Category Archives: Music

No can do

My first job with a proper company (for which read “a company that there was a vague chance my Mum and Dad had ever heard of”) involved handling publicity for a television channel. Life was never dull there, it has to be said. My first staff-only Christmas party made national headlines after another TV channel was pulled off air by drunken revellers messing around among the cables and switches of the transmission suite. Rumours that one reader of this blog cycled a BMX naked through the office (and was woken up the next morning under his desk, and covered in promotional posters) are not entirely wide of the mark.

To be fair, we were all young, foolish and impressionable, and the availability of free drink at showbiz parties led to a number of embarrassing moments for everyone over the course of a few years. I once knocked over a DJ’s decks at a party attended by all the great and good of the British press, causing the music to screech to a halt much to the displeasure of at least one national newspaper editor. I can’t even begin to describe the reaction when I knocked the decks over again ten minutes later.

For some reason though, the occasion that always sticks with me is the time I spent what seemed like an eternity telling Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates fame) that I was a huge fan of the band and that I owned everything that they’d ever recorded. I didn’t even have one of their singles, let alone the complete Hall & Oates oeuvre, so I have no idea what was going through my mind. But I must have been a little too convincing, as after about ten minutes of Brit Out Of Water-style sycophancy, I noticed Daryl nervously looking over my shoulder in an attempt to attract the attention of anyone who might be able to rescue him from the grip of someone who clearly had stalkerish tendencies. Even writing this now, I feel the shame come flooding back.

Now Daryl’s having the last laugh though. The Special One and I have been moving house for the last few days, surrounded by boxes and making impromptu trips to DIY shopshome improvement stores like Lowe’s in order to get things for my new ‘man shed’. And wherever I go, whether it’s a coffee shop or a department store, I swear that the only piece of music I hear is “Kiss On My List” by Hall & Oates. I must have heard it six times in the last three days, creating the worst earworm in the history of earworms.

Personally I think Daryl Hall has found out where I’m living, and is following me around with a copy of the band’s greatest hits in his pocket. He’s waited for his revenge, and now he’s slowly going to send me insane.

Still, at least it’s not REO Speedwagon, eh?

The real New York

I love Facebook. Admittedly I feel like a bit of a teenager for using it, and I think The Youngest and The Eldest are perpetually embarrassed that their stepdad can be found within its realms. But there’s just something intriguing in finding out what your friends and colleagues are up to when you’re not around, even if that means reading endless over-enthusiastic status updates telling you that “Joe Smith is glad it’s Friday!!!!!!!!!!”

But what I really love about Facebook is the strange information that it sometimes throws up. And none more so than the music chart that was presented to me in my news feed this morning, detailing the collective favourite music of the 800,000 or so members of the New York network. The full top five is as follows:

1. R&B
2. Rap
3. Hip-hop
4. Coldplay
5. Reggae

I know that Coldplay’s Chris Martin has been working with Kanye West, but I’d still love to see the Venn diagram that shows the intersection between the urban beats of R&B, rap, hip-hop and reggae, and the heartstring-pulling prep-rock of the biggest band to come out of Britain since, erm, the Spice Girls.

Perhaps this city’s collective attempt to be seen as street smart, hard nosed and cool is just a sham. Deep down, they’re as desperate to connect with their emotions through some angst-ridden guitar jangling as the rest of us.

Admit it New York, you’re just a big softie.

A tale of two vending machines

The Special One and I spent the holiday weekend back in the UK, engaging in a whirlwind tour of friends and family. I think most of them are starting to ask questions about whether I’ve actually left the country given how much I seem to be back there. Maybe I should change the name of the blog to “Brit Mostly Out Of Water”?

A weekend spent 3458 miles away from New York inevitably necessitates spending a fair amount of time in airports, particularly following the British Airways crash landing in London – not to mention apparent 150mph headwinds awaiting us on the way back.

