Performance of perfection?

Looks great, can you make out what they’re playing?

When was the last time you went to a music gig? What was it like? What as the music like? I went to one recently, half decent position, standing to one side. The sound was poor – loud, unclear and unbalanced – the vocals lost in the bass. At not much change from a £100 a ticket. What’s more, they didn’t play the songs I wanted and quite a few I didn’t. At home, I have them all on records and CD – and in unsurpassed quality. In the comfort of my own living room.

That’s why I don’t go to a live gig for the music. The recorded version is the real deal, perfected for listening by the artists and producers after many hours in a studio, only signed off when everyone is satisfied with it. And it can be listened to again and again. And listen is what I do, invariably with my eyes closed, putting pictures to the sound. A gig’s not about what you hear. It’s about being there – the ambiance, the excitement, the energy. The performance is unique but the music’s rarely memorable. They offer you alcohol and then pump up the volume to lift your spirits and create an experience. What’s on stage? Forget it!

Bands must know this. Otherwise, when they put out a ‘live’ album, why do they spend hours in the studio, perfecting the performance before it’s released? In the studio, the microphones are positioned to maximum effect, multiple tracks overlaid in the mix, final masters completed in front of top of the range studio monitors.  At the gig, they know they can’t reproduce the studio sounds. What counts is setting the mood and blasting the audience away.

So let’s get this straight. Gigs are good if you want a lift and an experience – at least, so long as you’re in a decent spot, preferably near the front, where the atmosphere can envelop you and the people next to you aren’t discussing the trouble they had getting to the venue. But studios are where real music is created. I don’t care if it involves trickery in production, with auto-tuning, multiple layers and double-tracking. This ‘perfection’ is what most performers are aiming for.

Of course, I couldn’t live off, ‘I saw Jimi Hendrix live’ for the next forty years if I’d not been to one of his gigs, but my memory is from watching him play. That’s not music. It’s a different kind of craft. If you want performance, go to a gig. If it’s musical perfection, stay at home.

Richard’s novel, ‘Homeward Bound’, telling the story of a seventy-nine year-old wannabe musician and his eighteen-year-old granddaughter is available now from bookshops and online. To find out more, click

Want to know about the book?

For those who don’t know about Homeward Bound, I talk about it to Hannah Murray on Talk Radio Europe‘s Book Show. You can hear it Wednesday March 4th from 6pm (UK time) and repeated Saturday 7th from 7pm (UK time).

And in the meantime, I talk about it here . . . .

Of course, if you’ve already bought the book and read it, please hang on for a new and different blog!!

Do you hear voices?

Do you hear voices? I don’t mean paranoia or schizophrenia, or a whispering in your heard when you’re alone. Or imaginary sounds from the late, lamented shop in Oxford Street. When you read a book or a magazine, do you skim the words in silence or do you hear someone reading them to you?

I wondered this after someone asked me if there’d be a talking book of Homeward Bound. (There is an eBook but a talking book’s not anticipated at the moment.) But it started me wondering. Do I imagine a voice when I read, giving them accents and mannerisms?  And are they different from the non-speech narrative?

I was reading something written by Stephen Fry and I know I put it in his voice and with his intonation. The same for newspaper columns by Piers Morgan and Jeremy Clarkson and a Twitter message from Danny Baker. Is that just me or does everyone? So whose voice do I hear when I read back my novel? Mine? Bill Nighy, who people have suggested should play George in a film version? Or Phil Daniels, the voice I always default to when I want a voice of the people?

I know that in writing these sentences, I’m speaking them to myself, rising and falling as the sentence progresses, lifting it if I pose a question and falling as the full stop approaches. And I assume it’s my own voice. I also read out loud what I’ve written as it seems to help, though it does get funny looks when I do it on the top deck of a bus.

Thinking of funny looks – when I wrote about the ones I get on buses, did you visualise expressions people give me? Did it make you think of things you’ve done that resulted in a reaction you weren’t expecting? Does description is a novel lead you to picture it in your head? In Homeward Bound, George has a room full of records. Would you imagine a room in your house filled with shelves and create your own geography of where the door is, where the light is coming from? Does light creep in from the windows or is it a lit by a single pendant light – perhaps a naked bulb . . . or does it have a shade?

I suppose I ask all this as – having been a film maker – the Director, the art department and the cast all have to bring descriptions to life for the camera. Maybe that’s why some film adaptations don’t work, each viewer having already designed the set and cast it in their head.

