There are three things I want from a holiday. The first and most important is a complete break from work. The other two things I want to do on holiday are to ride my bike and read my books.
We travel to my wife’s house in France for most of our holidays. During the summer, my wife likes to book at least one week as a holiday within the holiday. This might involve a week in the South of France, or on the Ile d’Yeu, or (this year) in the Alps.
Now, I can generally take or leave these weeks. I’ve written before about the tribulations of the South, and while I love the Vendée region more than any other in France, there are always things that vex me about these holidays, things that add unnecessary stress and make it difficult to relax.
Which brings us to the Alps. I was mildly curious about coming here in the summer, because it’s a part of France I’ve never been. I’ve no interest in winter sports, and to be honest I also have no interest in climbing, rambling, walking, hiking, climbing, paragliding, climbing, or any of the other outdoor activities that people do in the mountains. A person only really has space in their life for one hobby that requires shitloads of specialist equipment. In my case, it’s cycling. In a parallel universe, it might have been golf, or kayaking. And no, I do not dig cycling up Alps.
We came to Chamonix, which is something of a British colony; so much so that you can find actual Yorkshire Tea in the local Supermarket. Usually it’s the tea travesty that is Lipton’s. It’s surprising to hear so many British voices, something I’m not used to in the rarely visited Haute Saône region. But there are also people here from all around Europe: Spain, Italy, Switzerland (for some reason), Germany, Denmark, and so on.
As I noted when it was pouring with rain the other day, people love the outdoors and all you can do in it, but what they really love more than anything is shopping. And Chamonix is a paradise for shoppers, as long as the only thing those shoppers want to buy is a puffy down jacket.
So yeah: mountains. Nice photos, but my knees protest. My ankles protest. My hips protest. But the biggest source of stress, as in so many other hikes of life, is other people.
Oh my god.
Any British person on the continent has encountered the complete absence of queues in France. It’s not that there aren’t things to queue for. It’s not even that people “don’t know how” to queue. They just don’t care. If you stand waiting to board something (a train, a bus, a cable car), and endeavour to provide some personal space for the person in front of you, then someone else will see that space and move into it. Just today, waiting for the Mont Blanc Tramway, a woman brazenly strolled to the front of what would have been the queue, pretended to peruse the ice-cream shop menu, and then just happened to find herself among the first to board.
My daughter gets painfully embarrassed, but I can’t help myself. At another point today, when a sharp-elbowed woman tried to sneak in front of us, I stared her down and when she said, “I was queueing,” I replied, “Après nous,” in as rude a way as I could. I explained to Chloé, these people are being rude with their bodies and counting on the fact that we’re too polite to say anything, so I think it behooves us to say something. I may not have used behooves.
Anyway, once you notice the shitty behaviour surrounding waiting for anything, you can’t un-notice it.
And in the end, this is what drives me potty on holiday. Waiting around. We arrived at the tramway station today and had to wait two hours for a tram to take us up to the Mont Blanc glacier. Spectacular views, both on the way and when you get there, but when we got there, we were told it would be another two hours before we could get a tram down. And, to be honest, there was only about half an hour of anything worth doing up on that mountain, which included paying €4 for a can of Coke.
Anyway: hell is other people. An amazing insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.
This was one of the cultural highlights of the summer for me, a new novella from Becky Chambers, who has previously published three delightful novels (none of which were particularly long) in her Wayfarers series. This one is not from the same series and comes in at about half the length of a standard novel – and at under a fiver I can’t complain.
So, why a novella? A small idea, an itch that needed to be scratched? The introduction of a new Becky Chambers universe with some light worldbuilding? Or a short story run wild?
Hard to say. Anyway, I read this in a day, and it was enjoyable but slim pickings. I’ve been thoroughly engaged by Chambers’ work and wouldn’t call her a “science fiction lightweight” as some do, but this novella, if you wanted to be harsh, could be described as four characters in search of a plot.
The set-up is straightforward, though some heavy suspension of disbelief is required. A crowdfunded space exploration programme sends several missions from Earth to explore different exoplanetary systems, all of which have the potential to harbour life. If a crowdfunded space programme is hard to believe, the strong ethics of the explorers also tests your ability to go along with it. These humans are determined to have as little impact as possible upon the ecosystems they explore. They’re explorers, not colonisers, and their code is hippocratic: first, do no harm. Rather than change their environment, they change themselves, which is a necessarily under-explored aspect of this piece.
The plot, such as it is, follows the four crew of one of the missions as they explore, in turn, four promising worlds in a solar system, all of which have – or might have – water. Comparisons to Goldilocks and the Three Bears are inevitable, given that the zone in which life might potentially exist is named after that fairy tale. Is one planet too cold, another too warm, and another just right? And what of the fourth?
The rule of four: four planets, four crew, four personalities. Are they all too perfect? Chambers’ human characters are generally so caring and considerate and tolerant that the conflict necessary to drive a plot has to come from elsewhere. It’s hard to say here whether she intends people to be sympathetic or deeply irritating. Once character comes across to me as so prickly and difficult that I cannot believe they’d be allowed on such a mission. Are the planets and the people metaphorically linked? It’s worth some thought.
