Monday, 15 January 2018

Cyrille Regis 1958-2018

This is supposed to be a blog about popular music, but the passing of Cyrille Regis has to be mentioned. He was my hero when I was a boy and he has remained a hero all my life.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Just Like Christmas?

Four years ago I wrote with optimism about the way downloading was shaping the UK’s Christmas charts. It was allowing old songs to nestle alongside the new, thus there were 14 festive classics in the 2013 charts. Mariah Carey was at number 13 with ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl were at number 14 with ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Chris Rea was at number 53 with ‘Driving Home for Christmas'. I argued that ‘One effect of the permanent availability of “singles” is that, more than ever, the charts are reflective of what is going on in the world’. I found it ‘hugely pleasant’ that ‘it is the right Christmas songs that are doing well’.
            In July of the following year the Official Charts Company began to include streaming figures as part of their tabulation of the UK charts. The effects have been criticised. The charts have slowed down (Drake’s ‘One Dance’ was number one for months) and pop tyrants have taken them over (Ed Sheeran had 16 songs in the top twenty in a single week). As a result, the formulas have been changed. The ratio of streams to sales has been increased from 100:1 to 150:1. Longevity has been handicapped: if a record has been on the charts for more than 10 weeks and its sales have declined for three consecutive weeks, its ratio of streams to sales is increased to 300:1. Profligacy has been penalised too. Artists are no longer allowed to have multiple chart entries. They are instead restricted to their three most popular tunes.
            But what can be done about nostalgia? The trend that I identified in 2013 has been amplified by streaming. Downloading made all songs available as singles. Streaming has made all songs available for free (if using ad-supported services) or for rent (if using subscription services). The charts used to monitor exchange value only. Now, with streaming figures included, they increasingly monitor use value. This usage is increasingly shaped by playlists. And the playlists of the streaming companies are oriented towards the hits of Christmas past.
            The results are there for all to see. This week’s Official Singles Chart Top 100 includes 26 Christmas songs. The vast majority of them are old. Wham! are at number three with ‘Last Christmas’; Mariah Carey is at number 4; the Pogues at number 7; and Chris Rea is at number 20. In the age of physical formats most of the Christmas songs that made the charts would have been new releases. In this week’s charts only a third of the Christmas hits come from the current decade, and just two were released in 2017. These new songs have not done well. Sia’s ‘Santa’s Coming for Us’ is at number 65. Gwen Stefani’s ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’ has edged into the charts at number 100.
            There has been outcry: newness is being thwarted. Writing in Music Week, Mark Sutherland asked: ‘What point is there trying to write a new Christmas song when the public is likely to just stream the classics non-stop instead anyway?’ I have been invited to comment on this phenomenon, contributing to Tom Fordy’s ‘Ed Sheeran versus Ed Sheeran: Why We're All Losers in the Race for Christmas Number One’ article in the Telegraph and Eleanor Lawrie’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas? Where are the New Festive Classics?’, which is available on the BBC website.
            There is still cause for optimism, however. On the one hand, these classic Christmas songs offer great collective enjoyment. On the other hand, canons are ever-evolving things. As James Masteron points out in the BBC article, ‘You consider something like the Mariah Carey song - it was a huge hit back in 1994, but I don't remember it being particularly notable as a cultural touch-point for another 10 years after that. It was only in the middle of the last decade that people began to wake up to the fact that, actually, this is a classic’. The same is true of Chris Rea’s single, Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and even ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! They resonate more deeply now than they did in the years they were released. The past is always changing and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be (Ho! Ho! Ho!).
This slippage between the old and the new is captured brilliantly in Low’s ‘Just Like Christmas’:
On our way from Stockholm,
            It started to snow,
            And you said it was like Christmas,
            But you were wrong
            It wasn’t like Christmas at all

            By the time we got to Oslo
            The snow was gone
            And we got lost
            The beds were small
            But we felt so young
            It was just like Christmas

In fact, this Christmas song is another that grows in stature with every passing year. It was released in 2004. It didn’t make the charts then, and it didn’t make the charts this year. Surely, however, it is only a matter of time before it makes a Spotify playlist. And then it is only a matter of time before it enters the mainstream canon of Christmas favourites. That’s unless they change the chart rules . . .

