Kesha and Dr Luke: just when you think things can’t get any worse

The record industry, eh!!? Drugs, sex, shouting, bullying. A few more drugs, a bit more sex. It’s a wonder we ever make any music.

And just when you think maybe people can see it’s a bit more serious than that, along comes Vinyl, Martin Scorsese’s and Mick Jagger’s take on the early 70s American record industry.

I haven’t seen the Sky Atlantic series, because I don’t subscribe to Sky. My cable provider is Virgin, and Virgin refuses to pay the necessary fee to carry Atlantic. So I’ve missed out on a lot of reportedly brilliant drama, from Boardwalk to Game of Thrones to Ray Donovan.

What I’ve read about Vinyl is that it’s either a) a rollicking and accurate rendition of the American record industry in the early 70s, albeit with some script problems; or b) that it’s a ridiculous caricature of how the public thinks the record industry behaved but rarely did.

One way or the other, it obviously reinforces stereotypes and, frankly, we could do without them.

Then up pops Kesha, tied into what looks like, on the face of it, a totally unreasonable record deal. But a US Court didn’t think so, and refused to give her leave to break the terms of the deal and record elsewhere.


Having lost that battle, we then start hearing accusations that her producer (and boss of the label) Dr Luke abused her, verbally and physically. More, she says he drugged and raped her.

I don’t know if any of this is true. And neither do you.

But that hasn’t stopped the Twitterati going mad with charges that Sony – the ultimate owner of her records – is a ‘rapist sympathiser’.

It does seem remarkable that an 18 -year-old would be advised to sign a record deal (with Dr Luke’s Kemosabe label) and a publishing deal, (with another Dr Luke company, Prescription Songs) that tied her into a situation which, 11 years later, she can’t get away from. I’m told that the initial deal was for eight albums, but as far as I can see only two have been released. Someone is doing something wrong, and someone is lying.

I can tell you, hand on heart, that I would never let the pop star who lives in my house near such a deal. The idea that one individual has one hand in your recording pocket, the other in your publishing pocket, and is also your producer – well, someone steered Kesha wrong. Or Dr Luke gave her a ton of money, enough to make her not care one way or the other.

All I can observe is that, generally speaking, courts tend to look with sympathy on young artists who have signed unsuitable deals. That would usually go double when, 11 years down the line, things have clearly broken down.

And I might also observe that if Kesha had taken the allegations of drugs and rape to court, and won, her contract would instantly have been rendered invalid.

But what with Atlantic’s fictional Vinyl, and the all-too-real life Kesha case, the public is once again fed a diet of record business exploitation and excess.

As the music business and, more particularly, artists fight to wrestle back their right to earn some money from their efforts, this is exactly the kind of jiggery-pokery tabloid fodder we could all do without. Well, apart from the public who clearly lap this stuff up before turning to Twitter and Facebook to make their uninformed observations.

You couldn’t make it up. And in this instance, you don’t have to. More’s the pity.

David’s dead? Could we just slow the world down a bit?

It was depressing enough to find three people who’d died during 2015 aged 67 – the age I became on January 1 this year.

But to wake up on January 11 2016 and find that David Bowie has died aged just 69 is simply shocking.

Country star Lynn Anderson (I Never Promised You) A Rose Garden; Chris Squire, guitarist with Yes; and Jimmy Greenspoon, Three Dog Night keyboard player, all served to remind me of my own mortality during 2015 as New Year’s Day 2016 crept nearer. They all died aged 67.

Still – all respect to their families’ loss – these were journeymen artists. Millions enjoyed them, so God bless ’em.

But what are you supposed to say about David Bowie that hasn’t been said a thousand times before?

Millions of words will be written and spoken about him over the next few days. The same stories, tropes and cliches will be repeated ad nauseam and young people will be wondering what all the fuss is about. He wasn’t Ed Sheeran, was he?

But we know, don’t we, we who were sentient in the 1950s? We were ready for the greatest explosion of popular culture ever known – Elvis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Monty Python, James Bond, Muhammad Ali, Woodstock, even the first man on the moon and Concorde.

And that was when David Bowie just got his toe in the door with Space Oddity, an ‘overnight success’ in 1969. Seven years of frustration, failure and feeling his way through the treacherous music industry served well to strengthen his artistic resolve when times were tough, and they often were. He was the best part of 20 years into his career before he might safely assume financial comfort and the security of his reputation.

Artistically, he’s up there with with the absolute greats.

Only Dylan and The Beatles could be said to have been more influential. He was as restless as The Beatles, who reinvented themselves pretty much album by album. The difference being, they did it for six years; Bowie did it continuously over six decades.

I’ve been loving Blackstar, his latest album, released two days before his death. Unlike Double Fantasy – not well received, peaking at number 14 in the UK charts and plummeting to 46 before John Lennon was killed – Bowie’s latest (last?) is challenging, admirably uncommercial and containing lyrics over which we will now pore for clues to his state of mind.

Dollar Days, for instance, has the lines:
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me
It’s nothing to see


Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying to

Is Blackstar a cry for authenticity, but not at the expense of an ethical life?
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

Oh, David. What are we going to do now?

God bless Adele, but I think she’s done

Oh, to be Adele.

Maybe I’ve taken on too much. Trying to finish an album, build a new website, write a novel – then I realise it’s Friday afternoon and I haven’t written this week’s post. Cue panic!

Meanwhile, Adele – thirty million albums sold last time out, four years in the making for the new one.

So unconcerned is she, that she’s kept the title 25, even though she’s 27 now.