Standard science fiction elements are here: a way of dealing with human lifespans and interstellar distances; a way of dealing with the perils of radiation; some hand waving about fuel and propulsion systems; more handwaving about air, food, and recycling. It’s a novella, so you shouldn’t expect Kim Stanley Robinson level detail. But there’s a lot of handwaving, and someone like KSR would dig into that a little and create some peril out f it. Which is not to say that there isn’t peril here: but it’s served as a side dish rather than the main course.
The story begins with the words “Please read this” and even tempts you to skip to the end in order to find out what “this” is all about, but I didn’t do that. They land, they explore, stuff happens, and then they face a decision, which ought to be high stakes and dramatic, but somehow feels like a cop-out.
So: not an essential Becky Chambers read; certainly an enjoyable way to pass the time while you do read it, though. I’d accept this as the introduction to a new series, but if it turns out to stand alone, it’s inessential.
It’s lucky, I reckon, that I recently managed to identify three Gardner Dozois anthologies from the 80s and 90s that I had not read. So I have 750,000 words of 80s/90s science fiction to look forward to instead of the dreck being produced in 2019.
Trail of Lightning, I hasten to add, is not dreck, but it is a bit bof. It bears all the hallmarks of fiction published in an era in which everyone is a writer but nobody wants to pay an editor.
It’s a fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic landscape about five minutes from now, after the Big Water and the collapse of so-called civilisation. We’re on what might otherwise be a Southwestern Navajo reservation, and myths and monsters have come to life. It’s an appealing idea, but let down by the execution. Our protagonist is Maggie Hoskie, a monster hunter and anti-hero (I guess) who is given some kind of vaguely expressed job to complete by a Trickster character and then seems to bounce around, pinball-like, until it’s time for the end. All of the twists and turns are telegraphed long in advance, and the Big Revelation is so obvious that you have to conclude that our Maggie is a bit thick.
There are lots of unfamiliar words herein with no clue as to how they’re pronounced or what they mean. This is probably a deliberate alienation technique, but a glossary in the back wouldn’t have hurt, would it? Worst of all, the Kindle couldn’t render a number of the words properly – even though I switched to the Publisher Font, which I was pleased to find embedded.
It’s all set up for the next in the series (The Sixth World), which has soured me on this first book even further because I won’t be bothering. This keeps happening! I cannot emphasise enough how refreshing it would be to pick up a book in this genre that doesn’t come with half a million words of sequels. I am not averse at all to the urban fantasy genre. My favourite book is Tim Powers’ Declare, and much as I would lap up a sequel to that, it stands alone. There’s such an enormous difference between a writer who gives a book an ending and then, maybe, later comes up with further ideas, and one who leaves everything up in the air like an episode of TV.
All this said, a lot of other people have really liked this, so I’m probably just too grumpy for my own good.
So, as previously noted, I (re)signed up for a 3-month trial of Apple Music. I was thwarted in my reasons for doing this but kept the trial going because the kid is on a rockandroll roadtrip and probably making use of it. But!
It makes me sad.
I’ve also revisited Spotify, taking them up on a 30-day trial of the Pro level, mainly so I could spam a friend with playlists, but Spotify is even worse.
Let’s stipulate from the outset that I’m predisposed to hate all the algorithmic recommendations. Apple Music’s recs, far from being insanely great, are insanely insane. And Spotify’s are equally offensive. What really bugs me about Spotify though is how badly it works. If I’m building a playlist and want to (+) a song to it from, for example, an album listing, it keeps bouncing me away from the listing so that I have to tap the screen THREE FUCKING TIMES to get back to where I was.
…And other user-hostile behaviours, such as finishing a playlist and then immediately starting to play random shit without so much as a by-your-leave.
But that makes me angry rather than sad, and the source of the sadness is somewhere else.
Always sensitive to my own moods, I went through several stages of grief with this free trial. For the first week or so, I was adding stuff to sample, things I’d normally skank from YouTube or steer clear of. The new McCartney album, for example. I’d normally not muster much interest, but I gave it a listen. Quite good, I thought, for a Paul McCartney album. But as Greil Marcus (?) once said of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, it’s good in the way that, say, Elton John is good, and when you’re Paul McCartney/Bob Dylan, that’s simply not good enough. So you give it a listen, and you think, litotically, not bad. And then you think, but will I ever listen to any of it ever again? And you think, no. No I won’t.
So then I stopped adding things, because it made me sad and I was wasting my time, and I felt reluctant to play any of the stuff I had added, because it felt artificial somehow, like I’d been placed in a simulation of my life in which I had access to things I was only vaguely interested in but that all the things I really loved were behind some kind of glass wall, tantalisingly close but unavailable.