Monday, 4 December 2017

When do Productions become Productions?

Following on from the last entry, I’ve been wondering when it is that we realise that records are produced? My guess is that it’s the opposite to Jimmy Webb’s thoughts about songwriting. He realised that there was a process to composing songs because some of them sounded the same. In his case, it was follow-up singles that revealed the mechanics of the songwriters’ job.
            I think that we start to think about production when we notice that records sound different from one another. This is most revelatory when we hear two records by the same artists but they don’t feel like kin. It is then that it dawns on us that the artists are not solely responsible for the sound of their records. There is somebody else at work.
            I thought about producers later than I thought about songwriters. This may have been to do with the genres that were dominant when I was growing up. As I have previously stated, it was glam rock that sound-tracked my earliest years. Although the glam rock artists sounded different from one another, they all sounded like themselves. This is because they had the same producers throughout their runs of hits. Chas Chandler produced all the Slade singles. Tony Visconti produced everything for T. Rex. Phil Wainman, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman were responsible for singles by The Sweet. Mike Leander sculptured the Garry Glitter records. These records were brilliantly produced, but the consistency of production masked the producers’ art.
            Punk was my next musical love. It was different from glam. Here, most of the bands had different producers from project to project. The Clash albums all have different producers and they have different sound worlds as a result. The same is true of the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers and many other punk and new wave acts. The results often felt like a betrayal. As a fan, you had bought into the particular sonics of a band. You also felt that the band was responsible for those sounds. You were let down.
            But then you started to reverse the process. Maybe the reason why those first records sounded great is because of the work that was being done by the producer. Maybe future records could also sound great if the right producer landed the role. Maybe I want to be a producer too.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

When do Songs become Songs?

When we are very young it feels as though songs have always been there. In fact, some of our earliest song memories retain this sense. It seems odd to us that there is a person out there who sat down to write ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, just as it seems outrageous that ‘Happy Birthday’ could be in copyright.
            Once we can talk we can make songs of our own. Kids soon start to come up with tunes. This is true folk music, borrowing lyrics and melodies from previous works and melding them with something original.
At some point we also start to like contemporary music. We begin to see films and videos of pop stars. They don’t seem to be doing much. Making music is easy.
            There is a time, however, when we begin to realise that there is a craft to songwriting. 
When does this occur?
In my case, it was power ballads that did it. My 1970’s youth was saturated with the brilliant racket of glam rock. Nevertheless, the era also had love songs such as ‘Without You’ by Nillson, ‘My Love’ by Wings’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by the Hollies. To me, these songs felt composed. Their wide-ranging melodies and controlled emotional heft could not be conjured out of thin air. I knew that I couldn’t make music like this myself, and with that realization I understood that there must be someone who could: there are songwriters. It was only later, after struggling more seriously to make my own music, that I realised it’s as hard to create ‘Come On Feel the Noize’ as it is to create something quieter.
The great American songwriter Jimmy Webb recently provided a fascinating answer to the question. For him, it was record company policy that revealed the songwriter’s art:
I was languishing by the radio listening to songs, and I made a connection. Brenda Lee would have a big hit with ‘I’m Sorry’, and they’d come up with another record that sounded a little like ‘I’m Sorry’. Not too much like I’m Sorry, because that would ruin it. There was an epiphany; I became aware of the process that was going on behind the scenes. I divined this process on my own.
This flies in the face of mass cultural theory. If Adorno is to be believed, the standardization and pseudo-individualization of popular music will turn people into passive dupes. Yet here they are inspiring them. It was this industrial process that made Jimmy Webb want to become a writer himself:
Then, later, I would find out that in the industry it was called a ‘follow-up’. There was a name for it. So I was writing songs. I remember writing a song called ‘It’s Someone Else’, and I thought, ‘That would be a great follow-up for The Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’’. And 25 years later I told Artie Garfunkel the story, because he loved the Everly Brothers, and he ended up cutting it. I was 13 years old when I wrote my first follow-up.
Moreover, Jimmy Webb was the most idiosyncratic of the professional songwriters who emerged in the 1960s. This is the man who wrote ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘MacArthur Park’. You can love the mechanics and you can know the mechanics, but this does not make you mechanical.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Baby, You're a Firework