Time in airports these days seems less about interminable waiting and more about interminable shopping. And if ever you needed a powerful demonstration of the difference between New York and London, maybe these two pictures of airport vending machines could provide it. Firstly, a machine found at London’s Heathrow:

Heathrow Airport

These machines first started appearing a year or so ago, offering travellers the chance to buy a book to occupy their minds when there’s only The Bourne Ultimatum on the inflight movie channels. Admittedly Russell Brand’s ‘My Booky Wook’ isn’t necessarily Shakespeare, but it’s got to be better than seven hours of sudoku.

Now the vending machine at JFK:

JFK Airport

When I was a kid, vending machines had bubble gum in them and you put 2p in to get something out. Now it seems that you use them to part with $250 in order to pick up cutting edge music players. Have we reached the point where iPods are considered spur-of-the-moment impulse purchases, to rank alongside a Coke, a packet of Doritos or a Mars bar?

Obviously, you’re not actually going to be able to use the iPod on your flight unless you’ve brought a computer and your music collection with you, and you’re able to find somewhere to charge the battery.

Of course, if you really can’t find a power source to charge your brand new device, you can just unplug the iPod vending machine and use that outlet instead. Other travellers will just have to content themselves with that book after all.

It’s the freakiest show

When you own an iPod (NB: other MP3 players are available), any time spent plugged into it can make you feel like a music advisor on “Life: The Movie”. On the occasions when you catch a glimpse of the cityscape, some piece of incredible architecture or just a strange interlude on the streets, music simply has the incredible power to be the soundtrack to your life.

Take my journey to work today, for instance. At Broadway-Nassau station, a man dragged a tired looking suitcase onto the train, looking for all the world like a dodgy perfume seller or fake Prada bag vendor. Until he opened his mouth that is, at which point it became apparent that he had to use the bag to carry all his bigotry with him. Having spouted off in no particular direction about AIDS, homosexuality and hatred, he then locked his eyes one by one on fellow passengers with a faintly maniacal stare.

And the song that’s playing during this episode? With its attack on the madness of the US (“it’s on America’s tortured brow, Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”) and its more pertinent suggestion that life is “the freakiest show”, David Bowie’s “Life On Mars” couldn’t really have hit the nail any more firmly on the head.

From ethereal chillout to contrast the madness of the rush hour rat race, to The Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as the rain pours down, I sometimes think that my iPod has some kind of mood sensor attached. Although why “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats was playing as I entered the office, I have no idea. Thinking about it, a better question might be why it’s even on my iPod in the first place…

Still, at least listening to my own music collection is better than the torture that The Special One and I are having inflicted on us night after night by a neighbour in an adjacent building. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” as much as the next man (even when the next man is wearing a neon pink t-shirt saying “I love ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Beatles”), but I don’t need to hear it played on repeat for half an hour or so as I’m trying to get to sleep.

One explanation could be that the perpetrator of such JohnPaulGeorgeandRingo-ular torture has recently been involved in a bitter love split, and is drowning her sorrows in music. Sadly, if that is the case, her partner has recently been round to collect his or her CDs, as last night the original version was replaced by her own far-from-delicate cover version. The lesson for me obviously being that after a week of wanting the hell to end, I should be careful what I wish for.

If it happens again tonight, I’m putting on my iPod. Sweet dreams are, indeed, made of this.

Extreme noise terror

For quite some time now, London Underground have been piping classical music into the concourse areas of stations such as Brixton and Vauxhall in an attempt to discourage teenage gangs, beggars and general ne’er-do-wells from loitering there. I’ve no idea if it actually works, although it’s at least vaguely soothing for the hundreds of commuters who’ve spent the last twenty minutes silently seething with resentment after being stuck in a tunnel a few yards outside Pimlico station.

Last night at Secaucus station in New Jersey, I experienced the American equivalent. A sound to strike fear into the hearts of grown men, and drive crack dealers onto the streets. Music designed specifically to be uncomfortable and make you want to move out of the area as quickly as possible.

