Sunday, 28 December 2008

Norwegian Wood

Since I didn't bother posting this at the appropriate time, might as well get it out of the way now - Merry Solstice! (Christmas, Jul, Hanukkah, [late] Eid, Saturnalia, Shab-e Yaldaa, Lenaea, Kwanzaaaa, 'Foodmas', 'Great Festival of Washing-Up', etc, etc).

Ok, enough of that. Now for the old and fascinating city of Bergen!

(N.B. This blog was originally supposed to be about 'music', or at least always have a passing, tangential concern with matters in some small way vaguely music-related. I'd just like to reassure anyone who might be becoming concerned that it's turned into a sick parody of an entirely self-absorbed travelogue that music will be rearing its three [non-ugly] heads shortly. But you will have to wade through my solipsistic ramblings about Bergen first. Sorry.)

My pre-christmas present to myself was a far-too-brief trip to a place I've wanted to visit for more than 20 years...there also happened to be the great incentive of an extremely wonderful and lovely woman of my close personal acquaintance living there, so not going would have been utter folly and madness, (although possibly far more financially astute), but anyway...

It's bloody fantastic.

Now to be fair, I'm undoubtedly horribly prejudiced in Bergen's favour, so I've come up with a handy quick questionnaire you can use to assess how much you might like it too...

Q.1: Do you like "old stuff" - castles, churches, museums (possibly with a hint of the 'viking' about them)?

Q.2: Do you like the sea, boats, fjords, that sort of thing, conveniently situated right in the heart of the city?

Q.3: Do you like mountains, forests, hiking about, etc, within extremely short walking distance of the city centre, and easily accessible by convenient funicular railways and cable cars in case you've got small children, have slightly disfunctional joints, or are simply bloody lazy but still want to admire the view?

Q.4: Do you like your holiday destinations to have lots of little coffee shops (many with excellent cakes), modern art galleries, music venues, boutique shops, and a wide variety of restaurants to suit practically any taste?

If you answered "yes" to at least 2 of the above - what are you waiting for? (well, ok, possibly warmer weather, but if it's not raining, then it can be wonderful even in the chilly months - some more of my poor attempts at 'artistic' photography of Bergen here).

Seriously though, Bergen was a revelation, with its higgledy-piggledy, winding, narrow side streets, colourful wooden houses (often with a bizarre - but surely effective? - chimney-cap design consisting of a slab of what looked like slate resting on 4 small pillars of stones rising up from the chimney, with one dirty great stone plonked on top of the whole lot, presumably to stop it all blowing away in one of the region's not-so-infrequent storms), impressive (and again, colourful) C18th stone buildings, and mountain backdrops in just about every direction. Oh, and they're very tourist-friendly - almost everyone speaks far, far better English than my pathetically tiny smattering of Norsk.

Of course, in spite of my glorious 4-and-a-half days of getting in touch with my Northern European cultural heritage (and drinking coffee, eating cakes, playing in the snow up Fløyen, etc), I'll be the first to admit that Bergen has its drawbacks, too. Firstly, there's a definite problem with graffiti - I don't mean the 'artistic', maybe-making-a-political-statement, sometimes almost graphically interesting (I'm such a grumpy old man), type of graffiti. Oh, no.

What you seem to get in Bergen is the moronic (I refer you to the "grumpy old man" statement above) and incessant "tagging" - in other words, hastily, and only semi-legibly, scrawled/sprayed versions of intellectually-unchallenging nicknames - all over the place. Obviously, everywhere is going to have its fair share of bored teenagers, but come on - if you're going to vandalise something, put some bloody effort into it! Make some kind of point, don't just spray a half-cocked version of "Svenno" on an antique street lamp or the side of a 200-year old house! Idle little Scandinavian scrotes that they are...! Catch 'em and whip 'em with birch twigs, it's the only language these hooligans understand! If I had my way...

*Ahem*

More seriously, Bergen is expensive. (I was heavily subsidised and spoiled rotten while I was there, you see...I mentioned the cakes already, didn't I? Ohhhh, yesssss...if it had been entirely down to my budget, there definitely wouldn't have been cakes!). Everything (except petrol) is roughly twice "Edinburgh prices" - to use a comparison that'll only make sense if you live in Scotland.

To put it another, more easily quantifiable way, if you wanted to have a (very) comfortable time of it - nice lunch, maybe a trip up the funicular, entry fee for a museum, coffee and cake(s), then a pleasant dinner with a glass of wine (or two), then an individual could easily spend £50 a day - on top of accommodation costs. Mind you, the way the pound is going right now, that could soon be £60 or more...so go now, before our currency collapses entirely under the collective weight of christmas debt!

Still, if you'd like to sample some modern-yet-traditional Norwegian culture before you make up your mind, (finally! the "music" bit!) I can heartily recommend having a listen to the 3 women who make up "Eplemøya Songlag" (translates roughly as "Apple maidens song team"). I heard them perform a brilliant, acapella (and un-amplified) set at the Bergen folk club, which was thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining in spite of the fact that I only understood about 5 words they said during the whole evening. (This was a little awkward when they were introducing the songs, because I felt somewhat exposed as the only person in the audience failing to chuckle copiously at the appropriate moments...any performers reading this will know exactly what I mean - "Hey, have you clocked that miserable beardie guy with the glasses in the 2nd row? The grumpy sod hasn't laughed at a single gag all bloody night...!").

If you feel in need of a twang (pluck, clink, or even 'ka-whump') while you're there, Bergen does have at least three guitar/keyboard/"rock instrument" shops (that I came across on my wanderings, but had insufficient time to investigate), as well as a marching band/orchestral retailer, and at least a couple of (well-hidden, but my 'wonderful and lovely' friend assures me she stumbled across one of them tucked-away in a back street, just the other day) luthiers. So the wandering musician is well catered for.

And remember - in that city, you're never more than 3 minutes walk from something interesting, a nice view, or a good cup of coffee (sometimes all 3 at once). Possibly 5 minutes away from a truly excellent cake, but if you're not outrageously fussy...

All I'll say is I've finally found somewhere that could challenge Edinburgh in my affections as a city...and I accept that I'm biased (for all the right reasons), but I felt a lot more "at home" than I ever expected to. Take a trip, and see how you feel - I think you'll like it.

I absolutely have to go back there - if only I could just win the damn lottery first...

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

As Time Goes By

So much to do, so little time...has it really almost been two MONTHS since I last posted scribbled some nonsense here?

Bloody hell...that's quite a while. Ooops. I've been a little busy, you see. Not really focussed on this sort of thing. But before I go any further, I have to make an official statement of apology to a surprisingly large number of people.

I'm genuinely sorry I titled a couple of previous posts "Rockin' around the christmas tree", and "Santa Claus is coming to town", because they seem to have attracted every search for lyrics, midi files, or even "sexy xmas gift santa is coming to town gift pack"...no idea what that might contain, but a big festive hello to someone gettin' a little seasonally frisky in Newark, New York!

Now, I have a couple of small problems here - I haven't got the time to write much (oh, you lucky, lucky reader, you), and what I do churn out is going to be disgustingly solipsistic, which is something I generally shun if at all possible, but still...

Here, in no particular chronological order, is the potted version of "why I haven't bothered with my blog", some or none (probably better) of which might be expanded upon in future, when I have more than ten minutes spare:

I took a week-long trip to Leamington Spa, where amongst other wonders I experienced the delights of Sardinian hospitality ("What can I do to help?" "Sit down and drink that wine" "Oh, ok..."), saw the rather cool "Green Man" sculpture pictured above in Birmingham, learned a tiny little bit about flamenco music/dancing, and spent some extremely agreeable time in Richard's Guitars (right), which is simply a brilliant wee guitar shop with some very nice toys in it!

I severely injured some of the muscles in my back - by blowing my nose too hard at the tail-end of yet another bout of child-donated sinusitis. Oh yes. Mr. "I used to do lots of sport and be dead fit and healthy" managed to hurt himself in a ridiculous manner. Must be getting old, or something unpleasantly similar. Only felt a slight twinge at the time, thought nothing of it, then two mornings later woke up in complete agony, couldn't breathe, etc,etc. So after dropping older mini-primate off at school, me and the littl'un took a bus up to A & E. Which was a laugh. Still, the extra-strength anti-inflammatories seem to be working nicely...

Which is handy, because (barring further stupid accidents - I'm anxiously scanning the skies for signs of falling anvils/grand pianos) I'm flying off to Bergen very soon...to visit an incredibly wonderful and lovely woman I first met at a WildGeese Ceilidh Band gig thirteen-and-a-bit years ago, and who was over here (for a crash immersion course in "the daily domestic life of a single parent") in November. The amount of stuff I've had to do preparing for the journey feels vastly out-of-proportion to the length of time I'll actually be in Norway, but in the circumstances, unquestionably worth every scrap of effort (did I mention just how lovely & wonderful she is? I did? ok...just checking).

Finally, there is, of course, the small matter of christmas looming on the childcare horizon - but we survived the (insane) "multiple toddler group hallowe'en parties" season without incurring any lasting damage, so this can't be much worse...??

