Archive for the ‘music’ category

Oh very young

August 22, 2018

At a recent meeting with some students I was admiring the close coordination between two of them as they explained an issue to me, and complimented them by saying they were the Simon and Garfunkel of the gathering. They, and indeed everyone else, looked blank, and I suddenly realised that no one there knew what I was talking about.

I was reminded of this when I read the latest ‘mindset list‘ of things that today’s young people do not know or have not experienced, or in some matters take for granted. I rather think that my generation in particular always thought that our experiences and cultural preferences defined the age, not just for us but for younger generations sharing the planet with us. But we kid ourselves, and those of us who still manage to stay with the times do so because we have become followers rather than leaders in these matters. What was modern in the 1970s definitely no longer is.

But I will say this. I was surprised, and still am, that no one at my gathering admitted to knowing Simon and Garfunkel. If they had claimed the same ignorance of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or Elton John, or Rod Stewart, or even Cat Stevens, I might not have believed them. Our music at least is still out there somewhere in 2018, as the music of 1918 most definitely was not in 1968. We win on that one.

But overall, our influence is here today and gone tomorrow. And that goes for today’s youth too.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time
You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while-
Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?


Life’s soundtrack

April 28, 2011

Recently I attended a public lecture by a noted academic, and was intrigued that before he began his address he took out an iPod and attached it to a sound system and switched it on. It played the ‘Trout Quintet‘ by Schubert. After we had listened to the music for perhaps four or five minutes, he switched off the equipment and proceeded to deliver his talk, which (in case you are wondering) was not in any way connected with Schubert’s piece; nor did he at any point explain why he had played it. I have to say I rather liked what he had done, not just because it is a wonderful piece, but because there was something nicely civilised about the whole experience.

Maybe I reacted positively because, on this occasion, we were really being invited to sit quietly and listen. Far too often these days music is part of a background soundtrack, played but not listened to. In the department store, or the café; the busker on the street who gets paid money as a substitute for listening rather than a reward for playing; the pianist in the hotel lounge who has 100 ways of playing tunes from Lloyd Webber musicals but who never really has an audience. But music, I think, is a form of cultural language and really needs to be listened to. It is not wallpaper that softens the background.

Anyway, I approached the lecturer afterwards and said I appreciated the Schubert piece, and he told me he does this at the beginning of most lectures he delivers to students. He said it puts them in the mood for listening and engaging with his subject. It’s an interesting approach. He may be right.


November 17, 2010

The new technology age – or perhaps, the Apple era – has come to full maturity as the Beatles finally make it to iTunes. This has taken so long because of various copyright issues which presumably are now resolved (the Beatles’ own record label was also ‘Apple‘). Within hours of the launch, their greatest album, Abbey Road, has made it into the top 10 albums. I am told that a whole generation of young music fans who don’t buy CDs will now hear the Beatles more or less for the first time.

It is of course extraordinary that a band that was together for eight years or so and disbanded 40 years ago should be able to create such a splash now.

Goodbye Education and Science?

February 27, 2010

Over recent years I have suggested from time to time that it might be right to look more closely at where ministerial responsibility for higher education might ideally lie. What has tended to prompt this suggestion is that the Department of Education and Science always and predictably focuses on primary and secondary education, and in particular prioritises these sectors when scarce resources have to be distributed. This is not surprising, because schools are part of the experience of all households in the state, whereas higher education, while now more inclusive than before, is still seen as something that is socially and intellectually elitist. Therefore successive Ministers for Education, who in addition to doing their ministerial job also have to worry constantly about the next election, have always favoured schools over universities and colleges when the going got tough.

My argument has been that higher education would get more robust support if it were to be detached from the school system and handed to a Minister of its own. This would not be a totally radical departure. For example, in Northern Ireland the Department of Education (which is in charge of schools) is separate from the Department of Employment and Learning (which has responsibility for higher and further education). In Britain Lord Mandelson, as Business Secretary, is in charge of higher education.

