Monday, 29 October 2007

More Songs About Buildings And Food

"It's very nice to go trav'ling, but it's oh so nice to come home", as Frank Sinatra smoothly intoned, and he certainly wasn't wrong when it meant being cut-off from all things internet for a fortnight. Exactly how pathetic is that? My reliance on the web for staying in touch with widely-dispersed friends, news, music, etc has become depressingly complete. Maybe if I sit down and type out a 1500-word "why-oh-why-oh-why" Daily Torygraph-style moan about the lack of human contact in everyday life in the 21st century, that'll make it all better. Or not. So I'll chunter on about Inverness (since that's where we were) instead.

Now, I don't want to give the impression that Inversneckie is in any way a technologically backward hick town, stuck in a northern rural hinterland, blasted with driving rain, sleet and snow (on alternate days, September to May inclusive), and governed by inbred ultra-socially-conservative Free Kirk fanatics. No, really, I don't, because it isn't. Ok, maybe certain parts of it are still just a little bit from time to time, but it's getting much better, honest. It's changed out of all recognition since my first visit back in 1995-ish (as moderately-amusingly chronicled in August's "Who Are You" post), and has become a genuinely hip and groovy place to be. Well, at the very least, it's gone a long way towards achieving that status over the intervening years.

For a start, my absence-of-net-access issue was caused only partially by the apparent dearth of any "traditional" internet cafés - you know, some sofas, a bunch of computers [with or without hidden key-loggers, who knows? ], transient-backpacker staff who spend all their time yakking with their mates rather than serve you what passes for coffee. Rather, it was my comparative poverty (for a tech-literate citizen of a what passes for a highly-prosperous western nation ), and therefore non-possession of a laptop or "dangleberry" media-gimp-style-victim-type device with which to exploit the numerous free wi-fi spots advertised around the town. (I refuse even to consider "internet phones" - my fingers can wrap themselves round a 6-string bass, thus are not exactly ideally shaped for poking away at keys the size of very small ants. Also, having my eyesight deteriorate even further through trying to work using a screen that's about a quarter of the resolution of my monitor doesn't appeal. Not that I could afford such a beast, anyway! ). So not the city's fault, more mine for not finding the time to get down to the central library and signing-up for some free computer access there. Ho hum.

I sense that one or two folk out there may be less than convinced by my protestations - and that a fair few others have no idea where Inverness even is, but no matter - I shall set your hearts ablaze with the desire to visit Scotland's most northerly city by the end of this piece. Maybe. It might be that some people's hearts are more flammable than others, depending perhaps on how much fatty tissue surrounds the organ, and the quantity of nail polish remover the person is in the habit of imbibing on a nightly basis. Now there's an experiment I'll bet you wish you'd got to do at school!

Consider, then, that apart from a host of places to eat, drink, and/or hear a wide variety of live bands, they possess the finest Thai-restaurant-come-traditional-and-more music venue I've ever visited. Ok, it also happens to be the only one I've set foot in, but Hootananny's has truly fantastic - and great value! - food, a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and a first-rate in-house p.a. set-up to ease a poor muso's osteopath bills. Bliss. Then there's Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, Leakey's, which is the ideal place to while away a pleasant afternoon or several (assuming you have no small children to appease/amuse/desperately attempt to keep under some semblance of control). Lastly, (but by all means not least-ly), there are two decent musical instrument shops within 100 metres of each other - just down the road from Leakey's, conveniently enough. And round the corner from "Hoots", come to think about it. Food, drink, guitars and books, all within easy ambling distance - "most bonus", indeed!

For those of us with young families, I don't think I can stress sufficiently the importance of music shops as a place of temporary refuge from the constant demands (and incredibly wearing absence-of-internal-dialogue-stream-of-babble) of children that non-parents cannot fully comprehend. Even if you borrow some kids for a day. It's just not the same. I got the chance to hide in one for half-an-hour, and was extremely surprised to discover that the Vietnamese are making perfectly acceptable budget basses. The deeply unattractively-named Peavey 'Grind' turned out to be great fun for the money, and I completely failed to resist the urge to "rip it up" shamelessly. In my defence, there was a small gaggle of early-teenage metalheads in the corner, trying-out their latest identikit magazine-learned high-fuzz tapping patterns, a trio of the store staff being "cool" with some of their mates, and I'd caught a couple of ignorant disparaging comments about the instrument I was holding (and anyone who thought it worth a glance) float across the shop (I have surprisingly good hearing, despite all the gigs standing next to a drummer ), so what else was a scruffy-looking guy who was clearly waaaay too old to "rock n' roll" supposed to do?

