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.

Except….

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.

Amy Winehouse: the magic, the tragic and the art of being classic

Rachel and I went to see the documentary film Amy last weekend.

It’s not possible for me to explain how I felt/feel about Amy Winehouse. I simply don’t have the words to do her justice.

She was an instinctual artist, in the true sense of that word. Before she was out of her teens, she had soaked up a phenomenal amount of influences that generally mean nothing to others of her generation.

Her contemporaries rarely have a cultural reference point that goes back further than the day before yesterday. I have a name for for them. I call them ‘one note sambas‘.

Of course, as a description of their current pop fave, it’s lost on young people. Post-punk generations don’t know what a samba is. The idea that they may ever have heard (or at least be conscious of) Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim’s clever and jokey One-Note Samba would be presumptious at best.

There’s an entire thesis to be written about this, but briefly it has to do with the proliferation of media. Why look back when just a sideways glance reveals an oasis of distraction?

When I talk to Rachel’s father, Don – 87-years-old and plenty old enough to be my own father – there’s barely a cultural or political reference we don’t both know. Despite our age difference, we grew up at a time when the past informed the present in a very direct manner.

The entire 20th century and even bits of the 19th furnish our playground.  But we’ve also had to keep pace with cultural and technological developments that sped up mightily from the mid-60s on. We’re not too shabby about the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

Post-punk generations can scarcely believe there was ever a world without computers and mobile phones. As for watching a black and white film, well, why would you? It never occurred to me that generations might grow up not knowing who Charlie Chaplin was, let alone Buster Keaton.

The first act I ever referred to as a ‘one-note samba’ was Oasis. They took their look from the back cover of Revolver and their sound from a Beatles B-side. For their entire career they barely varied anything. The only thing that noticeably developed was Liam Gallagher’s yobbish ego.

The Beatles had been steeped in Music Hall, Variety, big bands, crooners, jazz, Latin America, comic songs, war, silent movies, blues, Hitler, rock’n’roll, country & western, modern art, Labour and the unions, the establishment and the anti-establishment.

They had 60-odd years of popular culture and politics to draw on, and they drew on every single bit of it – from the late Victoriana of Marie Lloyd through Louis, Bing and Frank, Elvis and Buddy to the Everlys.

At their peak they didn’t stop. They imbibed inspiration from their working contemporaries. Their battles with the prodigious Brian Wilson are legend. But Shankar, Stockhausen, Moog and Dylan also kept them constantly on their mettle and moving forward.

And that’s how you get magic.

What separates contemporary greats – Blur, for instance, and Amy Winehouse – from the one-note sambas is an open mind and open ears married to a singular talent. You don’t repeatedly create magic by knuckle-headed adherence to a single card in the pack; nor, for that matter, to a single deck of cards.

I mostly hear Dinah Washington in Amy’s voice, with occasional echoes of Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. Others cite Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I’ll allow the first two; but not the third. If you hear Nina Simone when you listen to Amy Winehouse, you’re not really listening to either of them.

Despite and because of her influences she was her unique self. But what made her unique also made her a huge star, and that made her uncomfortable. The letters a, r and t may be in the word ‘stardom’, but they’re not – necessarily – in the right order. They spell out instead something sticky, dark and vaguely unpleasant – which seems to be how Amy viewed her status.

As Tony Bennett says in the film: “Amy was a true jazz artist. And no jazz artist wants to look out at an audience of 50,000 people.”

Amy Winehouse’s lyrics told her story, and she was happier telling her story to a few properly appreciative and attentive listeners than to a huge crowd attracted to her stardom rather than her art.

There are moments in the film when she talks about writing, and it’s a revelation to see her working around a guitar fretboard looking for the perfect, or at least the most interesting chord for the note she’s singing. Not for her the repetitive four-chord turnaround of modern pop writing.

But her lyrics are the key. It’s easy to ignore that this fragile slip of a girl – so sassy, funny and tough, but also vulnerable – had a mind like a steel trap when it came to noting the passage of her minutes and days.

