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Tuesday
Jun182013

Recording keyboard parts with Michael Kirkland

It's been a little while since I've posted one of my 'video diary' thingymebobs. But I have one to share with you today - it's a clip from a new track I'm working on, This Stuff. Michael is playing my weird old keyboard from (I think) the early 80s. An 'Orla'. It makes a lot of farty noises but every now and then you can coax something rather nice out of it.

Anyhoo, enjoy - video below.

 

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Wednesday
May152013

Wings over a world (of Paul McCartney, twin-necked guitars and hairy drummers)

With Wings' live album, 'Wings Over America', getting the 'deluxe' re-release treatment soon, and BBC 4 screening the accompanying 'Wings Over The World' film recently, I thought it was only right that I stick my oar in and write about drummers with beards and the difference between pre- and post-Beatles breakup McCartney...

BBC 4 was made for people like me. It’s the only channel I can turn to whenever I desperately need to see a medallion-sporting man from the 1970s – complete with a well-thought out, flowing 1970s beard – bash the living daylights out of a drum kit, while another equally hairy dude coaxes excellent noises from a twin-neck guitar. 

You get a lot of that sort of thing – plus Linda – in Wings over the World, a film which BBC 4 aired recently (and which, if you happen to live in the UK or have a dodgy IP proxy thingy, you can watch on iPlayer for a few more days). It’s basically a film of Wings doing their live thing in America, Australia and Europe in 1975/76, featuring between-song clips of the band horsing around backstage, the McCartneys displaying what a happy farmyard-animal-loving family they were and so on.

Now, Wings were an odd sort of a band (and so deeply uncool that I risk exile from whatever’s left of the music industry by even mentioning them in a blog post). But even the most cynical of rock journalists would find it hard to argue with the quality of songwriting that is evident on tracks such as Band on The Run, Live and Let Die, Jet and Let Me Roll It. None of these would have been that out of place on a Beatles album (granted, Lennon might have helped give them a bit more more balls and heart, but even so, they are fine examples of songwriting). On the other hand, there is something more than a little off-putting about the relentless, homespun cheerfulness displayed by Paul and Linda in the mid-seventies (and tracks like Single Pigeon didn’t really do McCartney’s reputation as a songwriting genius many favours). As much as I don't remotely buy 'cool' as being a pre-requisite to rock greatness, there was just something too happy about Wings sometimes.

However, if you can put all thoughts of McCartney’s cheerfulness, thumbs, vegetarian sausages and Single Pigeon lyrics aside, there is much to enjoy in Wings over America. For a start, the performances – particularly those of guitarist Jimmy McCulloch – are outstanding. The tour was a big one, involving 66 gigs – this effectively meant 66 nights of band practice and a lot of takes for the film editors to choose from; all meaning that the performances shown in the film are generally ones where the group is on fire. The band for this tour was a nine-piece (nearly twice the size of McCartney’s current touring band) and the splendidly-sideburned horn players involved make everything sound huge. (Watching the film I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame McCartney doesn’t bring a brass section on tour with him these days.) Nobody who has ever played in a band could, in their heart of hearts, fail to be impressed by some of the musicianship on display throughout this film – yes, Linda’s too.

Music aside, what also makes this film enjoyable – as with many of the 1970s music films that BBC 4 spoil us with – is the ‘time capsule’ nature of it. I was born in the late 70s (admitting I am this old also means immediate exile from the music industry, incidentally) and I am always fascinated by the glimpses that films like this show of the world I arrived into – a planet where telephones were static objects; dodgy wallpaper wasn’t employed for strictly ironic purposes; people drank coffee, not flat whites; and nobody tweeted pictures of their food. The cars, sounds, flares, microphones, haircuts and TV sets are wondrous to behold; all part of a vintage, disappearing world that is at once foreign and familiar (quite possibly because it is now endlessly recycled by 20 year old hipsters).

So, other than getting even more nostaglic for a decade that I didn't see much of, did I come away from watching Wings Over America a die-hard Wings fan? No. I find that what’s generally missing from a lot of Wings tracks is emotion: the hooks are often there, as they were in McCartney’s Beatles songs; but there is no hint of pain. For example, Hey Jude or Blackbird have some killer hooks, and they are deeply moving songs; Live and Let Die or Band on the Run are laden with equally hummable melodies – but they (and countless other catchy Wings tracks) just don’t seem to speak to the heart. The musicianship and production values are actually technically better on most Wings records than on Beatles ones; but again, there’s something missing from everything that you can’t quite put your finger on. In some of McCartney’s early solo albums, there is admittedly more ‘heart’ to be detected – there is clearly unchecked emotion, for example, to be heard in songs like Maybe I’m Amazed and Too Many People from McCartney and Ram respectively. But for me so much of McCartney’s output with Wings – as well-written and as well-produced as a lot of it is – just lacks depth. The soul, if you’ll pardon the terrible Beatles pun, is often of the rubber variety.