Right, stuff to do...I've got a hole in my jeans to sew up, must double-check the flight timetable, charge up the camera batteries, make sure I've got a wee travel toothpaste so they don't think I'm going to try to blow the plane up with fluoride, find out where I left....

Thursday, 9 October 2008

It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World

Whether it's being convinced we're about to expire as soon as we get a bad case of the sniffles, throwing the world's financial structures into chaos by not thinking beyond the size of our end-of-year bonuses (in case anyone wants to attempt childish, right-wing "Fanny & Freddie were socialistic enterprises that distorted the market so it was really the fault of government interference" excuses - just because the lid is left off the cookie jar, it does not mean you and your mates have to eat until you're sick, then sit around blaming each other for the mess while demanding the rest of us pay for more cookies. 'Personal responsibility'...I remember when 'conservatives' were big on that sort of thing...but maybe that was only for the rest of us, not their chums in the banks?), or prancing around on a stage making highly-distorted screeching noises with a 'leccy guitar (pulling very odd faces into the bargain), there are some aspects of life that have always seemed to be predominantly the domain of we blokes.

There have, of course, been great strides towards 'equality' over the last 40 years or so - apart from the obvious changes in employment and pay (still got some way to go on the latter, surprise, surprise), here in the UK, women now smoke almost as much as men do, which means they're close to achieving parity in deaths from lung cancer (although when it comes to booze-related deaths, the ladies are still lagging behind - they are quicker to develop liver damage through 'heavy drinking' than us, though, so they might catch us up before too long).

Anyway, hauling this back to something close to what was originally intended to be the topic, my pondering of the "rock guitar gender gap" was precipitated by a friend's 8-year old daughter, who grandly announced she wanted to be a guitarist a couple of weeks back (my thought processes ain't exactly fast these days...). Now, just to be perfectly clear, she doesn't mean "guitarist" in a strum-a-long, singer-songwriter-y sense. No, her desire is to be a lead guitarist - and a seriously metal one at that - her favourite band is Metallica, and she's already showing enough musicality to be able to sing their guitar solos...which isn't exactly a bad start!
So I was asked if I'd help to find her a decent (and inexpensive!) guitar (since I allegedly have some passing knowledge in that area). It sounded like an interesting project, although made a tiny bit trickier when she answered my question, "What kind of guitar would you like?" (me thinking: a pointy headstock? whammy bar? like Kirk Hammett's?), with the brilliantly descriptive, "A red one".

While considering the annoying preponderance (it's a 'big-words-starting-with-P-day) of black guitars in the 'metal' market, I started wondering about possible female role models, too, and whether there were more around than when I were a lad (which there surely had to be). Compiling a list proved oddly difficult - there are more female singers, these days, certainly (Nightwish, Amberian Dawn, Lacuna Coil, Epica, Within Temptation, etc,etc), but even with the long-distance help of Rich Hind (a veritable 'metal guru', and 'minor rock deity' in the environs of York), I couldn't get beyond the 'usual suspects' (Girlschool, Lita Ford, Jennifer Batten, Vixen, and that shy, retiring soul, "The Great Kat"). Sorry, but Joan Jett, ultimate queen of garage rock as she definitely is, sadly doesn't count because she's not a lead player - she does have a very nice Gibson Melody Maker signature model, though.

Time to go a-Googling, then...but this was also less productive than I'd hoped. I started to worry...why should this be? Do girls not like metal? Are they all into less-technical-but-bouncy-fun poppy/punky stuff instead? Can they really want to be just like Avril Lavigne?? And why does this create an image in my mind of that 'sicklier than a truckload of aspartame, and even worse for your brain' Japanese nightmare, "Hello Kitty" wearing a Top Shop 'rock-chick-lite' t-shirt and a studded belt from Dorothy Perkins?

Are we still 'persuading' girls into what we regard as 'nicer' (softer, more filled with kittens) forms of music? Give them violins while handing guitars out to the lads? (But then, classical music - and the technical training involved - is a key component of a great deal of metal...)

At this point my head started to explode a bit (not helped by rampant sinusitis), so I was very glad to come across this list of all-female rock tribute bands. (Favourite names - "AC/DShe", "Lez Zeppelin", and "The Iron Maidens"). Great! Some serious guitar talent in amongst that lot, for sure.

But what kind of guitar to recommend? Now, I know that "Daisy Rock" (can't bring myself to add the link...google them yerself, then hike on over to their "artists" page, and see who's endorsing them), make perfectly decent instruments, designed for women...but why do they have to be so damned 'girly'? I know, I know, the marketing department will have conducted focus groups amongst fans of 'Hannah (Billy Ray Cyrus now owns the world) Montana', 'High School (where were the goth/emo kids?)Musical', and the completely misnamed "Camp Rock" (oh, come on, the Jonas Brothers are so damned 'wet' they almost make 'McFly' look like genuine rockers), and I'm sure they sell by the shedload...but...but...but...

And then I found the kind of guitarist I'd been looking for all along - a woman who plays lead in a bloke-led metal band. Ok, I'm probably being ignorant, there may be thousands of 'em out there toiling away in obscurity, but I'm just glad I found one!

Three cheers for melodic-metal-woman Lori Linstruth ('Warbride', 'Stream of Passion'). And her "Play Like A Girl!" blog. And, indeed, the great-looking Luna Guitars she now endorses.

What's possibly most impressive about these beasts is that you can buy exactly the same model that Ms. Linstruth uses for under $300 in the U.S.A. That does mean that if you could find one over here it'd probably be pound-for-dollar, regardless of the exchange rate, but even at that price it looks like a major bargain (haven't played one, so can't be certain - but the list of people who use 'em is encouraging). Still a bit pricey for my fellow primary-school-parent, however, so if her hands/arms/weight-bearing capacity are big enough to warrant a full-size guitar, I'm currently leaning towards an Epiphone Les Paul Special in wine red...a hell of an improvement on the nameless East German 'cheesegrater' strat copy I learned on, and there's a nice one in Live Music in Edinburgh currently for £99, which isn't too bad.


Mind you, it's a shame Luna don't do this one in red...


Saturday, 27 September 2008

Chocolate Cake...

...or, to be more accurate, chocolate chip cookies.
"Satan's Own Cookies", in fact, to give them their proper title - named by one of the "Friday toddler group" members, clutching what was probably her third - ah, come on, we weren't going to waste them on the kids, now were we? That'd be daft)
So, since they seemed to be well received, and nobody ended-up in hospital, I thought I'd go for a complete departure from this blog's usual fare, and post the recipe (complete with small annotations for those who are clueless about baking -like me!) for these cocoa-laden dollops of anti-dieting evil.


Now, before we go any further, I'd better make a couple of things very clear. Firstly, this is a highly-modified version of the basic chocolate-chip cookie recipe from that publication of unrivalled splendour, "The Be-Ro Book" - no "kitchen numptie" (again, like me) should be without one. Secondly, all the cookies pictured are the genuine finished article. Whether the also-pictured "Gods of Rock" are actually eating them or not, I'll leave up to your critical faculties to determine. (If you are, however, quite that gullible, you'd best steer well clear of the Cruisefarians and their little "make you feel like a complete failure", so-called "personality assessment" sessions).


Ingredients:

150g (6 oz) Butter (not margarine. Nae trans-fats here!)
112g (4+1/2 oz) "Soft light brown sugar" (except I only had really dark sugar, so I used a 2-parts dark stuff-to-one part granulated, which worked fine. Fairtrade "wholemeal" sugar, too, ideally. Mine was, but telling you that makes me look horribly self-righteous, doesn't it?)
3 tablespoons (45 ml) Maple Syrup (I use Canadian - sorry Vermonters, but them's the breaks...and yes, it does taste slightly different)
220g (er...8 oz?? sorry, but I'm going by the book's slightly 'odd' conversions) Wholemeal Flour
45g (2 oz) 'Green & Black's' Cocoa Powder (in other words, "power cocoa". These have to be "none more chocolate", as Nigel Tufnell might have put it if he'd been eating them in 'Spinal Tap'...which, er, he wasn't.)
100g (4 oz) Plain Chocolate Chips (you could always put in a few more if you want...and again, the darker the better)
3 tablespoons (45ml) Milk
3 teaspoons (15 ml) Baking Powder
(apparently size does matter)

Method:

1. Heat oven to 180C, 350F, 'Gas Mark 4' - in other words, keep the mini-primates out of the sodding way. Oh, and you're going to need an oven mitt, unless you're particularly partial to the smell of your own flesh charring. Grease 2 baking trays. Or just one, if that's all you have. (Don't worry, nobody round here's judging you. Well...maybe only a few of them. You know, the ones who host dinner parties for more than 6 people, and know how to make 3 different types of pastry...them.)

2. "Beat the butter until soft" (much easier if it's been sitting out a while beforehand - if you've only just hoiked it out of the fridge, then a brief low-power blast in the microwave (NB Kitchen numpties - not still in its wrapper!) will work wonders. Add the sugar and "cream together until light and fluffy". I'm sorry, but I made these entirely by hand, and "light and fluffy" was never on the agenda. School Home Economics teachers must have had the power of cement mixers in their forearms, because there's no way me and a wooden spoon are going to achieve "fluffiness". I'd settle for what looks like "thoroughly mixed"...they still came out ok...

