Tuesday, 29 December 2009

You Learn

So, that's Christmas over-and-done with, the traditional feast of televisual WWII nostalgia has finished (at least the "Heroes of Telemark" has plenty of snow in it, so it feels a bit more 'seasonal'), and we've almost reached the end of the year, eh? Hell, end of the decade (assuming we're counting from zero, naturally - some folk get very pedantic about that sort of thing) - not that it matters, it's just a date, as arbitrary as any other. Of course, what media columnists/ bloggers/ random drunks hanging-around bus shelters typically feel the urge to do at this point is offer us some sort of round-up of the year gone by - or decade, if they're feeling ambitious, and want to properly bore everyone with their oh-so-intriguing and salient personal insights into the major world events we all lived through already, thanks very much.

As an antidote to those 8-page-special-features-with-pointless-quiz-attached reminders of our general lack of progress as a species, here's the Mid-Life Bassist "one very deep breath (don't forget your inhaler)", no chronological order, and possibly a little jaded-and-cynical summary of the last 12 months...

Greedy politicians, greedy bankers, greedy celebrities, greedy libel tourists, "isn't it cold? wow, it's hot! where did summer go? gosh, what a shock, it's cold again!", "bang! bang! we're all dead!" (because I'm a zealot with a head full of hatred & religious fantasies), a rich guy with dubious attitudes towards children "Beat It", come visit England's Lake-in-the-middle-of-your-high-street District, You've been kettled!, real pirates don't say "arrr", Tiger tiger strayed at night, MacAskill does the right thing for the wrong reasons, dense cloud of hot air suffocates Copenhagen, English voter apathy gave the bigots their tickets to ride the Euro-gravy-train, Homecoming Scotland didn't, mass RAGE boosts the Cowell/Sony Benevolent Fund, the remarkable aerodynamics of Italian souvenirs, and Molly still may yet trip up Trump...

(apologies if I left out many events of great personal or international significance for anyone out there, and also for switching between present and past tenses with wilful disregard for grammatical regulations. I'm just lazy)

For me, 2009 saw the exciting launch of my very own music website - which, in the space of a couple of months has seen over 2,000 visits (most of them probably by mistake - just like this blog - "Braw Neeps" is the oddest recent search term that's landed someone here. Ah, the great mystery of life that is Google) ...and a grand total of 8 downloads, even though they're "pay as little as 'absolutely free' if that's what you want". This may well reveal something about the quality and/or desirability of my 'tinged with a sense of longing' instrumental offerings. I couldn't possibly comment.

Still, I have learned a few things this year, at least...

I now can pretend to be a bouzouki player (of sorts), which may actually turn out to be more useful and artistically rewarding than memorising PI to 100 decimal places. You never can tell...

In spite of being 40, I (hopefully) still have half of a lifetime in which to 'achieve'...something (or anything, really). Although this is the half where I can only get slower, more decrepit, and my mental powers (such as they may be) will dwindle away inexorably. Mind you, I am a bass player, so this last difficulty shouldn't affect my music to any great extent.

Next, Virgil was talking twaddle when he stated "Love conquers all things". No, as I've discovered to my cost, choices/decisions we made years previously can continue to control our lives for far longer than we ever would have thought possible. Dammit.
The same "load of old tosh" concept applies to any offerings of the "Where there's a will, there's a way" and "If you want something bad enough..." schools of trite non-thought. People who respond to your woes in life with mindless regurgitations of anything approaching these adages should be [this section redacted to protect the impressionable].

And finally, thanks to a christmas present I opened yesterday, I've realised my writing style is far-too-often uncannily similar to Armando Iannucci's, except that he's a deity of modern satirical comedy rather than a single-parent 'hus-been' & musical obscurity.

He's also hilariously clever. And since his written work has been published worldwide, it'll look like I'm simply copying him - which is very annoying, because if I were, this site would be much, much funnier. Ah, well.

As for the decade as a whole, well, to rip-off Oscar Wilde both clumsily and shamelessly:

"To lose one long-term relationship may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness."

Ho hum.

It's all a bit "2 steps forward, 3 steps back" at the moment.

Best wishes to everyone for the year (and decade, if you're not right up yourself mathematically) to come. Hope you have a great one.

All the best,

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Let It Snow

"Oh the weather outside is frightful...."

According to our glorious news media, you'd certainly think it was. In their narrative, we're locked in the icy grip of vast blizzards which have caught us completely unaware (in December, of all months!), sweeping across the countryside, turning every living thing in their path into highly-decorative-but-fatal ice-sculptures in an instant - while thousands of well-insulated illegal immigrants sneak in under the cover of the endless white-outs, and the enormous drifts of snow which threaten the very fabric of our British way of life (and ability to drive to Tesco) will undoubtedly also further weaken house prices. Although some of that might have been mildly exaggerated, one thing is clear - it's a disaster. And one that's almost certainly not been seen for...oooh...ages.

