Down with POP (Played-Out Playlists)

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Why does music on the radio always sound the same, viz. terrible?

How often have you turned on your radio recently, only to find the same boring old stuff being pumped out – artists past their sell-by date, worn-out oldies, the same “commercial” garbage? Isn’t there an alternative? You might think there ought to be, given the explosion in new media in the last few years. Why is it then so hard to find original new material on the air? Or even to hear something great that you’d forgotten about from years ago, which suddenly pops up to surprise you?

Music programmers are stuck in a rut they’re seemingly unaware of. Record companies push the latest release by the big established names, who are at No.1 in the chart a few days later. It’s all so utterly predictable, safe, formulaic. Where’s the excitement? Not just in the latest sleazy video, surely? Music of quality should be able to stand by itself, without the hype machine hammering good taste into the ground. Big business has taken over to the extent that it’s hard not to turn a deaf ear.

Once upon a time, there was a fusty old service called the BBC Light Programme. It didn’t play pop music (Heaven forbid!) but it offered you easy listening, a little light jazz and opera, some big band swing and the occasional concert. In the music revolution of the early 1960s, this cosy little service got left behind. Anyone who wanted to hear the new, exciting sounds of the day had to tune their radio to foreign services like Radio Luxembourg, or pirate stations Caroline and London.

In ’67, pop went Establishment with the setting-up of a new national service, BBC Radio 1. Meanwhile the old Light Programme changed its name to Radio 2. Fast-forward nearly some 40 years, and we find a new pecking order: this “second-class” service for seniors has outstripped its younger, trendier rival and now boasts more listeners than any other station in the UK. It’s done so by increasingly encroaching on Radio 1’s territory, so it now plays a bit of everything – including the Top 40 and even, on occasion, a bit of hard rock – but covers very little of its original remit – the easy, swinging kind of “light” music intended for the mature listener.

Its defenders would say the reason for this is that the country’s demographics have changed (i.e. a lot of its listeners are now dead) so it can move on to something sexier – although the recent popularity of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook and the like seems to show there IS still a market for pre-Elvis material. Ever since the mid-1960s, indeed, the BBC has seemed terrified of being left behind by its commercial rivals, or of seeming “behind the times”. Commercial stations now scrabble around trying to maximise their audience by playing the most popular, familiar music they can find – which the BBC is already largely playing anyway. Plans to privatise Radios 1 and 2 have been mooted from time to time, the argument being that the commercial sector is penalised through having to pay its way, and that the BBC gains an unfair advantage funding its stations from the licence fee: as commercial operations, would their “pop” services sound noticeably different? But I digress.

Music is still the main reason people switch on their radio. Of course they may want news, weather, traffic info, jokes and quizzes and gossip as well – but music is the basis of most popular radio programming. Isn’t it amazing then how little thought is put into which songs are put on the air? The attitude of many presenters and producers to the music they provide is incredibly casual. In many cases it seems to amount to flinging on the first record available, as a handy way of filling the gap between the important bits of programming, i.e. the speech. As a trainee I was bemused by an eminent radio professional who has achieved great success in the world of commercial radio informing us, his students, that the key to popular radio was emphatically not, as he put it, choosing to play track 4 rather than track 5 from an album. But for sure, it might make a world of difference! The stations which are at pains to cream off what they perceive to be the very best music they can find (admittedly rare) and which actually put some care into its sequencing (even rarer) ought to attract the biggest audience. But do they? Is it rather that programmers on the whole prefer to come up with a generic type (urban contemporary, or some such term of reference) and then indiscriminately go along with anything that can be said to fit into that pigeonhole?

This labelling of different kinds of music comes from America, which ought to have the best music radio in the world, but obviously doesn’t. It’s a system designed to suit programme makers, record company producers and pluggers, lazy music writers and their publications – everyone except the listening audience, who may presume to know what they like but care little about having their tastes so coldly melted down and force-fed to them. The excitement of turning on the radio comes from hearing something new and unexpected (new to you, that is) and getting a kick out of it. This suggests that the key to a successful playlist ought to be the art of combining the familiar with the unusual in a dynamic and creative way. So then you (the listener) gain access to something new and different, something you haven’t heard before, but with your old reliable friends along to reassure you.

Sadly, it seems most music programmers have neither the time nor the imagination to tackle this question – which is why on oldies stations we get the same bloody records played over and over again and why the charts are full of flashy, derivative rubbish cooked up by industry professionals, lining their pockets by selling the latest 3-minute wonder teen sensation (or Madonna). For a new, different, original group struggling to break through, how does their stuff get heard? John Peel has gone the way of all flesh and there’s no obvious successor, even if anyone at Radio 1 was interested. But the new artists that DO make it rarely last the course anyway, for some reason. Pressure to duplicate what’s gone before, and to sound like everything else, surely plays a large part. Turn on MTV or VH1 (or rather, don’t) and you’ll see music television is in an even worse state. Talent shows like The X-Factor are heavily dependent on familiar oldies to “sell” their instant stars to the public.

