Friday, 23 December 2011

The Destroyers: monstrous, magnificent and loads of fun.

A Christmas show that brought a New Year's resolution for this blog: more music, less radio. 

I haven't written much about the Destroyers on this blog. My bad. It's not because I don't think they're pretty damn fab (they are, oh yes, they really are) but simply because it's been a year since I last caught them in full fig, live. And yesterday was the first time I've seen them in front of a truly DEMENTED audience... their natural element, of course.

This was the Destroyers' Christmas party, held at the Prince of Wales in Moseley, Birmingham. And, oh, what fun there was to be had. My previous Destroyers gigs were more formal and/or subdued: for example, halfway up the bill at Moseley Folk (that's Richard  Shakespeare's shot of that particular gig, by the way). This was a ridiculously low placing - a headline or near-headline slot in 2012 is more than merited. They there's the regular Town Hall December slot. Now, much as I love the Town Hall,  it does not entirely lend itself to uninhibited audience behaviour. It's just not that kind of venue. The upside is that you can better analyse what's going on stage. I quite like that. But I also like to be swept along and blown away.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Much ADO about the city and its musicians. And a significant first birthday.

Two events on two successive Thursdays, both significant and promising in their own ways. Last Thursday, the admirable Birmingham Music Network, which runs on a budget of nanopennies, providing a very useful platform to meet and talk about all things musical in the city, hosted a discussion/debate at Creative Networks in Millennium Point. The discussion was about Birmingham City Council’s sudden discovery that, hey, there is music being made in the city, and that, with a bit of luck this music thingy might, er, generate a bit of money. You didn't hear about that either? Wow. Funny, that.

I was on the platform in my capacity as local media and music industry dinosaur, along with the sagacious Dr Paul Long from BCU, local video maker Anthony Hughes, and the brilliant Abi Seabrook from Lady Georgiana. Abi and moderator Andy Derrick were the only full-time music professionals. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Birmingham Bands - does their music travel?

We have great music, great musicians and great bands - but is there an open door for them? 

I just got off an online chat with Mike, a US radio pal. We talked music as always. When working abroad, I’m always happy to push local talent, and that’s just what I did, pitching two bands to Mike a few years back when he graduated to mainstream radio. These were the New Blacks and 360. The New Blacks – not sure if they’re around anymore – were/are a fine bunch of hard rockers from the Black Country, and they went down just fine with Mike. But I struggled with 360, which struck me as completely insane. The main reason, of course, is there is no such thing a receptive mainstream music format at most US radio – the material HAS to fit certain criteria. And Ska/Funk/Punk with a dash of brilliant pop, to my dismay, wasn’t being snapped up at US radio.

Yesterday, as usual, we talked music. Mike wondered what was cooking locally. So I gave him a whole list of web links. They’re listed further down the post, after the jump. As I did, I was struck by the individuality of the acts I was asking him to check out from a US perspective. It’s a good and a bad thing.

I love all these guys. These acts are all British/English in the widest, best and most individual sense. They’re all fabulous, all uncompromisingly powerful and inventive…but I just wonder how easy it will be for most of them to get the smallest toehold across the pond. That they deserve recognition is beyond question.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Reeling in the Years: Interviewing Bob Marley

In 1978 I interviewed Bob Marley. Yup, the Bob Marley. Face to face. Now, before Marley fans get too excited, I must state here and now that it really wasn’t a great piece of work. I did it backstage: never my favourite place to conduct an interview. Backstage is a working area, definitely not DJ territory.  And Marley was… somewhere else. He really didn’t have that much to say to an impressionable Brit rock jock. Island Records were pumping up the Bob Marley mystique as hard as they could. That meant preposterous backstage faffery and ego-trips between promoter, pr people, tour managers, jocks and journos. I was really quite nervous, being a callow young honky and all, and Marley’s security was, shall we say, forbidding.

Job done and interview broadcast, I forgot all about it. For decades. Until yesterday, when I was contacted by a film company who wanted to use some of the material. How’s that for something echoing down the years and smacking you in the face?

I think this is a fascinating turn of affairs. There’s a whole bunch of things you can draw from this, none of them are about me and my interview.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

In the Treehouse with Paul Murphy and friends

A documentary  about the Songwriter's Cafe, a Birmingham institution

Songwriters Cafe 1 hr version part 1 by Radio To Go

Two files: a two-part documentary. This one's on Soundcloud, the other, after the jump, is on MixCloud (I'm running short of space). I try to tell the story of a 2011 summer evening at Paul Murphy's Songwriter's Cafe. Paul organises this lovely event most weeks during the summer months, in his treehouse venue in South Birmingham. It is a platform for the oft-neglected art of the singer-songwriter. Performers are allowed to flourish and develop in front of a warm and receptive audience. I always feel wholly privileged to be at one of these events. And since Paul, pictured above (thank you, Richard Shakespeare), asked me to get involved, adding short interviews to his web feed - the event is streamed live at and - I thought I should try to tell a slightly more detailed story.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Carina Round, Dan Whitehouse and Vijay Kishore deliver bigtime

It just keeps getting better, and better, and better. A great night at the Hare and Hounds, and a studio session to remember
Carina Round

This has been another of those weeks for amazing, amazing music. Last night, I caught one of the best live shows I've seen in a long, long, time, in King's Heath, Birmingham; and Saturday last, I was privileged to be at Music Up studios in Coventry to work with Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, as they recorded their first full live in-studio session. 