3. "Stir in the syrup, flour, chocolate chips and milk and mix well". Not forgetting the cocoa powder & baking powder, of course. And as for the stirring and mixing, yeah, it's likely to induce hand pain & sweating (as per step 2). But don't give up now - you've almost made it to the eating stage! Just a brief interlude of applied heat to go!



4. "Place spoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared trays and bake for 8-10 minutes". Hmmm. I was using a wee fan-assisted oven, and 8 minutes was absolutely all they needed. Any longer and they burn on t'bottom, which is never recommended. Erring on the side of caution, (and sensible usage of the appropriate protection), is always advisable...and also gives you a greater-than-98% chance of avoiding pregnancy - always a bonus. "Remove from the tray immediately and place on a wire rack to cool".

Oh, yeah, should have said - get one of those wire cooling rack things ready before you start, because if, (like me), you completely forget about it, you might end up scrabbling around in a cupboard for one, while trying to hold a (hot) tray of still-slightly-soft cookies perfectly flat in the other hand. Add to this state of unpreparedness and minor panic a very saggy, almost grip-free oven glove, and you just know there are going to be cookie casualties. Which is extremely vexatious after all the effort you went to in steps 1 to 3.

(Mr. Blackmore here is giving a fine demonstration of precisely how annoying dropping freshly-made cookies on the floor can be, even though somebody's given him a clean one to nibble. There's no pleasing some folk...)

And that's it! Let them cool sufficiently to 'solidify' fully, of course, and then...well...they're all yours. All yours. Nobody else's. Yours! Mwahahahahahahahahahha!!!

Hope that works - oh, and one final thing, since there's no eggs in the recipe, mini-primates can happily indulge in a vicious battle for the "scrapings".

"Vaguely music-related ramblings" will return next week. Possibly. Unless global capitalism has collapsed in on itself by then, and I'm too busy looting.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

I Think I'll Disappear Now

I must admit, I've been having quietly seductive thoughts about 'disappearing' lately, and frankly, it's been so long since my last blog entry I might as well have done...a lamentable lapse for which I can only, as too many times before, humbly apologise - to the three (or fewer) people reading this who might be slightly interested.

I am, of course, about to dive into a plethora of pathetic excuses and not-at-all-mitigating circumstances, none of which, however, sound particularly convincing...even to me. Worse still, that's really all there's going to be this week - no tenuously-linked, topical cultural references welded clumsily onto a chassis of music-related mumblings, no gratuitous insults aimed at highly successful artists to whom I'm less than a dab of wash-hand basin soap on the underside of their coke spoon. Not even a personally prejudiced/under-researched/almost certainly wrong review of some instrument, or lump of musical gadgetry...

No, this week it's all about me! (Exactly like every other post, in other words. Just this time, the desperate egomania won't be skulking about in the depths of the verbal foliage).

Trouble is, for a variety of reasons, I've been having serious motivational issues. (Oh, in case you were wondering, there's something that you might find humorous at the end of the post - if I were you, I'd give all this solipsism a miss and head on down there). Part of the problem has been the inevitable single-parent-two-energetic-small-boys childcare exhaustion. That, and jazz. Actually, I blame the jazz far more...

...one of my "projects I have no real time for" is to learn, finally, to play the piano 'properly'. That, of course, means knuckling down and practising loads of 2-octave scales, learning how to shift hand/finger positions, and plonking my way (oooohhhh ssssoooo sssssloooooooooowwllllyyy) through (simplified!) versions of t'Moonlight Sonata and its ilk. Which is far too much like hard work - so it's been out with the jazz books instead! Loads more fun, yes, but I've found that after 40 minutes of trying to twist my unwilling digits around some demented chord sequence I wrote on a guitar nearly 2 decades ago - and man, is it easier to jump from hand-mashers like "Gbm9 [flat 5th, sus4, carry the 3rd and subtract the number you first thought of]" to...anything...when it's strings and frets that are involved - my brain has scrambled itself, and it's all I can do to remember how to unplug the piano and slump on the sofa without falling off.

Then there's the "sympathetic teething". Oh yes - timed perfectly to coincide with smaller mini-primate suffering from the "hot-swollen-cheek blues", I've got a long-dormant wisdom tooth which has, after an interval of about 15 years or so, decided it's time to have a growth spurt. Didn't expect that one. Nor did it engender thoughts of a spontaneuosly comedic nature. Still, it's a pity that "wisdom teeth" fail to live up to their name - it would have been nice to think "hey, I'm teetering on the brink of life's scrapheap, but I'm about to get less stupider! Cool!". Ah well...

Finally, there's the stress. I know, we've almost all got it - but right now, my financials are creaking almost as ominously as an American investment banker's, I'm stuck facilitating my 'to-be-ex' wife's "sex and the city" lifestyle, and I appear to be a completely unattractive prospect to women...this is worse than it sounds, since I can't even afford to put any cash aside for my cunning solution to the latter problem - radical genetic surgery to turn me into a bass-playing version of George Clooney. Now you've got to admit, judging by the (highly realistic) photo - this idea's a winner!

Fine, so "Human Clooney-ing" upsets some (anachronostic) faith groups and bio-ethicists, the scientific techniques behind it are, shall we say, "untested" ("non-existant", "piffle", and "oh dear, he's finally gone over the edge, hasn't he?" may be a little closer to the mark), and it's been specifically prohibited by the governments of 217 countries...yes, that's right, countries that don't even exist yet have banned the Clooney-ing of human beings. But think of the potential benefits - especially for women:

"If you, too, want to save the future by banishing unattractiveness in men, just reach for your credit card and send lots of money to my PayPal account today.
Human Clooney-ing - a chance for a better world. The more you give, the better it might get."



Anyway, after all that, I'll leave you with an upstanding example of accidental honesty from the Freshman Guitars' "Cedar Creek" series catalogue, (page 9):




Right...time for some bad jazz piano...unless I fall asleep first...

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Ring Of Fire



Dear Johnny Cash fans who've been directed here by the obscure digital machinations of a search engine...sorry, but there's no 'Man in Black'-themed content on this page. I have the pernicious (& clichéd) habit of using vaguely 'relevant' song titles for my posts, and since I promised a few weeks back to tell the tale of my (surplus to requirements) wedding ring, well...again, my apologies. Still, you're in good company, since the poor folk who went looking for "Billy Ray Cyrus pro union?" (no idea), "Katie Melua nip slip" (that's what they want to see more of in Odem, Texas, apparently), "bungle valve" (say what now?), "how to make a buscuit [sic] tin banjo" (even less of an idea), and "pre-preparing pasta for a crowd" (the final evidence that Google might be broken) all washed-up on these shores. Poor sods.

Anyway, as I said, it's finally time for "the wedding ring story". Hardly worth the wait, frankly...but hey ho, a promise is a promise...

...which is a notion often overlooked in favour of expediency and/or lust-and-greed-fuelled notions of personal gain in the Volsunga Saga, my favourite version of the myth of Sigurd/Siegfried/"Ziggy....dude!" the dragon-slayer - how he came to possess Andvari's cursed ring, went through fire for Brynhild only to be tricked into marrying the wrong woman, was murdered treacherously by her brothers, and the all-round carnage that ensues for everyone concerned when his widow finally has her revenge...

There. That's saved you having to sit through Wagner's entire "Ring Cycle" (60 deg. C, extremely long wash, followed by several hours in the tumble dryer), that has. And there was you thinking today might be a total loss, eh?

(Just to give an idea of the tone of the piece for anyone who's unfamiliar with it, one of the chapter headings in the German version of the legend, the Nibelungenlied, is "How they threw the corpses from the hall" - yes, it's C13th poetry that makes Chuck Norris look like a pacifist, and brilliant bed-time story material for the littl'uns).

Returning to the more immediate past, my own version of the Andvaranautr had been kicking around the house for far too long, (ever since I was traded-in for a younger model back in November last year, in fact - clearly that ring hadn't done me much good ), but I wasn't entirely sure what to do with it. I knew it wasn't worth much in it's 'slightly battered and tarnished' condition, (just like it's owner), but prices on Ebay were so low as to not make that worth the effort. Eventually, I determined to sell it to a jeweller's in Edinburgh that I remembered dealt in 2nd-hand gold items, because whatever I got for it - £10, £20?? - would be more useful than hanging-on to the damned thing.

Naturally, when I got the opportunity to jump on a train and head southwards over the Forth Bridge, I found that the shop had long since gone - hell, more stuff from my youth in Edinburgh seems to have vanished, changed ownership, or met a flying wrecking ball every time I visit the place - but there were a couple more jewellery shops just down the road, so I went to try them instead. "Nothing ventured...", as the foolishly optimistic might say...

Now, I know I wasn't exactly dressed in top-to-toe Armani, but the initial reaction of the shop assistant to my "hey, I had a gig last night - can you tell?" appearance wasn't promising...and they were very quick to express no interest whatsoever in the ring itself. The second place was a repeat performance, complete with anxious glances (and grimaced smiles) over my shoulder towards the other customers - the poor dears were clearly worried my presence might cause people with actual purchasing power to leave...

