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

We Live In An Age Of Magic

A good friend of mine & I were talking a while ago about the demise of the small independent record shop. It seems that from the early ’90s onwards they have been closing at an alarming rate as the record buying public were lured away, first by the big music retailing chains, then in recent years by online music sales. Most of my early record collection came from the Teesside institution that was Alan Fearnley Records in Middlesbrough. Alan finally pulled down the shutters for the last time in 2004, and it felt like the end of an era.

Shops like Alan’s were more than just the place you went to buy a copy of your favourite band’s new album. They were an essential part of a Saturday morning. The whole weekend stretched ahead of you, and what better way to start than at the record shop? A place where you knew you’d run into your mates; where you might see that girl you fancied (and what better way to impress her than make sure she saw you browsing through all the “right” records); where you could chat about music with people who were as crazy about it as you were.

Then there was the excitement of sitting on the bus on the way home with your newly purchased 12” long player, reading the sleeve notes, admiring the artwork, looking at the song titles and imagining what wonderful music they were going to reveal once you got that big, black circular vinyl treasure onto the turntable and plugged in your curly-cabled headphones. The anticipation was delicious!

Having said all of that, you might imagine that the rest of this week’s blog will consist of a misty-eyed, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest. A middle-aged man bemoaning the loss of a fondly remembered part of his youth, and it’s all the fault of progress and modernity. Not a bit of it. Bring on the brave new world of downloads, streaming, and online subscription services, I say!

Let’s pretend you could jump into a Tardis and travel back to some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s. You could meet up with your younger self and tell them how the future would shape up. You would find yourself describing a world where the music you want could be had instantly. No more waiting for the shop to order that obscure foreign import you desperately had to have; no more hoping you can find something in the racks by that new band who piqued your curiosity in an article you read; no more getting home from the record shop and discovering the album you’ve been waiting weeks to own skips when you try to play it. No… you can have it NOW, without leaving the house, and it will be superb high quality (much like those new-fangled compact discs that were just coming onto the market back then).

Next, imagine the look of wonder that would cross your young face when you tell yourself about how little this all costs. Here’s how I would describe Spotify to my 19-year-old self…

You can listen to pretty much the whole back catalogue of just about every record label in the world, and all the new releases which come out by all your favourite bands. You have what amounts to unlimited access to every piece of music ever recorded, and it’s FREE… as long as you don’t mind the occasional advert in between songs. You music collection is infinite!”

Can I tape it all and play it on my walkman when I leave the house?” is a question your young counterpart may venture.

Well, not exactly…” you’d reply. You’d then continue with…

But for £9.99 a month you can save it all to a device the size of a single cassette case and take it with you wherever you go. That’s right… for the paltry sum of a tenner every four weeks, you can have, to keep, a CD quality copy of every album you ever wanted, or ever will want and you can listen to it all anywhere you like… at home, on the bus, in the car, or even out walking the dog.”

Just think how someone from the relatively recent world of the 1990s would react to that image of the future. They would, quite rightly, be amazed and impatient for the future to arrive.

I know I will never convince the hard-core vinyl junkies out there. To some folks, the smell of the record sleeve, the ritual of handling the LP by only the edges as they reverently place it on the turntable, and the perceived warmth of the sound are a vital part of the way they appreciate music. That said, I’ve yet to come across a person of this persuasion who will agree to a blind test to see if they can actually distinguish vinyl from digital. Even if they could, I’d wager it would be the surface noise – the inherent imperfections in sound reproduction caused by the needle on the record – that would tell them they were listening to music on technology perfected in the 1950s.

For me, enjoyment of music is all about losing myself in the emotional response created by the interaction of melody, harmony, lyrics and rhythm. I want to hear the music as I would if I’d been in the studio listening while the band were performing it, without anything (like tape-hiss or the sound of a stylus in a groove) colouring it or getting in the way. The medium it is stored on, and the packaging it is sold in matter not one jot. That great visionary, Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” When it comes to the infinite wonderland of instantaneous music we now have I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s magical.


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The John Robson Jazz Project

First Gig With The Palace Buskers – Sometimes Simplest Is Best

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I was going back out gigging again after a hiatus of a good few years. Well, last night was the first gig with my new live venture, The Palace Buskers. Briefly, to recap, I do a couple of shows each week on a local community radio station in Redcar, PalaceFM. On one of these shows I play guitar whilst my co-host, Dee sings. It’s a sort of “live lounge” type thing, basically. Well, to cut a long story short, we decided to take the songs we’d learned for the radio performances out on the road.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about how it would go down – no backing tracks or any sequenced drums, no bass… nothing but guitar & vocals. Would the audience (and more importantly the landlord who was paying us) feel short changed by the stripped down nature of our set? Well, I can reveal that I was worrying over nothing (or “nowt” as we say in these parts). We kicked off with a soul medley of “I Can’t Stand The Rain/River Deep Mountain High/Midnight hour, with me strumming out the necessary barre chords on a strat (plugged into an amp modeller, straight into the desk), and Dee belting out the vocals. As I hit the final chord of the opening medley, the pub erupted into applause with cheers & hollers coming from all parts of the (admittedly small – it was a Sunday night, after all) crowd.

Next song was Fairground Attraction’s “Perfect” which went, erm… perfectly. Again the crowd loved it & so the evening went on. Song after song went down brilliantly – no heckles, people visibly enjoying themselves even when I dusted off my vocal chords to sing “Whiskey In The Jar”. Barring the odd few mistakes (bound to happen on any 1st gig with a new set) which we covered pretty well, the night couldn’t have gone better & I enjoyed every minute. The venue, The Clarendon Hotel have rebooked us for a gig in early January too which is the truest test of how we did – a venue doesn’t rebook any act who they’re going to lose money giving a gig to.

Russ, the landlord, said what a fantastic change it was to have a live music night that wasn’t just a singer, or singers with karaoke backing tracks, “borderline miming” he called it. He praised our rawness and promised to spread the word on the pub grapevine so that we would more easily get a foot in the door with other venues in the area. Great news!

As you can probably tell, I’m on a bit of a high after this inaugural show & I’m already looking forward to the next one at another local pub, The Britannia Inn on Nov 3rd. What strikes me as being the most enjoyable thing about this new live act, that I’ve stumbled into, is the one thing I was worried may be a our Achilles heel – the lack of a “full band” sound either with drums & bass or backing tracks. It turns out that (surprise, surprise) audiences love live music and they love it all the more for being 100% live – a perceived weakness has actually turned out to be a strength. Also when there are only two people on stage, there is far less scope for things to go wrong (on a scale that the audience would notice, anyway). All in all I’m filled with optimism for The Palace Buskers – it may not be a way for me to showcase virtuoso guitar soling skills a la Satch & EVH (something I always used to try & squeeze into any song given half a chance), but I’m learning loads about making complex songs work with a minimalist arrangement, I’m having fun & I’m earning a few quid into the bargain. Happy Days!

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