20 minutes' worth of pointlessly technical speed-poncing, with occasional splodges of jazz chords thrown in just for laughs, later, and I was convinced that the 'Grind' (seriously, who was responsible for that name? and why?) was a genuinely decent bass for the money. It could have done with a bit more wood in the body, but the strings-through-body design did help the tone, and lightness can be a virtue in a 6-string! Throw in a couple of Status pick-ups (£125 including delivery), say, and you'd have something really nice. Much better, for instance, than the more expensive, Bartolini-equipped, yet seemingly too light and tone-free Ibanez SR506, which I also tried out while hiding (this time from the displeasure of my mother-in-law ) in a music shop in Kentucky earlier this year.

Interestingly, (to me), both places tried the same trick - inviting me to plug into a big, fat, high-quality stack, just to help me along on the purchasing front. Experience, however, teaches us to "Just say no!", and opt for a medium-size combo instead, which, with a cruelly flattened eq, will truly expose the nature of an instrument - unless, of course, you have both a) a great deal of cash, and b) roadies, in which case, be my guest and turn that huge Ampeg up loud, baby! Just don't blame me if you find you've bought a crap bass.

I learned this lesson the hard way, you see, when I was an impressionable youth of 19, and seeking a new guitar amp. Rather than spending my cash on something sensible, like a second-hand Sessionette 75, I was foolishly determined to purchase a shiny new amplifier to inflict on my neighbours. The guy in the shop must have smelled me coming, because when I asked to try out the *cough* Dean Markley K65 *cough* I liked the look of, he handed me an old Les Paul. Plainly (for I wasn't completely clueless) a very old, very good Les Paul. In fact, it was too good for a mediocre guitarist like me. The action was cigarette-paper low, and my clumsy touch could barely keep up with this beautiful guitar, which sounded amazing. As I was handing it back (very carefully, may I add), I asked him exactly how old it was. "A '56", he said, and watched in horror as I almost dropped it in sheer nervous terror and excitement (I clocked the serial number and checked it later - he wasn't lying). Understandably, I was blown away by the whole experience, and decided on the spot to buy the amp - which turned out to be under-powered and largely unsuited for what I wanted to do.

Still, at least I got to play an incredibly cool guitar. And see Inverness? That's not half bad, either. It's never going to be as cool as a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Gold Top, of course - but then, what is?

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

I'm Sorry

"I think it's time I realised get down on my knees and apologise..." (Hothouse Flowers)

Dear friends, casual acquaintances, people who've been misdirected here by Google - I need to unburden myself of a tremendous feeling of guilt, that I've wronged and falsely maligned a large group of innocent people on a regular basis over the years, and it's time now to stand up and say both "I'm sorry", and confess that "I was wrong" to them. I'll also offer a brief apology to anyone who was expecting this post to appear in its regular Sunday late-night slot (must be a jazz gig), and was even the slightest bit put out when it failed to emerge. There is a very good reason for the delay, however - I was trying my best to assimilate a pile of neurological data relating to brain function and musical perception, and when you take into account my limited spare time, and that my only "science" qualification is a Scottish 'Higher'-grade exam from 1985 (I got a "B", in case anyone was insomniac enough to be wondering), then it was always going to be a bit of a struggle.

I will not, though, be apologising to the aforementioned Google searchers who took the plunge and landed on this page, only to head straight back in disgust when it failed to live up to their expectations. I do understand that if you're a U2 fan, then finding only a derogatory reference to Adam Clayton's bass-playing (in)abilities is never going to be ideal, but if you will go looking for an "amphetamine enema", 'unknown' from Germantown, Tennessee, then you can't expect much in the way of sympathy, now can you?

