Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.


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John Robson… Guitarist

Desert Island Discs

As I sit here wondering what to write about in this weeks blog, I’ve got BBC Radio 4 on in the background. The show which is playing at the moment is Desert Island Discs. If you’re not familiar with this venerable UK institution which has been on air continuously since 1942, allow me to give you some background…

The premise of the show is that you can tell a lot about someone by looking at their musical tastes. It’s basically a talk show where, each week, a guest tells their life story by discussing the eight songs they would choose to take with them should they ever be marooned on a desert island.

In it’s illustrious history, many world leaders, cultural icons and celebrities have shared their treasured memories and events which have shaped their lives on the show. It’s true to say that, in the UK at least, you’ve not really “made it” until you’ve made an appearance on the show – much like having your likeness on display at Madame Toussards in London.

As it’s unlikely I’ll ever be invited onto the show (unless grumpy middle aged men playing instrumental guitar jazz suddenly become big box office), I thought I’d indulge myself here by sharing my eight favourite tunes with my loyal reader. These are not necessarily my current favourite pieces of music – I think it probably takes a few years for any tune to find its place in the scheme of things. It is often only with a degree of hindsight that you realise that a particular work has had an effect on you.

Anyway, without further ado, here are my choices with a couple of lines explaining the significance of each one…

1) Rock Around The Clock – Bill Haley & The Comets. This song is one of my earliest memories. It was always on in the house, playing on an old Dansette record player, as I was growing up. It is without doubt the very first piece of music I remember giving me that sense of joy that only music can impart.

2) In The Mood – Glenn Miller. Another childhood memory. The Glenn Miller Story with James Stewart always seemed to be on the television at Christmas in the ’70s. That iconic scene where the band keeps playing as a V2 doodlebug flies overhead is probably pure Hollywood myth, but who cares? A great feel-good tune with oodles of happy childhood, rose-tinted reminiscences for me.

3) Daddy Cool/The Girl Can’t Help It – The Darts. This band have sort of been airbrushed out of the the nostalgia industry’s version of the late ’70s. For some reason, this song just stopped me in my tracks when I was ten years old. It was also the first song I remember hearing and thinking “I want to be able to do that!” Within a year or so, I had my first guitar.

4) Sultans of Swing – Dire Straits. Nothing remotely like this had been in the charts when it came out in 1979. Mark Knopfler’s laid back, but virtuosic guitar playing was what made me realise that the guitar was capable of so much more than just being an accompaniment to sing along with. The way he echoes the lyrics with little guitar licks… “Check out Guitar George, he knows all the chords” and “… as the time bell rings” is the musical equivalent of an illustrator bringing a text to life with beautifully executed drawings. It wasn’t long before I was learning my first scales to try and emulate this way of playing.

5) Key To The Highway – Derek & The Dominoes. I discovered Eric Clapton via the song Layla, which was used as the theme tune to a local current affairs TV show in the Tyne Tees region. I bought the album and this extended blues jam showcasing EC & Duane Allman gave me goosebumps from the first time I heard it. It was the first time I’d heard something called “blues” and I was hooked.

6) So What – Miles Davis. It’s fair to say that (like many people) I just didn’t get jazz at all. A lot of dissonant, tuneless caterwauling. It baffled me, frankly. Then I heard this and it was a revelation! The way that the riff just emerges from the mist and solidifies, then Jimmy Cobb’s drums kick in and the insistent, but chilled out, momentum carries you along through some of the finest, most musical improvisation you’ll ever hear. Distilled essence of musical perfection, and my initiation into the world of jazz.

7) Nimrod (from Elgar’s Enigma Variations). This is the piece of music which gets played every year at the service of remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Even without this association, it is one of the most evocative, poignant tunes ever written. It conjures up misty eyed nostalgic images of an idealised English-ness that stir something in me I find difficult to put into words. It’s not so much nationalism, more a sense of heritage. More than any other work, this was my introduction to the joys of “classical” music.

8) Jungle Land – Bruce Springsteen. One of the first songs I ever heard by “The Boss”. In the early ’80s I became aware that someone called Bruce Springsteen was was due to release a new album. At that age, I was desperate to find out as much as I could about anyone who was generally regarded as musically “important”. The buzz in the media about the upcoming new album release led me to go out & buy the first Springsteen album I could find, just to see what the fuss was about. The LP I purchased with my hard-earned Saturday job wages was Born To Run. Jungle Land is the final track on that album, and it is a masterpiece. It best sums up Bruce’s ability as a wordsmith – the picture he paints, and the story he so effortlessly tells, is testament to his status as one of the most influential lyricists of the 20th century.

So there you have it. These are the eight songs I would take with me to my lonely desert island. What this says about me as a person, I can’t begin to imagine. Ask me again tomorrow & you’d probably get a different selection, though. Along with the music, castaways are allowed a book and a luxury item & my choices in these categories would be “In Pale Battalions” by Robert Goddard, a wonderful historic novel, set mostly during the 1914-18 war, which I never tire of reading, and a luxury? Well… it has to be a guitar, doesn’t it.

