Friday, 25 November 2011

broadcast news

In the late 1970s, I attended an interview for a post with the BBC’s Far East and Latin American Service, during which I raised the question of bias in broadcast news reporting.

“Surely you don’t think that BBC News is biased?” I was asked.

This is a paraphrase of my reply: “The BBC World Service provides a nine-minute news bulletin every hour. If we exclude the time allocated to opening and closing headlines, that leaves less than eight minutes to tell listeners what is happening in the world. Someone is therefore deciding which news items to leave out. This may not be conscious bias, but that someone is making a value judgement about what is and isn’t important, a judgement that listeners may not agree with if they had access to all the information that the news editor has available.”

I didn’t get the job. However, I was reminded of this episode while watching the TV news yesterday morning, specifically how two different news organizations tackled the same story, the unrest in Cairo. At 7am, BBC News America led with the corporation’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s extended report. Then, at 7.30am, NBC’s Nightly News included an equally detailed dispatch by its chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel.

The two reports were broadly similar, but there was one critical difference: what the two reporters had to say about the empty tear gas canisters that they were shown by demonstrators. Bowen reported that the demonstrators were pointing out that the canisters bore the legend ‘made in USA’, while Engel merely said that he was shown the canisters as evidence of the brutality of the police repression. So why the difference?

There are plenty of people who will immediately cite Bowen’s report as evidence of the BBC’s anti-American bias, even though it is unlikely to be untrue. After all, America sells huge quantities of weaponry to Egypt’s military, and it is a stretch of the audience’s credulity to suggest that this doesn’t include tear gas. The more intriguing question is why Engel didn’t mention it.

Any answer would necessarily be speculative, although it is easy to imagine any number of possible reasons. However, speculation is best left to speculators, and the only firm conclusion that I can draw is that anyone who wants to know what is really going on in the world would be well advised to consult as many sources as possible, both those that reinforce their prejudices and those that challenge them, whether it is a simple determination of fact or whether what is presented as fact is actually a value judgement.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

sixties music: the top ten

Although I’ve enjoyed a lot of the music produced by bands and singers whose careers began after 1970, my tastes in popular music were moulded during the 1960s. Consequently, I thought that it might be a worthwhile exercise to write a brief history of that music framed around a list of what I regard as the ten most significant records of that era.

You will notice immediately that there are no tracks by the Rolling Stones in this list. The reason is straightforward: the Stones’ first record was a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On, and before the Beatles arrived on the scene in October 1962, Chuck Berry had been one of my favourites. So how did the self-styled ‘bad boys’ of rock handle one of Berry’s lesser-known songs? Compare these two lines:
Some stupid jerk tryin’ to reach another number.

Some stupid guy tryin’ to reach another number.

The first is the Berry original, while I have always regarded the second as self-censorship by the Stones, which is puzzling given that ‘jerk’ is a fairly harmless term of abuse. And it is not the only example of bowdlerization by the Stones in their early work. The first record by the band to top the UK’s singles chart was a cover of the Valentinos’ It’s All Over Now, which contained the following line:
She held my nose open, that’s no lie.
For reasons that are not obvious, the Stones changed this to:
She held my eyes open, that’s no lie.
Bobby Womack’s original provides quite an arresting image, suggestive of some kind of esoteric water torture, while the Stones’ version is meaningless. My poor opinion of the Rolling Stones was reinforced by their next single, which was yet another cover, this time of Howlin’ Wolf’s Little Red Rooster. A month before this record was released, I’d had the good fortune to see Howlin’ Wolf in concert with his own band, which included Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar. I’ve never since witnessed a performance of such emotional intensity, full of menace; compared with this, the Stones’ rendition was about as exciting as watered-down beer.

1. Chubby Checker — The Twist (1960)
This song, a more commercial version of the original by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, is not in this list because of its intrinsic musical qualities, although it did foreshadow the subversiveness of much later rock music:
We’re gonna twist a twistin’ twister
Till we tear the house down.

