Sunday, 28 December 2008

Goodbye Harold

I was lucky enough to meet Harold Pinter once, at a talk he gave at the British Library about his screenwriting career. I asked some daft question about pauses and then vaguely insulted him by telling him (whilst sheepishly getting his autograph) that my favourite play of his was a sketch he wrote called Men for Sale (which has not gone down in history as, er, his greatest piece, and in fact he barely remembered it himself).

It's very sad to see him go. Before I tired of the drama scene, and started pursuing a career in an even sillier one (music), I directed some of his plays. Not entirely successfully I must add - particularly where Betrayal was concerned. The whole point of that play is that the story is told backwards, but in my production a cock-up backstage one night led to it being told the other way round (i.e., forwards!). Quite funny in retrospect, that, although my actors were rather non-plussed.

Anyway, there have been glowing tributes written about Pinter in the past few days. I'll leave the accolades about his work to the theatre critics, but there is something I'd like to point out about Pinter which nobody in the press really seems to have dwelled on in the obituaries: the man had an incredible fondness for (and knowledge of) London bus routes.

Now, bringing public transport into the arts is a lonely (and not altogether cool) task - and, with my last record Twisted City being 'set' on the Tube, I should know. It involved making a complete twit of myself at times, doing album launches on tube trains, gigs on buses and so on (much of that was fun; however, it involved lots of blushing and bad press headlines like 'Why Chris is bus-king' - see http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=oFBNHznnqxw for some particularly embarrassing ITV footage of my antics).

But fortunately, thanks to Pinter, I wasn't alone in this odd combining of the arts and public transport. Pinter, it seems, had a very keen interest in London bus routes and frequently brought them (or general bus-related conversation) into his plays and novels. The Caretaker, The Dwarfs and Request Stop all show off Pinter's interest in London buses and their routes, and I'm very grateful that somebody else in the arts - particularly as great a writer as Pinter - wasn't afraid to bring this rather geeky interest into their work.

So goodbye Harold: master playwright, political activist...and public transport enthusiast. I'll miss you, but probably for slightly different reasons to everybody else.


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Thursday, 11 December 2008

Oasis

I've always been a bit ambivalent about Oasis. One the one hand they bring back good memories. Memories of being in my late teens in the nineties...which entailed, as you might expect, stripey turtle-necks, being drunk, chasing girls, playing the guitar badly, Trainspotting (the film, honest), talking shite...and learning how to be a tree (I studied Drama at university). All to the musical backdrop of tracks like Wonderwall and Don't Look Back in Anger. Those songs always remind me of fun, innocent times - times when Oasis' Roll with it was up against Blur's Country House for the number one spot, there were no responsibilities to worry about, no fear about the future and no agonising about a career in music - or any other career for that matter. We were invincible and, so it seemed, were Oasis.

On the other hand, I've always been deeply unimpressed by them - for two reasons. One: the vast majority of their songs sound like a cover version of the Beatles' classic Rain (and in fact, that was Oasis' original name). Two (and a related reason this): their unrelenting obsession with the Beatles.

Now don't get me wrong: I love the Beatles. They inspired me to learn how to play the guitar and embark on an incredibly foolish musical journey. I have ripped them off mercilessly in my own music. But Oasis take their admiration to a level far beyond that of most admirers. Their haircuts, their lyrics, their guitars, their videos, their choice of recording studio...everything about them has always seemed to say less about their own identity than that of the Beatles. Although Oasis write their own material, they often seem to resemble a sort of weird Beatles tribute band.

Maybe that's highly intentional, and part of the marketing plan - after all, the Beatles are rock icons that are deeply loved. You can go a long way by trading on associations. But to believe that is to do Oasis a disservice: their love for the Fab Four has always come across as genuine, and has certainly been long-lasting.

I guess it's the 'long-lasting' aspect of this love which I find irritating. In the nineties, when the Beatles were doing their Anthology TV series, and we had the whole 'Britpop' thing going on, the Oasis-Beatles-60s revival stuff seemed novel and interesting - and in tune with the times. Thirteen years on, encountering Beatles-infused lyrics like "Love is...a magical mystery", Beatles-infused song titles like "Bag it up", or Beatles-infused videos that look like the Yellow Submarine film is not hugely inspiring. And a lot of the new material still sounds like Rain.