At one point in the process, she discarded an entire album because it addressed a situation in her life that had come and gone. No suggestion that the songs were below par, nor the album itself. Which, from where I’m standing (or sitting, most likely, chained to my computer) seems indulgent to a degree that is wasteful.

Still, she’s Adele, and I’m not. And you can’t help but love her. The segment in her BBC programme with Graham Norton where she disguises herself as an Adele impersonator is a masterclass in warmth, humanity and humour.

Which makes it all the more painful to say: I think Adele’s done.

From what I’ve heard of the new album it doesn’t take her one creative or artistic step forward from 21. In some respects – some truly woeful lyrics, and a dearth of memorable melodies – it’s a step backwards.

Listening to her talk about the process, particularly the consideration she gave to not even following up 21, she gives the impression not so much of an artist driven by compulsion to create but more of someone for whom this is the one thing she’s confident she’s good at.

She doesn’t even have to tour to break sales records – 25 shifted the most copies in first week history (achieved in only four days, just to stick the boot into poor NSYNC’s 15-year-long hold on the title).

But the sub-text is, she’s also good at being a human being, and clearly loves being a mother, and therefore might find as much fulfilment in raising a family.

And before anyone takes issue with my apparently non-PC (anti-feminist) suggestion that raising a family might now be a priority (and it’s only a guess on my part), I’d just remind you that no-one took issue on sociological grounds with Kate Bush leaving a 12-year gap between The Red Shoes and Aerial. For Kate, the creative rush of raising her son was not even a sub-text; it was the text, and inspired some of Aerial’s most beautiful moments.

So, good luck to Adele. I’ve loved some of her songs, and many of her performances. Her voice is a gift.

But for artists to last they have to grow, and take their audience with them. And growing doesn’t just mean titling your album after your current age.

The Beatles went from Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in three and a half years. The Who went from Zoot Suit (written by their manager) to Tommy (conceived and mostly written by Pete Townshend) in five years. Bob Dylan, of course, started as he meant to go on, never once thinking about sales, and thereby carrying his audience with him to this day.

If Adele wants to be more than a footnote in pop music history, she needs to consider whether she’s capable of more than baring her soul for the masses. I hope she can. I don’t expect her to start using sitars and backwards tapes of monks chanting; or even to write a pop opera. But she will need to channel her inner Amy (without the drugs and the self-destructive urge) if we’re still to be talking about another new album 20 years from now.

Meanwhile, here is evidence of why we love her in the here and now:

On the other hand, I’m getting far more enjoyment from Songs In The Dark, an album of lullabies and other {sometimes scary) songs by The Wainwright Sisters, Martha and Lucy. Occasionally on the album, it’s like The McGarrigle Sisters are back. But Martha and Lucy leave no doubt they are the current generation.

Unfortunately, there are no decent videos of the songs I’d like to highlight, but those familiar with the Wainwright family saga will recognise the storyline of Runs In The Family.

Driver 67 is having the time of his life

Thinking about it the other day, it dawned on me that I’m going through a bit of a golden period.

Of course, there are always bloody problems. Stuff doesn’t just happen. First off, you have to get out of bed every morning and put one foot in front of the other. You know what I’m saying, Lucy Joplin? It’s tougher than it sounds, innit?

There’s always another cup of tea to be made. Or maybe you’re compelled to get along to the coffee shop because you need to read a few more pages of your book. And in any case, you haven’t been out of the house for four days.

I can, hand on heart, say that I’ve never fallen into the Jeremy Kyle trap; nor any kind of daytime telly, except for when the Test Match used to be transmitted live by the BBC.

But when the butterfly in my mind flaps its wings, on the other side of the kitchen a piece of bread hits the toaster and the kettle starts boiling.

Still, things do get done. My book on the music industry is nearly finished (with the publishers; doing their thing. Mind you, no predictions from me about publication dates).

I’m also, finally, writing a novel. Again, I wouldn’t hold your breath. It’ll take some time.

And on January 1, 2016, Driver 67 will be 67. So that’s got to be an auspicious year, hasn’t it? I’m waiting for a blocked ear to clear so I can mix my new album, which will be called….

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 15.09.07

On top of all this, for the first time in my life I’ve been asked to sing someone else’s songs. Not that it’s a done deal (I’m auditioning the songs at the moment). But to be asked alone is worth the price of entry. Apparently my ‘crooning style’ could be well suited to the material.

I’ve never thought of myself as a crooner. But quite quickly, after picking myself up off the floor, I realised it’s probably the most accurate description of my singing ‘style’. I’ve never thought of myself as a singer; but I’m happy to think of myself as a crooner!

Just to add to the load, I’m trying to redesign this blog into a magazine. I may not watch Jeremy Kyle, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time trolling around Facebook baiting the loony left (mostly my own family) and giving the anti-Israel lobby a dose of (my) reality.

So I thought, isn’t it time you put all that effort into something of your own? You could be the anti-Huffington Post, the anti-38 Degrees, or, simply, the anti-Christ – because that’s what it feels like when the online world tips its manure on your head.

Of everything I’m doing, the blog redesign is the hardest. I have no trouble writing (Look! I’m doing it now!); and music is a joy, until it becomes work and you have to finish and release.

Usually, with anything online, you just Google your problem and thousands of posts appear telling you how to do what you want to achieve. I’m a bit of a Noddy to Big Ears type when it comes to online building and design. I need all the help I can get. But I invested in Newspaper 6 before I found out that the usual user videos and forums aren’t out there. Nothing like someone who’s faced the same problem posting their solution. But it’s not happening.