The way she wrote down her life was not as other writers do (except the very greatest). There’s the searing honesty for a start, not to mention the frequent and unembarrassed mentions of sexual moistness.

More to the point, reading her words, it’s not always easy to see the scan, catch the rhyme, feel the rhythm. That’s all in the phrasing, the performance.

In her song Wake Up Alone, she ends successive lines with the word ‘him’. Few would be so brave. But she ensures the rhyme with the preceding words: I stand before him; it’s all I can do to assure him.

If I was my heart
I’d rather be restless
The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless
This ache in my chest
As my day is done now
The dark covers me and I cannot run now
My blood running cold
I stand before him
It’s all I can do to assure him
When he comes to me
I drip for him tonight
Drowning in me we bathe under blue light

The scan, the rhythm and the rhymes are mostly in her head till you hear her sing it. Then it’s a heartbreaker.

As we sat in the cinema watching the film, you could have heard a pin drop. No munching, no scrunching, no slurping. I was very conscious that Rachel, mother of the pop star who lives in my house, might well be thinking: “My daughter? No way!”

As indeed she was. Any parent looking at Amy would have to take a close look at their own musically ambitious child – measure their strength, evaluate their vulnerabilities, assess the risks.

Amy Winehouse wasn’t best served by some of those around her – and that’s putting it kindly. Her friends were stalwart. Her record company boss did his damnedest for her. Others shouldn’t be sleeping too well.

But we have to get past that and simply celebrate a blazing talent, in no way a one-note samba.

The actual One-Note Samba by Tom Jobim perfectly demonstrates how the ear can be fooled into thinking it’s hearing a melody, when what’s really happening is that the underlying harmonies are changing under a single repeated note. It’s technical, but it’s fun.

Soccer Mom Hendrix or Jessie J? I know who my money’s on.

I was thinking about what it is to be an artist, as opposed to a common or garden performer.

Kate Bush is an artist. Bob Dylan is an artist. The Beatles were artists, but Paul McCartney probably isn’t. Jessie J certainly isn’t.

People get cross when I make these distinctions. “You’re being elitist.” That sort of thing.

Well, yes. And in reply, I’ll say, “Tonight, make yourself some beans on toast.

“And then tomorrow go to Murano, and have dinner prepared by Angela Hartnett.”

It’s a safe bet to say that any chef worth a Michelin star and a handful of AA rosettes is an artist. You and your baked beans, not so much.

This all came to the fore when I asked the pop star who lives in my house what was happening with Jessie J. Turns out she’s having a career break. Having a career break? What does that mean when you’re a songwriter?

I found this fabulous headline:

“Jessie J shows off her toned bikini body in a zebra-print two-piece as the hits the beach during idyllic getaway in Portugal.”

Substitute the name Kate Bush for Jessie J.

Just wouldn’t happen, would it?

I’m not picking on Jessie J in particular. In fact, I’m not picking on her at all. But what a treadmill it is being a pop star these days. And how soul-destroying it feels to listen to what passes for a song at the moment.

The pop star was listening to something on her phone. It was just sitting on the kitchen table (no headphones) and its tinny little speaker was mincing up an already bleak track that appeared to consist of one chord, nothing that could be called a melody, and a bunch of words that would never qualify as lyrics. Straight after came another song in the same key, with a similar riff. I seriously thought it was an extended fade of the first one.

And for some reason, my mind wandered off on my last trip to America, where, after maybe 1,000 miles of driving I ended up in Portland, Oregon.

At the time, Portland was taking over from Seattle as the indie music capital of the world. For about ten dollars, almost every night of the week, you could go and see two or three bands. And, honestly, they’d all be bloody marvellous.

I saw Cloud Cult, a sort of precursor of Arcade Fire. Lots of people on stage, all sorts of instruments, and an artist creating paintings as the others played. You could buy a painting at the end of the gig.

I saw Pseudosix, whose dreamy indie pop sent me straight to the CD table before they’d even finished their set. Seven years later I still love it, and they don’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

There was the frankly bonkers 31 Knots, fronted by Joe Haege, a frequently scary guy who can nevertheless play the varnish off a guitar neck. I felt sure he would come over to London and get something going.