However, The Twist had a profound social impact. Before the twist came along, teenagers jived, which was fine if you knew how and had the confidence to try, but for thousands of shy teenagers the twist was an easy dance to master, as were the many dances that followed in its wake, such as the pony, the fly, the shake, the mashed potato and the madison. There were countless others. Dancing in contact with a partner became old-fashioned and was rarely seen again until the disco boom of the later 1970s.

2. The Beatles — Please Please Me (1963)
This is one of the very few records for which I placed an advance order, having decided on the basis of Love Me Do that here was a band that was going places. Please Please Me is not my favourite Beatles track, but it is easily the best of their early work, its descending arpeggios marking it out as innovative at a time when the UK charts were clogged with abysmal rubbish such as Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday and Bachelor Boy, and the second-rate offcuts from Elvis Presley’s third-rate films.

The success of Please Please Me led to the so-called Merseybeat boom, in which a slew of mediocre bands from Liverpool enjoyed brief moments in the spotlight before fading back into obscurity. The best of these were probably Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers, who were technically proficient but were lacking in originality. The worst was Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas; the Beatles are on record as saying that Kramer would be “bigger than Elvis”, leading me to surmise that some arm-twisting had been taking place behind the scenes—the two bands were managed by the same company.

3. The Animals — House of the Rising Sun (1964)
Once the Merseybeat boom started to fade, bands with more substance began to appear. The Animals had the advantage of the most powerful vocalist of the time in Eric Burdon, but their disadvantage was that they lacked a composer, meaning that none of their material was original. House of the Rising Sun, for example, is a traditional folk song, but a repetitive but memorable riff by lead guitarist Hilton Valentine, in combination with a background of swirling Hammond organ chords by Alan Price that built slowly but inexorably towards a rousing climax, marked out this arrangement as highly original, demanding the listener’s attention.

The influence of this song is well documented. By 1964, Bob Dylan had become established as the quintessential protest singer, but he had recorded this song as a conventional folk song on his debut album in 1961. Upon hearing the Animals’ version, he changed to a more rock-oriented style almost overnight, the most salient example of this change being #5 below.

It is even possible to argue that without the success of the Animals, the world might never have heard of Jimi Hendrix. After a string of successful records, none of which quite reached the standard of House of the Rising Sun, the band broke up. Shortly thereafter, Hendrix came to the attention of bass player Chas Chandler, who sold all his guitars in order to bring him to London, where he established his reputation. Chandler would not have had so many guitars to sell had it not been for the Animals’ success.

4. The Kinks — You Really Got Me (1964)
For anyone whose only acquaintance with the Kinks was via quasi-novelty songs such as Autumn Almanac and Dedicated Follower of Fashion, this crude rocker would come as something of a shock. However, it must have struck a chord with a lot of people, because BBC Radio 2 listeners, in a poll carried out to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Ivor Novello Awards, voted it the best record of the 1955–64 period.

In fact, You Really Got Me is not as crude as it might appear. Certainly, the lyric is simple to the point of banality, the harmonies are rough, and the key changes are obvious, but there is one crucial quality that this song lacks: pretentiousness. This is what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be like, a fact that was clearly recognized by those who voted for You Really Got Me in that BBC poll.

This record, the Kinks’ first hit, with its distinctive power chords, is often cited as the forerunner of heavy metal, and Pete Townshend of the Who has said that his anthemic My Generation was an attempt to copy You Really Got Me. He ended up with a song that was equally influential in its own right.

5. Bob Dylan — Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965)
This song is a rarity for the 1960s: a single lifted from an album, Bringing It All Back Home, although it was released before the album. The album was Dylan’s response to the Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, although ‘response’ is too weak a word to describe the kaleidoscope of socio-political imagery that characterizes the lyric of Subterranean Homesick Blues.