But all that said, sometimes you just have to take your hat off to a supremely well-oiled, pop/rock machine that belts out hooky song after hooky song. And by the end of their 75/76 tour, that’s what Wings had become, and that’s what this film captures. Watch it on a decent telly hooked up to some big speakers, put your inner cynic away, and enjoy a moment of pleasurable guilt.

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Monday
May132013

How to look good recording

Friday
Apr122013

Why the chart success of 'Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead' is so significant

There's something rather sneaky going on in Britain at the moment: an attempt to cod the population into believing that its most controversial, divisive prime minister ever was a unifying figure that everybody supported (or should have supported) and whose policies “saved the nation.” An array of tactics are being employed to convince us that Thatcher was essentially a Churchill Mark II: the state-funeral-on-the-sly; the recall of parliament; a torrent of newspaper headlines pronouncing her Britain's greatest ever PM; vast numbers of Thatcherite talking heads queuing up to commend her legacy to pliant TV news anchors; and, of course, a royal presence at her funeral. It’s nearly as bad as when we had to endure months of catching buses sporting huge pictures of Maggie’s hairdo photoshopped onto Meryl Streep’s head.

However slickly presented, however, the messages about Thatcher being put about by her cheerleaders are at odds with reality. She was not unifying; I doubt that more vitriol has been directed at any other post-war British prime minister (even Bush-loving, Iraq-bombing Blair), dead or alive. She was not universally popular: she won her elections with a smaller share of the vote than all previous post-war Tory prime ministers, and at every general election she contested, around 60% of the country was consistently voting for other, mainly left-liberal, parties (her electoral success had much to do with a split left and the UK's questionable voting system). As for her policies – both the ones she implemented in office and the ones she influenced afterwards – you will find many who will line up to question the merits of privatising such basic utilities as water, transport and energy, and plenty of economists see her 1986 'big bang' financial market deregulation (and the subsequent adoption of Thatchernomics by New Labour) as laying the foundations for the financial crisis that is doing all our heads, wallets and spare bedrooms in today.

Despite all this, it is unlikely that from listening to politicians, watching TV or reading your preferred daily rag you will get any real sense of the fact that in truth, a huge tranche (majority?) of the UK population disapproved of what Maggie did to her country, and that she was not just disliked but hated by millions. You also won’t find many journalists lingering that long on her support for murdering despots like Pinochet; or her backing of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet in our supposed age of austerity, no expense is being spared by an otherwise penny-pinching state to ensure that this woman goes down in history as a secular, unifying saint; and no effort is being spared by the, ahem, impartial media we enjoy in the UK in ramming this sainthood down our throats.

Against this backdrop of enforced-Thatcher-respecting, the rise of Judy Garland's Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead up the charts may seem trite or tasteless, but it is actually very significant. Yes, it is rather rude – and, perhaps, a touch sexist – to compare the UK’s first ever female prime minister to a witch. Yes, it disrespects the dead (and, many would argue, witches). But however crude this musical protest might appear, as the track has approached the top of the charts, it has become a pointed countermelody to an overplayed tune which insists that Margaret Thatcher was the saviour of the nation. It sticks two fingers up, in a nicely British (and, appropriately, collective) way, to the notion that Thatcher was a unifying figure and a force for good.

The many British people who view Thatcher in a negative light do not have £10m handy to organise elaborate ceremonial events designed to make a political point. They can't recall parliament at public expense to reminisce on their experience of Maggie. They don’t control the airwaves. They don’t happen to run newspapers. They can’t rely on a royal showing up at an anti-Thatcher party (not even a Z-list one, like Princess Michael of Kent). But delightfully, they’ve still managed to find a way to forcefully question the Thatcher myth being sold to them. With its lyrics referencing lullaby leagues, lollipop guilds and munchkins, the chart success of Ding Dong! may feel like a somewhat childish, minor victory, but ­it’s actually hugely important, because it forces a largely Thatcher-supporting media to report on a widespread and deeply-felt unhappiness with Thatcherism; and crucially, the success of the song can’t simply be dismissed as being the work of just a few troublesome crusties from North London (despite my own best efforts in cajoling my friends to buy my music, there just aren’t enough of these types to propel you into the charts). 