Everyone loves fireworks. On Saturday night I went to the huge display at Alexandra Palace, an annual event that is prompted by the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ attack on British parliament, albeit that Fawkes and politics are curiously absent from the celebrations these days. There were thousands of people there. It was one of those rare occasions where you see a true cross-section of London’s population: all ages, all sexes, all sexualities, all nationalities, all races and all faiths. There’s a problem with fireworks displays, though. The first explosions are always astonishing, but how do you sustain attention over a 20-minute set? It can all start to seem a bit tedious and wasteful. At worst you feel like Aimee Mann in her song '4th of July', which commemorates America's fireworks night: ‘Today's the fourth of July / Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town I just think / What a waste of gunpowder and sky’. You know that there will be a climax at some point, but climaxing is about the only thing that fireworks know how to do.
            There is an answer to this fireworks conundrum. Why not try dancing to them? Dancing is always interesting. It can be enhanced, further still, by visual effects. The Alexandra Palace festival was sound-tracked by DJ Yoda. He was brilliant, weaving together short bursts of music from a large array of genres. He was also thoroughly modern with his faith in the past. Yoda knows the musical state of play. After 15 years of downloading services and a decade of Spotify, there is an audience that knows a huge amount of music and is open to all types. You can play anything from any era as long as it’s good and it’s right. And so we had songs drawn from the 1950s to the present day, and from styles as diverse as hip-hop, folk music, trance, post-punk, jazz-funk, soul, movie soundtracks and mainstream pop. We danced to Deodato’s version of Also Sprach Zarathustra and we danced to the Beastie Boys’ ‘Intergalactic’. The biggest hits of the night were a remix of the Weavers’ ‘Wimoweh’ from 1952 (a song, it seems, that we have all grown up with) and a brilliant segue of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ (from 1983) into Rihanna’s 2011 hit ‘We Found Love’ (the trance clichés of this track are irresistible). Of course the whole thing ended with Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’. Except it didn’t. There was an encore sequenced to ‘Feelin’ Good’, Nina Simone’s classic from 1964. These are great times to be a DJ. And they are great times for explosive dance.  

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Mapping Beyoncé's 'Hold Up'