So I asked WordPress and BlueHost to point me at some easy to understand advice. And they did. Except, their idea of step-by-step involves you understanding coding and showing you loads of templates that, despite looking exciting and inviting, all end up looking almost exactly like the blog I’ve been posting for nearly two years.

So if anyone out there can lend a hand, just a few Noddy to Big Ears directions will do.

Once I’m up and running I can usually figure it out. But with Newspaper 6 I can barely get out of the starting blocks.

Still, I’m off to Cuba on December 17, back on January 1. Like I said, Driver 67 is having the time of his life.

Now, I haven’t got all day to chat. The toast is burning, and I haven’t even put the kettle on yet.

Meanwhile, being deaf in one ear, I have no new music of my own this week. So – sticking with the crooner theme – I’ll leave you with one of the greatest of all time (Sinatra, of course, being the greatest. But after Frank how many cigarette papers would you put between Crosby, Bennett, Nat King Cole and Elvis Presley?).

I was a bit horrified when I heard about the latest Elvis project – overdubbed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

But it settles one argument for ever and a day. Elvis was a truly great singer, blessed with a voice of exceptional quality.

Is Jeff Lynne Kevin Turvey? Or is he a genius?

Do you remember Kevin Turvey?*

He was from Solihull and, frankly, you have to be from Solihull or thereabouts to fully appreciate his pedantry. “I got some milk out of the fridge and I poured it on my cornflakes. Well, not all of it. Obviously.”

People from there or thereabouts will go into excruciating detail to ensure you get the full measure of whatever story they’re telling you. It’s a rarely remarked upon ethnic eccentricity.

I was reminded of this reading an interview with Jeff Lynne this week. He was asked if he’d like a cup of tea.

“Do you want a cup of tea, Jeff?”

“Yeah, I’ll have the same again.”

“The same cup of tea?”

“No, I can’t have the same cup of tea, obviously, ‘cos I’ve drunk it. But some tea. In the same cup.”

Well, it made me cry laughing, but perhaps you had to be there. Or thereabouts.

Another comment I love from Jeff was when Tom Petty pulled up next to him at some traffic lights in LA. “Hey Jeff, we should hang out,” said Tom. “Which was nice,” said Jeff, recounting the story later.

Of course, but for that chance meeting (Tom Petty had been planning a sabbatical) we might never have had The Traveling Wilburys. So ‘nice’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

I saw The Electric Light Orchestra at Fairfield Halls, Croydon on what may have been its first major outing (after a pub debut at The Fox & Hounds (also in Croydon). As a Beatle nut, an entire band dedicated to recreating the sound of I Am The Walrus, cellos and all, seemed an entirely brilliant concept.

But all was not sweetness and light. Backstage after the gig, I saw manager Don Arden line the group up against a wall and walk up and down, shouting at each of them for some invented slip-up. It was a control mechanism. He even punched a couple of them.

No wonder tensions ran high. Not long after, Roy Wood scarpered with a couple of other members to form Wizzard. To those of us who had imagined that the whole Walrus thing was Roy’s idea, ELO seemed like a dead duck.

But Roy wasn’t the creative midwife. Jeff Lynne was. So after a long apprenticeship, going back to 1965, when he first met Richard Tandy, Jeff finally had centre stage and a vehicle for what turned out to be a stunning talent for timeless pop tunes and a mastery of studio techniques.

I’m not going to go on and on about how brilliant Jeff Lynne is. But let’s just think about his timeline – The Idle Race (legendary but rarely heard), The Move, ELO, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, The Traveling Wilburys and then, a career crowner you’d have thought, The Beatles!r

But Free As A Bird and Real Love were 20 years ago. Oh, fuck me!! Really? Yes indeed. And you can’t keep a restless and creative soul like Jeff Lynne under wraps for 20 years. I bought his 2012 album Long Wave, which is a joy.

And now he’s in the process of releasing a new ELO album, though it’s really a Jeff Lynne album, Alone In The Universe. I’ll be buying it.

I know some of you won’t. There are a lot of ELO haters out there. Though you’re not in the same class as the Phil Collins haters. Just deviating for a few seconds (without hesitation or repetition) I personally cannot see the point of hating Phil. I’m not a fan, but for God’s sake, the man is a brilliant drummer, much sampled by the Hip Hop community who revere him.  And he’s written some great songs. His music career alone (preceeded by a five-year spell as a child actor) has lasted nearly 50 years.

But hating ELO at least comes with the possibility that you don’t also hate Jeff Lynne. I bet every one of you has a favourite record tucked away that has Jeff Lynne all over it. Surely no-one can hate Roy Orbison and George Harrison and Tom Petty and Dave Edmunds and Olivia Newton-John and Paul McCartney and Duane Eddy and Regina Spektor and Joe Walsh and The Beatles and The Traveling Wilburys?

If you hate absolutely every one on that list, please spare me your rationale. Instead, make a doctor’s appointment and ask to see a consultant. You’re clearly unwell.

Meantime, in case you’ve missed the buildup, here’s a gorgeous taster of Alone In The Universe, due for release late next week, I think.

*Kevin Turvey was one of Rik Mayall’s earliest inventions.

When the black dog barks, there’s always a song to be sung

Have you seen those Facebook posts, urging you to copy and post in friends’ Timelines?


I don’t know how useful this is. But I do know this:

You wouldn’t want to live in my head.