But I'm going to forgive Oasis all that. Because I love their new single, I'm Outta Time. I think it's a fantastic song, even if the lyrics make no sense at all and it's a complete Lennon rip-off (though I can't talk: I'm completely guilty of bad lyric writing and ripping Lennon off). I would go so far as to say, controversially, that it's the greatest track they've put out; the production is engaging (that irritating Day in the Life piano reference aside), the melody is a treat, and well, it's just a great song.

To my mind, Noel has written three or four very good songs - Don't Look Back in Anger, Wonderwall, Live Forever and Roll With It...and the rest sound like Rain. I think this new single is better than all of those songs (with the exception of Rain of course) - and it was written by Liam. I've got a sneaking feeling that Noel knows this.

Normally at this point in a blog I try to write something witty and come to some sort of conclusion. I'm afraid I can't here. Basically I sometimes like Oasis; sometimes I don't; I like their new single. Did you need to know this? Probably not.

I think all the above says something about blogging.


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Sunday, 7 December 2008

Music personality test...

So I've made a little viral - the 'music personality test'. It's a silly idea and probably not entirely cool, but I'm experimenting with it anyway to see if it is any use in getting my free album download out and about.

Basically, you answer a series of questions based on your taste in music and are told what your 'music personality' is (prepare to be insulted by the way).

Find out what it's all about here: www.singletonmusic.com/musicpersonalitytest/

Obviously, since it's a viral, I'd appreciate it if you could forward it to people...


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Saturday, 29 November 2008

London show announced for 29 January

Just to let you know about a gig I'm doing on 29 January 2009. Hear Twisted City live plus some brand new material.

Tickets are very limited - Buy yours online now!

CHRIS SINGLETON AND BAND, LIVE AT THE TROUBADOUR
263-267 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 9JA - buy ticket.

29 January sees a full-band show by Dublin singer-songwriter Chris Singleton. Chris' music is a mixture of three classic Bs - Beatles, Bowie and Bolan - and his recent album 'Twisted City' wowed critics. He's been described as 'one of the most promising songwriters to emerge this year' by Clash Magazine, and the Irish Times reckon he's making 'some of the best pop/rock you are likely to hear this or any year'. His show at the Troubadour promises to be a corker. At the show you'll be able to pick up a limited-edition EP which features brand new tracks, which Chris and his band will also be playing live.

Joining Chris on stage will be vocalist John Gibbons (Razorlight, The Killers), guitarist Stelios Kalisperides (Shalamar, Jocelyn Brown), bassist Zane Maertens (Pearl Kaufman, Nestor Torres) and drummer Ben Woollacott (formerly of The Veils).Chris' "Twisted City" is available as a free download for a limited time only - you can get it now at http://www.singletonmusic.com/freealbum.

Tickets to this gig are very limited - buy yours online now.

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

New Chris Singleton songs

A quick note to let my devoted following [sic] know that I've put 3 new tracks up on my Myspace page, www.myspace.com/chrissingleton. These are

Lose It
Bad Ambitions
Let Me Out


and I hope you like them (despite the quite awful Myspace compression).

Unlike my last album, 'Twisted City', my new stuff has a lot more musicians on it (I'm not, hardy har, playing with myself quite so much).

The first two tracks feature the velvet backing vocals of John Gibbons; the third features the soulful sweetness of Jane Fraser. On bass for 'Lose It' and 'Let Me Out' we have the one and only Zane Maertens; the prince of precision, Ben Woollacott plays drums on 'Bad Ambitions'. Our electrician Peter Rollinson, who is also a damn fine trumpet player, is the boy behind the brass on 'Bad Ambitions'. I'm on the vocals, axes (guitars) and keys.

Do let me know what you think of the songs by posting a comment - I'm interested in hearing what people make of the new stuff.

Also, please excuse the silly adjectives employed above to describe my musicians - I went to see Leonard Cohen the other night and he introduces his musicians with such hilarious flair that I felt compelled to use some of my own daft phrases in this post. Apologies to all involved.


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Friday, 7 November 2008

The luxury of daft ideas

I read an article in today's Irish Times by a guy called Turlough O'Sullivan. He's the director general of Ibec, the Irish employers' representative body. In the article, he complains that "Ireland simply cannot afford the luxury of public service" and calls for cutbacks and dramatically reduced headcount in them (in the light of the current recession).

This got me thinking about the quality of Ireland's public services. Or lack thereof.

