod, I thought I’d try bowing to the inevitable: I’d use Spotify for general listening, and took about 20 mixes that I have on the go, reduced them to 256kbps MP3s and put them on the phone itself.

iPhone storage full.

Not a good start.

At the same time, I wanted to listen to some Go-Betweens records, as I’d just read Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens and it’s been a few years since I went through all their stuff. Spotify doesn’t have their first two albums, or the records they made after they reformed, or their US- or UK-market best-of compilations.

Sigh.

Off to eBay, then, for a second-hand iPod Classic, hoping I don’t get ripped off.

This is the problem that streaming boosters don’t seem to recognise. I get the convenience of having one device. I get that if you live in a big town or city, your Wi-Fi and/or 4G (or 5G, or even 3G) connection is going to be more or less constant, and I get that if you listen to contemporary music mainly, you’re always going to find what you want on Spotify.

But if your interests lie elsewhere, you’re reliant on deals being struck to get legacy artists’ catalogues up on Spotify (or Apple Music, or Google Play, or wherever) and kept there. And that’s far from a sure thing. The Go-Betweens are not a marginal group — they were well known enough to get national coverage in the UK, and are even better known in their native Australia – yet most of their albums are not streamable on the biggest online music platform.

As I’d long argued, there is still no truly viable alternative for carrying around a capacious hard drive stuffed to the brim with music if you want to listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. Which is why, even if I didn’t also need a device to store work-in-progress mixes at a half-decent audio quality, an iPhone and a Spotify account still doesn’t cut it, and why I’m the satisfied owner of a 12-year-old reconditioned iPod Classic bought off eBay.

Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens – Robert Forster

Robert Forster’s Grant & I: Inside & Outside the Go-Betweens (published in 2016) is as good as rock memoirs get.

Its focus on the relationship between Forster and Grant McLennan is key to what makes it so fascinating. There are no shortage of rock bands built on the relationship between two key creative protagonists, but books about them tend to focus on their rivalries, disagreements and power struggles. McLennan and Forster had a period of estrangement in the 1990s, during which they made solo records and Forster lived with his new family in Germany, but the Go-Betweens didn’t break up because McLennan and Forster no longer wanted to work together. Their relationship stayed fairly harmonious all the way along, and the pair picked up again pretty seamlessly in 1999 to make The Friends of Rachel Worth. Forster, then, has no axe to grind, and his love and respect for McLennan is evident from the first page until the last.

So much so, it should be said, that he pulls a few punches. While his accounts of McLennan’s drinking and depression shed a great deal of light on his death of a heart attack at the age of 48, Forster doesn’t discuss MacLennan’s heroin use, which has been well documented elsewhere (most notably in David Nichols’s The Go-Betweens), and which may have contributed to his later physical and mental ill health. Perhaps Forster wanted to spare McLennan’s family and former partner, but it is a notable omission in a book that’s otherwise so candid.

What I loved about the book, though, and what kept me reading it more or less in one sitting on an overnight flight from Portland to London during which I couldn’t get to sleep, was Forster’s retelling of the band’s early years – their hopping back and forth from Brisbane to Melbourne to London, their alliances with like-minded Scottish indie groups Orange Juice and Josef K, their adventures in the West London demi-monde with Nick Cave and the other members of the Birthday Party, and their struggle to ever stay on the same label for more than one album cycle. Forster brings it all alive vividly in precise but engaging prose, and shows how one good song by either of them could compensate for cold and uncomfortable lives lived in squats and Dickensian shared houses.

Forster’s a sound judge of the band’s best work, and his willingness to highlight McLennan’s work rather than his own speaks well of him, as does his his honesty in admitting to sometimes feeling envious of McLennan’s greater musical facility. McLennan was, I suppose the better melodist, and on Tallulah and 16 Lovers Lane his hookier songs were more natural choices as singles, but Forster was always the heart of the band, and it’s fascinating to read about the songs he wrote, and how he views his process. The passages about Forster’s relationship with drummer and former partner Lindy Morrison (who emerges as a difficult, somewhat domineering figure in Forster’s telling) are similarly illuminating.

It’s rare to find a book about a band, especially ones by musicians, that I’d recomment to a non-fan, but Grant & I is a rare exception. It’s funny, wise and humane, and a priceless look at the world of 1980s indeoendent music from a man who lived it.

 

Never Let Her Slip Away – Andrew Gold

Andrew Gold was practically bound by genetics to become a successful musician. After all, he was the son of Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold and the most sought-after ghost singer in Hollywood, Marni Nixon*.

After a couple of aborted attempts at launching a career as a recording artist, Gold  worked himself up a full-time career as a musician, arranger, songwriter and producer. He was recruited by Linda Ronstadt for the recording of her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel and quickly became her de facto bandleader and lieutenant. Some of the songs on Heart Like a Wheel (including her hit cover of Dee Dee Warwick’s You’re No Good) were more or less played entirely by Gold: guitars, keyboards, drums, everything.

His work with Ronstadt brought him to the attention of 1970s LA’s singer-songwriter kingpin David Geffen, who signed him to his label Ayslum (Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, the Eagles, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, etc.). In the US, he hit big with his single Lonely Boy, from his second album, and Thank You for Being a Friend**, from his third. But in the UK, he had a third, even bigger, hit.

Gold recorded Never Let Her Slip Away for his third album, All This and Heaven Too, the cover of which saw Gold in a white suit and top hat, with a cane, doing a dance move. You might assume from that picture that Gold was a Warren Zevon-style smartarse unlikely to write a straight ballad without some sort of angle or ironic distance.