(You can purchase 'Ding Dong! the Witch Is Dead' on iTunes here. I think it was 59p when I originally bought it, but I suspect that iTunes jacked the price up to 79p after noticing all this Thatcher-related hoo-ha. Ah, free market economics. Maggie would have been proud.)

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Thursday
Apr042013

Mick Philpott, The Daily Mail, and the welfare state

Mick Philpott in court

There are probably armies of beardy weirdy pinko-liberals like me all over the UK (or at least in Hackney) already furiously typing blog posts about this topic, and I feel like I'm slightly taking the bait here, and I suppose I've lived in the UK long enough now not to be shocked by anything The Daily Mail comes out with...but I have to say that their most recent headline ("Vile Product of Welfare UK") - which attempted to pin the blame for Mick Philpott's children's deaths on the benefits system - really, really got to me. 

Here's why:

Firstly, with this headline, the paper lets the bastard off the hook for the deaths of his children. It essentially says he's not to blame; the welfare state made him who he was, and led to him killing them. 

Secondly, it's outrageous that a newspaper - particularly in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry - would try to take advantage of the deaths of six little kids to push a political agenda (and a controversial one at that). How the welfare state operates and how generous it should be is obviously and properly fair game for debate, but this tragedy says nothing about the benefits system. You don't have to be a defender of the welfare state to see that fundamentally, this is simply the a story of a jilted, violent lover who burnt down his house in a stupid bid to gain revenge on an ex-girlfriend, killing his kids in the process. Yes, Philpott was on benefits. But he might as well have received his income from being an astronaut, or selling double glazing; because contrary to what The Daily Mail might have its readers believe, violent behaviour and stupidity are by no means the exclusive preserve of those in receipt of benefit payments, and trying to pin the blame for this terrible - but unique - tragedy on the welfare state is ridiculous. We may as well say that participating in the Paralympics leads to girlfriend-murdering (that's Oscar Pretorious off the hook); that all doctors are serial killers (Harold Shipman is clearly a vile product of medical training); or that being an American makes it a dead cert that you will enter a cinema and mow down a bunch of movie-goers with a machine gun. The arguments that the newspaper is making about the welfare state would be laughable, were they not succeeding in turning dead children into pawns in a horrible political game. This kind of journalism is up there with the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone, and it's depressing to see mainstream news channels use the controversial headline as an opportunity to host a 'debate' about whether the welfare state created Mick Philpott and led to his actions. It didn't. We may as well debate whether or not the welfare state was exclusively responsible for the enormous success of former benefit-recipient JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise, or indeed, whether the earth is flat.

Thirdly, the headline is a huge insult to anyone who receives benefits. That would be most (if not all, at some point) of the population, including the overwhelming majority of Daily Mail readers. Receive any child benefit? A state pension? Tax credits? Winter fuel allowance? Disability allowance? Do you visit a GP from time to time? Ever used an NHS hospital? If so, by the Mail's logic, you are now to some degree or other a vile product of the welfare state. Exactly how vile you are is no doubt dependent on the amount you receive in benefits, or the number of annual trips you make to your doctor's surgery, but most of us are clearly a step further along the road to becoming a child murderer. We are all vile products together, to coin a phrase.

Fourthly, it's a classic example of a newspaper taking the most extreme / unusual examples of benefit recipients and using them them to draw wide (and invariably false) conclusions about the whole system. As statistics from the ONS show, most people who receive benefits do not have 25 kids. They do not live in huge mansions. They don't drive BMWs. We can debate the welfare system and dependency traps until the cows come home, but the debate will be meaningless if we take hyperbole designed to sell newspapers or win votes as the starting point for the discussion.

Ultimately this headline, and George Osborne's effective endorsement of it, confirms something very nasty about the UK in 2013. There is a war being waged on the most vulnerable people in the country - and it's being waged by a cabinet of millionaire politicians and their political sympathisers in the press, few (if any) who have ever experienced what poverty really means. There's no 'all in this together' to be heard any more this war. No compassion in the conservatism. No hoodies being hugged. Just constant, relentless talk of chavs, scoungers and skivers. A huge divison between 'us' and 'them'. It's hate. Daily hate. But the sad story of the deaths of Mick Philpott's children does not represent a parable for our age, and the man himself is no poster boy for benefits receipients.

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