Let's be clear about this: Irish public services, by comparison with those of most other European countries - including some much poorer ones - are pretty awful. Let's take some examples. There is no free healthcare. Going to see a GP will cost you 50-60 Euros. Seeing an ear consultant (and I speak from experience here) can involve a waiting list of one year. Dental care is inordinately expensive (so much so that in the light of the economic downturn, people are starting to view it as self-indulgent - and I have that information from a dentist). There is still no train to Dublin airport (and rail travel between regional towns/cities doesn't really exist). A letter posted from outside Ireland will take about 5 days to be delivered, after it has arrived in Ireland. There is no underground in Dublin, and the two tram lines there don't even connect. Buses are infrequent and the capital still doesn't have an integrated ticketing system.

I know I sound like one of those annoying people who's lived outside the country for too long, and maybe I've become said irritating type, but whenever I come back to the country I really am shocked at how poor the public services are. The contrast with Ireland's nearest neighbour, the UK - a country not renowned for the quality of its public services - is unbelievable. British public services start looking incredibly good once you've come back and tried to use the Irish ones.

Which brings me back to Turlough O'Sullivan. He is clearly having a laugh when he uses the word luxury in conjunction with Irish public services. There is absolutely nothing luxurious about them.

There is an obvious counter-argument to his recommendations of cutbacks: investing in quality public services, its staff and associated infrastructure can create jobs, and thus spending, and thus economic growth. Not to mention an improvement in the quality of life.

But I think the real reason why O'Sullivan likes the idea of cuts in our public services (and for the people who run them) is because people like him don't use them. I would suspect that he can afford a very nice health insurance package, generally travels by car instead of public transport and pays extra to courier mail when he needs quick and reliable delivery of it. These kind of people are not best-placed to make sweeping pronouncements on services that they don't use, and which other people rely on.

Ultimately if Ireland wants to be the modern country that its political and business leaders have been waxing lyrical about for quite a while now, it needs proper, sustained investment in its public services. What it definitely can't afford is cutbacks - or the luxury of daft ideas.


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Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Goodnight and Good Luck

03:57. I'm hoping that by the time I finish this post, we'll have a winner. I am jacked. Still, this feels a lot better than 2004 and 2008, when I was jacked and unhappy.

Been instant messaging my good friends James and Amy throughout the night. They live in Australia, and they are cheering Obama on too.

An interesting aspect of this election is the amount of electronic commentary going on about it. People are staying up all night and writing Facebook status updates on it. Or instant messaging each other. Or writing fairly bad blogs about it (sorry).

That's it! He's won. Incredible. We've got a black leader of the free world. Who seems like a nice guy. And I can go to bed.

Goodbye Mr Bush. You could co-exist peacefully with a fish, but that was about it.


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Ohio for Obama - and Mormons for McCain

2:56. Well it's looking positive for Obama with, it seems, Ohio in the bag and positive noises coming out of Florida. Unless the Republicans have some 2000-style dirty tricks up their sleeves, it's looking okay for the skinny kid with the funny name.

I'm hoping they call Florida for Obama soon so I can go to bed. Utah, where the Mormons live, has just gone to McCain.

I admit this hasn't been the best live-blogging ever; I've just emphasised how much I want to sleep for the past few posts. On the plus side, I've managed to mention Mormons in a post - that's a first for me.

We've moved from beer onto tea now and it is waking us up a bit though.


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Uncheerful Republicans

It's 02:10. I had a power nap and a sip of beer and I awoke just to hear David Dimbleby say he's off to look for some 'uncheerful Republicans'. They are apparently uncheerful (is that a word?) because Fox News, that bastion of truthful reporting, has called Ohio for Obama. But Dimbleby has said that Fox News isn't good enough for the BBC to consider the state called (good on you David), so we are reserving judgement here on the couch.

All the pundits on the Beeb are now talking like Obama's won the election. But as David has pointed out, we don't know if Obama's won any swing states yet.

Maybe some chickens are being counted?


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My eyes hurt

Ok, so it's 1:45 and my eyes are starting to hurt a bit. I'm trying to live-blog the US election because it's meant to be a historic night. Yawns abound right now in North London though, and eyelids are drooping. Not because it's dull, but because, well, it's 1:45.

As things stand, Obama leads by 103 to 49 electoral college votes. No swing states really have entered the equation yet though.

