Dead Pop Stars

Back in the 1960s, rock stars weren’t expected to have long careers. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who. Soon after, the likes of Hendrix, Jones, Morrison and Joplin joined the 27 club. Nobody associated pop music with longevity, let alone a pension fund. But now we have octogenarian rockers releasing new albums and even touring (health permitting). It’s almost indecent….

Of course, most musicians don’t go out in a blaze of glory, at the height of their career. Instead, they fade away gracefully after their 15 minutes of fame (or pursue a career in reality TV). With better management of their back catalogues (and thanks to streaming services, box-set reissues, band reunions and come-back package tours), a decent living can even be had by artists from the second and third divisions.

As we ourselves age, we may measure our own mortality against the stars we were fans of. I’m not quite old enough to remember (or register) the passing of Hendrix or Joplin, but I certainly remember where I was when Elvis Presley, Keith Moon and Sid Vicious each left this mortal coil. For various reasons, none of these untimely deaths were totally unsurprising, based on their lifestyles. I was somewhat shocked when I heard about the death of Ian Curtis – I was still a teenager, he was only a few years older than me, and I’d even spoken to him, albeit briefly, at one of his last ever gigs. But again, not totally unexpected in the circumstances.

Understandably, John Lennon’s murder was pivotal in popular culture (due both to the manner and timing of his demise), but otherwise, major rockers from the 60s & 70s have reached old age intact (but not always with dignity). Sure, there have been many exceptions, mostly thanks to lifestyle choices or misadventure. But it’s not uncommon for pop, rock and jazz musicians to live (mostly happily) to a ripe old age – in recent times, we have lost Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Lee Perry, McCoy Tyner and Charlie Watts, who each enjoyed more than their three score years and ten. Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr are still troubling the charts in their 80s (and what about Sir Elton!), while the remaining members of the Beatles and The Stones are close to joining octogenarian rock royalty.

So it was with some sadness that I read about the recent death of Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher. Not only was he just a few years older than me, but I’d enjoyed seeing his band play several times around London (most memorably, supporting R.E.M. in late 1985). I’d also met Pat a few times via a mutual friend, and he was always charming and entertaining.

Pat was one of the last “gentleman rock and rollers” – he wasn’t just in it for the money or glory (although both help to sustain a long music career). He was a chronicler of the absurd, the whimsical and the eccentric (in the nature of other English songwriters such as Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock and Julian Cope), and as epitomized by “Mr. Odd” and the self-referential “Southern Mark Smith”. Yet, despite this, he found loyal audiences across North America and Europe, where he was probably more appreciated than in the UK. (For example, a Paris-based American musician I knew at the time only became aware of The Jazz Butcher thanks to a tribute to Olaf Palme they recorded after the Swedish prime minister’s murder.)

If the calibre of a band can be measured by the songs and artists they cover, The Jazz Butcher made some interesting choices, revealing their influences and personal tastes: “Road Runner” (Jonathan Richman), “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground), “Take The Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) and “Spooky” (Dusty Springfield). And Pat was also supportive of other bands that were associated with his home base in the East Midlands, or signed to the same labels he was. In this way, and at various times, he was connected to the likes of Bauhaus, Spacemen 3, Eyeless in Gaza, In Embrace, The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Bron Area and The Woodentops.

Finally, in keeping with the times, The Jazz Butcher have been the subject of a recent reissue campaign, and there may be a posthumous album released shortly.

Cheers, Pat!

Next week: Opening Up…

 

Telstar!

The quality of a song can often be reflected in the number and variety of cover versions it prompts. Think of tunes that have become jazz standards, or key songs like “Yesterday” or “My Way” which have become some of the most covered compositions in the pop canon. Sometimes, the original can be overshadowed by a later interpretation, to the point where it becomes the definitive recording. (For me, John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” outclasses both the original and later, more popular renditions). Too often, though, cover versions are pale imitations, mere pastiche or karaoke cannon fodder for TV talent shows.

One of the first records I am conscious of hearing at home and playing on the family Dansette is “Telstar” by The Tornados (the 7″ version with the deep blue Decca label, and distinctive striped orange and white sleeve). Although the main melody is quite simple (and total ear-worm), the original 1962 version features strange noises and curious effects, while the overall instrumental tone is appropriately other-worldly. Both of its time (reflecting the emerging space age) and timeless, “Telstar” has given rise to numerous versions, and thanks to the current lock-down in Melbourne and the wonders of YouTube, last week I killed a few hours searching and compiling this playlist.