So back to my original question – when you read, do you hear voices?

Richard’s novel Homeward Bound is out now, at good bookshops and online

Save me from the audience

Save me from the audience at a live gig!

You pay your money (usually lots) and then endure people around you who seem to have misunderstood why they are there. Or is it me?

Judy Collins with a well-behaved audience at Cecil Sharp House folk venue, Camden.

I was at a Bruce Springsteen concert a while back. Around me, fans were wearing tour T-shirts, declaring their love for the Boss. Yet when he came on, they were absent for much of his set, trailing to and from the bar or the toilets. And each time they left, it meant people standing to let them pass, obscuring my view of what was on stage. When they finally made it back, treading on my toes and slopping over me the contents of their plastic pint glasses, they gave the stage cursory glances and yelled an occasional ‘yeah!’ but mostly simply talked to each other – at least when they weren’t taking gulps of beer. Yet at the end of each song, they’d jump and whoop, ‘More!’ Maybe they needed more since they’d not seen any of what had gone before.

Here’s someone who hardly considered there might be other people in the audience before doing her hair . . . London’ Soho Theatre

Then there was the concert where I watched the performers, not on stage, but on screen. And not the giant screen either side of the stage. The iPhone screen of the people two rows in front of me. They were standing on their seat to ‘film’ as the person in front of them was using an iPad that was blocking their camera. Both effectively denied me a clear view of the stage. I did try and ask them to be more considerate, but the amplification was too loud for them to hear – probably turned up to deter people from talking.

Lulu at Union Chapel, Islington. Maybe it helps being at the front!

It seems to me that people use gigs as a meeting place, reinforcing my view that live performances are about socialising not music – certainly at major venues. I exclude more intimate locations like London’s Union Chapel  – and I can remember a gig at Bristol’s Colston Hall where you could hear a pin drop, though whether that was because the audience was better mannered, entranced or just bored, I can’t say.

For me, adequate retribution occurred at a 20/20 cricket match. The crowd showed the same lack of attention to the entertainment on offer as the music at a gig, talking, drinking, looking in any direction other than towards the pitch. With the match finely poised, one of a particularly irritating group near me set off to the bar. When he returned with six overfilled pints, the game was over and everyone was leaving. Though I don’t suppose his group had noticed.

Quite what those on stage think of this. I suppose as long as the stadium is full, the merch is sold and the profits are high, they don’t care. But can they not see, do they not hear, that only about a third of the so-called adoring fans seem to be taking any notice? Surely not their ambition when they set out to become entertainers.

High Street is best – but Homeward Bound is now an e-book

For those of you who prefer screens to paper, now has Homeward Bound as an ebook

And it’ll start to appear on other sites too. But of course, the best place is a bookshop. I always urge people to use the High Street. For me, there’s nothing better than browsing – well, browsing books and records. Not when it comes to clothes and shoes which are high on my list of things to avoid!

Below is a link to an interview I did with the Islington Tribune.

The music of the book

‘Homeward Bound’ has a Spotify Playlist.

George Turnbull, who is seventy-nine and one of the lead characters in the novel, grumbles ‘I don’t have a bloody iPod’* but maybe you have a device that plays Spotify.

As you read the book, you might find yourself wondering ‘what is that song?’ so, if you don’t have a record collection as expansive as George’s, you can now listen to it online

If you find any song titles that are missing from the list then comment below and I’ll add it to the list.

Six-month-old Ellis is enjoying the launch of Homeward Bound at Ink@84 bookshop in Islington

*other brands of music player also available

In praise of the album

I want to praise the album. Not the digital download or even the CD offering outtakes and extra tracks. I mean the humble vinyl long player (LP). And not because I’m just being retro and nostalgic.

A traditional LP was a single disc with twelve tracks, six on each side. It varied, of course but what didn’t was the playing time, usually totalling about 15 minutes each side, 30 minutes in total. (Cliff Richard made one titles 32 Minutes and 17 Seconds, while rock’n’roller Del Shannon brought one out titled ‘1661 Seconds,’ though I never actually timed it.)  The duration was originally set for technical and quality reasons, but it was an ideal length to sit and listen. Without standing up to skip tracks, the listener followed through each side in its entirety. It was planned by the producers to a pattern. Tracks would alternate from fast to slow, starting and ending with a bang. In between, there would be different styles, pacing the listener through the selections. In later years, artists became more adventurous and programmed the tracks to tell a story, sometimes joining tracks so they melded into one, and the concept album was born.

