Friday, April 27, 2007

Ambient Electronica for Dummies

A 2nd EP of my new music, "The Secondhand Value of a Download" is now available to download. The result of 3 sessions over the last month or so, it contains 7 predominantly instrumental electronic tracks, which you might like, if you like that kind of thing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Not recognising Gwendoline

I'd skimmed through yesterday's G2 in the Guardian about 3 times before I realised there was a 2 page interview with Gwendoline Riley about her new novel "Joshua Spassky." Not recognising someone from a picture, may mean its been a while since you've seen them (true), but her hair is darker, and that fools me every time. Though the web article includes the old, old picture. The interview's interesting, as ever, since she's a sparky conversationalist, even if the headline's concentration on graves and Morrissey seems a little out of place. Talking about "Joshua Spassky" she says "it's pretty obvious that the two characters are in love. What is in doubt is: so what?" which in itself makes me want to read it. Given the notoriously short, but never short-changing, nature of her work I was amused to read that she is one of our more "prolific" novelists, her youthful achievements, like Keats, Fitzgerald (or Wayne Rooney), giving her a relatively advanced c.v. Her next book, she says, is exploring misogyny, a subject I've often touched on myself in stories, (I was going to call a novel "The Misogynist" at one point), so I remain intrigued by one of Manchester's (by adoption) most interesting writers, though I'm not sure that next time I see her on the steps of Central Library I'd recognise her.


Lured here by the Gwendoline Riley piece, you can no doubt find a minute to sign the online petition to support the long-closed "Band on the Wall", in Manchester's regenerated northern quarter, in its quest to reopen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Bookerisation of American Fiction

We've long protected our own Booker Prize from America, believing, perhaps rightly, that American novelists would then dominate it. Yet, there's been a strange side effect. America, despite its Pullitzers etc., looks longingly at our Booker. The "type" of novel that has become a "Booker novel" has a certain respectability and seriousness about it, that America seems to respect in the same way it likes our Royal Family. That's my impression, anyhow, given the range of writers who have been picked by Granta for its latest Best Young American Novelists issue. Out in May, according to the Guardian (but already on 3 for 2 in Waterstones, according to me), the short biographies of half a dozen writers that the Guardian mentions seems to indicate that new American writers are increasingly like Booker writers - serious types picking exotic subjects, or other lands or peoples - for their novels. The affluent, educated traveller is a commonplace in Booker lists, (though America so far seems to have resisted that other Booker "lure", "the historical novel")and that's what comes to mind reading about the latest crop. "What leaps out of the new list, as the Granta judges have commented, is a heavy emphasis on things foreign." I would add, that this is not necessarily a good thing. Yes, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and even Bellow wrote about a world outside of America, but it was from an American perspective. In a globalised world, this kind of cultural tourism, though often commercially successful, has yet, in my opinion, to produce a literature as good as the indigenous. And though American writers have always embraced university posts, another British trait seems evident, when you read that "Gabe Hudson shares an office with Edmund White at Princeton, where he teaches creative writing. Joyce Carol Oates has an office over the corridor." Hudson sounds an interesting writer, but Edmund White was one of the judges, and like in Britain, it seems that the established literary tent likes letting a few writers in, in case its tent is blown down by a new wind down the street. I remain highly suspicious of writers who actually feel they fit in with the prevailing winds, rather than railing against them. Though, perhaps, given the iconoclastic urban writing of McInerney and Easton Ellis, the new generation feel more at home with such urbane writers as White and Oates. And its worth repeating, that with its cut off point at under 35, generations aren't what they used to be, from Updike, to McInerney to Foer 9/11 has been an alluring subject.

Monday, April 23, 2007

It's Monday morning and I don't want to go to work...