I’m sure there are many more tributes out there, but this list comprises 20 or so key recordings I came across during my internet trawl:

Chronologically, the first couple of tracks on the playlist are quite faithful renditions by The Tornados’ contemporaries, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. (Strangely, the latter put out a later, and rather pointless “updated” version.)

The record’s initial success led to a vocal version by Bobby Rydell which has a certain naive charm. This in turn inspired (directly or indirectly) a couple of wonderful European vocal recordings – by Slovenia’s Marjana Deržaj and Finland’s Laila Halme. They both stay just the right side of kitsch, and bring some unique elements of their own.

These vocal recordings are followed by a cluster of orchestral/easy listening renditions, typical of the time both in style and context: there’s Billy Vaughn‘s big band recording, featuring sax and guitar; The Hawaiians‘ exotica; and James Last‘s cheesy string arrangement. All great examples of the hits of the day played in styles to suit all tastes…

We shift gears for The Pyramid‘s ska take, followed by Al Casey‘s faithful version from the early 70’s, that features an interesting opening. Also around this time came Hot Butter‘s sanitized synths, that feels like a missed opportunity to go further out in space…

If we take “disco” to be a broad church, then the oddities by Venus Gang and Ovni would just about qualify in that category – while The Shadows‘ early 80’s take sounds like those awful Stars on 45 records.

Also in the 80’s, we find a couple of versions that are either ironic, or so post modern it hurts. The Models‘ 1981 recording attempts to add some new wave atmosphere, while Ad Infinitum‘s 1984 effort is notable for coming out on Manchester’s very hip Factory record label. (It also features a tongue-in-cheek piano bar version on the b-side.)

Finally, a couple of more recent versions that each add another dimension. First, from 1997, Takako Minekawa‘s neo-loungecore interpretation (very on message for the time), which would appeal to fans of Saint Etienne and Stereolab alike. Lastly, from 2014, Bill Frisell‘s restrained but lush slide guitar that presents a fitting tribute to this classic space age instrumental.

[“Telstar” cover versions that I wish existed: the outake from Bowie’s “Low” sessions; Kraftwerk’s 1975 sound check from London’s Festival Hall; Esquival’s bachelor pad stylings; Jacques Loussier channelling Bachian counterpoint; and Marlene Dietrich’s vocal rendition…]

Next week: Living in limbo

To be or NFT?

If there’s one consistent lesson to be learned from Blockchain and crypto is that the enabling technology often outpaces our understanding of the viable use case, commercial application or sustainable business model. For example, smart contracts have only recently proven their value with the rise of decentralized finance (DeFi). Even then, they are not perfect and if not well-coded can result in hacks, losses or other damage. Plus, until scaling (transaction throughput) and gas fees (transaction costs) are properly resolved, mass adoption is still some way off.

CryptoPunk #7523 (Image sourced from Reuters)

The latest crypto phenomenon is the market for NFTs (non-fungible tokens). Artworks in the form of digital files are being created, auctioned and traded for serious (or very silly?) amounts of money – just Google EtherRock, Beeple, CryptoPunk or Rare Pepe for recent examples.

NFTs are not just confined to digital art – animation, video, music and text are all being created in the form of NFTs. In addition, NFTs are being minted to represent ownership or other IP rights for physical artworks, real estate assets, collectibles and luxury goods.

Why would anyone pay the best part of US$12m for the original digital file of CryptoPunk #7523, a copy of which I have displayed above?

Perhaps we need to consider the following:

First, the image above is simply a low-res web image, easily reproduced via copy and paste – it’s not the “real” image as represented by the code or digital file embedded in the NFT. The original file is owned by the NFT buyer, and if it is an edition of one, then that is the only authentic version. Scarcity (as well as kudos) is a key market driver in NFTs – but only if someone else attaches financial value to the work (just as in any art market).

Second, owning the NFT does not necessarily mean you own the copyright or other rights associated with the art work. (I may own a Picasso painting, but I don’t own the image contained in the work.) So, apart from holding an NFT in your digital wallet or displaying it in a virtual art gallery, the only right you have is to re-sell the work. This means you can’t commercialise the image for t-shirts, on-line redistribution or reproduction (unless the owner has agreed to grant such rights within the NFT). (My use of the image here would be covered by the “fair use” principle, for the purposes of illustration and/or critical analysis.)