Hard to describe Badfinger as classical, admittedly, but it was certainly enough to get me hurtling out onto the freezing cold New Jersey streets with indecent haste. Rumours that their music appears on the forthcoming album “Noise Warfare: 20 Guantanamo Bay Classics” could not be confirmed at time of going to press.

On the streets

When I was a kid, we’d often spend our Saturday afternoon taking a walk through the shops in and around Chester’s famous Rows (or “that crazy double decker shopping mall thing” as one American once described it to me). I never really minded going shopping, to be honest. I’d happily wander around Our Price for hours trying to the agonising choice between the new T’Pau album, or the secondsophomore album by Tanita Tikaram. Heady days, indeed.

As the one of biggest centres for shopping in the North-West, Chester attracted huge throngs of people to its cobbled streets every Saturday. And wherever there are large groups of shoppers with money burning a hole in their pockets, you’re always guaranteed to find one thing – buskers.

The Chester buskers – or street entertainers as I should probably call them, for fear that Americans have some kind of strange name for them – were almost uniformly amazing. None of your run-of-the-mill Pavarotti rip-offs here, but instead twenty minute shows involving anything from magic to acrobatics. One guy in particular always stood out, so much so that I can still remember what he looked like more than ten years after I last saw him perform. He was a juggler, and a very good one at that. And I should know. Anybody who attended my wedding will know that I was – once upon a time – a professional juggler whose talents were in demand across the world. But this guy didn’t just juggle. He juggled clubs of fire. On a unicycle. A unicycle that had a ten foot ladder up to his precarious perch.

Not only did he put on an incredible show, but at the same time he always managed to have enough patter to make sure that the crowd (generally 200 or so people had been attracted by the end of show) paid up, and paid up big.

Now I’m in New York, where you come across a whole different kind of busker. Of course, there’s the usual collection of saxophonists, violinists and average caberet singers – you get them in any city you care to mention. On a couple of occasions I’ve seen a group of four old guys who wander through trains singing 60s classics in close harmony, and they are nothing short of astonishing.

But the buskers who stand out for me in New York are head and shoulders above the rest – and for all the wrong reasons. There seems to be a unique band of percussionists who’ve decided that traditional drums, cymbals and tambourines are too conventional for them – and instead they’ve opted to use a collection of general all-household rubbish to beat the hell out of as a way of expressing their art. This weekend I’ve witnessed a man using drumsticks to play a wide range of upturned buckets and containers. Another had taped an old saucepan lid to his chest, a telephone directory to one knee, and a random piece of plastic to the other, and used his heavily gloved hands to beat out a ‘tune’ that could only have been attractive to the mutant dogs of hell.

The strange thing was that at one point he burst into song, and he had a voice that could have you in tears within seconds. Yet somewhere along the line, he’d clearly had a conversation with a friend who must have said something along the lines of “You know, your singing isn’t getting you anywhere quickly – have you ever thought of strapping your muom’s saucepan lid to your torso and a Yellow Pages to your knee, and seeing what comes of it?”

I’m all for people expressing themselves, but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. And as the old Chinese proverb says, “If you’re including a telephone directory in your caberet act, it’s time to get a proper job.” Now, where did I put those juggling balls?

Right here on the dancefloor is where you gotta let it go

Many things you expect when you’re taking it easy at 6pm in a swanky bar in a hotel in Crete, but a lounge version of S Club 7’s “Don’t Stop Movin’” is really not one of them. Hearing a soulful crooner purr out “DJ’s got the party started, there’s no end in sight, everybody’s moving to the rhythm that’s inside” while you pop cocktail olives in your mouth is a unique kind of experience.

We’re off to Santorini tomorrow morning, and if I don’t get to hear an acid-funk reworking of HearSay’s “Pure & Simple” or a swing attempt at “Slam Dunk Da Funk” by Five, I’m going to be sorely disappointed.