So whom have I wronged so wilfully? Well, you know all those people who, when asked what music they're into, reply with "Anything that's in the charts", or something along those lines? That's the ones. I've met so many of them, and they used to annoy me no end - how could someone be so incredibly indifferent towards something as important as music? How could they not (apparently) differentiate between genres/artists - didn't they
care??? I think that was the greatest crime in my book - not caring enough. Being apathetic in their choice of music, happily consuming whatever was on the Radio 1 playlist at the time. In my defence, let's not forget that for a 30-year old British adult, that means an approximately equal endorsement of:

Aqua, Britney, Beyoncé, Manic Street Preachers, Whigfield, "24.47 Pence" or "€0.35" as "50 Cent" is known over here (at current exchange rates), Oasis, Right Said Fred, Eminem, Take That, Mr. Blobby, Simply Red, Spice Girls, Peter Andre, Bob the Builder, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Razorlight, The Backstreet Boys, Westlife, George Michael, Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, U2, Boyzone, Queen, Diddy/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Puff the Magic Diddy/Right Diddy, Madonna, Craig David, UB40, Pink, Robson & Jerome, Sugababes, Elton John, Justin "bumfluff" Timberlake, Nelly, Sting, Crazy Frog, Busted, My Chemical Romance...etc,etc,etc.

That way, indeed, madness lies.

There had to be some sort of explanation. A lot of it, I used to think, could be ascribed to folk being "tone-deaf", or thereabouts. After all, in many surveys, the proportion of the general public who self-identify as "tone-deaf" runs at about 1 in 7, or 14.3% (give or take) - except they're almost all wrong (whodathunkit?). They're mostly just lousy singers who've had little or no training. It turns out that the real figure lies in the 3-4% range, and that true "amusia" has a significant hereditary component - "In amusic families, 39% of first-degree relatives have the same cognitive disorder, whereas only 3% have it in the control families." (1) Plus these poor "amusic" folks seem to have "a reduction in white matter concentration in the right inferior frontal gyrus" (Dr. Isabelle Peretz, Université de Montréal). In other words, a bit of their brain is, well, "missing". Ouch. And great sympathy. But not, apparently, a reason for "music apathy".

That left me a little mystified. So I decided to see what the latest fMRI research techniques could turn up...which was quite a lot, and took a great deal of sifting through...

Now, most of us are probably aware of the basic "popular" science regarding music and the brain, even if a lot of it comes at us from less-than-objective sources ("Music lessons make your kids smarter, 29% better at maths, 400% less likely to smoke pot, and they will never steal your car and cross the state line whilst intoxicated on home-made vodka and engaging in oral sex", says Head of Music School". That sort of thing). Then there are the plethora of studies that say trained musicians respond to music with greater left-brain activity than non-musicians - e.g. when it comes to picking-up subtle performance cues in jazz, "we demonstrate that pre-attentive brain responses recorded with magnetoencephalography to rhythmic incongruence are left-lateralized in expert jazz musicians and right-lateralized in musically inept non-musicians." (2) - and that "musical expertise leads to perceptual processes that are predominantly based on local strategies." (3) We use the areas relating to language far more, apparently. But that's not all...for musos, it gets better:

"Notably, professional musicians showed a significant (greater than 100%) increase in MEG activity within primary auditory cortex compared to nonmusicians, which was found to correlate with increased (130%) volumetric measurements of gray matter within Heschl's gyrus in musicians compared to nonmusicians." (4)

So, if you're a pro, you've going to have one really big gyrus (anyone using this as part of a chat-up line does so entirely at their own risk).

Which is, all in all, why it's been unfair of me to criticise the musically apathetic the way I've always done. Given the musical limitations of most of the general public's brains that research has exposed, it's clear that I've been indulging in what amounts to a form of 'mocking the afflicted', (and that Simon Cowell's ownership of the Universe is, alas, inevitable). So a heartfelt "I'm sorry" to all the chart-hit-lovers out there. Except for Oasis fans, of course. Neurological underdevelopment or not, there's no excuse for wallowing in ignorance.