Or is it?

Well, there's certainly some snow blowing about the place, and we've seen some impressive disruptions on various forms of transport, but frankly, I don't see what the current media fuss over the 'not-half-as-abnormal-as-you'd-be-led-to-believe' winter weather is all about. Yes, Basingstoke, for example, was a bit of a mess, and the Eurostar train failures - the 'wrong kind of snow' (ie. stuff that was a little colder and more plentiful than they'd bothered to engineer their trains for to save money, or, if you prefer the company's view "unprecedented") proved yet again that electrical systems and water don't mix very well, would you believe? - screwed-up quite a lot of people's travel plans, but these are, in the grander scheme of things, pretty minor, short-term difficulties.

Of course, more people die in very cold weather, which means every spell like this brings its litany of personal tragedies - and my own enjoyment of some of the wintry delights on offer - and let's be honest, the kids are currently having a bloody great time (as my older monkey ably demonstrates in the local park) - comes with the unhappy knowledge that our next heating bill is going to be budget-worryingly high - a delight that's shared by over 5 million households living in fuel poverty.

But the overall apocalyptic tone of the coverage is ridiculous. For instance, here are a few pictures of what the BBC website headlines "More snow chaos". Errrr...nope. Not unless they've managed to convince the OED to publish a brand-new definition of 'chaos', that is. Which is possible - I've been pretty busy, so might not have been paying sufficient attention to the latest lexicographical trends. If that's the case, mea culpa, ok?

Anyway, quite apart from the hyperbole floating about, the news media seem to have very short collective memories of winters past - especially if you have a glance at this chart of "British Winter Snowfall Events" (Dave O'Hara, Ferryhill Weather Station)

According to Mr. O'Hara's list, we've had 7 "snowy" or "very snowy" winters since I was born - and that's excluding areas that have had localised heavy falls in otherwise "average" years.

And perhaps we should cast our minds as far back as...oh, February this year, when it was reported that:
"South-east England has been hit by the heaviest snow in 18 years, causing trains and buses to be cancelled, and airports and schools to be closed.

Snow is now moving north, with the Pennines, north-east England and the Scottish Borders at risk of seeing up to 12 inches (30cm) of snowfall."

You see, what I fail to understand is...well, people's failure to understand that this sort of weather can and does happen in Britain. Why are so many of the drivers on our roads apparently ignorant of how basic things they should do to cope with/prepare for these conditions?

Perhaps part of the problem is the way we see ourselves, how a bizarre image of these islands somehow being an as-yet-internationally-unrecognised adjunct of the Mediterranean (the tabloids' typical summer frothings over fruity young urban women in bikinis with the old "phwoar! what a scorcher!" headlines help twist our minds to building this delusion of Southern European geographical kinship) has taken hold.

Ultimately, whatever we may wish for in terms of culture and diet, we cannot escape the fact that physically we live in what is very much a northern country. And to help out the more cartographically-challenged folk, here's something you might (!) find interesting...

Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, sits at a latitude of N 55deg 58'. So if you start heading east from that point, you find it's further north than Copenhagen (Denmark), Malmo (Sweden), all of Poland, Vilnius (Lithuania), Minsk (Belarus), Moscow & Omsk (Russia), Grand Prairie & Edmonton (Canada).

But perhaps that's too easy - so let's use London (N 51deg 30') instead...that's still north of Brussels & Antwerp (Belgium), Eindhoven (The Netherlands), Leipzig (Germany), Warsaw (Poland), Kiev (Ukraine), Orsk (Russian Fed.), Astana (Kazakhstan), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Vancouver, Calgary and most other places of any size in Canada.

Now, a particular number of degrees north or south is hardly the sole determinant of any country's weather patterns, I know - we're small islands, stuck slap-bang next to the Atlantic, with variable topography in close proximity, Gulf Stream, blah blah blah. Sure. It's complicated, but it is a significant factor.

And by way of a final illustration of exactly where we sit, I'll leave you with this - here in Dunfermline, according to Google Earth I live almost exactly 724 miles due south from the Arctic Circle.

Britain (using the same system, and measuring as the crow flies from the Shetlands to the tip of Cornwall - France can have the Channel Islands if they want) is 769 miles in length.

Maybe if more folk took a good look at a map, and worked out where they were standing on the planet, they'd be a bit less surprised the next time some snow drops on their heads.