But change is afoot, no question about it, when we look at the broadcast map of the UK and the bigger picture beyond. Digital broadcasts and the soon-to-be ubiquitous penetration of home computers, internet, I-pods and mobile phones that play music are set to radically alter the way we hear and acquire music in our daily lives. Leaving aside the economic question of how we pay for it (if at all) I am more interested in pursuing the question of how to uncover the material that is out there, how we access it and what use we make of it – our apprehension and appreciation of music.

It’s often been said that as soon as a truly original new artist achieves some mainstream success with its material, the quality that made it worth hearing in the first place will have gone, to be replaced by the pressing need to pander to the requirements of managers, media and public to play the industry game. Even in the so-called golden age of pop music – from the mid-60’s to the early ’80s – it’s also been well documented that a lot of successful artists like The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Move, Procol Harum, Cream and even Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Costello and Captain Beefheart, developed a deep dislike of some of the music they were expected to churn out (mostly the commercial “hits”) and opted to do their own thing by branching out into new areas. The genius of artists like Costello, The Beatles and David Bowie was that they never put out the same record twice, their music being in that sense truly “progressive”.

Yet it remains a safe bet that what you will hear when you tune in, is the same overused material you’ve heard a thousand times before – or maybe something “new” by an established artist you never want to hear again – and just occasionally, a song by an unknown artist that’s like a breath of fresh air. That’s exactly what Capital Radio was when it started up in 1973. Not only did it break the tired old BBC mould served up by play-safe Radio 1, it had a certain style and a distinctively recognisable sound. In its early years, Capital “broke” countless new artists and records, often weeks ahead of the Beeb, and it presented intelligent music streams that seemed to flow effortlessly and blend in with the other bits of programming around it – the jingles, presentation, the whole caboodle. Confined to a share of the London audience however, it could not do much by itself to breathe life into the stale music scene of the mid-’70s, and the brief emergence of punk as a vital force was a blast of cold air. Ironically, Capital was forced to change – since when, it’s never had the same cachet as before.

In the ’80s, considerable excitement was generated by the imminent arrival of independent national radio. Yet so far, Virgin and its ilk have failed to push all the right buttons, mainly because of a perceived narrowness in the kind of music being promoted, viz. so-called classic rock. Other commercial operations have suffered too, as they have generally sought out a niche market (jazz, reggae, easy listening, etc.) instead of trying to compete with Radio 2 by being all things to all people. Perhaps a chance has been missed, even though the BBC’s built-in advantage has already been noted (as a national, commercial-free network playing middle-of-the-road pop with mainly “celebrity” presenters, how could it not be No.1?). But what about the local scene?

Here, things are rather different, and it’s noticeable that the picture varies considerably across the country. BBC local radio tends to be more speech-oriented than its commercial counterpart, so it certainly takes the soft option when it comes to its music programming, which is regarded as less important. However, it does deserve some credit for its efforts to include some specialist music, albeit in the traditionally “dead” hours of early evening listening. As for commercial radio, its audiences are best in the north and west, where it maintains a stronger local identity. The music though is much of a muchness, with the usual suspects – familiar oldies and established chart material cropping up everywhere. In London meanwhile, there is more of a tendency towards the niche markets mentioned above, which is fine if you happen to like a certain kind of music (the American model) but which rapidly becomes totally predictable and unexciting: music as wallpaper.

The future pattern of radio listenership seems to suggest that help may be just around the corner. Already, there’s been a new development which seems certain to revolutionise the music in our heads: the coming of digital radio services, which in time will mean a plethora of new stations offering practically everything. Podcasting too should bring a greater variety of sounds on offer, if nothing else. Perhaps all that great, neglected music stored away on shelves and in vaults, never given airtime on any conventional radio service, will see the light of day. At last – a chance to open up that vast library of wonderful music from the past 50 years or so, much of it originally issued on dusty old LPs, recorded by real musicians, not machines, forgotten gems and lost treasure! A chance too for more innovation, with new artists breaking through the market’s established preconceptions.

Cynics might say: “Ha! You’re just another old DJ who wants to play his own record collection on the radio!” and there may be some truth in that. But why not? Peel we have acknowledged – also Bob Harris, Kenny Everett, Alan Freeman, Tommy Vance, Roger Scott and many more – they were great innovators and became radio legends because they were inclined to follow their own judgement and refused to be hidebound by the deadening, run of the mill playlists spewed out by a committee or computer. We shall probably never hear their like again – but at least we can try to stay true to their spirit. So much of what you hear on mainstream radio today is just so soulless, humourless, even talentless; drum machines, remixes, electronics – it’s utterly devoid of warmth and humanity.