There’s a never-ending conversation going on in there and it simply will not shut up. Sometimes I’ll be reading and the conversation gets louder and louder till it drowns out the words on the page. No wonder I watch so much crap on telly.

And this conversation – it’s deadly serious. What’s wrong with the world, what I would do to put it right, how stupid are the people in charge, and why are none of them fucking listening to me!!!!!?

Are you paying attention?

You’re not, are you? Well, good for you. Not paying attention is surely the answer.

I saw a Facebook post last week that nearly broke my heart. It was from a FB ‘friend’ – we don’t know each other, but we’re connected through a musical network.


A few weeks ago I referred to Lucy as a “stunning young woman of somewhat bonkers demeanor” and left you a video of her performing Not Your Type At All. Watching her apparently total commitment to appearing bonkers, you would never guess that she’d rather have been a world-class ballerina.

I know exactly how Lucy feels. I gave up making music thirty-odd years ago because of frustration at not being as good as the musicians I worked with. I wanted to be Steely Dan; my band practically were Steely Dan. I could not compete, and I was never going to be able to.

It took me thirty years to understand that my gift was my songs, not to play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix, or to sing like Otis Redding.

And then I saw this from Lucy –

and realised we probably had even more in common.

Cheryl Rad’s reply gives the clue: “Lucy what’s all this???”

I think Cheryl sensed, as I did, a red light for danger.

I was in the process of recording a song about mental health. I felt compelled to ask Lucy if I could use her FB posts in the accompanying blog post. I told her I was bipolar. She said she wasn’t. “Common or garden clinical depression is all”.

“Common or garden clinical depression” strikes me as the response of someone who feels the weight of responsibility not to burden friends. So maybe that Facebook meme does have a role to play. Yes, indeed – let’s ‘stop sweeping mental illness under the rug’.

In another post, Lucy listed things ‘I should be doing – reading, writing, dancing, listening to music, singing …..(and lots of other things); what I am doing….sweet FA, losing it’. Others in the grip of depression will recognise that immediately, and only we know that the answer is not as simple as ‘pull yourself together’.

Which brings me back to the song I was recording. It was written by my friend Lon Goddard. As soon as I heard it I knew I had to record it. It really hit the nail on the head about the mess inside my own, even though he was describing the mess inside his.

It’s about getting a handle on yourself. It’s called Handle. Isn’t simple great?

It’s hard to explain the inside of your brain, but there are those of us who prefer a dark room to bright sun. I used to love gloomy winter afternoons. The lights and fires in people’s front rooms were always more inviting and evocative than beaches and palm trees. Mind you, there weren’t many palm trees in Wolverhampton, plus you could never find a beach when you wanted one.

And fog. I bloody loved fog. Stupid environmentalists ruined that. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. What’s a melancholic depressive to do when the air’s so clean fog won’t form?

Well, there’s always a song by another melancholic depressive to cheer you up. It was The Beatles’ Rubber Soul that introduced me to that concept. Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me, Nowhere Man, Girl (aah, girl!), In My Life – tailor-made for the less cheerful.

Then came Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Joni Mitchell filled some of the gaps in between with her tales of vaguely unsatisfactory relationships and a jaundiced view of the world (Both Sides Now). Later, the entire Hejira album fed my soul for years (and still does, when I need it to).

I’m a bit better now. I won’t sit in the sun, but I do like a blue sky and a shiny sun. Just as well. I’m going to Cuba for Christmas.

But, y’know, meds notwithstanding, this thing never really goes away. Which is why, when I heard this lyric from Lon –

Now I need a hole into my brain
What a lot of bullshit I could drain
I could watch it go and let my whole life
Flood out on a plain

– I just knew I had to sing it, record it, put it out there.

So here we go Lucy (and Lucy’s dad Norman who I’ve known, on and off, for nearly fifty bloody years), and anyone else who struggles to get a handle on their life.

But mostly, of course, to Lon Goddard, who saved me from writing my own song by just doing it better than I would have.



You there, with that line of coke. Just hang on a second….

I’ve done my fair share of cocaine.

I’m not saying that to shock. Obviously, I want to grab your attention. But some of you know it anyway, and I want to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.

Because this week I’m going to talk about drug cartels (and, yes, I’ve written a song about them!).

Have you been watching Narcos? It’s a series on Netflix, their version of The Sopranos.

Except that Narcos is a true story, about real people.

And these people – well, it’s hard to believe we share a planet with them.

Mind you, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The first series of Narcos is the story of Columbia’s Pablo Escobar. It starts off as the story of a folk hero, at least to his own people. He takes on the government of Columbia, which is impervious to the needs of ordinary people, who are poor and neglected beyond our understanding.

So Pablo gives them jobs, builds schools and hospitals and ends up more popular than film stars or singers.

Which, of course, the government cannot tolerate. What happens next is an escalation of violence that makes you question humanity and your own sanity – how could you possibly have thought Pablo Escobar was anything but evil?

Well, bad as he was, the Mexican cartels are worse. Transgressors are tortured, skinned alive (flayed), decapitated, dismembered, hung from motorway overpasses. In one six year period to 2012, 100,000 people were slaughtered in the interests of cocaine trafficking.

And yet Americans alone spend about $30bn a year on the cocaine that is causing untold misery just the other side of their border.

Not to mention the environmental damage. The process of maceration – turning the innocent coca leaf into a paste, the basis of cocaine itself – requires a mixture of kerosene, sulphuric acid and lime. This appalling cocktail, once it’s done its job, is allowed to run off into local waterways.