Perhaps its the early sunshine, but I've been waking earlier and earlier, and even getting some things done before I go to work. Today I'm delaying the Monday start, after all, I'm doing a presentation on webby things at Dukinfield Town Hall later on, so may not make it back to South Manchester tonight (or at all.) I went to see "Sunshine" at the weekend, and enjoyed it. Everything's post-modern these days even when it doesn't want to be, so its easy to criticise its sci-fi by numbers. If you've ever seen "Alien", "Appollo 13" and "Silent Running" and that episode of Dr. Who called "The Satan Pit" you've probably got most of the numbers. Yet, it would be churlish to complain, since it looked beautiful, had a certain can't take the eyes from the screen quality, was undeniably cinematic (perhaps a first for a film supported by the UK Film Council), and did touch on a few larger issues. It was head and shoulders above Boyle and Garland's "The Beach" as well. Next time you look up at the sun, it might send a chill through you, seeing how much we depend on that distant orb. Film, in this sense, is a poor substitute for the other arts, when it comes to wondering about our existence and that sublime body. Worth thinking about next time you start to write a poem - that maybe you've all the budget you need! I was in Waterstones at the weekend and came out without buying a book. Everything was so much more expensive than the internet, unless it was in a 3-for-2. Yet again, I was struck by the poor quality of most mass-produced paperbacks. You might as well buy them as an e-Book if that's the way things are going. Though I did pick up a remaindered biography of Muhammad Ali, which I'm looking forward to.

An artist friend came round, as I said I'd help him with a website for a forthcoming exhibition of his. I was impressed by Wordpress - which I used properly for the first time - but can see that for someone who just wants to "blog", blogger remains the less confusing option.

Going back to the bookshelves at Waterstones, its interesting how many novellas seem around these days. They don't call them that of course, but Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" and Philip Roth's "Everyman" are not the only short books out there. For such alpha male authors, size, it seems, doesn't really matter.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Death of a Salaryman, Live in London

"Death of a Salaryman" is the first novel by Fiona Campbell, another alumni of the MMU creative writing course. She's doing her first reading from the novel at Vox N Roll, at the Boogaloo Bar in London on Monday 23rd at 8.30.

The Pursuit of Happiness

An old friend comes to stay and reminds me of one or two truly obscure but great records from the past!

Monday, April 16, 2007

Its always the BBC

Its always the BBC that gets the mood wrong, errs on the side of caution, makes the wrong decision. It's hard to find myself on the side of the ill-conceived National Short Story Prize, a beauty contest with predictable contestants, but the news that one of the shortlisted stories, Hanif Kureishi's "Weddings and Beheadings" is not being broadcast because of sensitivity over the kidnapping of the journalist Alan Johnston in Gaza, seems to show, yet again, our national broadcaster is as parochial as a village fete. There is certainly time for some sensitivity, and one can only feel for Johnston's family and friends at this time. Yet, a short story, from a respected writer, written well before this event, and, moreso, in a context that Johnston was well aware of - was perhaps his reason for being where he was - seems a strange lamb to sacrifice. Do you remember before Gulf War I when Massive Attack became Massive and Bomb the Bass were removed from the playlist. The Kureishi story sounds hardly that original (consider the brilliant film "Fifteen Minutes" with its media-obsessed ultraviolence, on television only last week, never mind the photographer in "City of God") but given that every week there are atrocities and kidnappings in Iraq, the "sensitivity" seems misplaced. If the story is good enough to be in contention for winning this prize, then surely it can't be any kind of crass exploitation?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The great thing about Myspace...

...and perhaps the real reason for "social networking" is that you come across things serendipitously that you otherwise wouldn't have done. Therefore, friends round for dinner tonight, Tim's in a band that can be found here, which led me to here, the Manchester Mixtape and CD festival. Wonderful! And it happens without anyone's permission. I'm already itching over the pause button (which would, in itself, be a great name for a song).

PS "Life on Mars" was good as a self-contained episode but bad in its inexcusable playing of fast-and-loose that had come before. It used "The Others" technique at one point, and then turned back on that. It's not the trick endings that bothered me; but you always felt there was a reason that Sam Tyler had been spirited back (indeed, some episodes were particularly focused on this), and yet, unless I missed something, there was no reason. McGuffins all round, in other words.