In conclusion, we might agree with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is indeed the message. But in the end, the technology we use to listen to our music scarcely matters, be it wax cylinder, 8-track or DAT. The important thing is to ensure that the technology is serving us, and not the other way round. And it’s nowhere better summed up than in those famous lines of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”. You remember – or in case you don’t, why not give it a spin? See if you agree with me and Bob. But if not, it doesn’t matter that much. As the Stones said, ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ after all.

I still like it.

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Naming Crossrail Stations

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I made some notes to demonstrate why several of the station names on Crossrail (the new ‘Elizabeth’ Underground Line) are already obsolete and ought to be replaced.

1. Bond Street – let’s call it MAYFAIR

This doesn’t actually exist any more, so don’t bother looking for it! There’s only Old Bond Street and New Bond Street. Confusing? The locale is actually Mayfair – a prestigious name familiar to Monopoly players the world over.

2. Tottenham Court Road – aka SOHO

Not in Tottenham. There’s no court nearby, so far as I can tell. But it’s a long road and the station is just one end of it. However the station IS beneath Soho Square – so why not call it that, or simply Soho? Again, that is a world-famous name.

3. Liverpool Street – it’s really BISHOPSGATE

Named after an insignificant little cul de sac. No trains to Liverpool go from here (unlike say, the Gare de Lyon, where you can catch a Lyon train). The area is Bishopsgate, named after its main thoroughfare. Logical enough?

Frozen Britain: The Great Impasse of 2017

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LINES WRITTEN ON THE GREAT IMPASSE OF 2017, after William McGonagall

‘Twas t’wards the end of 2017
The UK was gridlocked under the worst government we’d ever seen.
Hopes were high that prime minister May
Would be forced to step down, without delay.
The economy had more or less ground to a halt
And for once, it wasn’t the British worker’s fault!
Although some experts had a proclivity
For blaming it all on our low productivity.
Yet wages had already been pared to the bone
For nurses, doctors, teachers, firefighters – and they weren’t alone
While the cost of housing had gone through the roof
Members of Parliament remained happily aloof
As properties stood empty, more than enough
For poor homeless people who were forced to sleep rough.
Our robotic leader, hopelessly inept still
Kept coughing and wheezing for want of Strepsil.
But who could replace her? A disreputable shower:
Boris Johnson and David Davies both awaited the hour
Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and least but not last
Jacob Rees Smugg, the ghost of Tories past.
While hovering over all this, and certain to hex it
Was the long ghastly shadow of a forthcoming Brexit.
(Some confused folk, whose vision was blurred
Were under the impression it had already occurred!)
Yet the suspicion persisted this folly was being done
Simply to satisfy the proprietors of The Sun,
The Express, Daily Fail and Telegraph –
Was it conceivable they were having a laugh?
And all this time, just waiting in the wings
Was a man who was aiming to really change things
If we had an election, then it was a sure thing
The winner would be Mr Jeremy Corbyn!
But when would it come? There was no use debating
And so for the meantime, we just kept on waiting.

 

Vote: Remain in Europe!

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Today, the 23rd of June you have the opportunity to help steer this country’s future direction. Please use it! Here’s my humble attempt to clear up a few misconceptions.

This unwelcome, unwanted EU referendum is nothing to do with immigration. Most migrants in the past 40 years have come from outside the EU in any case, and overall they make a positive contribution: i.e. they take out less than they put in through paying taxes. Besides that, the NHS could not function without them. Border security is stronger through international co-operation.

This referendum has nothing to do with sovereignty, either. It does not mean ‘taking back control’ because we never lost it. Europe cannot force any laws on us without the agreement of Parliament. No other country (e.g. Turkey) can join the EU without the agreement of all member states. But if we left the community, we would have far less power to influence events, not more; and we’d be obliged to accept measures decided by other people. So it would mean a net loss of control.

Nor is it anything to do with democracy. Britain has the least democratic electoral system of any advanced country: we have an unelected House of Lords and a House of Commons where many votes are wasted and one party can gain a majority of seats after winning less than 25% of the vote! The EU is already much more democratic than the UK, not less.

These issues are all really red herrings, so what is it all about?

The only reason we are having a referendum at all is to satisfy the interests of a tiny group of wealthy and powerful right-wing extremists, some of whom (like Rupert Murdoch and other owners of tabloid papers) are not even British residents. Politicians pressing for Britain to leave Europe – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Ian Duncan Smith – are well to the right of a Conservative government that’s already far right of centre. Yet these figures exert an influence through the media well in excess of any electoral support they command across the UK. Incredibly, their greed and lust for power are so big, they want even more control over you and me!