It was as if I was thinking, well I’ve got this trial, see, so I’m obligated to ignore you, all my hard-won musical friends, and hang around with these mere acquaintances, just because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
As if the music collection I’d painstakingly built up over 40+ years had less value than this free stuff that was streaming like diarrhoea from the arse of a corporation that presumed, using maths, to know better than me what I would like.
Because music should be famine, not feast. Having taste means filtering out all the mediocrity to find the good stuff, not sticking a hose in your mouth and turning on the tap.
So then I stopped playing most of what Apple Music was offering and went back to my own owned and downloaded music. Because the reality is that over the month or so I’ve been on the trial there have been precisely three songs that have appeared that I intend to download/buy when I cancel the trial.
This isn’t just my problem. This is everyone’s problem. I genuinely fear we’re doing something horrible to ourselves with this always-on, everything-available culture. We’re already closely resembling those infantilised fat people living on out in space in the Pixar movie Wall•E. The hosepipe is streaming into our gaping maw and we really should fumble for the tap and turn it off.
Back in my 20s, when I had my first, badly paid, job, I would indulge often in fantasy road trips. One of my favourite reading genres was the drive-across/around-America journal, from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie to William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways via Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and of course, variously, Kerouac. North America wasn’t my only fantasy. I also pored over the maps and pages of Slow Boats to China and dreamed of booking a ticket on the Orient Express.
In 1983, I did embark on a European road trip, taking the 24-hour ferry to Spain and then motorcycling (as pillion) up from Santander to Rotterdam. It was around 2000km (1200 miles), and it taught me a few things about myself. First of all, my dreams of sea voyages and slow travel were shattered by the immediate sea sickness I experienced on the ferry. Not only could I not sleep in the cabin we’d booked, but I was barely able to stand upright. I spent the crossing horizontal on the deck of the ship. The second thing was that I (specifically my bowels) really don’t like roughing it, so wild camping was most definitely out of my life.
I did eventually meet America, in the summer of 1992, when I spent some weeks at the University of Illinois as part of my first degree. And it was there I learned a few more things about myself that crushed my travel fantasies for good. The first was that I got startlingly homesick, hated being away from my Common European Home. The homesickness had its roots in a hatred of the local food and the hopelessly parochial American media, as well as the dysfunctional relationships within my small group of Nottingham University students. Then there was the humidity, the mosquitoes, and have I mentioned how awful the food was?
The greatest blow was my own inability to have money in sufficient quantity to finance even the most basic road trip. Even if I could stand the food and the weather, even if I didn’t mind roughing it, I couldn’t afford it. Even with an “unlimited” visa stamped in my passport, I was screwed.
And so I flew home. Give me a European street with a European tram and a European bicycle, thank you please.
My oldest daughter is off to Copenhagen in September, to start an MA, and I envy her that excitement and couldn’t be prouder of all she’s achieved so far. Meanwhile, my youngest, 18, is currently in a small state park in middle of the New Mexico desert, on the road trip of a lifetime with a friend she met last year in Germany.
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I’d have suggested that my introverted youngest, who is so similar to me she might be a clone, would suffer homesickness, just like her dear old dad. But no. A month on her own in Germany last year, and she seemed to transform into a funny and confident, sociable and sophisticated world traveller.
So she started planning her US road trip, which concerned me. I was afraid it would be too expensive, too dangerous, that she wouldn’t be able to deal with being so far from home, or that the car would overheat in the desert, that she would end up crushed and disappointed when the trip didn’t happen. I suggested the Amtrak option, something involving less driving, more staring out of train windows. Meanwhile, she got up on weekends at 5 a.m. for the best of two years, and saved half of everything she earned. In the end, she not only had the money for the plane tickets, but was able to book accommodation and have gas money too.
A week later, and she’s already in her third time zone, and has sent back extraordinary photographs from an itinerary chosen as much as possible to fit her own nerdy agenda: locations inspired by Bob Dylan, The Band or Bruce Springsteen, or civil war battles, or books (Big Sur, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). It’s all the more incredible when you consider that many of her school contemporaries were looking forward to a hedonistic week in Spanish nightclubs and bars.
On the subject of extraordinary photographs: she has a Nikon film camera with her, but the pictures we’re getting back are being taken on an iPhone 7. And what a brilliant bloody camera it is. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that. I’m uploading the pictures to my Flickr account, so I can vicariously take the credit for this vicarious road trip.
There have been a few airport trips this week, relating to the kids and their near-future plans. Most of my long-distance driving over the past few years has taken place (a) in the middle of the night; and (b) in France, but this week I’ve seen Britain’s drivers raw in tooth and claw. French drivers have their own issues, but British drivers are awful in unique ways. I blame the class system.
I’m old enough to remember the days before the M25 was a thing, when the North Circular was London’s main péripherique, and when we still called Heathrow London Airport and nobody was used to the idea that Gatwick was also a London Airport. The M25 was an orbital designed by vested interests, and was built with a rat in its foundations. To be effective, this round-London route should only have junctions with other major motorways: nine of them, plus the two ends that meet at the Dartford crossing. But because it was built with 31 junctions, it has always been used by local traffic. Furthermore, because there were so many fucking junctions, as with any ring-road, a process of in-filling took place, with warehouses and shopping centres, and other businesses locating themselves conveniently close and adding to the traffic.