1 - The Genetics of Congenital Amusia (Tone Deafness): A Family-Aggregation Study. The American Journal of Human Genetics, volume 81 (2007), pages 582–588

2 - Pre-attentive neuronal responses to incongruent rhythm are left-lateralized in musicians. NeuroImage Volume 24, Issue 2, 15 January 2005, Pages 560-564

3 - Receptive amusia: evidence for cross-hemispheric neural networks underlying music processing strategies. Brain, Vol. 123, No. 3, 546-559, March 2000

4 - Structural and Functional Neural Correlates of Music Perception, C. Limb, Anatomical Record Part 288A:435–446, 2006. (This is a great summary paper, can be downloaded as a PDF, and has some cool pictures of brain scans)

N.B. This blog posting is a Wikipedia-based-research-free zone, and hence can be regarded as at least slightly reliable. It is definitely not the product of:
a) several rival interest groups' politicking;
b) a single grandiose 'authority' ignoring the evidence in order to promote their latest personal controversy; or
c) some drunk compsci students, having failed to attract any female company for the 117th weekend in a row, indulging in a vindictive late-night "editing" session.

The jokes, however, are entirely mine - and for that, I can only apologise.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Bungle In The Jungle

Well, I've just finished watching Scotland lose their rugby world cup quarter-final game to Argentina by committing far too many unforced (i.e. bloody stupid) errors of a kind that would have had us doing punishment laps of the pitch when I was at school. Even if it was quarter-to-five on a lightly-sleeting, almost pitch-dark winter's afternoon, and we'd been relegated to using the "spare" balls - the bloated, vaguely oval, brown leather ones that had been worn smooth by the hands of hypothermic spotty oiks for the previous 20 years or so, and stung like a complete b@st@rd whenever you tried to catch one. You wouldn't think I absolutely loved playing the game, would you? My general approach was that being crushed into the ground by big guys hurt, (usually a lot, because I played full-back most of the time, and often had to stand, helplessly, waiting to catch a high 'up & under' while as many large sweaty forwards as possible charged towards me, with the sole aim of smashing into me as hard as they possibly could), so try to avoid it if at all feasible. Hence I was a jinky, elusive runner, who'd glide through the opposition with counter-attacking dash and verve - until I was shudderingly chopped in half with extreme malice by an implausibly vast 16-year-old, at which point all of his mates would pile in on top just to teach me a lesson for being flash. Adult rugby was similar, as I recall, only the rules had changed, so there was less of the piling-on, but more "judicious use of the boot" when you were trapped on the floor at the bottom of a ruck. I do miss it - honestly, I really do!

In spite of this misery-inducing national disaster (or minor inevitability when you consider the teams' relative world rankings - them 4th, us 8th - and current form), I thoroughly intend to make up for this week's absence of posting - general exhaustion brought on by small children, ho hum - but first a little bit of "housekeeping":

I only realised after my "America Must Be Destroyed" header that not everyone reading this would be fully aware that I'm being completely cheesy, and using song/album titles for my posts. Anyone who's managed to spot all the artists so far (without using Google, or similar) clearly has an impressively eclectic knowledge of modern music, and seriously needs to get out more. Also, I didn't intend to cause any gratuitous offence to any Americans out there who might be reading this - my wife's American, our older son has dual citizenship (just been far too idle to get round to it for the wee one yet!), and I have American friends whom I hold in the highest regard. (Will that do to convince the CIA I'm not some bizarre, fish-based-weapon-toting, would-be terrorist, d'ya think? I don't fancy those orange jumpsuits much.) Additionally, I would hate to cause offence gratuitously. I'm perfectly capable of being extremely offensive, (and frequently am, especially when "going fretless"), but I do like to maintain a certain degree of control over the process.

Plus, thanks to the kids currently taking up almost my entire existence, (I'm 'on-call' right now, and waiting ever-so-slightly-on-edge for sounds of mini-primate misery to emanate from the bedroom ), I have been forced to abandon my usual "Graduate (Cum Laude) of the Billy-Bob Thornton School of Personal Grooming and Deportment" appearance, and now more closely resemble a finallist in a Dave Lee Travis lookalike contest. Growing all the extra hair (and not it's just on my head, you know what I'm saying? oh, and no, it's not a perm), seems to be sapping my already-drained reserves of energy, so I apologise in advance for being even more meandering and tangential than usual. Any more 'deviation' and I'd likely end up the subject of a Papal Bull - or at least, a Papal Coypu.

