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.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Tales from Clubland

Ask any musician who’s ever played on the infamous north of England working men’s club circuit, and they’ll have a wealth of stories & anecdotes. Here are some of mine…

Playing a gig to a whippet:

The band I was in at the time, a pop/rock covers band, was booked to play a Sunday lunchtime slot at some remote mining village social club in CountyDurham. Now, Sunday lunchtime in a northern working men’s club is generally a male-only thing: leave the wife at home preparing the roast beef & Yorkshire puddings, so you can team up with your mates, go and have a few pints, see the band and watch the stripper.

That’s right, there’s usually a striptease “artiste” booked to wriggle her bits around in the interval between the band’s sets. We’re not talking about the new, respectable “burlesque” type “tasteful” display of eroticism here: Dita Von Tease in a basque getting artistic with ostrich feathers – no, this kind of venue demands something a little more, erm… rudimentary in nature. With the emphasis on “rude”.

Anyway, this particular Sunday was a bleak January day with snow on the ground. Attendances at the club are down due to everyone being in the grip of the post-Christmas financial hangover. This coupled with the poor weather, and the last minute cancellation of the stripper due to a mix up with her agent meant that we were playing to an almost empty concert room. The place could easily hold 300 people, and there were no more than a dozen blokes in. Slowly they begin filtering out as the realisation spreads that there’s no naked female flesh to be seen. By the time we got to the end of the first set we were playing to an old guy nursing his bottle of brown ale and tobacco tin. Curled up at his feet is a grey-muzzled old whippet dog.

Come the start of the second set we hit the stage with enthusiastic decibels of “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame…” The old boy has clearly had enough and goes to the lobby to pump coins into the slot machine, leaving us to play the rest of our 45 minute set to… the dog. Who didn’t even have the courtesy to stay awake. That’s showbiz, folks!

Yippee-aye-yay!

A different venue – a Catholic club in Sunderland,  and a different band. This was a country band. Not the new kind of country music which has become fashionable in recent years – Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill etc., no this is strictly Tammy Wynette, Slim Whitman, Boxcar Willie, Jim Reeves and other “old school” material. The country audiences up here didn’t even approve of “new” acts like Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings… in 1994.

We get to the venue, set up the gear & there’s an hour or so before we’re on so it’s time to go in search of a drink. The bar is open & unlike a pub where you just saunter up to the brass rail, catch the eye of the bar staff & order your poison, in the social club there is a strict queuing policy. This means that you hear several people in front of you placing their drinks orders & I’m mystified that everyone seems to be ordering something called “yippee-aye-yay”. Because of the curve of the bar I can’t actually see what it is they’re getting when they ask for this. A cocktail of some sort? Hardly. This is Sunderland, remember? Maybe it’s something to do with it being a country & western night – there are blokes who’ve turned up dressed as Randolph Scott in “Ride the High Country” or John Wayne in “True Grit” – compete with eye-patch. Some of the costumes are better than mine & I’m the one on stage in an hour!

So, yippe-aye-yay must be some sort of western themed speciality drink – a pint of lager with a Stetson or something, right? But there are people ordering it who clearly haven’t come for the country music – they’re the “posh” folks who’ve come through from the lounge – where there are carpets on the floor, and a TV in the corner & a game of bingo later. So… they wouldn’t be ordering anything related to the noisy vagabonds making a racket with their electric banjos in the concert room, would they?

By the time I’ve heard a dozen people order the same drink, it’s my turn to get served so out of sheer curiosity I order “…a pint of yippee-aye-yay, please.” This is when I find out that India Pale Ale (IPA) pronounced in a broad Sunderland accent sounds like a cowboy holler. “A pint of the IPA” comes out as “A pint of yippee-aye-yay”. Mystery solved.

Kempy the drummer:

I could not only devote a whole blog to the Teesside legend that is Mick Kemp (universally known as “Kempy”), I could probably fill an entire book. Whenever musicians get together in these parts, they often get to know each other by swapping anecdotes about the kempster. This one is my favourite:

Kempy, a slightly dishevelled bloke with a gravel-rough voice which makes it’s way out of his mouth past a permanent roll-up on his bottom lip, is the drummer in a band called “The Winners” – each band member is dressed as a leading sports hero of the day. Bjorn Borg on bass; George Best on lead guitar, Seb Coe on keyboards… you get the idea. Barry, the singer, isn’t really into this erm… “concept” and starts discreetly looking for a new band.

Barry’s day job is as a glazier for the local council & often supplements his income with the odd “guvy-job”  – Teesside slang for doing a bit of cash-in-hand work on the side. Kempy has just had a new extension built onto his house, which adjoins the railway tracks, & who better to fit the windows at a cut price “mates rate” than good old Barry, his faithful singer? Barry duly turns up with his apprentice, Kempy’s choice of glass, a tub of linseed putty and all the necessary tools, and the windows are fitted to everyone’s satisfaction.

A week later and Barry has been offered a job with a different band, but is dutifully working out a notice period with The Winners & imagined that the spilt was amicable… Until he reminded Kempy that he still hadn’t been paid for fitting the windows:

“F*ckin’ whistle for it!” came the gruff response, past the smouldering roll-up. It seems that Kempy felt let down by Barry leaving the band, and had adopted one of his legendary sulks. There was no point arguing – Kempy’s stubborn demeanour is well known and you may as well debate the fossil record with a creationist. Barry therefore decides to let it ride & try again when a few pints may have mellowed the situation a tad. No such luck, it seems, and Barry is now in a quandary – what to do? Escalate the whole situation into a feud over a paltry few quid, or let Kempy have his little victory? Barry chose a third way…

In the dead of night Barry and his accomplice snuck into Kempy’s back yard by torch-light, communicating in hand signals like commandos, they slowly, silently, and oh-so carefully removed the glass they’d installed but a few days earlier before making their getaway (quite literally) like thieves in the night. Barry was braced for a phone call and a tirade of tobacco stained, expletive-rich abuse later that day. At which point he was planning to go & replace the windows with his point now made & honour restored. But no such turn of events happened. Silence from campKemp.

Then about six weeks later Kempy & Barry find themselves in the Post Office queue. They’re several places apart, but due to the “S” shaped queue, they end up next to each other at one point. Kempy spots Barry, and at the top of his hoarse brogue, in front of all the people posting letters, the grannies cashing their pensions & everyone else on either side of the counter,  he growls “I bet you think you’re a right clever sh*t, eh?!… I thought them trains sounded bloody loud!”

They both set about giggling like schoolboys at the ridiculousness of it all & went for a pint. That’s the way we settle stuff up here – the UN could learn a thing or two from the northern club circuit.

See you next time for something a little more guitar specific.

Have fun,

John.