You will never stop these people. There’s always someone ready to take their place. The means of smuggling becomes ever more sophisticated. In 2011, US officials found their first narco submarine. No-one knows how many there were/are. Costing $2m to build, one submarine can carry $60m worth of drugs along riverbeds and into America.

But even as the first submarine was discovered, the narcos were already investing in drones. They are always one step ahead.

I stopped buying cocaine in 1982, when small time dealers started ‘stepping’ on it. There might be five or six ‘stepping’ stages – bulking up the cocaine with baby milk, talcum powder and laxative (oh yes!).

But then it got worse. As the cocaine ( £60 a gram) became less and less of a constituent, the familiar ‘sting’ to the nasal passages was missing. So they started using scouring powder (Borax in America, Ajax in the UK).

Ajax – yeah, that stings alright.

And then, of course, as the cocaine element in your £60 envelope diminished, so did the expected effects of the drug. So they replaced even more of the cocaine with amphetamine sulphate (£15 a gram) for an extra kick.

Unfortunately, amphetamine sulphate (speed to you and me) is highly addictive. Which, of course, brings a whole slew of new problems with it.

Stopping using pure cocaine was easy. Stopping using something that is less than 20% cocaine (but still at cocaine prices) bulked up with the highly addictive sulphate would be a different proposition.

In the intervening 33 years I’ve accepted a line here and there maybe half a dozen times. It has routinely proved to be crap. And disgusting crap at that.

So: torture, death, addiction, environmental pollution, all for a fraudulent product; not to mention one trillion dollars flushed down the toilet in the ‘war on drugs’ – what does it take till a supposedly civilised society throws up its hands and accepts the case for legalisation and control?

It was Richard Nixon who started the war on drugs. He allocated a budget of around a half billion dollars. Most of the money was to be spent on treatment and rehabilitation of addicts. Today America alone is wasting over $100bn a year on an actual war – fought against narco cartels whose annual turnover is sometimes larger than that of the country they operate in, and whose private armies are better-equipped than the army of their sovereign state. (You think I’m exaggerating?).

Throughout the world we already have the means of clean and controlled manufacture. In our international network of regulated pharmacies we also have the means of controlled distribution and sale.

Wipe out the narcos raison d’être overnight: take drugs off the street,  tax their sale to fund treatment for addicts, reallocate the $100bn war-on-drugs fund (£10bn in the UK) – isn’t it a no-brainer?

Meanwhile, there’s a Mexican tradition of corrido, songs that – in a pre-digital era – spread the news, and revolutionary ideas and expressed the feelings of ordinary people.

Today there’s a nasty extension known as narcocorrido – songs that celebrate the drug cartels, their acts of violence and the power they wield.

These narcocorridos are not spontaneous outbursts of admiration. They are coerced. “Write a song about me and make it respectful and adulatory – or I will kill you.” As Pablo Escobar himself said: “Take my silver or take my lead (ie: my bullet)”.

In other words, there’s no middle ground. If I ask for your help and you refuse, you will be killed. As will your family. And anyone else we can think of who will help to spread the message that you don’t say no to the cartel. And if they haven’t invited you in, you still don’t go against them in any way.

No-one doubts it. The media in Mexico has been extremely circumspect in recent years, simply because large numbers of journalists and broadcasters have been slaughtered as a means of intimidation. In some areas the local cartel literally controls the media.

Even blogging isn’t safe. They may be barbarians, the cartels, but they are not living in a barbaric age. They have the technology to track you down. Bloggers have been killed. It’s a brave soul who speaks out.

So the narcocorridos are no surprise. Given a choice between a horrible death and putting up a YouTube video of a song celebrating those who will kill you if you don’t, what would you do?

Well here’s what I’ve done. This is a narccorrido, but not sung in praise. I wouldn’t be so brave if I lived in Mexico, believe me.

And if you want a cracking good read, and an education in the drug trade, I highly recommend Don Winslow’s Power Of The Dog (2005) and its more recent sequel, Cartel. Brilliant novels on any level.

And the Channel Four documentary The Legend Of Shorty, and Cocaine: History Between The Lines, an exceptionally well made documentary recently shown on Sky and currently up on Vimeo.

If you’re a user, you won’t want another line until you can get it from your local Boots.

This is a Narcocorrido
That tells of their cowardly ways
This is a Narcocorrido
But not sung in praise

It tells of how they flay the living
Skin them alive as they scream
Then pray to the dead for the giving
of life as a dream

Cut your throat and take your head
to the mall so children can see it
Hang your police from a freeway overpass
so you get the message

Oh to be a narco hero
You can have your own corrido
Written and sung in fear
Oh it must make you proud

Don’t forget it’s me who’s running the
town and the city and country
The federales are my army and who can help you?
Nobody. Nadie.

Sing me a song mi cantante
Or I’ll kill your mother and sister
An accordion and a bajo sexto
y muchas corista


Looking for new music? You might as well be looking for a hit man or an Uzi.

(First sentence to be read, Julie Burchill-style, in a Bristol accent).

I went up to that London recently.

Weird that. Bristol is an almost straight line, west to east, pointing at London. But still, you always feeling like the big city is ‘up’.

Where I lived, which was north of that London, we also referred to going ‘up’ to London. Then some chauvinist sage pointed out that it was down.

He was strictly correct. Geographically.

But he mostly meant it metaphorically.

Metaphorically, we were being told that that London was somewhat inferior to our Wolverhampton.

Then I moved to London, and it was neither up nor down. Nor was it inferior to Wolverhampton (not superior, though, either).