When I first heard Beyoncé’s Lemonade I thought we were entering a new age of sophistication when it comes to sampling. Not only are the sampled tracks musically appropriate, they are thematically appropriate too. On this album of infidelity and heartbreak we hear excerpts of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ by Andy Williams, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' pleading ‘Maps’, and Isaac Hayes’ version of ‘Walk on By’, in which we find another protagonist who ‘can’t get over losing you’. There’s a whole lot of signifying going on.
            It would seem that the use of samples is more contingent, however. Take ‘Hold Up’, which incorporates the sample from Williams and the interpolation from ‘Maps’. This song has a complicated genesis and was not originally intended for Beyoncé. In fact, it began as nothing more than a Tweet, which was sent in 2011 by Ezra Koenig, the singer of Vampire Weekend. He paraphrased ‘Maps’, writing to his followers, ‘hold up . . . they don’t love u like i love u’.
            Three years later, Koenig was invited by the producer Diplo to contribute hooks to some loops. One of these loops featured the introduction to ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’. The recording was of interest to Diplo for its kitsch ska rhythm, rather than for its lyrical content. Koenig thought back to his Tweet. He introduced a new melody to his reworking of ‘Maps’. He also added a supplementary, Biblical refrain: ‘can’t you see there’s no other god above you, what a wicked way to treat the man who loves you’. Beyoncé heard this version. Koenig’s lyrics were changed to ‘no other man above you, what a wicked way to treat the girl I love you’. He has stated that ‘from there a lot of other people got involved in writing the verses, things changed, but essentially the hook stayed the same’. Even so, he was still not sure if it would make Beyoncé’s album or if he would use it instead as a Vampire Weekend song.
            It did appear on Lemonade. In the process ‘Hold Up’ was transformed. Koenig has stated, ‘The idea that those words now are contextualised by this album, by the video, by her as a performer and curator, I like it  . . . 99% of the world will always hear those words and associate it with Beyoncé now. And that makes sense . . . I wrote this hook - of course I feel some sense of ownership over what I did - but it doesn’t feel like my song, she really did bring a deeper resonance and meaning to it’. She brings new significance to the Williams sample as well. So maybe the use of those sources is not so contingent after all.
            Although Koenig now views ‘Hold Up’ as Beyoncé’s song, this is not the story told by the songwriting credits. She has had to split the royalties with 11 other writers, including Koenig and Diplo. Moreover, it has been claimed that the contemporary songwriters get minor shares in the work, while the authors of the sample and the interpolation get the majority income. From this perspective, Beyoncé is not creating a new work; she is instead giving us her version of two old ones.
            The generous shares for Mort Shuman and Doc Pomus, the writers of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, are understandable. Diplo’s loop of this recording is used for the duration of ‘Hold Up’; it is the musical bedrock of the entire track. Their credits also follow standard sampling practice: if a recording is used prominently, its songwriters will be rewarded handsomely.
            The use of ‘Maps’ is different, however. Although Beyoncé credits it as an interpolation, it is arguable that this really is the case. There is no use of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ melody or of the feel of the track. The only thing taken is the paraphrased lyrics. These were written by the band’s singer, Karen O, but due to American joint authorship rules each member of the group receives royalties for their re-use in ‘Hold Up’. But why do they receive anything at all? ‘Hold Up’ takes eight fairly commonplace words.
One reason is that their origin can be traced. Koenig’s Tweet and his openness about the genesis of ‘Hold Up’ have made it clear that the words were taken from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' song. A second is that American writers are becoming increasing litigious in this area, as the various accusations against the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ attest. Ultimately, in crediting ‘Maps’, Beyoncé and her team have taken heed of the old adage that where there’s a hit there’s a writ.
There is one final quirk of copyright law. If ‘Maps’ has been called ‘They Don’t Love You Like I Love You’, the re-use of these words would probably have escaped without charge. It is not possible to copyright titles. Hence, Calvin Harris and the Disciples’ ‘How Deep is Your Love?’ does not credit the Bee Gees, and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ does not credit the Julie London song. It is also the case that ‘Hold Up’ does not credit previous songs that have used the same title. In addition, future songs called ‘Hold Up’ will not have to credit Beyoncé’s either. That’s as long as their usage is restricted to these words. If they sample Beyoncé’s recording, however, they will have to credit ‘Hold Up’ and all the other works it includes. We will end up with a recording with vast songwriting credits. Post-structuralists will be happy too. There will be multiple resonances. Listeners will variously recall Beyoncé, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Andy Williams, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Ezra Koenig, Diplo and more. Bring on the endless play of signifiers!

Monday, 18 September 2017

La curiosa historia de ‘Guantanamera’ y cómo se convirtió en uno de los cantos más populares de fútbol

Threads become posts become articles. The discussion of ‘Guantanamera’, which I mentioned in the blog entry ‘Believe It, Chant It, Wear It’, has prompted a great piece by Katia Chornik, which has appeared on Mundo, one of the BBC’s world service websites. I’m quoted a few times, albeit that my words have been kindly translated into Spanish:
Los cantos más memorables y apasionados generalmente provienen de los hinchas de equipos visitantes
The article can be accessed via this link.