Well, there's only so much condescension and dismissiveness I can take in one morning, I'm afraid (c'mon now - I'd showered earlier, my underwear was fresh on - I was clean, dammit! It's not my fault that I have childcare-related-lack-of-sleep haggardness etched onto my face, or that I'd have to shave 3 times a day to avoid hairy chin issues..). Muttering imprecations under my breath, (which probably just served to confirm their opinion of me as some oddball social inadequate trying to sell them a worthless ring he found under a park bench), I strode out of the shop - I say 'strode', but the Medial Collateral ligament in my left knee's damaged, so any 'striding' must have been quite lop-sided...aaand we're right back to "oddball social inadequate"... - in a foul mood, rounded the corner...

...and dropped the 'cursed' ring into the outstretched hat of an old derelict guy who was sitting, begging, at the foot of a flight of stairs, and looked like he needed whatever paltry sum it might bring a damn sight more than I did.

Almost instantly, the world felt a tiny bit lighter on my shoulders...and who believes in such foolish nonsense as 'curses' these days, anyhow?

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

China In Your Hand

(Aka: "Nine And A Half Guitars II: The Ethics Strike Back")

Thanks to the incredible avalanche of a whole email (cheers, George) I received in response to my original article extolling the many virtues - especially price - of the Freshman FA1ACD electro-acoustic guitar, I felt it appropriate to revisit the subject - partly to double-check whether my original conclusions were valid (of course they bloody were), but also to include the serious questions raised when trying to add an "ethical dimension" to purchasing musical equipment.

Before I get bogged-down in all that far-too-obviously-trying-to-be-topical, Beijing Olympics tie-in business, however, I must first insult Sandi Thom. I know, cheap target, but it won't take long, and anyway, it was George who brought up the subject of her endorsement of Freshman guitars, so it's entirely his fault.

Personally, I would say that I am to "jazz drumming", what Ms. Thom is to the notion of "playing the guitar". I have heard/seen/'held a bass and tried to follow what was going on while stood next to' a fair few jazz drummers in action, and have a more-than-passing familiarity with the musical genre. I have read articles about the role of various styles of rhythm in jazz, and even perused books such as "Buddy Rich's Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments" (I have no life, honestly...) to gain further scraps of enlightenment. So I've got a reasonable appreciation for what's involved...

Never, never, if you have any respect for musicality, should I be allowed to attempt a practical demonstration of any of this theoretical 'knowledge'...and I'm sure you can fill in the rest regarding Sandi Thom's guitar-mangling. There. Right. Done. Onwards to the guitars..

Firstly, was I 'fair and balanced' (or anywhere in the vicinity thereof) in the original post? To test this, I went back to RedDogMusic and Scayles Music in Edinburgh, where both shops' staff were incredibly tolerant in letting me abuse a wide range of acoustics in my quest for the truth...

Well, one thing I discovered was that in order to find something obviously superior in sound quality, you'd have to spend almost twice as much money. Amongst many others, the Takamine EG460sc at £399 was a perfectly good guitar, and the Gitane DG-250M (£560) was very nice to play indeed - although the latter does come with a "you must perform at least 2 pieces of gypsy jazz every half-hour" stipulation that would scupper me. Sticking with Freshman, the FA350D (£399) acoustic was a thing of tonal joy and excellent construction/playability, and for only £499-ish (possibly less if you asked really nicely), you could have it's electrified single-cutaway cousin, the FA350DCE. All of them, though, a good stretch up from the £229 you could have the folk-body, single-cutaway, cedar-topped FA1ACD for, so I stand by my verdict - buy one!

On the other hand, if you have entirely more money than sense, please feel free to chuck it away on a Martin DX1 KeCe (that's what it said on the guitar, but I've struggled to find a link to that exact model online) - a slice of dodgy quality-control, Mexican-built "brand devaluing". A snip at only £639. To be fair, I tried two of these beasts, and one was...perfectly average, but not worth anything like the money. The other was shamefully poor - gaps around the neck joint, and there was a discernible drop in (un-amplified) volume when playing on the top two strings. A limón total, for sure.

Unfortunately, however, for the musician-on-a-budget, many apparent bargains like the Freshman come with an ethically-difficult label attached next to the price tag - "made in China".

Assuming, (and it's asking a lot), that we can ignore human rights issues like Tibet (campaigning for Tibetan freedom, great - but a return to the oppressive Buddhist theocracy that ran the place pre-Chinese occupation, not such a good idea), the way citizens are forcibly 'relocated' to make way for economic developments, the extreme animal cruelty that forms part of their "traditional medicine", the environmental/food supply disaster of creeping desertification caused largely by deforestation...(you can pause for breath now)...

...their reliance on massive coal-fired power stations to run the factories in which they make our shiny electrical toys (if they ever felt the need to reduce their carbon emissions/pollution/reliance on oil, maybe they could take advantage of their enormous - and still largely peasant -population, and organise them into vast, thousands-of-exercise-bikes-pedalling-at-once human generators? Just a thought...), their financial/military support for other oppressive regimes, the use of torture on prison inmates...etc,etc

Then, if we're talking specifically about acoustic guitars, there's (yet) another issue to be addressed. One which doesn't quite grab the media headlines as often or as prominently as those listed above. According to information from sources such as Illegal Logging.info,GlobalTimber.org,and Mongabay.com, China is the biggest single consumer of illegally cut timber in the world - on a scale which I, for one, find hard to comprehend:

"In 2004, more than 1 million cubic meters of timber, about 95% of Burma's total timber exports to China were illegally exported from northern Burma to Yunnan Province. This trade, amounting to a $250 million loss for the Burmese people, every year, takes place with the full knowledge of the Burmese regime, the government in Beijing and the rest of the international community. Chinese companies, local Chinese authorities, regional Tatmadaw and ethnic ceasefire groups are all directly involved.

"On average, one log truck, carrying about 15 tonnes of timber, logged illegally in Burma, crosses an official Chinese checkpoint every seven minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year; yet they do nothing." Said Jon Buckrell of Global Witness." (from the Mongabay link above)

Now, Freshman are very keen to emphasise that their timber sourcing is done from their UK base, and thus governed by EU legislation - but what about other Chinese-built brands which are not? (e.g. Blueridge)

Are we most likely to improve their business practices through trade & engagement (but if they get our money, why should they bother changing? And while the majority of their people seem happy as long as they're getting "bread and [5-ring Olympic] circuses", what should their government care?), or by boycotting the products - if we can afford to? (and if our individual actions will have any significance in a global marketplace?)

I don't have an answer to that one, I'm afraid, and I make no sanctimonious claims to ethical 'purity', either. I have never owned a Chinese-built guitar or bass (and don't intend to), but a cursory glance at the back panel of most of my hi-tech gear reveals that a lot of it was made there - especially the small, cheap, stuff - things I've recommended on this blog, like the Hartke Bass Attack, or Behringer D.I. box. The (Ebay bargain) Legacy digital piano in the corner of the sitting-room is 100% Chinese. Even my Ashdown bass amp, for all it was "Manufactured in England", relies on circuit boards of Chinese origin. Oh, and I've completely failed to boycott the Beijing Olympics, because, well, I love sport (I used to waste vast chunks of my life doing it), and the spectacle of so many incredible athletes inflicting so much pain on themselves in a multiplicity of bizarre ways is one I find irresistible. Plus the display of physical achievements is a great encouragement for my boys, of course - except the BBC's coverage of the weightlifting was nothing short of abysmal...

Being serious again, at present it seems that avoiding any of this 'ethical contamination' would take an inordinate amount of time and effort in locating products that were entirely free from taint, and a considerably higher budget than that of your average, often-struggling, musician. Naturally, if you are lucky enough to have both the time and the money to keep all your musical equipment ethically 'clean', then I wish you well, and can only hope to emulate you at some time in the future. I promise I won't mention the carbon footprint involved in importing American-made instruments, etc...

Still, at the very least, if anyone who's made it this far is considering buying any merbau flooring for their house - please, take the time to read this pdf report on China's activities in Papua, Indonesia - and then choose to buy something else instead.

It's not much, but it might help. Maybe.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)

I'd better kick off by reassuring everyone that there's no actual violence depicted anywhere in this blog posting. Some harm may come to the English language, but even that will most probably be of a cartoon-like and highly unrealistic nature. Ok, so, disclaimer over, this week I'm asking "What better place to become completely lost in a crowd than the very heart of Edinburgh during the world's biggest performing arts festival?" (Yeah, I know, I can think of quite a few, too, but my travel budget won't stretch that far...so this'll just have to do for now, ok?).

Or,to put it another way, where better to feel a sense of total disconnection and dislocation from teeming hordes of your fellow human beings?

(Quick apology for the intensely musically-minded: I was originally going to bang on about mediocre acoustic guitars, yet again, but something made me think about Saturday nights in general, then 2 Saturdays ago in particular - probably having to queue in a packed Asda while trying to keep the kids from destroying everything within their collective grasp).