Snow and ice - in winter! Shocking, eh?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

State Of Independence

So, who really, honestly, dredging the innermost recesses of their psyche gives a monkey's which song happens to be top of the increasingly-irrelevant "hit parade" here in the UK this Christmas?

Not, I'm sure you've already guessed by now, me.

Yes, let's all run out and buy an 'oh so rebellious and transgressive' Rage Against The Machine song, because giving Sony (through it's wholly-owned subsidiary, Epic) somewhere in the region of 85% of the fee will properly wipe the smug, narcissistic grin off Simon Cowell's face. Or not. Definitely not, in fact.

Of course, it's just a 'bit of fun', but what better marketing strategy could he have hoped for? Whoever it was (I pride myself on my ignorance of this) won the X-factor will sell even more copies of whatever execrable super-karaoke ditty Cowell has alloted them, as the (manufactured by Sony..? I know, 'conspiracy theory ahoy', but why shouldn't social-network-marketing be so cunning as to feed into an honestly-created original group, hmm? perhaps...) 'race for no.1' theme is regularly repeated on television, in print, and online...um, a bit like I'm doing here, unfortunately. Oops.

It also serves merely to cosset Simon Cowell's overweening ego, his desperate desire for fame, and that's one thing we can deny him if we choose to ignore the charts, and simply let him wallow in his mediocre pop-ordure along with the likes of Westlife, Pixie Lott, Robbie Williams, Lady GaGa and that famous mime artist Cheryl Cole.

Anyway, I've got nothing against RATM (while perfectly genuine in their social-inequality,etc campaigning concerns, they're surely more accurately titled "Quite Miffed At Some Aspects Of The Market System Which Has Successfully Made The Band Very Wealthy" these days?), or the people involved in this anti-X-factor effort, but if you want to make a more effective, Sony-free, direct contribution to charity, why not simply head over to Tracy Morter's "rage against the x-factor" JustGiving.com page?

And when you've done that, why not do something positive to promote some of the thousands of wonderful, immensely-talented, genuinely 'independent' musicians out there, who aren't tied to record company deals, haven't got the fickle support of conscience-free marketing departments, definitely aren't chasing a "celebrity lifestyle", and whose music can offer a more rewarding, more 'personal' listening experience?

(or there are mediocre obscurities like myself, who probably should never be encouraged to inflict their so-called 'music' on an unsuspecting and fragile world, but the less said about that, the better....all donations extremely welcome, naturally)

So, I thought I'd try to start a list of folk that might deserve your attention and their very own financial stimulus package. (This is a very brief selection from my facebook and myspace 'friends' lists - apologies to the many great people I've left out, you're all fantastic, I honestly don't have the time...sorry). Please feel free to add indignant comments suggesting anyone you can't believe I didn't mention/copy this list and post it elsewhere/go and listen to what these artists can do to make your life a little bit more interesting.

I was going to start with the tremendous folk-blues-acoustic-whatsit of my very good friend Martin Lennon, incredible Norwegian folk/jazz vocal trio Eplem√łya Songlag and the most impressive solo bass of Danny Fox, but none of them have got actual stuff for sale online yet. Still, I'm sure if you got in touch with them, something could be arranged via PayPal. Certainly well worth a listen, at the very least.

Now, in no particular order...

The ridiculously young-but-talented latin-jazz guitar of Daniel Volovets.

Do you like King Crimson? Clever time-signatures? O5Ric on drums and bass is your man.

Jazz-fusion keyboard awesomeness, courtesy of Alex Argento.

For a female singer/songwriter who isn't a no-life-experience warbly teenager, here's Ms. Hannah O'Reilly.

Persons of a punk persuasion will probably enjoy South Queensferry's "The Static".

Finally (for the moment), solo-bassist (and internet-ideas-guru) supreme Steve Lawson...

...and the list he compiled of fellow users of excellent music-distribution site Bandcamp (can't vouch for the quality of all the folk on it, but there'll be some good stuff on it for sure)

There. Now it's up to you - the 'Cowell/RATM Sony Benevolent Fund', or something far more interesting instead?


Thursday, 3 December 2009

What Is And What Should Never Be

Hey, good evening folks, and welcome, welcome to the show, big old down-home Dunfermline welcome to each and every one of you, oh yes - and we've got a really special edition of the show for you tonight, folks - in fact, we're going to be mixing things up a little around here. Yes, indeed, that we are. Keeping it real, keeping it fresh, throwing out the stale bits of breakfast cereal that somehow escaped from the inner plastic bag and got stuck down at the bottom of the packet for the last 3 weeks, yet you still just couldn't resist having an exploratory nibble on 'em, could ya?

