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

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Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):

satellite-lp

It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…

esp-ltd-h-101fm-2016-spec-dbs-349218

Or this…

nighthawk

All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:

hondo-rainbow

This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:

wooliestop20

My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…

kay-lp-fx

Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Music… What is it’s place in our culture?

Let’s get this out if the way before we go any further… I am not a sports fan. Never have been, never will be. For those of a similar persuasion to me, this summer is shaping up to be a pretty grim affair. TV schedules disrupted left right & centre to make room the FIFA World Ball Kicking Championships in Brazil, then The All England Bats & Balls Tournament at Wimbledon, and to cap it all off, The Not-Quite-The-Olympic Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

It’s not just that all the interesting TV has been shelved until the autumn, it’s not even that we could be invaded by three-headed lizard aliens from the back end of Alpha-Centauri and it would struggle to make the 10 o’clock news, lest it interrupt the sports coverage. No, it’s the all-pervading “we need to get kids involved in sport” hype that gets trotted out at every opportunity that already has me shouting at the telly.

Perhaps encouraging children to take up a sport does teach them valuable life skills. I’ll concede that just because I have no interest in something, doesn’t mean it’s without merit. What gets my blood up is the implicit suggestion that ONLY sport has the power to shape young lives in a positive way.

Every news bulletin over the next couple of months will be almost guaranteed to carry a puff-piece about some youth who turned their life around & avoided a descent into delinquency by taking up some form of competitive, sporting pastime. You literally cannot watch more than a few minutes of “news” coverage at the moment without seeing a former athlete or footballer banging on about the latest government initiative they’re involved in. Usually the aim is “to make sport more accessible to kids at a grass roots level” or “build on the current national interest in sport” or something similar. All very commendable, but it does beg the question: “What about music & the arts?”

We have the equivalent of the music Olympics in this country every year. It’s called The Glastonbury Festival. Oh, and don’t forget The Isle of Wight Festival, The Lunar Festival, The Hop Farm festival, British Summer Time, T in the Park, High Voltage, Download (or Monsters of Rock as it used to be called), and The Reading & Leeds Festivals. We also have Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival, The Cambridge Folk Festival, Glyndebourne for opera fans, the BBC Prom concerts, and The Hay Literary Festival. These are just a tiny selection of the music and arts events the are happening this summer in the UK. Each of these will bring world renowned, world class, top flight musicians and performers from across the globe to our little island this, and every, summer. Seen any mention of them on the news? Nope, me neither.

Given the cultural & musical summer we have in store, why do we not see those involved being invited onto current affairs programmes or breakfast TV to talk about it all? Surely you’d expect to see musicians & creative types enthusing about how kids should be encouraged to learn an instrument or join a band, and the benefits this would bring to both them and the country. Where are the Mercury Prize winners and Grammy Award nominees who should be fronting government schemes to promote music in schools? When was the last time you saw the media track down and interview someone who coached and mentored a now famous musician when they were a novice?

All of this (and more) should be happening if we wish to produce as many world class performers and musicians for the future as the number of sports stars we aspire to have. This is to say nothing of the benefits to society we gain by showing young people we value artistic and musical creativity in the same way we value sporting prowess.

There are many valuable life skills that being a musician can teach. Being in a band taught me more about teamwork than chasing a ball around a wind-bitten school field ever did, for example. Every musician who picks up a phone to try and get gigs for his/her band is a budding entrepreneur; every song that needs to be learned in time for the next gig is an exercise in time management & self discipline; mastering that difficult passage in a solo demonstrates the value of persistence & tenacity; seeing how practice and dedication lead directly to progress and achievement is the best way I’ve found of fostering a strong work ethic. The list goes on and on, yet the creative arts are seldom, if ever, mentioned or covered in this light. Why?

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that music and the arts are criminally undervalued in this country. When music, in particular, is covered at all it tends to be in the context of Saturday night TV talent shows. Let’s face it, these contests hardly have a track record for producing ground-breaking & original new talent. If all you want from your music is familiar sounding, generic, power ballad warblers & the odd catchy ditty then you are well enough catered for. If, however, you want thought-provoking, mould-breaking new music which challenges you and enriches your life then it’s pretty slim pickings.

I understand that the music business is much more “the music BUSINESS” than “the MUSIC business”, and making money from populist, mass market, lowest-common-denominator, disposable pop fodder is the order of the day. But yet again, sport seems to play by a different set of rules, as it were. The free market philosophy which keeps original, different new music relegated to the margins of our culture because it doesn’t generate massive profits, doesn’t seem to apply to those who don a football strip or running shoes instead of a guitar.

It is a well established fact that it is unusual for the host nation of any major sporting tournament to make a profit from it – many countries will find themselves still paying off the cost of hosting an Olympiad decades later. Countless top-flight football clubs make little or no profit & could not survive without large injections of cash from their billionaire, sugar-daddy owners. Success on the field may not be reflected on the balance sheet, but no-one refers to the league champions as unsuccessful because their like-for-like profits are down. Bringing home the trophies, it is generally accepted, sometimes requires a financial sponsor. When it comes to public funding, we accept that even mass-participation sports should get taxpayer subsidies. It’s regarded as a price well worth paying as a way of bolstering a sense of national pride. Yet music has to pay it’s own way to a much greater extent.

Should we not feel a sense of collective pride when a British performer gains worldwide recognition? I’m not a huge fan of James Blunt, for example, but he is a singer, songwriter and lyricist who has become an international phenomenon and look at the way he is routinely pilloried in the national press. How badly does a footballer have to behave to get the same degree of sustained vitriol directed at him from the media? Wayne Rooney can behave like a yob, but before long, all is forgiven because of his talent on the football pitch. He is even regarded as a role model in some quarters. What about a rock star who may act in a similar manner? Is Liam Gallagher anyone’s shining example to the youth of the nation, for instance? See my point?

For whatever reason, sport seems to be regarded as more important to our national identity than music, and therefore deserving of more media coverage and prestige. Once upon a time, there were two ways for any kid from the back streets to make it to the big time: sport and rock & roll. If you choose sport, over music, as your path to stardom, you’ll have far more support from those who control the purse strings and dictate the media agenda. As a musician, I find this alarming and sad in equal measure. If we don’t do something to redress the balance, music is in danger of ending up as the minority interest that some already seem to think it is.

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