Now, I'll admit that this lack of late-night (it was after 11pm - oooh, the hedonism) joie-de-vivre on my part can partially be explained by the absence of any alcohol in my bloodstream, something which definitely set me apart from the bulk of my fellow wanderers. That, and my dismal failure to achieve the objective I had set myself. Well, the primary objective, at any rate. The secondary objective* was never going to happen, although I did actually succeed at one point in making a very attractive lady I'd never met before laugh in a loud and immoderate manner, (which is supposedly a good start**). Not, I must confess, through the sheer charm and brilliance of my debonair wit and repartee, but by walking (stupidly and painfully) into a temporary road sign - and not with the slapstick genius of Buster Keaton, alas, but rather the lackwitted clumsiness of the execrable Mr. Bean. Ho hum.

No, what I'd set out to smother myself in that Saturday was a bracingly nostalgic dash of "true spirit of the Fringe" body-lotion...those slightly 'downmarket' (aka "cheap"), 'experimental' ("The Life And Death of Salvador Allende", in mime, set to a soundtrack of tree frog mating calls), 'minimalist' ("We couldn't afford a set. Or props. Or costumes. But we do have a wig.") productions that used to be stuck on in tiny halfway-down-the-pee-stained-close*** venues at bizarre times of day and night. And why the hell not? I was free from child-related responsibilities, was master of my own fortune, and had bugger-all money with which to pay to see a semi-decent show.

Sadly, my search was entirely in vain. Rents, competition for spaces, the price of getting even a single-line entry in the Fringe Guide (£289 - £385, for those too lazy to follow the link - which does contain a fascinating breakdown of all the costs involved), and my not-having consulted a copy of that guide beforehand (apparently there was quite a lot of free stuff going-on in various pubs - but by that hour almost all 'comedy', not quite the "wonderfully-terrible" drama I had in mind, but still...) meant that I was condemned to wander the streets, surrounded by a strange combination of meandering tourists, festival goers striding between the comedy behemoths at the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms and Gilded Buffoon (sic), and the usual weekend drink-yer-face-aff Edinburgh pub-and-clubberati.

One of the latter I really out to thank, as it happens, since her sudden appearance (rounding the corner of West College Street, this barely-legal, tiny party-pink-outfit and over-used tanning-bed-glow princess carried on a high-pitched argument with some altogether invisible disputants, while remaining completely oblivious to physical obstacles of any nature), sparked off some strange song-writing notions buried deep in my head, and by the time I'd skirted the immense queues of people waiting in the spitting rain to get into... anywhere, frankly, and was heading back over Bruntsfield Links to my designated sofa-bed, I'd got about 90% of a song swirling around in my head.

Which is most unusual, because I'm one of those people who can't - absolutely can't - write songs. Oh, bits of music, sure - riffs, chord sequences, odd snatches of tunes - they come and go pretty much as they please from time to time. Whether they're any 'good' or not, well, that's another issue entirely. When it comes to lyrics, however, I've never been able to write anything that hasn't made me cringe almost immediately, and recoil from the page in a fit of abject literary worthlessness. Now, some cruel folk might go so far as to suggest that the world would be a far better place if only certain famous recording artists had had the same reaction towards their own efforts, (I was so sorely tempted to include a vast list of obvious offenders at this point, but for the sake of brevity...Oasis), but then if I ever get round to recording this rare beast, I'm sure that it'll offend a great many people's linguistic sensibilities, so I couldn't possibly comment.

Ah well. So much for Saturday night. One or two of you might have expected the "wedding ring" story from last week to be revealed, but that happened on the next Monday morning, so including it here just wouldn't be appropriate. And that would never do.


*"The secondary objective"
- I'm a reasonably average male, not entirely dead (yet), and have been enduring involuntary singularity since the end of last October. Work it out...

**"supposedly a good start" - When you have such an ideal face for radio as myself, amusing the ladies is, so I have been informed by many a "women's interest" magazine left in doctors' and dentists' waiting rooms (that's my story, and you can't prove otherwise), a good way to install yourself in their affections. I am, unfortunately, utterly without flirting skills, (as many of my friends will confirm with amusing anecdotes of my ineptitude in that department), so am serially incapable of progressing from that stage to the mythical goal that many of the great historical chroniclers describe as "closing the deal". How I ever got married is still one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science. ('Why' I got married, and why it took 9 years to fall apart are different - yet equally mysterious - questions altogether.)

***"close" - a 'close' is an Edinburgh term for an alleyway, most of which run north or south from the old High Street - the historic spine of the city that drops steadily from the castle promontory at its western end, down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse (just past the crass expression of architectural ineptitude that is the Scottish Parliament building) to the east. Some of the 'closes' are over 400 years old, and seem to provide excellent outdoor toilet facilities (primarily for males, it must be said, although on occasion...!) late at night - especially during large public events. A bit too public for pursuing "the secondary objective" for most, not that that deters some people - who shall, for the purposes of libel suits, remain nameless...

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar Some More

Ok, well, this is going to be something of a rarity for me - a relatively short blog posting. Let's face it, my sporadic, feature-length rambles through almost-coherent verbiage just don't fit with the low-attention-span, channel-flipping, "see it, want it, need it, buy it, love it, begin to realise it's not going to replace the mercilessly festering hole at the centre of your existence and move on swiftly to the next bright shiny toy" modern lifestyle. So here I am, attempting to adapt. A bit. Grudgingly. Clinging ridiculously to my adjectival addiction and 'tangential sub-clause' dependency. But still, it's a start. And it might make this blog more of a regular occurrence, too - wouldn't that be such a thrill for the world?

To maintain the general "rarity" theme, on Sunday I actually escaped from my "mundane domestic crises" duties long enough to wrap my fingers round a bass guitar in public for the first time in...er....a very long while. (Either that, or the Alzheimer's has kicked-in damned early. Oh, fair enough, not that early, not exactly New England Journal of Medicine 'research paper of the month' early, I grant you...but c'mon, give a man who's otherwise abiding on life's scrapheap a break, huh?).

It was, admittedly, what could be safely termed a "low-key" gig, (any "lower" and - insert a topical-political-satire comparison of your own choosing here - if I add one, then by the time anyone reads this whoever I've had a go at will be more popular than - insert name of local bland-but-successful entertainer with a bad toupé), and trying to play songs I knew rather less than perfectly (!) on a fretless instrument without any monitoring made for some "interesting" note choices at inconvenient moments (aka: "I've wandered inadvisedly above the 14th fret and I'm at least a quarter-tone sharp, but a quick slide down to somewhere in the general vicinity of the pitch I was originally aiming for and the audience'll be none the wiser") added to the sweatiness of an already-sticky Edinburgh night.

Still, it was indeed an excellent laugh. Playing some of my mate Martin Lennon's "nothing like as miserable as you first might think (or they might sound)" songs was most enjoyable, as well as pounding out an energetic rendition of that old WildGeese wedding favourite, "Psycho Killer".

In fact it would have been worth turning up just to hear main attraction Hannah O'Reilly's great songs, brilliant singing, and determinedly difficult-to-follow-at-a-glance, created-mostly-out-of-naive-cunning chord voicings. Go listen. She's bloody good!

Quite apart from that event, the weekend yielded a few sadly "unexpectedly poor and badly over-priced" guitars and basses, some very pleasant food that I didn't have to cook, and a slightly unusual fate for a wedding ring.

Oh, and that rarest of all things happened - I wrote a song! (Not saying it's any bloody good, mind...)

But that's all best kept for another day...

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Nine And A Half Guitars

My beloved companion is sick. Very sick indeed. Potentially a terminal condition, in fact. This unfortunate state of affairs has, alas, rendered it completely unplayable (oh, sorry, should have said - it's my acoustic guitar I'm talking about...). This is more than mildly annoying, because I had a few d.i.y. recording ideas I wanted to try out with my almost-but-not-really-acoustic "me, myself & I" trio, which just won't work without the poor old beast. It also meant that my original plan, of wittering more about why Keswick is so damn great, it's jazz festival, and consequently the excellent bass-looping wholesome jazz goodness that is the music of Mr. Danny Fox, went completely out of the window. Which, since I've managed to squeeze Danny's promo link in anyway, (solo album due out...umm...soon. Ish. I'll let you know), is possibly no bad thing.

A brief visit to the (extremely handy) buzz diagnosis pages quickly revealed that it was definitely truss-rod related, and quite possibly easily fixable...or absolutely not. Since I lack almost all of the requisite skills, or the spare cash to pay for someone else's expertise, my trusty 15-year old Seagull is currently languishing, severely wounded, in the guitar cupboard.

Of course, this meant that an investigation of the current state of the acoustic guitar market would be an eminently sensible way to spend a Saturday morning amidst the seething fleshpots of old Edinburgh toun - just in case mine turned out to be beyond repair, (oh, and the miraculous magical money fairy appeared, and waved her wand over my bank account too, naturally...).

So, off it was to Red Dog Music, (used to be Sound Control, but is now trading as an independent store following the financial collapse of what had been the UK's largest musical instrument retail chain - a cautionary tale about over-expansion and the power of the internet...), in the latest part of my (cue music - Nightwish, "Ghost Love Score", swelling under continuing narration), "epic quest to discover pro-quality gear at very reasonable prices."