Now I live on the south coast, and London is definitely ‘up’.

Which is all very confusing. But not nearly as confusing as knowing where to look for new music these days.

Music has become like the internet. The mainstream is like the worldwide web. You know how to find Amazon, and Wikipedia, and how to book your holidays, and post on Facebook. With the same limits of access, you can listen to the same few records on regular rotation on Radios 1 & 2.

But what if you want to find the musical equivalent of a hired hitman, or an AK47, or mind-altering drugs that will drop through your letterbox? That’s called the Deep Web, or the Dark Web.

(Which is also confusing, because they are two separate entities. But still you and I couldn’t get to either without the internet equivalent of GPS, programmed by someone else with postcodes only they know).

The web that most of us see is reckoned to be anywhere between 5-10% of what’s actually out there. But us mere mortals can’t see the other 90-95% because a) we don’t want to buy a nuclear weapon; and b) we don’t know how to dig that deep even if we wanted to.

So anyway, I went up to that London to see a gig featuring an old friend. And being in the room at the Phoenix Artist Club felt a little like being in the Deep Web. Practically everyone I met is a performer, and you’ve never heard of them, and very unlikely to because you don’t know they’re there in the first place.

There was JJ Crash, who told me nothing about himself other than that he played with Lucy’s Diary. Lucy herself turned out to be a stunning young woman of somewhat bonkers demeanour, who, I was later told, is the daughter of my old colleague Norman Jopling. I had no idea.

Watching a couple of videos of Lucy, you have to ask yourself how, in this anodyne era of formula pop, someone of such personality and edginess has a social media presence almost as well hidden as the hitmen and drug dealers of the Dark Web’s Silk Road.

JJ himself also has quite the background as a post-punk performer, described somewhere as ‘the pearly king of anti-folk’. (He’s from Welwyn Garden City. Go figure).

Here he is with Lucy’s Diary. JJ’s the guy with the maracas and the natty hat.

And then there was Ralegh Long. My friend John Howard had told me about Ralegh, a young performer he rates highly.

I’m not often surprised, but Ralegh sat at the piano, accompanied by slide steel guitar and French Horn. It’s such a lovely combination I have to admit I couldn’t wait to get home and try it for myself with one of my own songs (Sorry, Ralegh!).

Back in the day, when the pop mainstream was a vivid rainbow of colourful styles – folk, rock, pop, jazz, singer-songwriter, Beatles, Stones, Cat Stevens, Jim Hendrix, the Animals, Bob Dylan – Ralegh Long would have found himself on regular rotation on Radio One.

In the almost monochrome 21st century, he’s lucky to get the odd play on Radio 6 Music. Why do we bother? I asked him. His answer was the same as mine: “I can’t not”. Well, good for him. I’ve had my day, and if I choose to keep making music that no-one will ever hear, it’s nobody’s business but mine.

But young musicians have to pay the rent and feed themselves. Art for art’s sake, because they ‘can’t not’, is truly admirable. You can buy or listen to his album Hoverance iTunes or iMusic. I seriously suggest you do.

On the other hand, artists today are industrious in ways we never were. On stage later were John Howard & The Night Mail. The Night Mail consists of Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis.

In addition to performing as Rotifer, writing songs and starting this Night Mail project, Robert Rotifer also helps to run Gare Du Nord Records, a label with some hidden delights that are well worth investigating.

Ian Button played on the first four Death In Vegas albums. Before that he was in Thrashing Doves. Today he’s a leading light of Papernut Cambridge, a collective that includes many names I’ve mentioned above. If you like gorgeous-sounding pop with an insistent beat and hooky melodies, don’t get lost in the deep web – just Google Papernut Cambridge.

And then there’s Andy Lewis, currently moonlighting as Paul Weller’s bass player. Hardly able to contain his joy on the night, Ralegh Long shouted at me, “It’s like he’s got the whole history of soul music in his fingertips”. And that’s very accurate.

Here he is with Paul Weller singing, from Andy’s album You Should Be Hearing Something Now.

Robert, Ian and Andy all co-wrote songs with John Howard for the Night Mail album. It was a truly collaborative effort. But on stage, no question, Howard is the attraction. The audience at The Phoenix went nuts for him.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll never tire of saying it: it is an extraordinary oversight on God’s part that John Howard is not a superstar. At age 62 he is writing tunes and lyrics that shame many more famous artists. If you like great pop with a bite of satire, a touch of social commentary, and a huge dollop of human compassion, I implore you to check out John Howard & The Night Mail. It’s worth signing up to Apple Music for, if you’re not in a buying mood, and it’s also on Spotify.

And in those places you’ll also find Ralegh Long, Lucy’s Diary but not JJ Crash. You’ll also find Andy Lewis’s absolutely wonderful Billion Pound Project – a lush and soulful and timeless delight, the sort of album you think doesn’t get made any more, but here it is.

It really did feel like I’d found a secret chat room on the Deep Dark Web. Except, rather than trying to buy pharmaceutical grade cocaine (which would have turned out to be sulphate with glittering bits of ground glass) I found a bunch of sweet and talented people who make music I’ve been enjoying ever since, but would never have known existed if I hadn’t popped into the Phoenix Artist Club on September 8.



iTunes vs Apple Music vs Spotify: when will the fat lady sing?

Here are some statistics to surprise (or even shock) you. But first, the background.

iTunes has 800 million account holders worldwide.

Spotify has 75 million users worldwide.

So – game over, then.

Except, as we all know, it’s never over till The Fat Lady Sings.