At first hearing of an album, the listener might not like every track. The variations and changes of style didn’t suit everyone – perhaps track two was a ballad from a singer more associated with rock, or track five was a solo by a band member you didn’t like – and it’s true that the strongest material was always saved for the singles and pole positions at the start of each side. But what it meant, as you listened through all 15 minutes each time is you gradually got used to the differences, growing to like the new, different or unexpected. For me, many became ‘growers’ that, over time, have become some of my absolute favourites. And it gave the artist latitude to create a package, set moods and deliberately lift and drop the listener, not just a series of songs that could be played in any order. There are so many examples to illustrate, but suffice it to say that Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys are two brilliant albums that used the programming that an LP offered.

Then along came CDs and now streaming. CDs did the initial damage. You could skip the tracks you didn’t like and the neat LP package of 15-20 minutes listening time became continuous through 60 minutes or more with added tracks and outtakes. Any planned sequencing the artists had created became irrelevant. Then came streaming, where the concept of an album was destroyed forever. Each track available singly, skip it after two seconds if you don’t like it instantly . . . what chance for something a bit different?

The consequence is, more choice has led to less. Less chance for artists to innovate and less excitement for listeners at discovering different music and building a love of something new. Music is now compartmentalised into types and we choose the ones we know and are familiar with. Specialist radio stations and channels offer oldies or rap or hits, but where’s the mix, the opportunity to expose listeners to something they weren’t expecting? There’s BBC Six and – ironically, given its history – BBC Radio 2 but people the age I was when music first really excited me are not listening.  I’d duck my head under the bed covers and listen to the new releases on Radio Luxembourg, the sole station to play records. It was only on in the evening and the sound was poor, and it was simply record companies plugging their music, (they used to fade records after about 90 seconds so they could play more in the time they had), but it exposed me to things I’d not heard before.  Then came the offshore pirates, and they played what the DJs liked – and as they were such a motley crew, you could hear almost anything.

Today, we choose what we think we want and shut ourselves away from anything we don’t think we like or that might take time to appreciate. Why wouldn’t we? That’s what choice allows us to do.  But I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Richard Smith’s novel Homeward Bound is published next week and already available on Amazon and Waterstones online.

Hi-fi or low expectations?

I listened to music as a teenager on a tiny record player which crunched the sound and where a drum roll sounded like damaged vinyl. Yet it gave me hours of listening pleasure. And in the evenings I went down to the local and put my 10p in the jukebox. That gave the music a completely different dynamic. My ambition was to treat myself to a proper hifi system – record deck, amplifier, speakers. I achieved it during a summer holiday where I worked days and nights. Forty-five years on and I’ve continued to upgrade, lucky enough to have the space to accommodate a reasonably sophisticated set up and thick enough walls not to disturb the neighbours.  But there are no set rules and I’m no snob when it comes to how people choose to listen to music. Yet all is not well.

Some songs are just meant to be heard on a jukebox…

‘Alexa, play music.’ The words that strike fear into me. Convenient, very clever and with an almost infinite supply of songs, the music invariably squawks out of a speaker that would have made my tiny record player sound like the organ at the Royal Albert Hall at full tilt. Tinny hardly covers it. And often twittering away in the background. Or the ear buds playing over the sound of a rattling tube train.  And everywhere you go, playing away almost inaudibly in the background in shops, hotels and restaurants. Yet the musicians will have spent maybe hundreds of hours perfecting the sound, mixing and completing it with the best loudspeakers money can buy. For what?

Sound has been downgraded in almost every walk of life. Televisions have been flattened at the expense of any kind or respectable audio system. Streamed and downloaded music is compressed to reduce the amount of bandwidth needed. And the trend towards miniaturisation deprives good quality sound of the one thing it needs most – space to breath.

What’s most worrying is that this is now the norm. Fewer people aspire to decent audio systems as I did, and when they do it’s invariably to rattle the walls with home cinema systems.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one. I just hope producers and artists continue to believe in quality and keep production standards up. Or my listening pleasure’s done for!


Richard’s new novel ‘Homeward Bound’ – about dreams, choices and rock’n’roll – is available from local bookshops, Waterstones and Amazon online.