Most of all, though, there was Anita Robinson.

Anita and her husband Kevin toured and recorded as Viva Voce. Viva Voce had some success, and toured Europe a few times. They made a handful of albums before they divorced and sadly split the band.

But the hook for me was Anita. She looked like a soccer mom, all neat and tidy, sensible dress, maybe from WalMart. But oh my God – when she started to play guitar it was like she was channelling Jimi Hendrix.

And there were no histrionics. She wasn’t showing off. She wasn’t playing as if every note had to be ripped from her very soul. She is just … a musician. It was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. This ordinary looking woman with her sensible hair and sensible clothes (she may even have had a string of pearls) just absolutely tore the joint up.

And I suppose that’s why my mind suddenly drifted back to Oregon. It was probably the last time I saw great, interesting new music live.

Not that I’ve seen nothing good since. I’ve seen Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for goodness sake. And Blur. And Kokomo.

But everyone I’ve seen has been a known factor, a guaranteed good time. Portland, Oregon, 2007 was the last time I saw seven or eight unknown bands, all of whom rocked my world to some extent. I came back with four cds, which I still treasure.

But most of all, Anita Robinson: where are you now? I guess the world just wasn’t ready for Soccer Mom Hendrix. But at least I had the pleasure.

This first YouTube clip will show you what I mean. You may not watch it all, but you’ll get the picture.

Then have a look at the second video, which is a neat rip-off of John & Yoko’s Bed-In. There’s a blistering guitar solo about two minutes in. Soccer Mom rules.

A legend is gone; the gentleman editor bows out

1969.

Do you remember it?

Revolution in the air. Something In The Air. John and Yoko naked. The Beatles in their pomp, unassailable Kings Of The World. Nixon in the White House. Muhammad Ali out of the ring and in the US courts. Monty Python’s Crunchy Frog and Dead Parrott.

That’s what you call a year, that is.

And at the heart of it, in London, in Carnaby Street, one man – imperturbable, immaculate, a gentleman to his fingertips – held court to pop stars and PRs in the alcohol dens of Soho.

Peter Jones was only the second person I knew to earn more than £100 a week. The first was Derek Taylor, PR to the Beatles. But Peter was fast on Derek’s heels.

Derek managed it by being a supremely talented part of a money-making machine.

Peter Jones managed it by writing, writing and more writing.

When I first met him he was Editor of Record Mirror, one of the four pillars of pop music journalism. There was New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Disc and Record Mirror – not necessarily, and certainly not always, in that order.

Peter would get into the office at some ungodly hour – certainly at or before 8 am. Believe me, in the music industry, that was ridiculous. Before the rest of us turned up and boiled the kettle, Peter had done the equivalent of one of our day’s work.

On the other hand, he would leave the office between 11.30 and noon, and be at his favourite spot at the bar of one of the pubs behind Carnaby Street. There he would be joined by the likes of Alan Clarke and Tony Hicks of the Hollies and other pop royalty, and a succession of supplicants seeking coverage for their clients.

But more important for his heritage, was the family of writers and contributors he built up at Record Mirror. Norman Jopling, whose recently published Shake It Up Baby contains some great Peter Jones stories, quickly spotted – as the newly employed office boy – that Peter Jones was a ‘proper’ journalist, unlike some of his colleagues.

But ‘proper’ was not as important to Peter as knowledge and enthusiasm. He encouraged those with particular tastes: Norman and his obsession with r’n’b; Charlie Gillett (within two years of his journalistic debut in RM, Charlie’s seminal Sound Of The City was published in 1970); James Hamilton, a dj who knew what was filling dance floors; Lon Goddard, an ex-pat American who became the go-to guy for your singer-songwriter updates and much more besides; and Rodney Collins, a radio obsessive whom Peter encouraged, and who built a career in the radio industry from that initial push.

My own experience with Peter was less glorious. When Billboard bought Record Mirror in 1969, I was seconded to RM to help with production, which meant sub-editing the copy and laying out the pages.