Got your own line up of eight tracks, should you ever become a latter-day Robinson Crusoe? I’d love to know what they are.

Until next time… have fun 🙂 

Which Album to Stick On?

If you’re over forty, in the “prime of life” as it were, and are into music in a big way, then I bet you any money you’ll identify with this…

About ten years ago, I found myself going through my CD rack (I wasn’t fully mp3’d up at that point) and was unable to find a single thing I wanted to listen to. Led Zep IV? Nah… Still Got the Blues? Hmmm… not what I fancy just now. How about some Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon? Well… maybe later. And so it went on. Every album I pulled off the rack just didn’t excite me at the prospect of a listen.

This happened more & more frequently and I was beginning to think I was falling out of love with music – an alarming prospect for a musician. Even when I got my first mp3 player and had the novelty factor of being able to carry a suitcase full of CDs around in my pocket on a device no larger than a bar of chocolate, the same basic problem soon resurfaced: I was bored with all the albums I owned…

I’d heard the guitar solo in Sultans of Swing too many times for Mark Knopfler’s laid back, lyrical fretwork to move me any more; the acerbic wit of Frank Zappa had lost it’s razor edge; that breathtaking long high “E” note in the middle of Parisienne Walkways, which once would have turned my knees to jelly, now left me cold; albums that I’d queued in the rain outside HMV to buy on the day they came out felt like they belonged to a part of my life that was no longer connected to me. What was I to do?

The answer was quite obvious… listen to some new stuff. There was a whole world of music out there that I’d spent my whole life ignoring. On a whim, I sent off for a cheap compilation box-set of classical music. It was a bargain price and I was curious to see if the music I’d been force fed at school, and as a result had ignored ever since, had any merit to me as an adult. The answer was yes, it did. Not all of it by any stretch, to this day I suffer from what I call a “Baroque Block” (something to do with all the overly regimented sounding twiddly bits, I think). But give me a bit of Elgar or Holst or Debussy, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like they used to when I first heard Gary Moore play The Loner all those years ago.

It wasn’t just classical music I explored. I took the same approach to jazz, and found there was a whole world of great, expressive, tuneful (yes… tuneful jazz – it does exist) music just waiting to be discovered. Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Cannonball Adderley & John Coltrane are all on regular rotation on my ipod now. None of these artists would have occurred to me if it weren’t for my fatigue with the classic rock stuff I’d listened to for decades.

Thinking back to my 17yr old self, part of the joy of listening to Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple was the sense of discovery involved – “the piecing it all together”, if you like. Figuring out that Led Zep were born out of the ashes of The Yardbirds, and that Rainbow & Whitesnake were branches off the Deep Purple family tree, or that David Bowie played the sax break on Walk on the Wild Side, to say nothing of the finishing school that was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (alumni including Eric Clapton, Peter Green & John McVie, the nucleus of Fleetwood Mac to name but a few)… it allowed me to put the music these, and other, bands/artists made into some sort of context and helped me understand it all the better. I now find myself on a similar journey of discovery… Understanding that Debussy was influenced by Javanese Gamelan music; Getting my head around the difference between a concerto & a symphony; Learning that Miles Davis & Cannonball Adderley played on each other’s albums etc. etc.

To some this may not seem relevant to whether the music is appealing or not. And to an extent I’d agree, but knowing the background to the artists, bands & composers who appeal to you can definitely help you better appreciate the music you like anyway. Plus, this kind of insight can spark that sense of curiosity to find out about even more “new” music (even stuff that’s been around for years, that you’ve never taken any notice of).

An the best bit is that I now I DO get excited about going and listening to my “old faithful” classic rock & blues again. I just needed some time away from it to discover something which provides a little contrast, that’s all. Music is a bit like food to me: For example, I love a good pizza (ham & mushroom, please). But just imagine how jaded you’d get with pizza if that was all you ate for 20+ years, steadfastly ignoring all other food stuffs on the grounds that “they’re not what I’m into”.

I now enjoy a rich and varied musical diet and I have no difficulty nowadays finding an album to stick on. I also make a point of trying to discover at least one new thing to listen to each month, be it jazz, rock, orchestral, folk, blues or anything else which defies classification.

So if you’re feeling a little out of sorts, musically, then try doing what I did. Go off on a tangent; check out that band everyone raved about years ago, but just seemed to pass you by; take a gamble on a musical genre you’ve never listened to before – even if you don’t like it, at least you’ll be able to say you’re making an INFORMED choice. I guarantee that sooner or later you’ll find something to re-ignite your musical fire. Also, you’ll find some wonderful juxtapositions every time you put your mp3 player on random shuffle: as I was typing this post I’ve been treated to Sweet Home Alabama segued with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, into Bobby Darrin’s wonderful version of Beyond the Sea which has just given way to Iron Man by Black Sabbath. Who could possibly get bored when there’s that kind of variety on offer?


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