I say ‘work’, because I was there to record an interview to add to the recorded material. But it was a pure pleasure to watch the band in a studio environment and pick out more facets of their extraordinary music. Eleven stunning musicians, with buckets of imagination and creativity in an atmosphere of collaboration and experimentation. 

I don’t know where this collective is going – they don’t know either – but I know it’s going be exciting, and different. As soon as I finish this post, I’m back to editing the interview.  Then when the tracks are mixed, I’ll put the package together. It’s part of a series I’m working on, with UB40’s Brian Travers, all featuring the best of local musicianship.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Radio's oldies but goodies: who decides what we hear?

What perspective do 35 year olds use when programming 50 year old songs on the radio?

First things first: this post has been triggered by an invite from old pals Mean Street Dealers. They were also known as Hooker and School Sports, but, as Mean Street Dealers, they truly were one of Brum’s finest bands in the mid-70s. And, like a lot of excellent bands, they kind of got swept away by punk towards the end of that decade. Punk, for all its early DIY spontaneity, soon became  yet another marketing device for the music industry. This made life hard for bands who had been knocking on the door for more than a couple of years. Remember all those outfits that suddenly had to pretend that they couldn’t actually play?

But that’s another story. Mean Street Dealers could play then (and how), and now they are planning a comeback gig, on Friday 8th July at the Asylum in Hockley. Here’s the reunion gig info in more detail. I will dj at the event; I'm really looking forward to it. And that’s started me thinking for this blog post.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Interviewing UB40's Brian Travers again, 30 years on

A radio interview in a studio paid for out of UB40 Signing Off royalties 
I had a GREAT day yesterday. Much of it was spent gassing with UB40 horn maestro Brian Travers  in a studio that simply oozes Birmingham rock history. 

That’s him on the left, looking disgustingly healthy; I’m the, er, distinguished elderly gent on the right. The shot's from the camera of the excellent Richard Shakespeare.

And the studio? Well, it’s the studio that ‘Signing Off’ built. 


Monday, 14 March 2011

BBC Local Radio: death by a thousand cuts

I’ve been mulling this post over for a couple of days. This is partly because I am so damn angry. I’ve been trying hard not to unleash a stream of bile. I certainly don’t have all the facts, and I really don’t want to heap invective onto the wrong heads, or add more bitterness to the mix. And yet, and yet, and yet…. I still can't think about this without getting angry.

Here’s the focus for my ire: it was reported last week that the beeb are seriously considering ripping all but maybe six hours a day of local output out from BBC local radio, replacing this output by opting in to 5 Live. Here’s the Guardian’s report from Thursday 10th.

That we’ve got to this point is, sadly, inevitable. The BBC is on the back foot, and has taken a vicious funding hit. Savings have to come from somewhere. They tried with 6 music, and that didn’t fly. So now they appear to be picking off local radio. Me? I’m angry because this kind of savage cut is both ill-thought-out, and targets some of the least well-paid staff at the corporation. And it is - still - completely avoidable.

Local radio, both BBC and commercial, is simply not taken seriously by its metropolitan bosses. It never has been. It was only a matter of time before commercial radio happily abandoned any pretence of localness in favour of nationally marketed ‘brands’. In so doing, they insulted the broadcasters they had just fired by loudly claiming that there was just not enough talent out there anyway. That sort of attitude is patronising, arrogant and very stupid, but not unexpected. But that BBC management should seriously consider throwing hundreds of talented and dedicated coal-face workers onto the scrap heap makes my blood boil. It means national networks are valued and local radio is not. Of course, this may be a scare tactic to usher in less savage cuts, but it speaks volumes about how the corporation views its regional talent.

Do I know of what I speak? Well… yes, I do. I landed at Pebble Mill in the 90s to produce for Radio 2 Overnights. R2 was about to take its great leap forward, ousting R1 as top UK station. I inherited my main presenters, but was allowed to use local radio presenters for holiday cover. For them it was a big deal: a shot at the big time. They gave it their all, of course, and the two that I eventually came to rely on were excellent, delivering terrific listener feedback and often outshining the regular presenters. But did this mean my fine local radio professionals were taken seriously for possible promotion to the network? Even cursorily looked at? I’ll let you take a wild guess.

That was fifteen years ago, but I doubt that attitudes have changed. I know there have been countless consultations and strategy initiatives. I know that part of the agenda has been to put news first at BBC local radio. Music programming took a back seat, with a centralised and super-safe library fed to all stations, and local music shunted to off peak hours on the admirable weekly BBC Introducing slots.