I think we'd all be quite keen on going to bed really. So hopefully our man will win. We've got mini-bottles of champagne (ok, cheap sparkling wine) standing patiently by in the fridge which we will crack open if Obama does the business.

Incidentally, my girlfriend thinks this blog is a bit dull and I shouldn't be posting it. Sorry. But is 1:45 in the morning. Did I mention that?

Just read over it again and I agree with her. It is dull. Oh well.


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Waiting for the man

Well, I thought it only appropriate to write something. It's 12:37 and there are three of us on the couch (no, this isn't one of those blogs). We're all glued to the TV and very much hoping that the good guy wins the US election.

Of course, who the good guy is depends entirely on your political viewpoint, but for us it's Mr Obama. I like him because as Bruce Forsyth pointed out on last week's Strictly Come Dancing (my girlfriend makes me watch it) he sounds kind of Irish - Mr O'Bama to you.

Anyway we're all rooting for him, and this is why:

1) We liked the typeface on his campaign materials - great logo, nice slogan and a tasteful use of colour.

2) He's not George Bush.

3) He doesn't pronounce 'terrorist' like 'tourist'. I like to travel and I'm fed up of this war on tourists. Ryanair have been very active on that front.

There are more profound reasons why we want him to win - he'd probably do a better job on world peace, the environment and the global economy, and hopefully won't go starting illegal wars on spurious grounds - but right now, we just want him to win. Fingers crossed.


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Thursday, 30 October 2008

Bad for the Brand? Russell, Jonathan and the BBC

The guy across the road in our corner shop reliably informed me that only two people complained when Brand and Ross left their inappropriate messages on Manuel's - sorry, Andrew Sachs' - answer phone. A week later, the Mail on Sunday kicked up a fuss about it. And now, after most of the UK press have gone mad for this story, there are apparently 27,000 or so people moaning to the BBC about it.

My first thought on it all is this: do these people have nothing better to complain about? (Mind you, I probably have something better to do than blog about it).

My second thought: do these journalists have nothing better to write about? I mean seriously. We're in the middle of a credit crunch. America might be about to elect its first black president. Afghanistan needs a lot of work. Peter Mandelson's back in town and looking rather peculiar in ermine. But what does The Times, that so-called 'serious' paper, the paper of record etc., go and put on its front page? A story about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand making silly phone calls.

These stories have certainly had results. Brand's gone. Woss is in the doghouse for three months. BBC Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas has resigned. And senior BBC staff are having to apologise profusely on all their competitors' stations. The Beeb has taken a big hit here.

To my mind, the story that we should be focussing on is not the incident but the reaction. I'll come to that in a minute, but ok, let's look at the incident.

Two fairly funny guys make some inappropriate phone calls to a man who played a fairly funny Spanish waiter in the 70s. The calls involve a reference to the fact that one of them had slept with his granddaughter, who, incidentally, describes herself as Voluptua, a 'satanic slut'. (Grandpa was in Fawlty Towers - one of my favourite shows - so I expect he's got a sense of humour). The funny guys apologise, albeit a bit badly, and slowly. Nobody notices really - until the Mail on Sunday drags up the story a week later. And suddenly people all over the country are 'extremely offended' by this 'completely unacceptable' behaviour.

Well, if those sensitive souls are that easily offended, maybe they should consider some other BBC output which, to my mind anyway, is far more offensive - but which hasn't led to any resignations (that I know of anyway). I'm talking about that wheelchair sketch in Little Britain: it has probably caused much more distress to disabled people and their carers than any ill-judged phone call.

(Or perhaps, if you are particularly touchy, you could complain that Sach's 70s portrayal of a Spanish waiter was a bit racist - I liked it though).

In essence, this was an error of judgement. Brand's producer should have been more on the ball, the people involved should have apologised to the poor satanic slut in question (and Manuel) a bit quicker and we should have all moved on with a collective yawn.

Ok, so that's the incident dealt with. Now for the reaction, which is the real story.

When the press gets its knickers in a twist about something as trivial as this story, the old 'cui bono' question has to be asked. Who benefits from all this hoo-ha? You might think it was just a case of newspapers employing the age-old tactic of trying to sell newspapers by publishing sensational stories on their front pages (at the expense of proper ones), and there may be some truth to this.

In my view though, there is more to it than that; something more profound. I think a large section of the British media hates the BBC. They hate it for two reasons: commercial and ideological. And I feel this hatred is why they have blown this dodgy phone call saga out of all proportion.