Outside the protection of EU laws on, for example, human rights, pollution and trade unions, these so-called ‘patriots’ would be able to promote an even more anti-social, racist, regressive austerity programme that would send Britain back to the 1930s. Do not be fooled by the way they like to wrap themselves in the union flag; if ‘Brexit’ happened, it’s likely there wouldn’t be a United Kingdom for much longer anyway. In fact these people are quasi-fascists who would grind the British people into the dirt without the restraints of EU rules that currently protect us.

In contrast, anyone with some intelligence and a grasp of history and world politics – like Prof. Stephen Hawking, most of the scientific and artistic community, people who do business every day and can create jobs – all agree that Britain is stronger, more prosperous and stable thanks to its membership of the EU. Sixty years of peace in Western Europe is testament to the international understanding and co-operation bred by working together instead of fighting. Recently Greece has had enormous economic problems (mostly of its own making) but even so, the country is bending over backwards to stay inside Europe, because its people recognize the obvious benefits membership brings. Without the various grants we receive from the EU, such as farm subsidies and poverty relief, the gap between rich and poor here – already far too wide – would be even wider, and social mobility increasingly curtailed.

To be honest: the problems we face in the UK today have nothing to do with our membership of the EU. They are entirely the fault of this (possibly illegitimate) Conservative government, who have bullied the media – especially the BBC – into keeping quiet about their track record of disastrous failure. Since they came to power on a pledge to tighten the budget and reduce the UK’s national debt, it has actually doubled – at a terrible cost in human suffering as health care, welfare and social services have been slashed. Leaving the EU would just mean more of the same failed policies, only worse – because as trade barriers and tariffs go up and the pound plunges, everything will cost much more.

On the world stage, Britain (or England) would be reduced to a little, insignificant offshore island devoid of international power or influence, but at the mercy of the likes of the increasingly powerful US, Russia and China. We would be exploited, our wishes ignored – and it would be impossible for us to get back into the #EU or count on our neighbours’ support.

The obvious choice: Vote Remain.

 

BRITS 2015

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Lines Written on the Tragic Nosedive of American Popular Singer Madonna in old London Town, after McGonagall

‘Twas at the 2015 Brit Awards
That the brightest and best talent met to cross swords.
A galaxy of musical artistes had come there to gather, …
Ignoring Jimmy Carr and his tiresome old blather.
S Smith, P Faith, Kanye, T Cobbley and all –
Dressed to the nines, and obviously out for a ball.
But the ceremony was to be blessed with one special honour:
A rare live appearance of the legend that was Madonna.
Anticipation was high, and so was the stage
For a woman always determined not to act her age.
Her career had been one interminable saga
Although lately eclipsed by the great Lady Gaga.
As she commenced her act in a long flowing cloak
She undid the cord, without which she would choke
But alas! A sharp tug from behind made her trip
And she sank even faster than that Titanic ship.
Before jumping up with aplomb and great timing
Even though some critics said she was probably miming.
Had she been drinking? The crowd was half-pissed –
Or done it on purpose, winked conspiracy theorists.
Whatever the truth, Madge’s unseemly tumble
Overshadowed all news of the PM’s latest fumble.
Since it’s often been said Pride precedes a fall,
My advice to the Material Girl: next time, wear a shawl instead.

KP Goes Nuts

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Lines Written on the Banishment of 

Kevin Pietersen from the England cricket team,

after Thribb

 

So. Farewell then KP,

Erstwhile saviour of

English cricket.

You of the flashing blade and

Wildly coloured hairstyles.

You brought shame on the game

By massaging your opponents.

Er, Keith says that

Should be ‘messaging’.

You claim you were

Misquoted but

Now you are

Permanently demoted.

That’s the first time

I’ve made a

Rhyme.

Whoops!

MULTI-COLOURED SWAP SHOCK!

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So Maggie went straight up to Heaven:
She arrived at a quarter past seven.
St Peter said, ‘Blimey! You’re early,
What brings you to the gates that are pearly?’
Thatcher grimaced at his rude behaviour:
‘Don’t you know I’m a national saviour?
Where’s your master?’ she snapped with a sneer,
‘He’ll confirm I’ve a right to be here!’

God looked up from his white grand piano,
‘You lost that when you sank the Belgrano!
Pete here has been checking your record –
Where there was harmony, you brought only discord.
But Mephisto’s dead keen to adopt you,
So in the end, I’m afraid we just swapped you!’

‘Swapped me?’ cried Thatcher, ‘for whom?’
‘Well,’ soothed God, ‘just so you know,
He’s a charming Venezuelan called Hugo…
Byeeee!’

April 2013