Do you remember the VHS-Betamax wars?

In reality, it was more a series of battles in a war that was won before it began.

In the UK, the war was over when Radio Rentals signed up to the VHS model to rent alongside their televisions.

It didn’t really matter that Betamax was a better system. Radio Rentals meant that most UK households were going VHS. At best, Betamax might carve out a niche market. But, really, it was never going to happen.

In America, it came down to a choice between cost – VHS machines were cheaper – and recording time. VHS tapes could hold up to two hours of programming; Beta managed half of that.

So the two most important markets in the world made their choice early on. As a  consequence, VHS prices dropped rapidly, and recording time went up to three hours, four hours.

How does any of this apply to music streaming?

You would think that iTunes 800 million accounts and Apple’s reputation would easily see off the upstart Spotify and its measly 75 million users.


Apple’s target was 100 million users of its subscription streaming service.

That, right there, would have transformed the record industry, reversing its apparently inexorable decline and putting it back in growth mode.

But Apple’s new streaming service, iMusic, claims a sign-up of 11m users to its three-month free trial. That’s a paltry 1.3% of its already captive audience.

Spotify has 20 million actual paid subscribers among its 75 million users. That’s better than 25% of its own captive audience. And the growth of free users is slowing, while the take up of subscriptions is growing.

Now, how did that happen?

Truthfully, I never thought streaming would work. At the point Spotify launched, I was trying to finance the launch of a website that would be a combination iTunes/Facebook for the over-50s.

One of my partners, Luke Broadhurst, was adamant we needed an element of streaming in our business model. Reluctantly, I created a new line in the Excel forecast sheet.

But in reality, I just didn’t see how not owning the music was going to work. OK, an mp3 file was not the same as a CD, which was not the same as an LP. But still, you paid for the mp3, and it was yours.

I was also outraged at the barefaced cynicism of the record industry majors, who each took (this is from memory) a 12.5% share in Spotify in return for providing their music to the site. They literally gave away the store, the thing they owned, for something that would return nothing.

Well, I was wrong about that. This year, Spotify will pay the record industry $2bn, twice what it paid last year, which was twice what it paid the year before. It won’t be long before Spotify’s contribution represents 25% of the industry’s income.

Of course, there’s still the problem that the labels aren’t passing that money on to artists and writers. That’s another story, and about that I am still outraged.

But my outrage doesn’t change the simple fact that the public, more and more, is choosing streaming over owning.

And that doesn’t answer the question of why Spotify has twice as many paid subscribers as iMusic has managed to sign up to its free-trial.

I’m one of the 11m who has signed up to the iMusic trial. Will I convert that to the subscription model?

The answer is, I don’t know.

For a start, the interface is a mess, which is the last thing you expect from Apple.

Well, it would be the last thing you’d expect unless you’ve recently updated your iTunes.

Some people might say you can’t give all the credit for Apple’s success to Steve Jobs. Me? I’d say they’re wrong. There is no way the latest iTunes iteration would have happened on Steve’s watch. Ditto the iMusic launch.

I know The Fat Lady hasn’t sung yet. But as the editor, and later owner, of some of the very first video magazines (starting in late 1978) I personally went for VHS. I covered Betamax, of course I did. But I knew Sony had lost that war almost from the day I signed my own rental agreement for a VHS model.

I don’t know quite what Apple could do to recover its position as the pre-eminent music supplier. There’s no new iPod-type device in the offing, which is how the company first established its dominance.

And it is really pissing off iTunes users. (The latest update messed with cover artwork. Believe me, with 20,000 tracks, and cover art attached to all but a few, I would go mental if my cover art suddenly disappeared, which has happened to many users).

I still don’t like Spotify. Maybe the Premium (paid) service is better. But I’m not prepared to spend the money to find out.

But at any given time, Spotify represents roughly 50% of worldwide streaming. Which means that 50 million people are already paying their £9.99 (or similar) per month to someone – Spotify, Pandora, Deezer. Compared to that, if Apple converts all 11m trial users to paid, they’ll still be way behind in the game.

Meantime, I can’t make any sense of the iMusic service on my iPhone, and I keep finding tracks in my iTunes library that are ‘not licensed for iCloud use’, or some such bollocks.

I remember the time when it seemed Apple was going to fade into oblivion. I moved over to PC. Hating Microsoft as I did, I stuck with it for a year on the pragmatic basis that I had no choice. But then Steve Jobs went back to Apple, and the sun came out.

Steve Jobs ain’t coming back this time, and his Apple is looking very bruised.

In a way, that’s healthy. No-one should dominate the way iTunes has done. But it was so glorious, so graceful, so bloody easy to use. But this is the digital age, and things move fast.

Nothing – not even the best – lasts forever.

The BBC needs to show some humility to maintain the high ground.

I’m 22 years old . There’s a BBC press conference. The room is full of fag-ash hacks, men in suits and stroppy photographers. I’m not even a boy by comparison. I’m a baby.

And there’s the BBC brass, at a table up front, proudly announcing the signing of a new contract with Terry Wogan.

Terry wanders in as his name is called. He beams. Cameras flash, microphones are thrust, questions are shouted.

When it’s all calmed down, I put my hand up. I’m an easy mark: hippy-ish clothes, long hair, too young to be serious. So, yes, let’s have a question from Music Week’s young radio correspondent.

“How much is this contract costing?”

Chins drop. Pins drop – and are heard. Fleet Street faces turn to see – who is this cheeky fucker?

A cough, a sheepish look down, and the BBC spokesman says, “Er, we don’t discuss that kind of thing.”