Commercially, the BBC represents a massive threat to Murdoch's empire, particularly his TV one. It's arguably the only media outlet that represents any substantial threat to Sky and the Murdoch hegemony. This, I think, is partly why the Murdoch-owned Times ran a front-page story on Brand and Ross. It shouldn't have been a front-page story; not in these troubled times. Perhaps when The Times ran this story as its main headline it gave it a gravitas it didn't deserve, and perhaps this was intentional.

I feel, however, that opposition to the BBC on ideological grounds is the more powerful driving force behind all this. The BBC represents something that directly challenges the views of the UK's extraordinarily right-wing press: it is a highly successful, publicly-owned and publicly-funded organisation. Post Thatcher and Blair it is one of the very few public services that still exist in Britain - and certainly the only one to be routinely called 'world-class'. Its existence is anathema to the right-wing press; they regularly call for it to be privatised.

So it's hardly surprising that the press would want to make a big deal out of this. They have, subtly or otherwise, done all they can to undermine an institution which they view as a threat, and diminished its standing.

In reality, the BBC is this: a much-loved institution that we all share in, and which produces some of the world's best TV and radio. It's a shame that its reputation is suffering unduly for this storm in a teacup.

On a final note, what I find the most amusing thing about all this is that Andrew Sach's granddaughter Georgina Baillie is now (nearly) a household name. Frankly I'd never heard of her before - maybe these phone calls have been the best thing to ever happen to her career. And I never knew what Manuel's real name was either.


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Friday, 17 October 2008

Michael Foot and the credit crunch

For many years now, Michael Foot has been derided as the Labour leader who authored the 'longest suicide note in history' - the very left-wing 1983 Labour manifesto.

Interestingly though, one very important part of the manifesto - the pledge to nationalise banks - is now official policy of some of the most right-wing governments on the planet.

It's quite funny seeing neo-con George Bush and Gordon Brown (one of the most right-wing Labour Prime Ministers ever) carrying out Michael Foot's policies.

It's a very topsy-turvy world right now.


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Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Beatles didn't break up

Post Beatles break-up, John Lennon said that those people clamouring for a Beatles reuninon could just put their own Beatles album together - one track from a Lennon solo album, another from one of Paul's, one from George's and so on...

In this age of iPods this is now an intriguing possibility, and putting together 1970s Beatles albums is surprisingly satisfying. To my ears, for example, the first 1970s Beatles album, possibly called 'Instant Karma', would have had the following tracks on it:

Side 1
1 Instant Karma
2 Every Night
3 Isolation
4 My Sweet Lord
5 Junk
6 Jealous Guy
7 Maybe I'm Amazed

Side 2
1 Too Many People
2 Love
3 Imagine
4 Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey
5 All Things Must Pass
6 The Back Seat of My Car
7 Oh My Love

And I think it would have made a good album too.

This little exercise got me thinking about why Lennon and McCartney's 70s solo albums ended up being inferior to their Beatles ones. Rock critics usually attribute this to the lack of the Lennon-McCartney dynamic and intra-band competition; I think this is partly true, but I also have a slightly different angle on it.

As a proper solo artist (i.e., not seven-writers-on-my-record James Blunt), you have to write 10-14 songs on your own. But whilst in the Beatles, John and Paul only had to contribute 5 or 6 tracks to each album (and let George get a couple in). Obviously it's much easier to write 5 good songs a year than 14, and you can devote more time to producing them. When the Beatles broke up, the demands of putting out one solo record a year (or sometimes two) meant that John and Paul had to fill whole albums with material - something that is much more difficult to do and which they weren't used to. Which invariably led to fillers like Lennon's Oh Yoko (which has the same melody as Three Blind Mice), or McCartney songs with titles like Single Pigeon (classic).

But when you take 5 or 6 of their better efforts from their solo albums and put them in the same pot, as I did above, you do end up with a record that shapes up pretty well, and had George Martin been at the wheel, might have sounded damn good. Don't think Single Pigeon would have ended up on a 70s Beatles album somehow though.

Feel free to post your own 1970s Beatles albums below.


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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

There goes the economy...