The perceived wisdom is that it has never had enough capacity. Built with 3 lanes per carriageway, it now has 4 for most of its length, and in places there are 5 and even six. Of course, every time the 4 drops down to 3, there’s a pinch point, a bottleneck, and the traffic grinds to a halt. The Highways Agency spent billions installing so-called “smart motorway” technology, and introduced variable speed limits, which are of course largely ignored and stop-start concertina traffic is the norm.
It’s grim down South.
Much of this travesty was carved into areas of outstanding natural beauty, but how people endure living down there, I don’t know. It’s a choking Ballardian dystopia of stress, aggression, and recklessness. It’s no better in the towns just off the motorway than it is on the actual road. And of course, it’s much worse in the summer because there is always more traffic on the road in summer, and more roadworks, and more accidents, and more bombed-out drivers with matchsticks holding their eyes open. Even the road surface of the Southern M25 is a nightmare: slabs of concrete with expansion joints, and a flubber of rubber on the corrugated road that continually feels as if you’ve got a flat tyre.
When the going is clear, Gatwick is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from where I live. On Monday I managed the total journey in about 4 hours, which was not too bad*, adding just half an hour of sitting in slow-moving traffic. On the Thursday leg, however, there were accidents everywhere and the there-and-back journey took 5 hours and 30 minutes. This adds up two two extra hours sitting in a low gear, breathing diesel particulates and observing the terrible behaviour of other road users.
At one point, the driver of a red van got road rage as I pulled into his lane (because the lane I’d been in was becoming an exit); he angrily pursued me, moved into the lane outside me and then drove parallel to me, hoping I suppose to scream through two layers of glass into my face. All the while, he’s more focused on the perceived slight of someone getting in front of him than he was on his own safety and that of others around him. Me? I just pulled in front of him again: he was so intent on intimidating me that he left another gap in front.
Another driver, a woman in a red BMW, got bent out of shape at one point when two lanes were filtering into one. There’s a clear protocol here: merge in turn. Only she didn’t want to, and further down the road, almost pulled recklessly into oncoming traffic because she wanted to take a short cut (?) to the roundabout ahead. Steam, presumably, coming out of her ears. Male, female, van, car, motorbike: people are driving around like maniacs and it’s not safe out there. I mean, do motorcyclists think we see them in our mirrors as they flash between lanes of traffic? You can’t be looking in your side mirror all the time, for fucksake.
Saw a woman just tonight, driving a car coming towards me and tapping away at the screen of her phone whilst also barely controlling her steering wheel. Hope the kids in the nearby school feel safe.
But in all of this, quite the most bizarre and irrational habit is what happens when there isn’t standing traffic. When the traffic flows, or starts to, some people still just sit in the same lane. Traditionally, this is the middle lane. When the lane count rises to five, however, the lane they’re hogging is the fourth one, and there are often three more or less empty lanes on their inside. So of course then people start overtaking on these inside lanes, which is dangerous but understandable. A moment’s inattention, and everybody is sitting in a jam again.
My oldest daughter was in Copenhagen: a capital city where you see children, where there are ramps for bikes in the underground stations, where there is as much space given to pedestrians and cyclists as there is to cars: sounds like paradise.
*It was still horrible, but everything is relative
My reaction to the news of this book, back in 2013 when it was first published in hardback, was probably not uncommon: does the world really need another book about The Beatles? I had read so many, from the Hunter Davies authorised biography that was published before they even broke up to the lush hagiography of the Anthology doorstopper. And so I noted this and ignored it, thinking both that I knew it all and that my interest in the subject had been saturated long ago. Furthermore, I was convinced that of all the things about The Beatles, the stuff about them before they were famous was the least interesting. This book only takes us to the end of 1962, and I didn’t think I’d want to know any more about this period.
But Lewisohn’s forthcoming stage show about Abbey Road prompted me to look – and think – again. And now I don’t have to have yet another huge tome creaking on the already overloaded bookshelf, now I can just whack it on the Kindle, I decided to give it a read.
It will not come as a shock to anyone who has read this that I was wrong: the world definitely needed this book about The Beatles. When you read, in other biographies, They grew up in Liverpool; or, Ringo came from one of the rougher parts of town; or, Paul and John met at a church fete, John was impressed that Paul could play “Twenty Flight Rock” – when you read lines like that, you have no idea how much more you could know, not just in terms of trivia, but in terms of a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation of just what The Beatles achieved. As David Hepworth is fond of saying, The Beatles are underrated. And when you read this book, you understand just how profoundly true that is.
I mean, the old line that gets trotted out, that record companies turned them down, saying, “Guitar groups are over”: that’s just something we’ve accepted all these years. But ask yourself: what guitar groups? There were the Shadows, and, um? Look at the pop chart for the end of December 1961, the week before the Beatles’ recording test at Decca. Here is a list: Danny Williams; Frankie Vaughan; Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen; Sandy Nelson; Pat Boone; Acker Bilk; Russ Conway; Bobby Vee; Petula Clark; Neil Sedaka.