After the last general election the Irish Universities Association encouraged the Taoiseach to allocate higher education to a Department other than Education and Science.

So I have noted with interest that the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for the establishment of a Department of Education and Training to replace the current Department of Education and Science. In some ways this proposal is pointing in the opposite direction, as the union is calling on the government to bring responsibility for training back into the same department as other levels of education. But at least the proposal will help to put the spotlight on the Department  in order to assess how well it provides government oversight in areas where it now exercises it. On the same day former minister Mary O’Rourke TD called on the government to create a new department focusing on jobs and training, which represents another variation on the theme of departmental responsibility.

The occasion for all this talk right now is the expected cabinet reshuffle. So as the Taoiseach contemplates education and considers how best to secure a government that will energise and motivate, he may want to think again about the wisdom of leaving higher education in a Department that has tended to prioritise other things. What universities and colleges have to offer the country at this time is enormous, and will tend to determine the pace of economic recovery based on the extent to which they can be a magnet for knowledge-driven foreign direct investment and domestic start-ups. The complexity of this agenda is almost certainly better handled in a government department that is not constantly fixated on matters to do with schools.

The Taosieach should use this opportunity to send a strong signal about the significance of Ireland’s higher education sector – which is in any case needed urgently in order to reassure investors and entrepreneurs. The time is now.


September 7, 2009

Two of my extra-curricular enthusiasms merit a mention today – so apologies to those who don’t feel like sharing them!

On this blog I have from time to time given you a downbeat account of affairs at Newcastle United FC, a club you may have gathered I support. Well, we still have a mad owner, no permanent arrangements for a manager, key players who transferred out during August, dissatisfied fans – and do on and so on. But by heavens, the players are playing! It’s ‘only’ the Championship, but Newcastle are right there at the top, leading the table. What is even more remarkable is that they haven’t lost a single game in the season so far. And the players (or those that are left) are actually playing as if it mattered to them! So yes, even the gross incompetence of the board and the lunacy of the position the club has been pushed into have not stopped a good season from developing, and some people (naive ones, no doubt) are now whispering that Newcastle may be back up in the premiership next year. Oh go on, we can dream…

The second is also a particular delight. Regular readers know I have a particular fondness for the band A Fine Frenzy, whose first album ‘One Cell in the Sea‘ achieved enthusiastic reviews all over the world and was in the charts in America and a number of European countries, topping the charts indeed in some of them. This week the band’s second album, ‘Bomb in a Birdcage‘, is being released, and I have been able to listen to it in its entirety. It is an extraordinary follow-up, a mixture of poetic insights and rock-inspired beats. Singer songwriter Alison Sudol’s vocals are also amazing, with an exceptional range and great beauty. A must-have album, in my opinion!

Generations, part II: All You Need is the Beatles

August 12, 2009

Hot on the heels of my recent post here about intergenerational communications comes a report in the New York Times that suggests that the Beatles may be shaping up to be the bridge between today’s young generation and all who went before, except for those over 65 (thereby keeping the group’s song ‘When I’m 64’ just on the right side of the divide…). According to the report, the Beatles rank in the top four favourite musical acts of every generation up to that age. It is what we have in common, and apparently this has had the effect of softening the friction between generations.

This is indeed remarkable. Today’s 16-year-olds are listening to music that was recorded over 40 years ago. Back when I was 16, to achieve the same effect I would have had to listen to something recorded in 1930 or earlier. And in case you’re not immediately on the ball as regards what was hot in 1930, here’s the chart. I’ve only ever heard of two of the acts, and I’ve heard only two of the songs (or at least I don’t remember coming across the others). Maybe if there had been some real musical influences in common we would have had a better understanding with our parents back then. Indeed, maybe she wouldn’t have been Leaving Home.

Remarkably, the Beatles – whose successful musical output was recorded really only over eight years – have dominated modern music more than anyone before or since, with perhaps the exception of Mozart and Beethoven. Beyond music, they influenced style, opinion and fashion; and not just one generation, but many generations. Their influence is recognised by everyone (except my spellchecker). So as we struggle to connect, it appears that The Beatles Are All We Need.