Right, so it looks like the global economy's about to go down the loo. The UK government is nationalising a load of banks. The US government has effectively brought Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae back into public ownership (very oddly-named institutions by the way - remind me of a Rod Stewart song). All over the world, governments are doing the same, stepping in to protect citizens' savings and trying to keep national economies afloat.

Nationalisation has been, for the past 25-30 years or so, a filthy word. Common - but not good - sense has prevailed that public equals bad and inefficient; and that private equals good. This is daft, as anyone who has ever got an overpriced, overcrowded train in England can testify, but it has nonetheless led to all manner of privatisations, or marketisations of things that were formerly publicly-owned.

All over the world, governments have handed over things as vital to everyday life as hospitals, transport systems, water and education to the 'care' of big business. This is true particularly of the UK, where there are hardly any publicly-owned public services left. The ones that are still state-owned, like the Tube or the NHS, have been forced to involve private sector organisations heavily in their operations, leading to things like the billion-pound Metronet fiasco and filthy hospitals. We've also seen dodgy educational establishments being set up that allow rich individuals to invest a certain amount and, wait for it, set the curriculum.

But now it seems that the rules are being rewritten: it seems as though there's a bank nationalisation every day of the week now. Why? Because, with banking, the private sector has failed massively - to the point where governments have no option but to do what governments are elected to do: a bit of governing. The private sector might have been able to get away with running public services badly and expensively for years, but it's harder for the government to sit idly by and be all laissez-faire when people's houses and savings are on the line.

But what's really important about the banks' failure is this: the private sector is meant to be good with private finance. If it can't even get that right, why on earth should it have anything to do with things as fundamental as drinking water, education and healthcare?


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Monday, 6 October 2008

Girls Aloud get me thinking

Just when you're getting over an incredibly funny quote from a rock star (see my earlier post on Noel Gallagher's Irishness), along comes another, from none other than Chris Martin:

"I love Girls Aloud. I'm obsessed with Girls Aloud. I've been trying to write them a song and I can't come up with anything good enough. They're amazing. It's the combination of extreme physical attraction and fantastic music. I think they might be the ultimate form of life."

Well I don't know what Chris Martin's missus has to say about that (if I said that I'd be in trouble with mine), and I'd stop short at calling them the ultimate form of life, but - shock! horror! - I think he actually might be onto something. The people who put that band together have been very, very, very clever: combining some of the best-looking provincial girls going with some of the best pop writers and producers around. Throw in some videos which just stop short of being soft porn and you've got a recipe for success. Actually now that I read over that, maybe that isn't that clever at all; it's bloody obvious. But it's very effective.

At this point I am sure you think I'm off my rocker regarding the pop/production bit (I'd say most red-blooded males agree with the first bit though). But let's look a little bit closer at the music. It's bloody good. Okay, so the lyrics are pretty trite ("I'm just a love machine, feeding my fantasy" anyone?) but the tunes are excellent, and the production is cutting edge. Take their track Biology, for example - it starts off as glam rock, goes a bit pop, then disco, then back to glam rock...you don't hear that kind of thing very often. It's not as good as Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, but it employs the same kind of genre-bending tactics, and it's really refreshing to hear that kind of music in the charts. It's pop, but not as we know it Jim.

The guy who writes most of their stuff is a chap called Brian Higgins, who runs a production house called Xenomania. It's not just me that admires his writing - the Guardian's Alexis Petridis has this to say about his work:

"Listening to [Girls Aloud's second studio album] What Will The Neighbours Say?, you constantly get the impression that Higgins and Xenomania are enraptured by the possibilities of pop music..."

I don't always agree with Mr Petridis, and I'm still peeved that he didn't review my last record, but I'm with him on this one - he's spot on. On the best Girls Aloud records, you hear Higgins not playing music, but playing with it. At this point in pop/rock history there are just so many things you can pick and choose from when you're making a record...but most big-selling 'credible' acts just don't. Take Chris Martin's band for example - you don't hear any genre-bending there at all really. Or The Editors. Or Oasis. Or Damien Rice. Or, sadly these days, Radiohead. It's the same old sound, tweaked a little bit for each record, but wheeled out pretty much without fail on every occasion. Higgins, on the other hand, makes the most of the vast sonic possibilities that we now have at our disposal. Albeit sometimes in a casual and trite way - but it's always fun, and at times brilliant.