Wandering through to the back of the store, (where they hide the poor, bedraggled 'acoustic' folk away from the cruel gaze of mocking humanity), I was immediately drawn towards a wall of Freshman guitars - in particular the rather attractive, (but horribly utilitarian-ly named), folk-bodied "FA1ACD". Solid cedar top, (for those who can't be bothered clicking the link. Everyone else, sorry, but you've got to make allowances...), mahogany back & sides, 4-band eq, blah blah blah. While the shop assistant was getting it down for me to abuse, (I'm not really what I'd call a 'genuine' acoustic player...to be honest, I treat an acoustic guitar more like an electric guitar than anyone else I know...which probably isn't a good thing. No fancy flat-pickin' round here, I'm afraid. Oh well...), I had a quick look at their product catalogue, which had more than its fair share of impressive review quotes from reputable magazines...and "Total Guitar" (but more on that later). The list of endorsees was, however, a lot more questionable, including as it did such guitar luminaries as Jason Donovan, Kelly Clarkson, and...Steven Seagal!! Still, I was determined to be fair (possibly harsh, but definitely fair), and it was time to see what this instrument could do...

At this point, I was going to bang on about the build quality; the depth of tone; the smooth, easy action of the neck; the fact that in spite of the price, the electronics were perfectly acceptable - I got a very decent sound through a (tonally-neutered) amp within a couple of minutes...but I won't.

To save your time (and mine), all I'll say is this - have you got £229 handy? Want/Need/Burn with unquenchable desire for an acoustic guitar?

Buy one. Don't hesitate, don't sit and consider all the other possible options, don't make yourself a cup of coffee and wonder about heading over to the shop tomorrow, or possibly Thursday, hmmm, depends if it's raining.... get over to your local retailer, (have a quick, 5 minute plonk on one to satisfy yourself I'm not an incorrigible liar and scoundrel), then hand over the money. You will not regret it. Even if your spouse/partner/occasional chum dumps you because that was the money you were saving up for your big holiday in (insert cheap, low-quality destination joke most appropriate to your geographical location). That simply won't matter any more.

This is a fantastic guitar. Absolutely unbelievable value for the money. I didn't want to put the damn thing down (certainly didn't want to hang it back up on the bleedin' wall). If you're a pro, then this is exactly what you want for those gigs where you'd think twice before turning-up with your treasured Taylor/Martin/whatever. You know what I mean...you'd be looking at paying over £500 for any measurable improvement from this little baby.

You could say I liked it.

At this point, though, I'd like to offer a small word of caution. If you're on a budget, but serious about your sound/music, I'd urge you to buy this Freshman guitar, even if it means stretching a little. But I really do mean this particular model.

You see, after I'd had my wicked way with the "FA1ACD", I thought I'd have a quick look at the lower-priced (£199), solid spruce top, same electronics "FA1AN", which had received a 5-star "Best Buy" rating, (and gushing review), from the aforementioned "Total Guitar" magazine. Should be pretty good, I thought.

Oh dear, oh dear.....oh dear.

For the sake of saving £30, I now found myself playing what might as well have been a cardboard box with some wires attached to it. It felt so entirely "wrong", I'd have been barely worse off grabbing a sub-£60 'bargain basement' effort from Ebay. It was so bad...ach, no, I haven't got the energy for that line in weak gags tonight. Suffice to say, it was so damned horrible that it almost spoiled my earlier guitar-testing experience. Almost.

Being marginally reasonable, I'm perfectly prepared to consider that I happened to get my mitts on the only 'lemon' in the batch, or that "Total Guitar" were handed the finest example Freshman had ever made, but seriously, if you can bring yourself to pay what is roughly the cost of a mere 11 pints of Guinness (maybe 12?? I wouldn't know for sure - can't stand the stuff) , extra, the improvement in quality is staggering.

Now, if you'll just excuse me, I'm off to write a begging letter to the money fairy. If anyone could tell me her postcode, I'd be very, very grateful...??

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Running Up That Hill


Well, not exactly running, as such. Far too old and semi-decrepit for that sort of nonsense these days. Although there was, alas, some inadvisably-rapid, near-vertical descending of a repetitively joint-jarring nature - in order to catch a bus, to catch a (different) bus, to catch a train - the consequences of which are still causing minor niggles in the vicinity of my left knee - I curse the biological inevitability of the ageing process.

You see, about three weeks ago, I managed to escape for a couple of responsibility-free days to my favourite place in the whole country of Englandshire, Keswick. This involved a minor frenzy of walking-up-hills, serious digital camera abuse, and dealing with unseasonably-hot-sunshine-induced blisters - but then, that's what Compeed and ibuprofen were invented for, right?

The trip itself was great, if a little rushed, and mostly served its purpose, which was to let my mind try to sort out where I might be heading, and how I might get there, without the constant mundane domestic crises of single parenthood, (oh, right, I see, you've managed to bang your head on the table - again. Dearie me...), getting in the way. Hell, I even started humming some musical ideas to myself while tramping through the delightful scenery of Borrowdale, some of which probably leaked into the first bit of recording I've done in nearly 7 years (!) - currently available as a *free* download here.

It did, however, also lead to many enticing thoughts of unethically-selfish behaviour on my part. Hauling myself onto the bus back to Penrith was harder than I'd expected - and not just because of the previously-mentioned muscle-crunching exercise. No, this was more of a reaction to the lingering, "Without prior consultation, someone decided to take a unilateral decision regarding my future, confounding all/any plans and expectations I might have had - so why shouldn't I behave exactly the same way?" thoughts that were meandering around inside my head. I am, of course, far too boringly responsible to act on any of them...which brings me, (quite smoothly, I reckon), onto the question of "Happiness?" I posed in my last (yeah, I know, almost been a month, ho hum) blog entry - and I'd just like to thank everyone who responded via email & ArseBook, (I didn't seriously expect any comments here, to be honest!), especially for the depth and sincerity with which they addressed the issue. You're all lovely, brilliant & perfectly wonderful in every way.

What I found most interesting is that no concensus whatsoever emerged. Indeed, people who, (according to the type of social statistics I used to bury myself in at university), might be expected to be very similar, were diametrically opposed in their responses. It was quite sad, in fact, to discover that while one of my friends felt that it would take one specific thing to make them happy, it was an absence of (and no desire for) that very same thing that contributed directly to another friend's enjoyment of life. On a less serious note, there was a fairly even split between folk who saw themselves as generally "contented", with sporadic outbreaks of "happiness", and those who said they were "happy", but not "contented" - the latter either because they were still having fun while making the best of a 'less-than-ideal-but-improvable' situation, or they felt that "contentment" would mean they had lost the drive to develop/challenge themselves sufficiently.

Being aware of what changes to make, how to bring them about, and having sufficient control over these factors certainly seemed to increase most respondents' optimism, however happy they thought they were presently. (Yep, what a surprise, "uncertainty" is a b@st@rd...I'll be mentioning 'the defecatory habits of ursine mammals with regards to thick collections of growing trees', next...)

Coincidentally, the May 24th edition of "New Scientist" had some interesting snippets on the topic of "happiness", including a nice graph illustrating the finding that, in spite of differences in income and era, the proportion of people who self-identify as "very happy" remains virtually constant (about 30%). Personally, I reckon they've asked the wrong question when it comes to money - if they'd looked at who was "(very) unhappy" instead, then I think they'd have easily proved the old (yesterday lunchtime) dictum: "Money can't buy you happiness, but it sure makes misery a damn sight more comfortable. Now pass me the 21-year old Springbank and the cigars...".

(Some articles supporting this assertion can be found here. I know they're from the New York Times, but they are still capable of being right once in a while...)

Trouble is, obviously, there's no easy definition of "happiness" that we'll all agree on, nor is there really a satisfactory method for measuring it. Which possibly defeats my original purpose in asking the questions, (not to mention rendering all this even more meaningless than usual)...?

As for me, well, to be brutally honest, apart from brief happy interludes (playing with the kids, music, etc), I'm pretty miserable - not that I'm letting-on to the kids, naturally. It's a modestly comfortable kind of miserable by western standards, sure - sitting here in a nice wee broadband-enabled flat, with plenty of food in the cupboards, hot and cold running electricity, and two great-when-they-want-to-be healthy children. My essential problem is that I'm very much a hard-wired team player. I like sharing the good stuff - which made the Keswick trip, great as it was, ultimately unsatisfying - musically I'm more of an accompanist (with occasional flashy bits), than a screaming lead egomaniac. That sort of thing. I'm also, unfortunately, stuck in a horse-and-a-half town with no real opportunities to change my current singularity, and no forseeable escape route.

Ho hum.

Still, could be a hell of a lot worse. I'm not a woman, born into an authoritarian, theocratic culture. And for that I'm unbelievably grateful.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Question Of Balance

A conversation earlier today with my good friend, Martin Lennon, sparked my brain momentarily out of its current sleep-deprived state (who the hell was it said that 18-month-olds' sleeping patterns improve with age?), and set me pondering (as I'm unfortunately prone to do, especially when something needs to be done).