However, it is the accompaniment rather than the words that mark this song as a change of direction for Dylan. At the time, folk music was seen as an alternative to the hysteria of the new rock music by people who thought themselves superior because the words they were listening to were ‘meaningful’, so to have their hero switch genres so blatantly was seen as a betrayal. Dylan had clearly grown tired of the unthinking adulation of folk music fans, something that he addressed in this song with the admonition “Don’t follow leaders…” and the advice, given in each verse, to “Look out kids…”. In other words, trust your own instincts.

It would be a mistake to read too much into this lyric, although the following line could well become a proverb in the future:
You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
On the other hand, the significance of Dylan going electric cannot be overstated. A cover of one of the leading songs on Bringing It All Back Home, an abbreviated version of Mr. Tambourine Man, heralded the start of folk rock, while the Beatles took Dylan’s core message on board with their next album, Rubber Soul, which was their first to show a move away from their earlier I Wanna Hold Your Hand style of songwriting.

6. The Who — My Generation (1965)
The Who were the last of the great singles bands to emerge in the 1960s, and the first to appeal predominantly to a mod audience, as shown by their first single, I’m the Face (as the High Numbers; a ‘face’, in contemporary mod slang, was a particularly stylish person, a trendsetter). However, it is as the Who that they made an impact on a wider audience, particularly with the three songs that they recorded for Brunswick before establishing their own record label.

My Generation was the third of these songs, and it articulates just how wide the so-called generation gap was at this time:
People try to put us d-down
Just because we g-g-get around.
Things they do look awful c-c-cold
Hope I die before I get old.

Lead singer Roger Daltrey’s distinctive stutter resulted in the BBC banning the record on the grounds that it poked fun at people with a speech impediment, although the corporation relented when the record became popular. However, it turns out to have been accidental—Daltrey couldn’t hear himself singing during the recording and was guessing when to start and stop. Another innovation used by the Who in their early songs was the use of feedback: this one dissolves at the end in a welter of electronic noise.

7. The Beach Boys — Good Vibrations (1966)
Although it is not the direction that the Beach Boys themselves followed, I take Good Vibrations to be the first progressive rock record, or at least to be a major influence on that much-maligned sub-genre. I thought at the time that it would only be a matter of time before songs were being written that lasted the entire side of an album, although no band without a solid record of singing complex harmonies could have pulled this particular song off.

The Beach Boys themselves went downhill from this point, their follow-up single to this masterpiece being a cover of the Crystals’ Then He Kissed Me in which they achieved the remarkable feat of producing a record that was even worse than a Phil Spector original. Not only did they never come close to matching this song, they even failed to come up with anything as good as earlier classics such as I Get Around and God Only Knows.

8. Jimi Hendrix Experience — Hey Joe (1967)
Although Eric Clapton was the first guitar hero of the 1960s, his work with Cream appears to have appealed mainly to university students and was less popular with the general record-buying public. Hendrix was different. Listen to the opening riff of Hey Joe. It is played on a Fender Stratocaster, the same instrument that was used by Hank Marvin of the Shadows on Apache and Wonderful Land. In the early years of the decade, every aspiring guitarist wanted to emulate Marvin, but Hendrix changed the rules. Instead of a catchy, echo-laden tune that might have been written to appeal to my grandmother, I heard the aggressive twanging of barbed wire. This was naked menace; this was what a real virtuoso could do with the instrument, even with a routine blues like Hey Joe.

Unfortunately, Hendrix became trapped by the expectations of his audience: he had performed the feat on the other side of the Atlantic, as a publicity stunt, without attracting too much attention, but his deliberate burning and subsequent destruction of his guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967 created an image he was unable to escape. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, Hendrix’s brief crash-and-burn career was almost inevitable.