(cue pathetic audience laughter at the host's terrible scripted 'spontaneous wit')

Yes, tonight we've got a really special guest for all you "pro-gear-at-bargain-prices" fans out there... All the way from China, its got almost NO tonal depth, absolutely NO sustain, but hey, who cares when it looks this funky, am I right, or is that just a feeble sales pitch? Good people of internetville, let me hear you give it up for Mid-Life Bassist's new king of "whatever you do, don't buy this!" - the Danelectro '58 "Dead On" Longhorn Bass!

This is a truly terrible attempt at a musical instrument. It really is. It's so bad I hardly know where to start...and yet, from a distance, its got fantastic out-there funk/crazed improvisational prog-a-thon styling. Hanging on the music shop wall, the retro-futuristic looks provide welcome relief from the tedious crowd of unimaginative-yet-often-hugely-expensive Fender-clones (did someone mention "Lakland"...? Couldn't have been me, I'd never be so rude).

But that's exactly where it should stay, stuck firmly to the wall, resembling nothing so much as a reproduction prop from 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Barbarella' or any one of oh-so-many 50's 'B' movies, depending on your age/pop culture frame of reference.

As soon as you touch it, there's an immediate 'red flag' - it's incredibly light, mostly because it's made from the mysterious-sounding substance 'masonite', although sadly this isn't some fantastical "super-molecular-polymer-based-compound" found only in the core of meteorites, it's a type of hardboard. And it shows. (At least it doesn't require you to play the bass with one trouser-leg rolled-up, and using very peculiar hand-positions - apologies to any foreign readers who aren't familiar with the Scottish 'masonic' traditions being mocked in this aside). This is the main reason for the previously-mentioned absence of sustain and tone (or, to be more specific, the predominance of thin, treble-and-high-mid frequencies only). The rest can be ascribed to the fact that the (non-adjustable, wooden) bridge doesn't even sit directly on the body, but 'balances' instead on three screws. I'd speculate that this design was originally chosen because otherwise the body would shake to pieces whenever a low 'E' was hit, but that would be mocking the afflicted, and needlessly cruel.

What else?

The control knobs are flimsily made from the cheapest plastic known to mass-production, and the 'exciting' arrow-pointers have finger-laceratingly sharp edges...although since there's no depth of tone anyway, you wouldn't be bothering with one of them at all, so that's 50% less chance of losing a fingertip on stage straight away. The aluminium nut is equally sharp, so woe betide anyone fancying a dramatic slide down the neck on the higher strings - that'll be a couple of stitches, and about 4 & 1/2 hours in A&E. Oh, and the whole body is bound/trimmed in tolex (I think...?) that looks just like the kind of embossed vinyl wallpaper even my parents wouldn't have had in the house. Which apparently regularly suffers from adhesion 'issues'. So it's a bad design, poorly manufactured.

Ok, now I'm going to try (through gritted teeth) to be "fair and balanced" - in the Danelectro's defence (that should be a chess strategy), it is only a short-scale bass (29 + 3/4"), so it's always going to have difficulty reproducing a big bottom end. And, back in 1965 (for about 5 minutes), the incredibly brilliant John Entwistle of The Who used one of its ancestors (but he kept breaking the strings, and back then he had to buy a new bass every time it happened because he couldn't get replacement strings, so after 3 of them he gave up - info courtesy of www.thewho.net)

It also can't be denied that people who own them, and have taken the time to post reviews over at Harmony Central seem to love these beasts. Of course, that's quite a self-selecting little sample, and let's face it - there are guys out there who enjoy having women in stiletto heels goose-step around on their scrotums, and I'm sure that afterwards they'd rate that particular experience 9/10 too. (Suffice to say I'll be sticking to testing equipment of a strictly musical nature...)

But why, you might be asking, did I bother excoriating this guitar? Why am I so angry, genuinely angry with it, and its makers?

Because, depending on where you go, it'll cost you between £250 and £300, that's why.

Which is scandalous.

If it was a bargain-basement, no-brand model you'd bought off eBay for under £100, then I would care not a jot. Caveat would have been Emptor-ed, good luck to you, ach, well, nae mind, so it doesn't play so great, or sound so good, but bizarrely brilliant looks for the money, etc, etc...

For the same price as the gimmicky, 'toy' Longhorn, you could have a Yamaha RBX374, (which is a really good bass for the money), or a Cort GB34A, Peavey Millenium 4 AC BXP, a mad Traben Array Attack 4, lots of solid options from Aria, assorted Ibanez's, Schecter's, ESP's...the list of alternatives is a very long one indeed.

So, sorry for dwelling on the negative side of things. Sometimes banging-on about gear's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it...and since I've accumulated plenty of practice unblocking outside drains and changing nappies over the years, you could say I'm ideally qualified.