So that's why I'm enjoying Girls Aloud records. They plunder from the past. They use the latest production toys. They switch styles on a whim. The only thing is, of course, that the girls themselves don't have much to do with it; you get the feeling that Higgins really could have got any girls with decent voices to do the singing. They do a competent job, but I know plenty of female singers who can perform just as well as them.

But when pop looks and sounds this good, it seems churlish to complain.


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Download Chris Singleton's album 'Twisted City' for free at www.singletonmusic.com/freealbum/

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Noel Gallagher is Irish!

I just had to laugh at this from Noel Gallagher in the Irish Times:

"I clearly remember my mam saying to me and my two brothers when we were growing up: 'You're only English because you were born here.' And with a mother from Mayo and a father from Co Meath, there's not a drop of English blood in me. I recently had a child with my Scottish girlfriend, and there's no English blood in him at all.

"I feel as Irish as the next person. The first music I was ever exposed to was the rebel songs the bands used to sing in the Irish club in Manchester. Do you know, I think that's where Oasis songs get their punch-the-air quality - from me being exposed to those rousing rebel songs. It was all rebel songs and that godawful Irish country and western music."

Now, not that I give a shit as I'm not into any form of nationalism, English, Irish, Welsh or otherwise...

...but Noel, you're famous (amongst other things) for playing a Union Jack guitar and inventing Britpop.

Good try though to get the Irish fans onside. I might go on about my Irish roots for the next record I put out...hang on though, I think I might actually be Irish?

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Saturday, 4 October 2008

The difficult second album

I always laughed at the hoary old phrase 'the difficult second album' which is routinely wheeled out by those reviewers who are reviewing well, a difficult second album. Now I'm not laughing. It's bloody difficult.

I'm currently working on said difficult second album. Well actually it's my fourth, but I'm rather particular about which of my albums I release.

Anyway, the point is, it's proving difficult to finish. Why? I've boiled it down to three issues.

The first is lack of time - living in London seems to do weird things to your diary and keep you away from the studio.

The second is lack of energy: I'm cagey about my age, as once you pass the grand old age of 10 the music industry doesn't seem to want to know about you...but lets just say that when you pass the fucking awful age of 30 (damn!) you lose a bit of your mojo. It's like a musical biological clock starts ticking or something - you want to make records more, but you seem less able to do so. I stress that this isn't equivalent to losing talent - at least I hope not - but it's hard to go at making records hammer and tongs the way I used to when I was a pain-in-the-ass 21 year old (reminds me of Pink Floyd: "and then one day you find...ten years have got behind you". Yuck.).

The third is fussiness: because I mainly produce my own stuff, I am all too aware of my deficiencies behind the desk. Bizarrely I can make everybody else who comes into my studio sound great in 5 minutes, but it takes me bloody ages to feel satisfied with my own music.

But I'm finally getting to that stage where I feel the pieces are falling into place. There are two songs in particular that are turning out very well - 'Lose it' and 'Lou Reed'. The latter was a throwaway song, but it's now actually one of my favourites. But a load of my record still sounds crap. I'm going to be working on this difficult album for quite a while I reckon.

In other news I am currently watching the "top 50 most embarrassing pop moments ever" on BBC 3. Not sure it's the best use of license fee-payers' money, but it's pretty entertaining.

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Monday, 29 September 2008

Oh and by the way, which one's pink?

Just finished watching a BBC documentary about Pink Floyd. Saw it a couple of years ago, and presuming they're showing it again because of the sad death of Rick Wright.

At their peak (apologies to Barrett fans, but that's 1973 for me), they really were an amazing group. Watching the documentary, it brought back memories of the first time I listened to The Dark Side of the Moon, in 1996. Seems like an age ago now.

Like a lot of albums, I got it from my Uncle Cormac, who had clearly played it to death before lending it to me. It was very scratchy, but the crackles and pops didn't detract from the magic of the music - or discovering it.

It quickly became my favourite album, and remains so. It has it all: brilliant melodies, incredible playing, (controlled) experimentation, big themes, pointed lyrics and a lush Abbey Road production, on my favourite recording medium, tape.

It does that thing to me which much-loved music tends to: it transports me to another time. When I hear it I'm at the end of a student party in Rathmines, a bit worse for wear, drifting off to sleep, knowing I've got a lecture on Greek tragedies in the morning.

The band might have had other ideas of what this record would evoke, but there you go.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Obama v McCain: who won the first debate?