The great thing about Never Let Her Slip Away is that, despite how cleverly it’s written (and it is; there are some ninja-level chord changes in there), Gold wrote the song and sang it from a place of total sincerity. There’s no side at all. Part of the way that Gold projects that sincerity is the sparseness of the arrangement. It’s simply him at his keyboard with a crude-sounding percussion loop. OK, maybe in an ideal world he’d not have included the proto-1980s smooth-jazz saxophone (or got a different player), but it doesn’t spoil the song at all for me; the player, Ernie Watts, wouldn’t win any prizes for taste and subtlety here, but like Gold, he doesn’t sound fake or insincere. When recording a song like Never Let Her Slip Away, that’s crucial. To write and perform a song like this, you have to mean it.

Gold was always popular within the music industry, with artists and producers appreciative of the breadth of his talent. That goodwill can be seen in the range of artists who he worked with; uncredited on this record as a backing singer is none other than Freddie Mercury.

*Nixon was the uncredited singing voice of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
**Yep, the one that would become the theme to The Golden Girls.

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

In early January 2012, I was discharged from hospital and sent home to adjust to life as a heart failure survivor (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – prognosis, at the time, not all that good).

It’s hard to fill your days when can’t walk even a few hundred metres without needing a long rest to recover. You don’t leave your house an awful lot, and even doing the things you enjoy can become tiresome. New enthusiasms are a godsend.

Soon after I was discharged, BBC4 broadcast the first episode of Jonathan Meades’s series of films on France. I’d seen some Meades before (his Queen Victoria film in 2001, when I was home from university; I missed the start of it, though), but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to watch one properly, and I was transfixed. Here was a singular TV presence: dark-suited, ferociously eloquent, idiosyncratic, unapologetic, scabrous (lists that end without a conjunction are a Meades speciality).

The Guardian described him as exploring France like a man trying to poo a dictionary, but you don’t learn many new words watching telly these days, so it certainly didn’t seem like a valid criticism to me. I found all his other films online, going back to his early Abroad in Britain stuff, and devoured it all. All of his films merited a rewatch or two (or three in my case), and so they became a kind of life raft, something to cling to during long, boring afternoons or evenings otherwise filled with nothing.

While I was working backward through his archive, Meades’s TV output slowed. He is not, it should be said, just a writer and performer on TV. His talents are many. But he has spoken in interviews about how difficult it now is to get series or programmes commissioned and adequately funded by the BBC. In truth, the lack of funding directed towards BBC4 programme making is everywhere evident: 15 years ago, there was something interesting on most nights, and a new music documentary most Fridays at nine. Now, new shows come along much less frequently, and are evidently made for less money than previously.

Meades’s last series with high production values was On France. His recent films Ben Building and this week’s Franco Building, which completes his quartet of films about the architecture of Europe’s great 20th-century dictators (I’m holding out hope for Tito Building, though), are evidently the product of straitened circumstances. In his older films, Meades inserted himself physically into almost every shot: as he discussed the architecture of the Soviet Union, or 1960s big-tech structures in the UK, or Belgian suburbs, he’d stand there, in his suit and dark glasses, thunderously declaiming to camera. He was fond of visual, in-camera jokes that depended on his conspicuous, hitman-esque presence.

His more recent work sees much of his narration delivered in a studio, in front of a green screen. To make it more visually interesting, Meades is superimposed on buildings, or behind buildings, as he discusses them. Still images are photoshopped, some segments are illustrated with animation or static drawings. He’s doing his best, but the budgets are clearly not what they were. We should, I suppose, be grateful that he’s still allowed to make films at all. Especially, this one: Franco Building, broadcast this week, sees Meades in uncompromising anti-religion form. I’m surprised no one senior at BBC4 got cold feet about showing it. I’m sure there will have been complaints.

Their loss. Franco Building was thrilling. From Jerry Building to Ben Building, Meades has never shied away from showing the horror of these despotic regimes, and there were ample shots of human remains in mass burial pits and sinister orphanages in which the children of dead Republicans were housed and re-educated (that is, indoctrinated) after the civil war to show the enormity of Franco’s regime. But tourism was the programme’s throughline, from the posh hotels that sprang up in the 1950s to house well-heeled pilgrims and culture tourists walking the trail to Santiago de Compostela, to 1960s high-rise blocks in Benidorm, which long-time Meades watchers won’t be surprised to find he has a great deal of sympathy for.

Neither will long-time Meades watchers need reminding of where the birthplace of modern mass tourism is: Prora, on the German island of Rügen, where the arm of the Nazi state called Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) built eight identical blocks, parallel to the beach, measuring nearly three miles in length. In light of Meades’s evident horror of Prora, the murderous regime that built it and the others that copied it, his sympathy for Benidorm’s sometimes kitschy, sometimes pleasingly futuristic towers may seem surprising. But then, Meades has always preferred bad taste to middlebrow taste.

In a week where the prime minister has announced via the Queen that he will suspend British parliamentary democracy for five weeks because it doesn’t suit him to face any opposition to his plans for a no-deal Brexit – plans supported by a only a fraction of the population, and an even smaller fraction of MPs – it may do us good to remember what actual fascism results in, but also how actual fascism starts. There are parallels. Perhaps one day, in a more enlightened era, a successor to Meades – an older, crustier Owen Hatherley, perhaps – will make a programme called Boris Building, but let us hope that won’t be necessary.