What I'd intended to do today, was present the first instalment in the "Ultimate Musicians' Troubleshooting Guide" - the only reference book (in handy, easy-to-digest chunks, yet packed with nutritious meaty morsels for a soft, shiny coat) you'll ever need when confronted with musical-performance-related problems (you'll have to go to www.areyouabittoofloppy? for that other sort of performance. Sorry). However, since my time's a bit limited, here are a few sample problems (all of which I have some measure of direct personal experience) to be going-on with:

Symptom: In the middle of a stomping boogie-woogie gig, you realise there is a very strange sound coming from your electric piano.
Problem: Your beloved Traynor valve amplifier has flames coming out of it. Your amp is on fire. Fire. Yep, that's the one, let's not all just stand and look at it - fire! The nasty hot stuff that burns! Are all musicians quite so slow on the uptake? Sheesh. Burning, burning, burning. I know, it's awfully pretty, but will somebody bloody do something - ah, at last. Took your time, didn't you, Einstein?
Solution: Unplug the amp, pat the flames out, then pull the offending power valve from its holder, and proceed at half-volume, blithely hoping that the other one doesn't join the festival of spontaneous combustion. At least you won't be permanently injuring any small dogs within a half-mile radius of rehearsals with the sheer treble ferocity of your set-up any more. Which can only be a good thing.

: You are a reasonably well-known local folk singer. You think the band you're in are sniggering behind your back between songs, for no apparent reason. Which is annoying, and demeans poignant ballads about large-scale misery and/or death.
Problem: Completely unconsciously, you are using the break between numbers to pick your boxers out of your arse-crack, where they have become irritatingly wedged while you were singing and strumming away. Your band is aware of this, (even if the audience seem oblivious), and every time you do it they are behaving like 12-year olds. Which, given that they are musicians, is inevitable.
Solution: Try wearing a thong. It may not cure the bum-crack-itching, but occasionally exposing your hip underwear-of-choice to the punters might open up whole new markets for you.

Symptom: You have just started playing a large, open-air public gig that is being televised (ok, so it's only a crummy local cable channel, but still, it's tv, you know?!). Some of the notes on your guitar suddenly appear to be missing.
Problem: You have, predictably, broken a string less than 30 seconds into the broadcast, throwing your guitar horribly out of tune, and screwing-up all the intricate chord-work you had planned for the entire gig (since there's no time to fit a replacement, and the 'emergency spare' guitar is a completely strange beast belonging to the bass player - well, who else would have an odd acoustic guitar? - which has no onboard pre-amp, merely a passive pick-up that seems to be addicted to frequencies over 4khz). To summarise - you're screwed.
Solution: Dear Martin, it wasn't your fault, but unfortunately there is no solution. Using the entirely scientific method of dividing the vast number of strings broken by gigs played over several years, and cross-referencing location and frequency of string breakages with the lunar calendar, we can only conclude that your guitar was cursed. We're not entirely sure who by, but we think it's most likely the same people who convince fiddlers to buy all those "easy-to-install", "requires no alterations or modifications", "no glue or screws", violin pick-ups. You know the ones I mean. The pick-ups that end up costing you your youth trying to stop them falling-off, buzzing, or coming apart entirely as soon as they sense the proximity of rosin.

See? Completely indispensable! Soon to be available from all good bookstores. And, as Eddie Izzard once said, quite a few bad ones too. Order yours now to avoid disappointment!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Instant Karma

We musicians can often be a curmudgeonly, back-biting lot, forever feeling the urge to measure ourselves against the perceived talents (usually obvious lack thereof ) / achievements / number of assorted groupies and hangers-on of our peers, and have a damn good moan about the vast list of (patently unfair) advantages that all and sundry in the music industry - with the exception of ourselves, of course - must have had at various points in their careers. I'll put my hand up and plead guilty to participating in my fair share of pointless slagging and whinging sessions - although I'm certainly no operatic soprano when it comes to demeaning fellow professionals, and I'd like to think it's a tendency that diminishes with age...? Well, once you get to that point of maturity (?) where you've truly stopped caring that an absence of discernible instrumental skill is no hindrance to spectacular global success in this business, anyway. (Why does Adam Clayton of U2 always spring to mind when considering this? Answers on a postcard/comment form...)