Third, unless you are able to export the NFT from the marketplace or platform that sold it, the NFT may “vanish” if the platform goes offline for any reason. (Doubtless, platforms need to enable token transfers to other market places and to users’ own digital wallets, otherwise there could be a lot of stranded and/or worthless NFTs in years to come.)

Fourth, the creator of the original work may be entitled to a % of the resale value of the NFT. This is obviously an important consideration for artists and other content creators, and I see this as a positive development. By extension, musicians, authors, film-makers and designers can more easily track and control the downstream revenue generated by the use and licensing of their works by third-party marketplaces, streaming platforms or 3D printing and fabrication services.

Fifth, NFTs support improved authentication, provenance and chain of ownership, as well as bringing more transparency to the world of art auctions – valuations, bidding and prices could all be hashed on the Blockchains that track the NFTs.

Finally, if NFTs are seen as a form of bearer bond (linking ownership to whomever controls the token), they could also be used to package up a portfolio of different crypto or digital assets, and auctioned as a single lot. The buyer could then unlock the disparate assets, and combine them into subsequent bundles – bringing a new dimension to block trades and the transfer of large bundles of stocks.

Next week: I got nothing

 

More Music for Lock-down

Last year, as Melbourne was entering its second, lengthy lock-down, I listed some of the music that helped to sustain me during the endless days of working from home. Now, as the city faces another (twice-extended) 4 week lock-down, music is one of the few pleasures still available….

My updated list includes:

Eduard Artemiev – Solaris (Original Soundtrack) A science fiction film from 1972, and in the vein of JG Ballard or Brian Aldiss, it concerns the strange psychological illness that afflicts scientists on-board a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The slightly claustrophobic electronic score is offset by a number of compositions by JS Bach. Note the early Zoom call and all-day PJs featured in the accompanying stills from the film.

Various Artists Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986 Perfect antidote to lock-down blues, this compilation of mostly up-tempo numbers reveals more depth below the shiny surface – the arrangements, choice of textures and compositional structures make this more than just easy listening. (Released by the excellent Light in The Attic label, there’s also a second volume, plus related compilations that focus on the more ambient and experimental end of the spectrum.) Definitely a mood-enhancer.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Drauf Und Dran The prolific Roedelius has released one of the most sublime albums of his lengthy career – which is saying something for an artist closely associated with ambient and minimalist styles. A piano-based album, with very few electronics or effects, the clarity of composition and playing make for a brief but welcome respite from the mental fug of lock-down. In a similar vein, I would also recommend Brian Eno’s soundtrack to the Dieter Rams documentary, and Eno’s recent work with his brother, Roger, the albums Mixing Colours and Luminous.

Mogwai – ZeroZeroZero Another soundtrack, for the TV series of the same name (which I have not seen). Like the Solaris soundtrack, the music is more about the atmosphere than the narrative, and all the more powerful as a result. Also worth mentioning is Mogwai’s recent studio album.

Khruangbin = クルアンビン* ‎– 全てが君に微笑む Khruangbin are a band whose music I heard on a couple of sampler albums, without knowing anything about them. Playing an infectious blend of instrumental Funk, Psychedelia and Dub Reggae, this compilation brings together a number of their early singles (including inspired covers of Serge Gainsbourg and Yellow Magic Orchestra). Rather beautiful for these monochrome times.

Michel Legrand – La Piscine Yet more soundtracks, this deceptively lightweight but lush album, featuring just the right amount of economic violin solos by Stéphane Grappelli (who could let his virtuosity get the better of him), recently got a re-boot for Record Store Day, so it’s pretty hip at the moment. Other soundtrack and library music compilations I have been delving into include Adventures in Soundtracks, The Music Library and Unusual Sounds. Mostly reflecting the anonymous/unsung world of studio session composers and players of the 60s and 70s, most people would recognise at least one or two tunes, if only from their use as samples in other records.

Greg Davis – Somnia Finally, a work of stillness and contemplation – built on sustained drones and minimal instrumentation, this album nevertheless manages to generate immense depth and emotion. Again, perfect listening in this stilted yet listless environment of lock-down, curfew, social isolation and pent-up frustration and sorrow. (Also check out the Davis’ contemporaneous work, Diaphanous.)

Next week: Startupbootcamp Sports & EventTech Demo Day 2021