Sure, there were no guitar groups, but not because they were “over”: because they had never been. There were solo artists, instrumental groups, even vocal groups, but there were no bands. There were no artists who both played instruments and sang. With harmonies. Who wrote their own songs. Decca turning The Beatles down was akin to the robot in Westworld, programmed to say, “It doesn’t look like anything to me.” It was because The Beatles were so new, so different, perhaps, that the people at Decca couldn’t even see what they were. They were hors categorie.
And so this book. I’m 56, and I’ve been listening to the Beatles almost all my life. One of my earliest memories is of running home from primary school with the guitar riff from “I Feel Fine” running through my head: my first involuntary musical imagery, my first earworm. My favourite Beatles record is still Beatles for Sale,because that was the one that was already in the house when I was growing up. And the first record I ever bought with my own money was The Beatles 1967–1970. What I’m trying to say is, I peaked early with The Beatles. By the time I was 18, I’d listened to so much, from the dodgy Star Club December 1962 recordings onwards, that I was positively steeped in Beatle lore. My clothes stank of The Beatles, like a 40-a-day smoker. And then, just as I turned 18, Lennon was killed, and I dived deeper.
I know the story like you know the story of King Arthur or Robin Hood. It’s part of the founding mythos of these islands, as fundamental to us as Plymouth Rock is to the USA, only with fewer genocides. So it would be impossible for Mark Lewisohn to make me read this book as if I didn’t already know the story, to read it as if it really was touch and go, that they might not make it, that the peril was real.
But I did.
To read this is to be immersed in 1950s Liverpool, Hamburg in the early 60s, to feel the precarious weight of every single event. But Pete’s not a very good drummer: what are they going to do? George Martin really isn’t very impressed and doesn’t like “Love Me Do”: is that it, then? Have they missed their chance?
I can pay no greater compliment to this book than to say – as I read the climactic chapter, the account of the recording of their second single, in their third session (with Ringo) at Abbey Road (and as my daughter played Blonde on Blonde in the room behind me: a marvel that came along less than 4 years later) – as I got to the line I knew was coming, when George Martin flicked the switch on the talkback microphone and said,
‘Gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number 1 record.’
Lewisohn, Mark. The Beatles – All These Years: Volume One: Tune In (p. 808). Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
that tears sprang spontaneously into my eyes.
So now I join the legions of George RR Martin fans in demanding the immediate publication of the next volume. Will it ever appear? Has he lost the plot? Will he die before it’s finished? What is he doing organising a stage show when he has a bloody book to write? Etc.
A year or so later, we decided to put out a single, which turned into an EP, which was simply a way of maximising bang-for buck (the budget was £500). You were allowed 6-minutes per side of a 45 rpm vinyl at the pressing plant we used, so we hired an 8-track Fostex machine (which used quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape) and re-recorded four of the songs from our first 14 – which had been put out separately as a cassette release called Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, mainly because I couldn’t settle on one title.
The EP was called Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, mainly because there was a picture of a big lit-up sign saying just that on the cover (there was a reference to the town in one of the songs). The cover was printed by a small firm, but the printing plate had been created by my Dad. It featured the aforementioned picture, and on the back the track listing along with a prose poem written by me that began, This summer night of luscious wind and rain…
We tried to get some interest going in the single. The local newspaper came round and took a photo, and then printed a story full of factual errors. We took copies to the local radio station, which were promptly given away as crap competition prizes (winners complained, I heard). Somehow, a copy made its way to BBC Radio 1, and a DJ called Janice Long played the first track, ‘Is It Any Wonder?’. I learned about this afterwards, because obviously I never listened to Radio 1: someone who knew someone jumped out of their bathtub when they heard it. So that was my three minutes of fame, over.
I was always unhappy with the electronic drum machine on our early recordings, but ironically, twenty years later, as I reached the natural end of my third period of songwriting and recording, I’d come around to the idea, and you can hear similar machine sounds on my last few recordings. My main objection, as I said above, was that I really struggled to play at the machine-generated fixed tempo. I always felt it was a case of putting the cart before the horse. Analogue music has a natural, if slight, variation in tempo, which is totally lost with the rigid programming of beats-per-minute. This is not an original complaint, but while I did get better at playing in time over the years, I wish I’d played less: one chord per bar, or on the off beat only, something like that. As to playing live with a drummer, that was when I really discovered my limitations.
I hated performing, found it horribly nervewracking, and I was never confident playing with the others – had a bad case of imposter syndrome. I couldn’t even hear the drums through my nerves when we were playing live, and I couldn’t improvise when Pete and Curly decided to go off on one. Still, there were some good nights, though it was never destined to come to anything. We were 3/4 of a good band, and I always saw myself as the weakest link, which is a shame, because I don’t think I was that bad, and if I could have shaken off those feelings, we might have gone somewhere. Reading about the early days of the Beatles (without for one second comparing myself to them), it’s clear that Lennon, for example, was often vamping in the early days, and it was only really the 7 million hours on stage in Hamburg that honed their abilities. Even then, nerves might get the better of them, leading to fluffed solos and harmonies.