So I'd like to ask anyone who's reading this a couple of serious questions:

1) Are you happy?

2) If so, why? Alternatively, if not, what are you doing/what do you think you personally can/need to do, in order to become happy?

All comments, anonymous or otherwise, gratefully received.

I hope this doesn't sound overly-personal and intrusive - I'm genuinely trying to come to a better understanding of how other people view the notion of being 'happy', or how that can be achieved. One of the things Martin & I touched on was the problem of distinguishing the subtle boundaries between factors affecting us that are entirely outwith our personal control; those that may have arisen unwittingly, or unforeseeably, from decisions or actions we took in the past (which seemed like the best possible at the time); and those where an opportunity for 'happiness' is within an individual's grasp, if only they were prepared to suffer the necessary short-term consequences in order to attain it.

We also spouted a fair bit of blather and nonsense, it must be said, but then that's probably what we do best...it's a survival strategy born of many years of "function-band-stress" necessity.

For myself, I can't honestly give any answers right now. Too much uncertainty, too many variables, and, as mentioned above, currently nowhere near enough processing power available...dab hand with the old quick-sidestep-plausible-excuse, me.

Seriously though, if people could take the time to respond, that'd be great - even those who've been sadly misdirected by the all-powerful Google and its ilk. My current favourite search entry that's found it's way here: "how to make a biscuit tin banjo", from someone based in Luton, England. (In fact, adding 'England' there was entirely superfluous, since there's only one "Luton" in the whole world - quite possibly one more than the world actually needs, but that's another debate entirely.)

Hopefully there'll be something more amusing next time round...

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Been a while, hasn't it? Still, I thought I'd make up for my posting inconsistencies by having a shot at the "earliest gratuitous mention of Christmas in a supposedly music-orientated blog" record. But more on that later...

Recently, I decided to spread my online self even thinner by creating an "Andy Gilmour - Musician" (I've tried saying it to myself in a sonorous, deeply dramatic voice, but it still fails to sound remotely cool) page over at BumTome...oops, I mean ArsePamphlet... no, hang on, oh that's right, FaceBook. The stuff I've put on it is practically identical, I'm afraid, to that on my MySpace offering (sorry, nothing shiny and new as yet...yes, I'm ridiculously slow & useless, yes, I should get up off my arse and try harder, yes,yes, I know...sheesh!), but I have to say, although a lot of the features available are practically identical, ButtScroll still isn't as easy to modify and generally make spiffy for the budding on-line musical phenomenon as MyArse.

There's also a bit of a difference in the audience/membership of the sites, judging by which artists are most popular (in terms of 'fans') on each. Here's a "Top 20" comparison chart - (rounded) 'fan' numbers will have changed by the time anyone reads this, but the rankings should be pretty much the same:

FaceBook................................ MySpace
1
Daft Punk (167,000) .....................Tila Tequila (3.053million)
2 Linkin Park (155k).........................T.I. (1.989m)
3 Justin Timberlake (149k).............Fall Out Boy (1.823m)
4 Dave Matthews Band (148k)........Kate Voegele (1.493m)
5 Chris Brown (143k)........................Panic At The Disco (1.398m)
6 Pink Floyd (134k)...........................Rihanna (1.344m)
7 Avril Lavigne (124k)......................50 cent (1.150m)
8 Radiohead (122k)............................Avril Lavigne (1.117m)
9 Amy Winehouse (116k).................Sherwood (1.113m)
10 Coldplay (108k)............................Linkin Park (1.108m)
11 Foo Fighters (106k).....................Chris Brown (1.105m)
12 Jonas Brothers (106k).................Justin Timberlake (1.052m)
13 Evanescence (104k).....................Diddy (1.041m)
14 Red Hot Chili Peppers (96k).......Fergie (1.040m)
15 Miley Cyrus (85k)........................My Chemical Romance (1.037m)
16 Jack Johnson (82k).......................Eminem (1.008m)
17 Bob Marley (82k)..........................AFI (968k)
18 Beyoncé (79k)................................Beyoncé (932k)
19 Madonna (75k)..............................Metallica (844k)
20 Pearl Jam (74k).............................Paramore (799k)

(apologies for my lack of clever html table-coding abilities - the original tabulation worked fine on the MySpace blog)

Apart from Beyoncé's weirdly identical chart placing, even a cursory glance at the names on each list suggests two things: AssVolume members are, on average, slightly older, but no less susceptible to trite pop pap. Also, if you want to become popular on either site, having perky breasts and/or a hefty marketing budget clearly doesn't hurt.

Personally, I have no bleedin' idea what people see in Justin Timberlake - thin reedy voice, mediocre beat-boxing, he's been trained since infancy to be as bland as (in)humanly possible (Disney, 'N Sync), and with the peachfuzz 'beard' he resembles nothing so much as a 12-year old in a bad nativity play - or, indeed, the whiny, angst-lite (tm), genetically-modified Bratz-doll that is Avril Lavigne, but that's just me... (Oh, and don't get me started on the likes of Linkin Park...)

Anyway, dragging myself away from a futile rant about the nature of the music marketplace, and back to the original topic (sort of).

Wondering what to get the bass player in your life next Christmas? Looking for that special gift, the one that says "I love your bottom-end" like no other? Well, I might just have the solution...

Once upon a time, I'd have simply said "Buy them a Behringer DI100". In fact, I'd still recommend that every - seriously, every - musician should have one of these little life-savers in their gig bags. Singers - want to gain infinite kudos from your fellow band members, the ones who are oh-so-envious because all you usually have to do is cart around a microphone, an oh-so-heavy collapsible stand and (maybe) an XLR cable? (See, you don't just get all the attention during the gig, you also have the least to pack up afterwards, meaning more schmoozing time. We're jealous - and that's not good for band morale. Really not).

Next time someone's treasured piece of vital stage gear fails dramatically in the middle of a song, just whip out your freshly-purchased Behringer box-o'-wonders, and they'll love you. No, they will. There's been a few times my trusty little (and very cheap!) D.I. has saved collective backsides when (very expensive) amplifiers and/or multi-effects processors have died at extremely awkward moments. Yes, it won't sound exactly the same, but if it's a case of the show not going on... oh, and you can never rely on the P.A. guy/venue having sufficient/spare D.I. boxes. That's making an assumption, that is.

For a bass player, however, I've finally found something even better. Save up your pennies, and treat them to a Hartke Bass Attack pre-amp! (Assuming they don't have one already, that is. If they do, well, you're stuffed. Sorry.)

I finally got my hands on one of these fantastic stomp-boxes about a month ago (I know, they've been on the market for years - I'm a bit behind the times), and I can't begin to describe adequately just how bloody good it is. So I won't. All I'll say is that if you own a medium-quality, reasonably cheap bass, and you've been wondering about spending a significant wodge of cash on an upgrade, then don't. Save yourself the financial agony, buy the Hartke unit instead - you'll be amazed. This clever piece of kit (did I mention it can be phantom powered?) can take an average bass, and make it sound like the high-end, unattainable lust-instrument of your dreams!

No, seriously, I thought that, (after 18 years of playing), I'd got a reasonably decent bass sound from my gear, but within half-an-hour of plugging into the Bass Attack I realised just how wrong I had been.

"Ok", you might say, "It's a really cool item, but it's a bit more than I really want to spend. Tell me, Andy, how might I afford one, so as to make my beloved bass player happier than John McCain watching the Democrats' nomination struggle?"

Ah, 'tis a hard path, but a simple one, I'm afraid. Abstemiousness. Self-denial. Giving up something you like, in order to get something you really want. We've almost all got obvious little fripperies, luxuries, sources of not-strictly-necesary expenditure we could cut back on if we try hard enough. It could be smoking less, or choosing not to use the car for short journeys that we could easily make on foot instead (any Americans reading this?)...for me, it was chocolate. I like the good stuff, which means, unfortunately, also the more expensive stuff. But to help my personal budget along, it's had to go. I wouldn't say it hasn't been hard, at times...like right now, where I've got a severe dose of the 'Man-Flu', and the mental image of biting into a bar of Green & Black's finest just fills my...oh, sorry. Went off a bit there. Sorry. Won't happen again.

Being, again, quite serious, something as small (and sickly, frankly) as a "Mars Bar" can cost anything from about 36p upwards a time. If you bought one such sugary snack a day, then you'd have paid the price of the Bass Attack pre-amp in 167 days! (Based on the lowest price I could find on-line, including delivery, but you might be able to get it for less - I only paid £50 for mine - ex-demo, no box or instructions, but including power supply.) And there are, at time of writing, 235 days still to go until Christmas '08 is upon us! So you'd have enough change for wrapping-paper and a card.

Bass Attack VXL pre-amp from Hartke - because we're worth it.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Send In The Clowns

Bit of a diversion tonight, albeit it a brief one, into the realm of the personal. I know, it’s the kind of self-indulgent, solipsistic non-content that I usually wouldn’t choose to strew across this page like so much disgusting, half-eaten McDonald’s almost-food cast aside on Dunfermline High Street late of a Saturday afternoon...but I feel the need to explain the current lengthy gaps between postings.