“But I’m a licence payer. Everyone in this room is a licence payer. That’s our money you’re spending.”

We’ll draw a veil over the rest of it. Wogan, to his credit, was vastly amused. We bumped into each other on the street afterwards. We’d both got out of there as quickly as we could, while the rest slurped and supped at licence payer expense. “Ah,” he said. “The young whelp who asked the awkward question.” He obviously didn’t give me the answer I wanted, but he was clearly impressed I’d asked what no-one from Fleet Street had dared.

In that little vignette I think we see the genesis of the BBC ‘problem’.

‘We’re competing in a commercial market’, they say, ‘and we can’t let our competitors know our terms’.

Except, of course, that’s not what the BBC is for.

First off, let me say – I love the BBC and I completely support the licence fee as a form of finance. But its (the licence fee’s) days are numbered, with or without political interference.

The British without the British Broadcasting Corporation would be vastly poorer culturally. That’s my opinion. I’m open to rational arguments to the contrary, but I’ve never heard one.

However, the BBC is its own worst enemy. When your budget, taken from the public purse, is approaching £4bn annually even the rational among us must begin to ask questions.

Here’s what I think.

  • As a public service broadcaster, there’s no need for more than two television channels (and hold your horses, because I have other options).
  • I also cannot see the point of Radio 1, except as a hook to get young people into the BBC habit. Well, that’s not happening. Young people have a different agenda today, and public service broadcasting (which Radio 1 is not) is not on their horizon.
  • There’s no public service requirement for 6 Music. Oh, I know we all love it (well, some of us). But it’s not doing anything that can’t be done commercially.
  • There’s no public service requirement for Radio 4Xtra.
  • I would also get rid of mono-cultural stations. We’re supposed to be building a cohesive society here. Broadcasting to social ghettos is not helpful.
  • Jeremy Vine’s show on Radio 2 – what’s that all about? It’s like a news version of the Jeremy Kyle show. I’ve got my doubts about Radio 2 having any genuine public service value.
  • In the era of apps for traffic and weather, and with your local news available on whatever device is closest to hand, there is no longer a rationale for the local radio network.
  • Finally, the BBC website is a monopolistic disgrace, and absolutely illustrative of the Corporation’s overweening ambition; what I call corporate ego. It should be reduced to news headlines and links to programmes. It is a massive drain on programme budgets and generally speaking a vanity project of the most narcissistic kind. It is also inexcusably anti-competitive.

That’s the bad news. Now some good.

The World Service should be restored to its former glory, properly financed and no argument.

Radios Three and Four should have their budgets increased, maybe even doubled. They cost pennies by comparison with the big tv budgets. Radio 4 is the most important entry point for comedy and drama, and massively important to the ‘national conversation’.

BBC4 is what BBC2 used to be – great documentaries, un-dumbed down cultural interviews and fantastically entertaining and educational programmes about a vast range of music.

It also used to make great original dramas, but that budget was slashed, and the output stopped. Today, the vast majority of BBC4 is repeats.

So closing down BBC4 and scheduling its new output on BBC2 would scarcely be revolutionary. In the digital age, when the majority of viewers can access iPlayer, there’s no excuse for BBC2 running repeats of The Rockford Files, QI (on almost constant rerun elsewhere), Yes Minister and ‘Allo ‘Allo. We also don’t need cookery programmes from BBC2 (again, hold your horses; solution coming up).

So, two TV stations, Radios 3&4, The World Service, and a cut-down website. That might represent £1bn cut from its cost. It would put a huge dent in the argument which is forcefully, continuously and self-righteously conducted in the pages of many national newspapers – the Mail, the Times group (Murdoch-owned, of course) and others; not to mention increasing numbers of UK residents.

A stripped down BBC could see the licence fee back under the £100 mark. The argument for turning it commercial would lose its edge.

That would give the BBC room to breathe, time to figure out its role in a world where television becomes less and less about destination viewing. The recent primetime Sunday night drama, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, didn’t even make BBC1’s own top 10.

That’s not a reason for not making it. It’s just indicative of a new reality. We have no idea how our grandchildren will be viewing, but somehow we have to get ready for it.

So, in its new incarnation, let’s give the Corporation a third channel (BBC3, say) to develop a subscription model.

If people want programmes like The Great British Bake-Off, The Voice or Strictly Come Dancing, they will surely pay £6.95 a month to subscribe to a BBC version of Netflix.

But the beauty of a model like this is that the BBC could continue to develop great drama (as HBO has done, with Netflix now following in its wake).

And while we’re at it, let them have a fourth channel (BBC4, say; see how this is working?). It would be On Demand, where people pay for the programme they want, when they want, like, I dunno, Virgin and Sky. £0.99 for half an hour (to watch all those great old sitcoms); £1.99 for anything an hour or more – drama series and nature programmes. I know you’ll say, “We’ve already paid for them”, and so we have. But future generations haven’t.

There will – no doubt in my mind about this – come a time when the licence fee is socially (and therefore politically) unsustainable. In 10 years, the BBC could have developed a whole new finance model that would surprise them.

It would still be public service, still trading on its (and our) heritage. It could become a commercially sustainable version of itself without ever having to be dependent on advertising.

As for threats to its very existence on the basis of its political bias, that’s a whole other story. Almost every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill has sailed in that ship. On behalf of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell bullied the BBC daily, publicly and shamelessly for 10 years. But it’s still here.

If it can stop being a preening, bullying monolith, it will still be here when we’re long gone.