Without a song or a dance what are we?

July 15, 2009

Two weeks ago I was driving in a rented car through Scotland. I turned on the car radio, and the first station I found was having an ‘Abba hour’ – all of the songs they were playing were from the 1970s Swedish band. The one just on was ‘Knowing me, knowing you’, and having heard about three bars I put out my hand to change the station, but my hand froze and I didn’t; and if I can be honest, I’ll have to say that I stayed with it for the whole hour, cheerfully (and if anyone had been there, embarrassingly) singing along to every single song. I was even sorry when it was over, but I was in any case pulling in to my destination.

The curious thing is that I would never ever have considered myself to be an Abba fan. Back in the 1970s I was aware enough of Abba, but I never bought any of their singles or albums. But then again, you could not negotiate the 1970s without becoming familiar with Abba. Wherever you turned, there they were, awful glittery clothes and slightly strange on-stage performances. But hey, I was into Jethro Tull,, Deep Purple and the Doors, and the easy pop of Abba would have been a million miles away from my turntable. Well, actually, when my sister bought their album ‘Arrival’, I would occasionally ‘borrow’ it without her knowledge and listen to it; it was my guilty secret.

Surely, surely, this musical act was an ephemeral one, destined to attract a certain type of teenager in 1976, and then destined for storing in the attic, and oblivion in the new musical world of CDs. No, indeed. Right now, in this new millennium, Abba is still there, spawning new musicals, continuously selling albums, and ‘Abba hours’ on Scottish radio stations. How can this be?

If you forget about the clothes and the act, there is something inexplicably timeless about Abba. You think of the tunes as bubblegum, and yet you know they are not, they are clever and musical and, curiously and infuriatingly, they stay fresh, even after you have heard them again and again. The lyrics are exactly what you would expect from Swedes who didn’t speak much English; or are they? No, of course they are not, they are annoyingly poetic and they resonate with people’s feelings, hopes and sense of humanity.

I am not along in thinking this way; Ben Macintyre of the Times newspaper has a very similar perspective. Hell, millions do. So what can I say? That I have resisted the charms of Abba?

My, my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger
Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight

But should you ask, I’m a Deep Purple man. Or maybe Aerosmith.

A whiter shade of… – well, of what exactly?

April 24, 2009

There’s a scene in the movie based on Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Commitments, where one of the characters is discussing the Procol Harum song, A Whiter Shade of Pale, with a Roman Catholic priest. Getting to the bit in the lyrics where ‘sixteen vestal virgins [are] leaving for the coast’, both admit they have no idea what on earth that is supposed to mean. Indeed, the lyrics of the song as a whole are a mystery to most. There are, as you would expect with such things, all sorts of theories, including that it was about being high on cocaine, waking up from a dream, an interpretation of a Chaucer poem, the end of a relationship, and so forth. The songwriters themselves have never said, and my own theory is that the words have no deeper meaning at all; but who am I to know anything?

Anyway, Whiter Shade has just been declared to be (in one of those odd league tables) the ‘most played song in public places’ over the past 75 years, beating Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody into second place. And would you believe it, there is not a single Beatles song in the top 10, though they then enter big time in the 11-20 places.

Whiter Shade of Pale was a hugely enigmatic song, with its mysterious lyrics and its Bach-like opening. The band did have other hits, though none as big, and indeed they are still singing and even recording. But for many people this song was the signature tune of my generation, and it continued to be that long after those vestal virgins must have reached the coast.

Finding talent

April 23, 2009

If you haven’t heard of the singer Susan Boyle – and I must confess that until yesterday I hadn’t – you really need to watch the clip on youtube which I will give you at the end of this post.