Life can be a strange learning experience. Sometimes it takes a severe shock to make you realise that, over the course of the last 15 to 20 years, and in a variety of contexts, you’ve slowly subsumed yourself so much into other people’s patterns of behaving and thinking (because it seemed like the best thing to do at the time, or what the assorted ’significant others’ wanted/expected/’needed’ from you, etc) that you’ve pretty much forgotten who ’you’ are. Or, indeed, once were - assuming that you’d ever begun to work it out in the first place.

Now, I appreciate that this is definitely the kind of issue that, (a bit like cancer, if we’re brutally honest - only in an infinitely more trivial and self-pityingly whingeing way, of course) - fits the tag, "Rich Countries’ Disease", perfectly. If you’re having to do a 5-mile round-trip to get to the nearest water supply that’s only partially contaminated with gastric parasites, then, frankly, you’ve got a lot more pressing things to deal with, and we, who sit warm and comfortable in front of our computer screens, moaning about our service provider’s paucity of service provision can’t even begin to imagine what such a life must be like.

Still, being possessed of a cosy modern existence, it’s the reason I’ve been far too self-absorbed, and anywhere-but-in-the-mood to come up with a dollop of vaguely-music-related ’humour’ so far this week.

Sometimes, again, it takes a severe shock to make you fully aware that the person you thought for nearly a decade was going to be your future, has decided instead that you have become part of their past - and did so some time ago.

I received that sort of shock last week. I was probably still partly in denial, trying to protect myself from the full implications of my marriage ending late last year. Now, that’s simply not an option. The disorientation from having a well-worn identity suddenly stripped-away has largely gone, but has left me having to confront my self-concept head-on.

I know who I was. It’s precisely who I am now, and who I might be that are proving more difficult to pin down.

So, sorry for not keeping-up any semblance of blogging regularity. Or gags. Promise I’ll try harder next time.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Bad Moon Rising

[This blog is currently being brought to you in conjunction with pseudo-ephedrine - something I wouldn’t have touched back in the days when I was a competitive sporty type, but is now fully available for my personal use, and is doing an excellent job of keeping me upright.]

No gags today, for a change. If you’re ok with that, then we’ll begin...

Back in February, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon issued a rather disturbing statement regarding freedom of expression:

"The Secretary-General strongly believes that freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly and in a way that respects all religious beliefs."

Now, this in itself wasn’t the most earth-shattering of news. His predecessor, Kofi Annan, had peddled an almost identical line, "...the freedom of the press should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions." So the current Sec-Gen. was just continuing with the party line, even if it was an utterly nonsensical and wholly impractical one in the first place. (I hope that no-one reading this would fail to understand the impossibility of complying with either statement? Quite apart from the inherent problem of deciding the order of precedence when faced with an enormous range of competing - often mutually exclusive - religious beliefs, it suggests that these beliefs belong to a unique category of ideas: ideas which should not be subjected to ’disrespect’, simply because they claim derivation from a supposedly ’divine’ source. Possibly more on this later, depends where this ends up going, and how much time I have).

Now, it could be argued in his defence that he was merely trying to make soothing noises to smooth down the feathers of various Islamic states, who were at the time in the grip of "Mo-toon fever" part 2. (And here, here, and here.) That, however, doesn’t address the already-detailed issues arising from the wording of the statement, or the question of to what extent any of us have an immediate right to be ’offended’. Things, unfortunately, have just become a bit worse...

The United Nations Human Rights Council have succumbed to pressure from the usual suspects to pass a (non-binding, thankfully) resolution regarding "Combating defamation of religions" (scroll down till that heading comes up). Part of the rigmarole contains this wonderful piece of utter cant from the Saudi Arabian representative (my italics throughout):

"ABDULWAHAB ABDULSALAM ATTAR (Saudi Arabia) said last year had witnessed a series of immoral practices targeting beliefs and cultures... It was regrettable that there were false interpretations of freedom of religion and expression. This must not lead to any hatred by touching on sacred teachings. There were teachings which had called for tolerance and acceptance. International instruments had guaranteed the right to expression, but had also placed obligations on everybody to exercise this right. This did not mean to ignore any prejudices against Muslims, as seen in the Western media. Saudi Arabia called for tolerance of all religions and called on the international community to respect Muslims and their feelings in accordance with all monotheistic religions. The draft resolution recalled the preservation of this respect."

Ah yes, that bastion of religious tolerance, Saudi Arabia, gets to decide what constitutes "immorality", "false interpretation of freedom of religion and expression", and the definition of "sacred teachings" - presumably including incontrovertible proof of their ’sacred’ nature. Nice. Glad to see such important concepts are in safe hands...

But what, you might ask, exactly does this have to do with musicians or the music industry (ostensibly the main subject of this blog)? Bear with me. We’ll get there...

Now, that might be yet another U.N. resolution we can all happily ignore, but then they also went and stuck the "Special Rapporteur" in charge of promoting / supporting freedom of expression with having "To report on instances in which the abuse of the right of freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination …". Now that is binding, and some of the consequences are spelled-out here.

Again, we might not be too bothered if it was an isolated incident of U.N. internal political shenanigans - after all, the "Religious Defamation" resolution, for instance, would violate the U.S. constitution, so couldn’t possibly be applied over there. Except that (here in the UK, anyway), it’s just another part of what should be a rather worrying trend - especially for those of us in the creative arts.

We’ve seen the dear old Church of England do a u-turn on the repeal of the blasphemy laws (they suddenly decided they wanted something more specific installed in their place, something that would protect them from "disrespect"), and the Vatican joining up with Islam (yes, you read that correctly - two deeply antithetical belief systems working together) to fight "offences against religion", saying that freedom of expression should "not be taken as a pretext for offending religions, convictions, religious symbols and everything that is considered sacred." (Whether they now intend to retrospectively burn effigies of David Hume and stage widespread riots against his teachings is presently unknown. Ah. Sorry, that was a gag, which makes me a liar. Ah well, fires of hell for me, then...)

Then we have that lovely man, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, calling for greater ’liberty of conscience’ for those of a religious bent, while at the same time seeking to impose his peculiar brand of ’ethics’ upon doctors. (Let’s not forget, whenever we’re considering the latest moral pronouncements of Cardinal O’Conman (sic), that he personally protected known paedophile priests while he was the Bishop of Arundel & Brighton. As I said, charming fellow).

Personally speaking, I have no truck with supernaturalisms of any sort (you’d probably guessed that much by this point). I do, however, support anyone’s right to believe whatever they want in private, even holocaust deniers (by their failed libel cases shall ye counter them). The difficulties start, inevitably, when someone takes it into their heads they have the right to tell everyone else how to live their lives, right down to the smallest detail, because their all-powerful, invisible deity (or deities, of course) - or, more usually, the book that has allegedly been written at that deity’s behest - has told them to...with a sliding-scale of prescribed punishments for heretics and non-adherents - ranging from mild social ostracism to death, depending on the deity / book in question. (e.g. The last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Scotland was Thomas Aikenhead, in 1697).

In which case, I reserve the right to subject their beliefs to the most rigorous scrutiny, and mock them roundly when they are patently absurd (e.g. ’Young Earth Creationism’, Scientology), or oppressive (e.g. Islamists, the Baptist "gays are an abomination" crowd, Ultra-Orthodox Jews who assault women on buses, etc,etc..there are far too many to mention in this category, though almost all of them seem to have it in for women to some degree). It would seem, though, that the assorted religions are starting to work together (against the evil secularists) so that they can have their cake and shovel it in like they’re genetically immune to obesity and heart disease.

And this is where it could affect we musicians (sorry it took so long to get here)...it’s clear they want a situation where it’s fine for them to preach whatever they wish from their beloved "sacred" texts, while stifling any criticism that they deem "disrespectful" of their beliefs. Ok, this isn’t going to be the greatest issue for your wee teeny-pop bands singing "Lovely, lovely lurve" songs, sure, but there are plenty of ’serious’ / ’political’ songwriters out there, and if the religionists continue to push this "demand for respect" agenda hard enough, we could well see artists being taken to court simply for telling the truth. And while it can be fantastic publicity (and a bit of a giggle) to have a few fundies standing outside a gig protesting, the threat of serious legal bills will scare a lot of record companies into censoring their output (c.f. Janet Jackson’s ’superbowl nipple’).

Quite aside from that, and the (very real) possibility of death threats from the extreme end of the spectrum, it’s worth remembering that no matter where you live, your material is almost certainly available in territories with very different beliefs & laws, which could also affect touring considerations, particularly when it comes to the cost of public liability insurance, or venue security - and not just along the obvious lines of "avoid religious states", either. Who could forget the ’fun’ the Birmingham Rep. Theatre had a few years back, when some Sikhs decided they were "offended" by the play, "Behzti" ?

Yes, I know it hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a very real threat to our freedom of expression looming on the horizon. To (badly) rehash a famous (and apparently highly variable) poem:

"First they came for the Cartoonists, but I was not a Cartoonist, so I said nothing...."