Then again, we didn’t have a manager, or someone to carry the burden of booking gigs and doing the marketing part. That might have helped, but who would want to manage us?
Our best gigs were probably in the Vaults bar in Stony Stratford, where we had two or three good nights, having worked up a couple of cover versions as well as my own songs. By this time, I was living in Milton Keynes with my then-girlfriend, a relationship that lasted about five years. But with both her and Jim gone from my life (long story), I made the decision to apply to University, to sell the house (lost money on it, bottom of the market) and move on. For the last few months, alone in the house we’d shared, I ended up with most of Pete’s recording equipment in my back bedroom. By then, there was an 8-track Fostex reel-to-reel recorder, a (16 channel?) mixing desk, and a variety of other things. Between us, Pete and I recorded a few more songs, but we never played them live. The band was quietly retired, and I (briefly) went solo, performing songs as well as short stories when I was asked to do readings.
I did most of the recordings on my own: had grown competent enough with the equipment that I could operate it without help. I didn’t understand most of what I was doing, and didn’t have an inkling for how the mixing desk really worked, but everything was connected up and I knew which buttons to push.
But when the house was sold, the equipment all had to go elsewhere, and when I started at University, I stopped doing music altogether. The catalyst was an open mic night that Roy and I went down to. Roy was a proper musician who had a proper band, and he wanted nothing to do with this open mic crowd, but I thought I’d show my face. I did a song, but decided then and there that I hated the scene and the people, and all the boys who thought they were Jesus with an acoustic guitar.
It goes back to my lack of affect as a singer. I didn’t fit in with all those intense people who took their music so seriously.
And I gave it up for years, till (for professional reasons) I had to learn all about computer recording technology and MIDI, and I rediscovered my love of recording. It started as a way of me getting to grips with the software and its requirements, so I could give the sales team enough knowledge to sell the stuff over the phone. And I eventually became pretty competent in using Pro Tools, and converted my garage to a home studio. It was a neat set up: a few really nice microphones, a small mixing desk, a computer interface, some expensive monitor speakers. And I must have written/recorded 100 or so songs – some cover versions – and they weren’t all bad.
My earliest attempts are incompetent: the drums (now MIDI programmed, triggering sounds from sample collections and virtual instruments) were awful to begin with, and the guitars were fairly crappy, and my arrangements lacked imagination. But over a few intense years I grew more confident and occasionally did something I thought was good. Once I relied less on strumming guitars and thought more about how everything worked together, I did some nice things. Nothing is perfect, and nothing really sounds professional quality, but as I said above, I was overcoming the handicap of having almost zero musical talent.
Occasionally, Pete would drop in to play some bass, just like the old days, but mostly I’d do that kind of stuff myself. A couple of people from work contributed sometimes, but the bits that make me smile the most are the tracks where I’ve overcome my own limitations and played some half-decent guitar, or through serendipity have managed a nice combination of sounds. Painstakingly picking out MIDI notes on a keyboard and creating what sounded like piano: that sort of thing. My favoured mix turns out to be a fairly quiet drum track with a brushed snare, some piano, some tremolo electric guitar, bass — and a slightly emotionless vocal.
Around 2006, I changed careers, and eventually ran out of ideas and time to do the music justice. Software stopped working, hardware got outdated. My freebies stopped being authorised because I was no longer working for a dealer, and my last few recordings really relied on a much limited set of options, which wasn’t a bad thing. But by then the song ideas had stopped coming. I’d exhausted my backlog of memory and emotion: a lot of those songs had been written about all of those days long gone. The system could have gone on working for longer if I’d not updated the software, but it only takes one moment of madness, and you can screw the whole thing.
There remain two more things to mention. The last time (I think) I saw Jim, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed a petrol station on the A5. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was Jim. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 40, 50 miles per hour.
And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed Jim’s work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from a post-divorce trip to Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that Jim was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, a host of different temporary jobs, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country.
I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.
‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he said, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.
I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.
My fingers are soft now. I have a really nice Taylor acoustic guitar that my daughters play, but I haven’t picked it up for years. It’s sad, but my current job consumes all my creative energy: sometimes I feel as if I’ve been performing for five hours in a day (because I have). There’s no energy left for making music. Maybe when I retire.
I’ve been reading Mark Lewisohn’s book Tune In, the first in a planned trilogy about the Beatles, which takes the story up to 1962, the year I was born. I’ll have more to say on that later, but it surfaced a lot of memories for me, which were sharpened by this week’s Roderick on the Line podcast, in which John talks about his own experience of starting bands.
One of the things Roderick says is that boys who think playing a guitar will get them the girls are wrong. As Bruce Springsteen himself points out in his autobiography, it was the dance moves that counted for much much more than the guitars.