All day I've been avoiding finding out what happened in "Life on Mars" in the hope that I can watch it a day late on Virgin on demand (not always certain - the last episode of Spooks NEVER appeared on NTL, spooky) and it seems the whole country was talking and writing about it. Let's say John Simms has always been a favourite, who deserves a successful series, and the idea was brilliant - but some of the episodes (particularly the Chorlton sex party one) have been the creakiest of recycled police procedurals. Whatever, as soon as I've finished here, I'll watch the last episode. I've also been avoiding reviews of McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" having read the first few paragraphs in the Observer, I was sure there was something dreadful and frightening about to happen despite the langurous prose. Suddenly read a review, Peter Wild's on Bookmunch and I'm none the wiser, hurrah! though I'm not sure I want to read the book. Wild is right that "Enduring Love" was his breakthrough - if only because it was his first truly successful novel (though I'm rather a fan of the earlier "The Innocent") - McEwan, before then, seemed a writer who was stuck: both in his forensic style, and his buttoned-up subject matter. "Enduring Love" seemed to unbutton him; and he's stayed that way. Yet, I'm not even sure I'm interested anymore. There was hubris in "Enduring Love" (the thriller element, the crutch his novels had previously leant on); but nothing compared with the slight "Amsterdam", the brilliant, but contrived "Atonement" and "Saturday", which was more enduring, than love. We're now in "late" McEwan I think, early being the tense short stories - the terribly stretched novels like "Child in Time" - middle being everything before "Atonement" (his "Birdsong"), and now we're late. He's an audience, and he's a novelist, and now he realises he should bring the two together. I find it hard to agree with Wild's conclusions - though I've not read "On Chesil Beach" yet - that this is a writer peaking; yet his caveat I can't disagree with, that McEwan is part of an old guard.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The web, music and Bonbon Experiment

Though there's a million Myspaces, a million blogs, it's fair to say that the web hasn't yet really delivered as a "content distribution" platform - or rather, it is too intimately wedded to the old ways. The difficulty is, of course, that we're used to getting things for "free" on the web, and yet the old business models remain. We also value what we pay for etc. etc. and the "value" of, say the new Arctic Monkeys song, is far more than anything most of us could dream up for our Myspace. That said, I've been spending much of my time making music recently. From the mid-eighties I would diligently mix my songs down on to cassettes, and maybe make the odd copy here and there (2nd generation, muddy sounding as hell). It was only in 1998 - by which time my music making had reduced to a trickle - that CD-R's meant you could "burn" a CD (at twice normal speed!!!!) and use one of those awful sticky labels to turn into a "proper" CD. Alot of time since has been spent turning my old cassette tapes into slightly less-hissy CDs. Yet, even this has been a slightly messy medium. I guess I've always wanted to make my music available on the web, for anyone who wants it. In the past, this has been "old music" repackaged, but I'm happy to say, the first EP of new material - oh, for years! - is now available to download, including the cover (with lyrics on the back), and, if you so wish you can burn it to a CD or add it to your iPod. "Fall of the Rebel Angels" consists of 4 songs, with 4 demos & alternative versions. The songs are entitled "Narcissus", "Sad Lovers of Twilight", "Fall of the Rebel Angels" and "No". Bonbon Experiment was the name I recorded under years ago, and I've resurrected it for my new tracks. There will be a 2nd EP - this time of instrumental music - available shortly, and I'll occasionally upload test tracks on Myspace. I'd love to see more artists make there work available in this way, but of course I don't get paid - but on the other hand, I doubt it would add up to a hill of beans anyway - and, in case you're wanting to get Girls Aloud to "cover" one of my songs, it is released under a Creative Commons licence.