Susan Boyle is from a rural area of Scotland, and according to her own account has been an enthusiastic singer from a very young age, wanting to be a professional. And I should tell you, she has a voice that would make ice melt. Think Elaine Page (to whose style she aspires), but then think 3,000 times better. Think of one of the best popular female singers you could imagine hearing. That’s Susan Boyle. It’s not necessarily the style of music that I listen to most, but I’d make an exception here.

Susan Boyle appeared on a British television show, Britain’s Got Talent, and she wowed the audience and the judges to such an extent that they were giving her a standing ovation before she had even got to the third bar of her song. And at the end of her performance the judges declared her to be the best singer they had heard in three seasons of the show. And from there she just took off, jetting from rural Scotland to the television studios of America and almost instant celebrity status.

So what is so amazing? Well, Susan Boyle is 47 years old. She has a wholly attractive and vivacious personality, but let us say her looks are not the looks of someone whom the editors would choose for the front page of your average fashion magazine. Some have called her ‘frumpy’.

As she sang on the show that discovered her, you could see the audience just willing her on, and you could see that it was only partly because of her extraordinary voice; it was partly because in their hearts they all knew that the world doesn’t normally given the Susan Boyles a chance. So she stands in the limelight for all those who don’t have what someone decides are conventionally good looks, for all those who have talent but who come up against the superficiality and prejudices of the rest of us. And that may be the end of the story, unless we learn to give everyone the chance they deserve on the basis of who they are. I hope she lights a fire.

So here is Susan Boyle.

Don’t sing it to me

February 14, 2009

I must confess, I quite like lists.  When I was a teenager I could hardly contain my excitement every week when BBC radio would release the latest pop charts and Alan Freeman would feature them on his Sunday afternoon ‘Pick of the Pops’, or we could see them mimed on ‘Top of the Pops’. But I liked lists of all kinds – like the one from 1971 I discovered recently in some old boxes I kept, ‘the top 20 international airlines with the best on-plane toilets’ (truly); by the way, Swissair apparently had the best. And of course for the last couple of decades I have had to maintain a professional interest in university league tables.

But the type of list I like best is a chart of the worst songs ever. Apparently awful-music experts like to distinguish between ‘worst songs’ (which is an attack on the songwriter) and worst recording (which is what the artist made of it), but that’s too pedantic for me; I like to mix and match.

In 2006 the broadcaster CNN invited its viewers to write in with their least favourite songs. The song that topped these charts was Paul Anka’s ‘(You’re) Having my Baby’. I have to admit – and you can see it here – it is indeed terrible; the song addresses his wife or partner, and he seems to feel the need to shout at her in the song, and the combination of mushy lyrics and excitable shouting is not a winner. Another song that features in the top 5 is Charlene’s ‘I’ve never been to me’, which used to get some air time on BBC Radio 2 when that station seemed largely to be on a mission to play every over-sentimental song that they could lay their hands on; if I understood the song correctly, the poor woman ran out of ‘frilly faces’, and while she’d been to ‘paradise’ she had ‘never been to me’. In fact, if you want to find a common theme in the songs identified by CNN viewers as the most annoyingly irritating, it’s sentimentality. Something maybe to remember as we embark on the challenges of Valentine’s Day: whatever romantic thoughts are in your heart, for heaven’s sake don’t sing them to your loved one, they might vomit.

As for me, what songs do I dislike most? For a start, quite a lot of the oeuvre of Rod Stewart, but that may be because I find the man tooth-grindingly annoying. And though I am an absolutely committed Beatles fan, there are two or three Paul McCartney songs that make me want to lie down in a darkened room. And the worst ever? Well, there are many contenders, but for me Dean Friedman’s ‘Lucky Stars’ is gold standard pure unadulterated awfulness.

So who would be on your charts?


PS: Oh, I forgot ‘Happy Everything’ by Maggie Moone, in which she offers her love a box of ‘happy everything’ – which intriguingly seems to include ‘a smile that’s on a bale of straw’ – see if I am right here.  This was a Eurovision song entry, which reminds me that the Eurovision Song Contest provides a rich vein from which to mine truly frighteningly bad songs.