When I think back to my own teenage years, the picking up of the guitar, I don’t believe I was thinking at all about girls. I just wanted to be in a band. But unlike anyone who ever made a success of it, I clearly didn’t have the drive or ambition to make it happen, not properly. My first guitar was purchased on the front doorstep for £10. It was a made-in-Japan classical acoustic, which ought to have had nylon strings, but which arrived with steel strings fitted. Concerned these would warp the neck, I soon replaced them with nylons, but this “Woolies special” was never particularly easy to play. It had been advertised in the local paper, and a phonecall later, the owner – having run all the way down our road with it – was at the front door. A cursory inspection (what did I know?) and it was mine.
It wasn’t worth £10.
I had a learn-to-play book, which encouraged you to paint your fingernails with different coloured polish so as to get the positioning right. I never did succeed in playing any of the songs in the book, but after a short time started to write my own. I would say I probably mastered the open chord shapes but never did manage to play a bar chord without buzzing.
My best friend Jim and I had always dreamed of having a band, which was never quite as great as our vision for it. It was only when he came round one evening with a song he’d written that things kicked off. Jim would go through periods of coming round with regularity – on a Wednesday evening, say – and then after a while he’d stop for some reason, and I might not see him for months on end. Usually, to be fair, when he had a new girlfriend to entertain. In terms of the band, it was always important to me that he was the first to write a song, but I was disappointed ever-afterwards because he never wrote any more, and we weren’t able to collaborate together like the songwriting duo I wished we were.
Once he’d written one, and I realised what was possible, I quickly started writing my own. And one of the reasons I couldn’t collaborate was that I worked too quickly. By the following week, I’d written my first (‘In My Heart’), and a week after that, my second (‘Is It Any Wonder?’). I would present these to him on a Wednesday evening, desperate for his approval, never sure I’d created anything as good as his first song. This was around the turn of 1982 to 1983. I was in the full throes of my affair with Kim, on an emotional rollercoaster that moved so rapidly that I was going from ‘The Girl in White Tights’ to ‘The Remembering Song’, which is to say from the excitement of initial attraction to the despair of a break-up, in the space of a fortnight (and back and forth again, and again, for about a year).
Some writing sessions are such vivid flashbulb memories that I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. ‘The Remembering Song’ was written, more or less, in the time it took to play it through once. Sure, I paused to scribble down the lyrics in an illegible scrawl, but that took almost no time at all. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, pad of paper to my right, guitar across my knees, and the perfume-imbued scarf (referred to in the song) behind me.
In 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, his home-recorded album of what might have been demos for a full studio record, and the existence of home 4-track recorders was known. It was known. And, after a while, it turned out that my future brother-in-law Pete had somehow got hold of one. Springsteen’s was a TEAC, I believe, and Pete had a Fostex. Already in a band, he had connections with a music shop and a lot of ‘demo’ kit passed through his hands. So he had an early drum machine as well as the 4-track cassette recorder, and a decent selection of microphones, including a Sennheiser MD 441, which was and is a pretty fucking good dynamic microphone with a unique appearance – a legend, in fact, considered by some to be the finest vocal and instrument dynamic mic ever made. It wasn’t a condenser microphone, not a Neumann, but it had a clarity and accuracy that made it really special, far superior to the Shure SM 58 which is the most commonly used dynamic vocal microphone.
I’ve had a fetish for microphones ever since.
The 4-track cassette recorder was a work of genius, using a technology that came and went in a period of 40 years, and has since been replaced with the smartphone/iPod generation of gadgets. Cassettes came in a variety of capacities, but the most useful was the 90-minute version. The 120-minute tapes were generally unreliable (was the tape physically thinner? It broke easily) and the 60 minute variety too short to fit an album on each side. The sweet spot, mixtape central, was 90 minutes: 45 minutes per side, good enough to fit two vinyl albums, or a lovingly composed compilation, painstakingly recorded from individual tracks on your vinyl collection. You would sit for hours with LP sleeves spread around you on the floor, composing song sequences that were more than mere playlists.
The 4-track recorder worked like this. Take a 90 minute tape: it plays 45 minutes of stereo per side, but what if you played both sides all at once, in one direction? Then you could record 4 tracks for 45 minutes. But tape was a hissy medium. The sound the tape made as it moved over the playhead couldn’t be entirely eliminated. The Dolby system (B or C) removed some of the hiss but not all of it, and if used too aggressively could remove some of the ‘brightness’ or ‘presence’ of the vocals and instruments. You could mitigate some of the noise/hiss problems by recording on the tape at double its normal speed: 15 inches per second instead of 7.5. This reduced the length you could record to 22.5 minutes, but that was still enough to record up to seven 3-minute pop songs, one track at a time, which you could then mix down onto a regular tape recorder, and duplicate. So you’d end up with a master cassette of 4-track recordings, plus a stereo mixdown, and then second generation duplicates that you could distribute at gigs or give to your friends.