P.S. The EP (Extended Play) is one of my favourite musical storage devices. In the 60s there was even an EP chart pulling together 4 or 5 songs on a 33rpm 7" by bands as popular as the Beatles or Elvis Presley. "Magical Mystery Tour" wonder of wonders was a double EP. I guess the format died about the same time that albums became pillars of wisdom around Sgt. Pepper. It was probably not till punk that you got a real renaissance of the form - something of the DIY ethos, and giving value for money to fans - again, on 7" - what was that one that Motorhead/Girls School did? Or do you remember that "Too Much Too Young" by the Specials was one track on an EP. At the same time, the "maxi single" - 12" singles - was being pioneered in disco, and EPs got a bit of short shrift after that - multiple formats began piling up (see Frankie Goes to Hollywood etc.) - yet the 12" single could sometimes be an EP - bands like Cocteau Twins didn't have a lead track and 3 b-sides, but 4 tracks of equal value. Some of my most prised possessions are early 80s 12" EPs. For new bands without enough songs for an album (and needing a regular income!) the EP offered value for money for fans and a good marker of the band's progress. And the EP sometimes got so long it had to be called a mini album. What was Sisters of Mercy's awesome "The Reptile House" - a long EP or a short album? Multi-formats ruined things of course, but in some ways, the CD single brought back the EP - sometimes in its old format. A band would release a new single and give you 3 of their hits as "presents". I used to scour the b-sides for these little "greatest hits" collections. But the real EP should be something that has a coherence or form to it - several live tracks for instance, or a number of remixes to accompany an album. (Think of A Certain Ratio's "4 from the Floor".) By giving it another title than the lead track, an EP had its own identity. I was pleased when the Arctic Monkeys released there "Who the Fuck are the Arctic Monkeys?" single last year - too many tracks to be a single, too cheap to be an album. An EP then! It seems that in the new download age an EP is the way to go. 79p or so for a single - you're not really going to shell that out again for a b-side or two? But 4 tracks or so for a few pound - now you're talking. My EP is rather long to be a true EP - in fact its probably 2 EPs, the 4 songs, then the 4 remixes, in old money. Yes, those aiming for the charts will surely continue to release singles with a dodgy b-side, a dubious dance mix, and a DVD promo for company, but for the rest of the world - surely the EP's day has come again. I'm beginning to think the Myspace limitation of 4 tracks is actually perfect. Here's the EP for the 21st century, not just a song, not quite an album. Find out if you like us, and, there will be another one along in a few months.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Plays on Words

I was reading in Poetry magazine about a competition for a verse drama, to help revitalise this particular art. I've been quietly interested in this form for a while, perhaps inevitably, as someone who writes poetry and drama, and is consistently interested in narrative. I've been reading Christopher Logue's Homer, Goethe's Faust (in English, Jarrell's version) and keep returning to Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes. It's always the great anomaly of English literature that our preeminent writer, Shakespeare, was a poetic dramatist. Every now and then someone has a go at something - I've been impressed by Simon Armitage's multimedia attempts - and it seems a worthy thing to attempt. I've had a drama idea for several years, which I'll keep for myself for now, which I long ago realised would be best done as a verse drama. I've gone back to my notes, and found that the structure I'd begun in 2004, has a lot going for it. The writing is another thing - but I'm finding it a fascinating challenge, albeit a big one. I think I'll complete the first act and see what comes from that. I do have form here; I wrote one a few years ago, a Mummers style rewriting of a story I'd written, but got somewhat perplexed responses from the playwriting competitions/services I sent it to. Maybe I have to approach this from the poetry end?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Mine's a 99p download

News that EMI are going to ditch DRM (Digital Rights Management) and encode their tracks at a higher bit-rate, but for a cost, reminds me of the old joke about whether you'd have "sex for a million pounds." Ok, if you say yes, we know what you are, now let's negotiate on the price. For the joke is that the music industry does already sell DRM-free digital tracks - they are called CDs. Given that they tend to translate 99p in the UK to 99 cents in the US (twice the price, thank you very much), I'm not sure this is exactly the revolution that will save EMI from the ditch in which its been driving. Let's now talk about price... a £5 back catalogue CD to download with 12 tracks will now cost you £12 from iTunes without a cover or any of that other nice stuff; and that its still in bed with the abysmal Apple doesn't make it any better. I prefer the 20p a track I'm paying with emusic, with no downloads, and a lovely excursion through the backwaters of independently released music. If EMI had any balls it would have made its entire back catalogue available DRM-free either through iTunes or someone else and had differentiated the price as it does in record shops - but totalitarian Apple wouldn't want that either, would it? It's clear that this "model" - higher quality, higher price - is to enable them to sell the Beatles catalogue in a little while, even if this wasn't their announcement today. This is, remember, a last throw of the dice for beleaguered EMI, that they've thrown it so tentatively shows how little faith they have in either their product or consumer. This one will run and run....