The reasoning was sound. As the youngest Music Week employee, I was also the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the current music scene. Unfortunately, having been trained in the disciplines of a business magazine, I was utterly unfit for purpose at a consumer weekly.

Peter was incredibly patient. The worst criticism I heard from him was, “I do find it troubling that no-one here seems to be able to picture a page that might look good to the reader”.

‘No-one’ was me. My secondment lasted a year – which demonstrated inordinate tolerance on Peter’s part.

But there was one incident that slightly altered the balance sheet in my favour. The illustrator Alan Aldridge was causing a stir with his absolutely brilliant psychedelic art. It seemed like a coup to commission him to create the cover for a Record Mirror relaunch.

It arrived late, the day before the magazine was due at the printer. I can’t remember if it was Elvis or Jimi (Lon Goddard will certainly remember).

But it was a rock god, with a guitar and, no question, it was amazing.

Unfortunately, on not-too-close examination, the head of the guitar – the bit where the tuning keys are – revealed itself as the head of an erect penis. The left hand of the guitarist appeared to be masturbating the neck.

It was a fantastic analogy. But even in the revolutionary air of 1969, the senior management at Billboard UK had a panic meltdown. It could not be used.

Lon Goddard and I stayed behind that night, Lon creating a new, non-pornographic artwork, me watching as it took shape, and creating a front page around it. The only cover line I remember writing was ‘Plastic “Oh No! Banned”‘. It wasn’t the classic cover it might have been with the Aldridge drawing, but it saved the day.

I went on my first transatlantic flight with Peter Jones, to Montreal in 1972. I was 23 and very excited. Peter’s sang froid and alcohol intake was breathtaking. He bought me my first drink in a Montreal bar – all dark wood, and low lighting, just like in the films.

We travelled by train from Montreal to Toronto. Such a baby was I, I went to Niagara Falls just so I could look at America across the water. Peter just went to another bar.

Forty years after these events, Record Mirror had a reunion in 2009. I was fortunate to be included. I wasn’t really one of ‘the family’.

But Rex Gomes – the sweetest of men – was coming over from Australia and contacted me. Before we knew it, a full blown get together was taking shape and Lon Goddard planned a trip to London, staying at mine. Photographer Allan Messer, once Dezo Hoffman’s assistant, flew over from Nashville.

Val Mabbs was there, she of the definitive 60s look and innumerable pop star interviews. She kept guard over Peter’s office and became a presence to be reckoned with. And Derek Boltwood, an urbane and witty man who singlehandedly reminded me of the civilised qualities that so enraptured me – an exile from the English Midlands – in my earliest days in London.

Charlie Gillett was there. He never mentioned he was sick, and it was the last time anyone of us saw him.

Most of us gathered again seven months later for Peter’s 80th birthday. That was a more crowded event, including the legendary Clem Cattini, drummer on Telstar, the first US number one by a British group, and Barry Cryer, best man at Peter’s wedding, and lifelong friend.

As you might imagine for a journalist who cut his teeth on 1950s showbusiness, there was barely great star that Peter hadn’t seen.

One day I was burbling away about all my own favourites. “Do you know who was the greatest performer I ever saw live?” he asked me. I thought he was going to say The Beatles; maybe, at a push, Tom Jones, or maybe Judy Garland.

“Billy Fury,” he said, and described in vivid detail the almost supernatural power Billy had over the females in his audience. So here’s a reminder of an underrated star (also, very possibly, Britain’s first pop singer-songwriter).

Thanks, Peter. Enjoy Paradise. You deserve it.

Michael Jackson: a magpie, not a genius.

I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.

But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.

I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.

I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!

But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?

And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.

It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own  songs on one of his own albums.

Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.

What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.

Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.

Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.

If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.

Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.

And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.

Now – Michael Jackson.

Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.

He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.

But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.

You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?

Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?

Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.

Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?

And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …

Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.

Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.

And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.

MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.

Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.

So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.

Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.

Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.

Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.

And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)

He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.

So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.