9. Jefferson Airplane — White Rabbit (1967)
By 1967, most creative bands were experimenting with psychoactive drugs, and it was beginning to show in the music, giving rise to a genre that came to be known as psychedelia. On the American west coast, there were two centres, Los Angeles and San Francisco, each with its own take on the genre. In Los Angeles, the lead band was the Grateful Dead, who played at Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, while Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco took a more commercial line. Their White Rabbit is the quintessential psychedelic song.

And if you are singing about hallucinatory experiences, what better comparison could there be than that classic Victorian account of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? All the references are there: the rabbit, ‘one pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small’, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Red Queen, the dormouse, although there is a deliberate concatenation of the original (‘The Red Queen’s off her head’).

However, the unusual feature of this track is that it isn’t really a rock song. It’s more of a march, which means that there is no downbeat and no syncopation. Yet it is perfectly structured, building inexorably to a crescendo as we are exhorted to ‘remember what the dormouse said’:
Feed your head! Feed your head!
10. Fleetwood Mac — Man of the World (1969)
There are very few genuinely sad songs in rock (and certainly not in pop music, where the emotion is manufactured), but this is one. It is about a man who can have everything, except the one thing he really wants. What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was autobiographical.

Peter Green was one of the most lyrical guitarists in the history of rock music. The guitar solo on this record lasts a mere 19 seconds, yet it expresses perfectly, without sentimentality, the anguish of the song’s protagonist. It is one of the great guitar solos of all time. And that is the tragedy. It was all a plea for help, a plea for help that went unheeded.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

a wet day in buttermere

Most [tourists] come to view the picturesque scenery, but a complaint I’ve heard often concerns the rain. But what do people expect? The Lake District is the wettest part of England, and the weather is a direct result of the mountainous terrain. In fact, for locals like myself, the Lake District is at its most beautiful in the rain….
Although it is only a short drive over Honister Pass (steepest gradient 25%) from the tourist-thronged valley of Borrowdale, the Buttermere valley is always fairly quiet, especially during inclement weather. Buttermere itself is a small lake that takes its name from a quasi-mythical Viking chieftain of the eleventh century, Jarl (Earl) Boethar, suffixed with the Old English word for a lake.

Following the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and William the Conqueror’s subsequent ‘harrying of the north’ from 1069, Boethar is said to have conducted an extensive guerrilla campaign against the invaders from his stronghold in what is sometimes called ‘the secret valley’, inflicting heavy losses in men, money and equipment. There appears to be no contemporary documentary evidence, but local legends speak of a pitched battle between the Normans, led by Ranulph les Meschines, Earl of Carlisle (a small city to the north), and a combined force of Vikings, who had settled in the area in the preceding two centuries, and native Cumbrians, led by Boethar. The Norman forces advanced south along the River Cocker into the Buttermere valley, where they were lured into an ambush in the tributary valley of Rannerdale. Despite their military prowess throughout the rest of Europe, the Normans were unused to fighting in such terrain and were routed. Legend it may be, but what is indisputably the case is that the Normans never succeeded in subduing the heart of Lakeland.

This summer, as part of my efforts to show my friend Barry parts of his native county that he’d never seen, we came to the Buttermere valley with the aim of walking around the lake. There is a well-worn path, about 4½ miles in length, that follows the shoreline, with only a short section where walkers are forced on to the road through the valley. It rained heavily all day.

We started in the village of Buttermere, which takes its name from the lake and which boasts two public houses. It is located between Buttermere (the lake) and the larger lake of Crummock Water, on an area of land formed by debris washed down over the centuries from the surrounding hillsides. Crummock Water and Buttermere would thus once have been one lake.

The best way to proceed is anticlockwise, and the following photographs were taken at various points on the walk.

Looking east towards Fleetwith Pike (Old Norse pic, peak) from the southern shore of Buttermere. The notch in the skyline to the left of the peak is Honister Pass.

A typical beck (from Old Norse bekkr, stream) in spate.

A view of Buttermere from the north side of the lake, looking west.

Another view of Buttermere from the north side of the lake, looking west.