Still, as long as all we do is a bit of beer-fuelled bitching, ("ooh, got ANOTHER new Gibson has he? That's his fifth in the last two years isn't it? Well I never did - pass me nail clippers, could you? me left hand's looking all ragged, ta - what was wrong with the old one, that's what I'd like to know, eh? Not that it'll make him play any faster - that's better, I could really feel it during me extended solo bit in 'Sweaty Animal Cavities', you know, when I'm doing those 3rds, yeah? - only thing'd make him faster would be an amphetamine enema"), then that's fine. Everyone (ok, almost everyone - I will accept there may be one or two musicians in this world of ours who are so damnably nice, and genuinely affable and unpretentious and just all-round too-fecking-good-to-be-bleeding-true who've never said a bad word about anyone. Smug b@st@rds.) indulges in that from time-to-time. It's when we cross the line, and deliberately engage in acts of villainous skullduggery against our own kind, that's when our deeds are most likely to come back to bite us in the bahookie - in the following cautionary tale, almost literally.

Back before the dawn of time (or at least, predating the phenomenon of the 'Wonderbra', Operation 'Desert Storm', and the resignation of Margaret Thatcher - oh wondrous day! ), I was one of the "twin lead guitarists" in a marvellously unwieldy student prog-rock-jazz-band called "Mind The Gap" (briefly mentioned in previous post "Swordfishtrombone"). One of our drummers (you're getting the picture now, aren't you? ), Simon, discovered that his drum stool had a serious problem on the day of a gig. Being a bit of a skinflint, and pushed for time to buy spare bits (or a replacement), he settled upon a devious course of action. Spotting another, better-quality, drum stool sitting quietly minding its own business in one of the music department's practice rooms, he swiftly replaced it with his own, and scarpered (I'm sure he meant to swap them back after the gig. Honest).

Now, Simon was one of those drummers who's always trying to play that little bit more, to push his fills perhaps a semi-demi-quaver beyond what would actually fit into a given space, resulting in a spectacular application of sudden flailing arm redirection, and occasional inappropriate cymbal strikes falling headlong into the next bar. Quite a vigorous chap, in other words. Not one to sit reasonably still on his seat.

Well, we were about two-thirds of the way through the gig - nicely set-up and quite high stage, for once, with plenty of space, which was a rarity given all our kit! - and storming through a complex song by my mate 'Big' Rich Hind when to our immense surprise the drums suddenly disappeared, and there was a dull 'thud' from behind us. Looking round, there was no sign of Simon, but it quickly became apparent that he'd somehow managed to fall off the back of the stage, and was at that moment trying sheepishly to clamber back up. Rich and I looked at each other, and jumped straight back into the song where we'd left off. Hey, who knows, maybe he'd even meant to do it? He joined in again by the next chorus, but seemed strangely restrained for the rest of the evening.

So how does an otherwise-stable drummer come to fall off the back of the stage, I hear you ask? Well, somewhat satisfyingly, it turned out that the stool he 'borrowed without asking' also had a fault, and when it met with Simon's rather 'bouncy' playing style, it was only a matter of time before it gave way, sending him backwards arse-over-tit, into the gap that had oh-so-cleverly been left between the stage and the rear wall - probably to allow for some minor-but-irritating architectural features, or in case we stained the curtains, knowing York University.

He tried to set it up again before the next number, but the stool was being far too temperamental, so the suitably-chastened Simon had to play the remainder of the gig crouched in a painful half-squat, resting as little of his weight on it as possible (ladies' dodgy public toilet position no.1, I believe?). Plus it turned out to belong to a guy who was a bit of a gorilla (the big, muscle-y, not-happy-if-you-take-its-bananas bit), and who wasn't exactly best pleased when he discovered his drum stool was bust the next day...

So there you have it. The moral of our simple tale? You can say what you like about them, but don't nick things from other musicians, or you'll meet with a potentially dangerous accident (Simon was fine - he landed on his head). "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but stealing a collapsing drum stool will make me look a complete arse, and risks getting me a bit of a kicking". Something of that nature.

In the immortal words of Fathers Ted & Dougal,

"Down with this sort of thing!" - "Careful now!"