That’s a crying shame. The news agenda is fine – give me good reporting any day - but news radio is expensive. Good reporters don’t come for free. Effective speech radio takes time and money. It also means that all too often the news agenda of the day follows events dictated from outside the region. If you then fail to deliver effective local coverage, you wind up sounding parochial, and unfavourable comparisons with national networks naturally follow. Radio 5 Live is great, but I don’t need it on yet another frequency. I would, however, really like to hear the next Victoria Derbyshire honing her craft locally.

Much worse, and by now I think it’s far, far too late to rectify this, BBC local stations have been allowed to distance themselves from local culture. The staff with the skills and contacts to deal with this have gone. There’s a bloody big freighter full of cultural goodies that’s sailed right on past local radio, and the stations have fatally and completely ignored it, because it wasn't in the strategic plan. In the first ten years of this century, there has been an explosion of creativity across the country. Creativity in the visual arts, theatre, dance, video and, especially, music is bursting with energy and collaborative enthusiasm. It is a source of huge pride to many in my  city, and the same principle applies elsewhere. A lot of this is down to the web, which lets ideas fly around to create inspiring events like flash-mob choral performances, musical collaborations, mashups and more.
And where is radio in all this? Pretty much nowhere, criminally being allowed to miss out. Unparalleled riches are just going to waste. 

Has this even been noticed in the higher echelons of the beeb? Has its potential value to local radio been evaluated? I’ll let you take another wild guess.

I don’t know where we go from here. I do know that thrilling and brilliant music is happening both here in the West Midlands and all over the country, and it’s clear to me that this wonderful new resource – squarely at the very heart of our local and national culture - is being almost completely ignored. It may not be too late to change tack. But if the BBC throw hundreds of staffers out, with all their skills and local knowledge, then thousands upon thousands of years of work and experience will be lost to the BBC, forever. Talent will flow elsewhere, and will bypass the corporation, forever. There will be less and less challenges to existing thinking, more ossification of managerial attitudes, and we will lose, pretty much permanently, a cheap, value for money resource that probably will be impossible to reconstitute.

Ask yourself: where does talent come from? How does it learn its craft? And – is it really to be found exclusively in London, with the odd side trip to Manchester?

I think not.

Friday, 4 February 2011

CBSO and ADO. A tale of two Orchestras

They both absolutely rock. We should be proud of both bands.
We have great orchestras in Birmingham.  Why, I saw two this week. Now, I just may have been the only person who attended both of these gigs, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see other kindred spirits: the music making was equally passionate and fulfilling, and the audiences welcoming and knowledgeable.

Wednesday night was the CBSO, rollicking through Mahler 9 and a brilliant contemporary piece, Kai, from Mark Anthony Turnage. Top notch delivery from all concerned, brilliant Symphony Hall acoustics, and a few members of the audience I would have tipped off the top balcony had I been able to reach them when they coughed or sneezed during the final movement.

Thursday night was the ebullient and witty Mama Matrix - I’d never seen them before, and I loved them to bits - and the third public gig from the Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, at a seething Hare and Hounds in King’s Heath.

Seething is actually the right word. I’ve never seen an entire audience go bonkers in quite such a complex and bendy-twisty way. If was if the crowd turned into a collective skanking jelly. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of this is due to the extraordinary heroics of guitarist Tom Hyland, who plays and dances with huge expressive freedom. But you simply can not single out anyone from this collective. The mix and approach are so infectious, and the shifts and splits in direction are fresh and mesmerising. I am deeply impressed. I love catching a band as it locks into something new and individual and unique. This was one of those moments. And they’ve hardly got started.

So who are these guys? Well, the full details are on their facebook page, but simply put, they are a live mash-up of genres, with stupefyingly good live djs (last night, Malicious DJ and The Doctor, with an appearance from Maxwell 45) and brio musicianship and skills from a multiplicity of music disciplines. Some musicians – they all play with other outfits - rotate in and out, and they plan for flexibility and surprises, underpinned with a solid sense of structure and purpose. There is a very early video available for you to watch, but it cannot capture what they do live. And a mixed multicultural band draws a multicultural crowd, who as I’ve already said, mashed themselves up into a pulsing, oozing, frenzy. In some ways, the gig  reminded me of the Rock Against Racism gigs of 30 years ago – but here, the driving force was the sheer pleasure of experimental music making, powered by the purest idealism and goodwill.

This is very new and very vital, and I urge you to check them out. They play monthly gigs (so far), at the Honeycomb Club nights at the Hare and Hounds in King’s Heath, with intensive rehearsals in between time. The set is brief – four or five numbers - but those numbers are extended work outs which stretch the band and the audience.

Huge props to all concerned, not least the unstoppable Shelley Atkinson and Karl 'Malicious DJ' Jones, who dreamed up the concept, and then charmed, cajoled and bullied the project to its feet and into vibrant life. Respect and admiration doesn’t begin to cover it. And many thanks to Richard Shakespeare for the use of his picture