So Pete had a range of useful kit, but what he didn’t have, really, was a songwriter who was available on a regular basis on weekday nights to do a little bit of recording. And so it started, in 1984, the first recording sessions of Go Dog Go!, our band named after a P D Eastman (Dr Seuss) book, but with the punctuation removed for convenience.
(There was, much later, an American band called Go Dog Go, just as there was an American band called Toad The Wet Sprocket – the name of Pete’s original, heavy metal band – but fuck ‘em all. We were first.)
Jim and I had been using a double cassette boom box up till that point, and had in fact recorded his song on it, which was already circulating among our friends. Our first performance was in fact of that song, as unofficial support for another band who were playing at a club in Luton. I keep calling it his song or that song because I can’t remember its title. I know it had three chords and it started, ‘When I first saw you, I knew this time it was gonna be love…’ Not the most sophisticated lyrics, but it had a good melody and it made a virtue of its simplicity. Even after I’d written 50 other songs, I didn’t think any of them were as good as that. I really looked up to him for it, but (to my knowledge at least) he wrote no more.
He and I started turning up at Pete’s house on a Wednesday evening for recording sessions. Jim didn’t want us to record his song, so we simply started with the most recent one I’d written, and over a few more weeks we recorded several others. My Woolies special wasn’t much cop for recording, so we borrowed a Fender acoustic for me to play, which eventually became mine by default. I think I paid a nominal fiver for it and I wish I still had it. I mean, it wasn’t brilliant, but it was better than anything else I had available. We’d recorded about five songs, including my earliest classic, ‘Like Natalie Wood’, when Jim just stopped turning up. The truth was, he wasn’t contributing much. As I was writing all the songs, I was playing the acoustic guitar, Pete supplied the bass and the drum programming, and all Jim had to do was sing with me. At first, I didn’t want to sing alone, and I guess neither did Jim. But when you hear our two voices blended together, you can’t tell us apart. When he stopped coming, I insisted for a while on being double-tracked, because I didn’t like the sound of my voice on its own. But after a while, I realised it sounded okay, and over many years I came to accept that my voice is perfectly pleasant.
I don’t have a lot of range, and I always felt I went off pitch if I tried too hard, didn’t have the control, so that’s one reason I didn’t put a lot of emotion in my singing. The other reason was contextual, so it bears explaining.
Where I did struggle was with playing my guitar in time with the backing track supplied by the drum machine. The arguments have been well rehearsed over thirty years: it ain’t natural to play at exactly, say, 120 beats per minute for the whole length of a song. There’s a natural swing, a natural variation in tempo, that the metronomic drum machine stifles. I struggled then, and I still struggle now, though I’ve learned what you have to do. I still cringe when I hear my rhythm guitar drift slightly out of time on a couple of the tracks. So the guitar was wobbly, but the vocals, well, they were all right.
I was a teenager during the punk era, and I never did warm to the exceedingly angry style of singing of most punk singers. So for a start, I was singing with a smile on my face, which I think you can hear in my voice. There’s a kind of knowing wink there: doesn’t matter how sad or upset the words are, let’s not be one of those angry young people.
I loved Jonathan Richman’s sunny outlook and matter-of-fact expression. He never screamed or sounded mean. He was probably my main musical influence: not the Beatles, not the Stones, the Who, not Dylan or Bruce. Jonathan Richman is where I’m coming from.
So my affectless tone was a mixture of knowing my limitations and wanting things to be that way. Singing with emotion is a little like speaking French with a proper accent: couldn’t take it seriously enough to do it.
Then there was the circumstances of the recording: usually in a room in a house where there were people downstairs, and so I felt properly inhibited and always self-conscious. Overall, I kind of wanted a neutral tone, so that the meaning of the song resided in the words themselves rather than in my performance. Which of course more or less goes against the whole history of popular music and I’m not pretending for a moment that I was onto something. It was an online review (written years after the fact of it) of our EP release, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare, that described me as a ‘slightly emotionless singer’ – and that stings, it does, but I also own it. And even now whenever I listen to my old recordings, the bits I like the least are the moments when I allowed some emotion to enter my voice. That said, the tone is less neutral than, as I said above, knowing wink, and there was often a smile on my face as I recorded the vocal.
I wanted, really, for people to pay attention to the lyrics, which is hypocritical of me, as I rarely bother to do this nowadays myself. But I am proud of some of the songs I wrote, and some of the lines. I still hear them and think, that’s quite clever.
Though I probably peaked too early with, Operator, get me Weston-Super-Mare… Which was in one of the earliest songs I wrote.
So I continued to turn up on Wednesdays, and me and Pete continued to record, and he got his bandmate Curly (Mark Ridout) to come round to add some nice guitar on a couple of tracks (and Curly’s younger brother added piano to one), and after a few months, we started rehearsing together as a band, with a drummer (Olivier, who was half French, from Calais).
John Roderick, of severalpodcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.
I currently subscribe to:
The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)
That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.
It’s a lot.
*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.
Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.
†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:
It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.
Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.
So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.
‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.
Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.
I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.
I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.
Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.