Well I didn't stay up till the wee hours to watch the debate, I caught up with it on CNN this morning. I had a boiled egg to go with it, and a nice cup of tea.

My gut feeling on presidential debates is that they tend to be about the 'presidential' and not about the 'debate'. There seems to be an almost platonic ideal of what a president should look like (or come across as) and the televised debates between candidates give the US public a chance to see how the candidates conform to that ideal.

This is not a good thing: it places personality over policies. When personality politics takes over, affable guys or gals with very bad ideas can end up in power. When you think about the 2004 US election, even with all his visible faults, and having conducted a disastrous war, George Bush looked and came across more like a 'typical' president than John Kerry (the fact that he actually was the president probably helped). Did that sway the election? Well, I think it certainly improved Bush's chances of winning.

This kind of silliness is not restricted to the US: it's fairly obvious that the Tories' good performance in the polls is due in no small part to the fact that David Cameron looks more like a PM, and is a better communicator, than Gordon Brown (although, policy-wise, Gordon hasn't made it easy for himself).

Anyway, back to the US presidential debate itself. Who won? Well, most right-wingers, I expect, will have agreed with what McCain had to say, and most left-liberals will have sympathised with Obama.

As with most elections, it all comes down to the floating voters - and here's where the "presidential ideal" comes in. If 'independent' or 'indecisive' voters cannot differentiate between the policies and content of the candidates (despite there being clear differences in the approaches of McCain and Obama), it probably means that they are going to look for the candidate who appears most presidential. Who was that?

Well, intriguingly, neither of the candidates looked hugely like a conventional president: we saw an old white guy and a young(ish) black guy slugging it out. This is possibly what makes this race so interesting: the parties have plumped for candidates who do not look like, and certainly don't talk like, the presidents of recent times. McCain comes across as a sort of friendly grand-dad, who will sit the voter on his knee and give him a boiled sweet, and Obama sounds like a toned-down version of Martin Luther King.

If neither of them looked quite like a president, the question becomes one of whom came closest. And, on balance, my answer is Obama. He looked slightly more presidential, slightly more authoritative than McCain. It's easier - in my mind at least - to imagine him giving a presidential address to the nation, or greeting foreign dignitaries in the Rose Garden.

Will this be enough, though, to win him the election? Let's see: there are still dirty tricks (Democrats are already going to court to try to stop Republicans from denying the vote to certain social groups) and possibly racism (are Americans prepared to elect a black man yet?) to overcome.

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Friday, 26 September 2008

A message from Bob

Those boffins at Sony BMG have come up with a rather good viral e-marketing campaign to promote the latest incarnation of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits (must be at least the third Dylan greatest hits album they've put out, but there you go).

The viral is based around the famous Subterranean Homesick Blues promo clip, which features Bob standing behind the Savoy Hotel in London, holding up cue cards for his audience. These cards contain lyrics from the track, which he flips through as the song plays.

The viral microsite allows you to write your own message on each card that Bob is holding, and then he flicks through your message for your friends. So you could write something like 'Hi mate, I'm in Spain, shagging your girlfriend' or something equally inappropriate, send it to your mate, and Bob will do his thing with your message to the tune of Subterranean Homesick Blues.

My description of it doesn't do it justice - you should try it out for yourself at http://dylan.sonybmgmusic.co.uk/create. It's a good laugh, even if I can't imagine traditional Bob fans being too enthused by it. But then again, maybe it's not about traditional Bob fans - perhaps the record label are trying to expose Bob's music to a new audience. The only problem with that though, is that Subterranean Homesick Blues is not, in my view at least, one of his best tracks, and if I was coming cold to Dylan, I wouldn't be too turned on by the song. Also, I might not be familiar with the promo clip and wonder why a scruffy looking guy down an alley was telling me my friend was shagging my girlfriend.

I like it though.

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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Ah come on now Gordon...

Alright Gordon, fairly decent speech today but no cigar.

Here are some ways you can get my vote back (not that it was going to the Tories, I'm probably going to abstain at the next election, in protest at all the parties offering more or less the right-wing fare).

1. Introduce a fair voting system -- PR. That'll stop the Tories winning 60% of the seats when only 40% of the electorate votes for them. Yes, that's right fellas, somewhat unbelievably Britain is, and traditionally has been, a left-leaning country...it's just that the voting system is rigged to reward right-wingers with an incredibly disproportionate number of seats.

2. Bring the railways back into public ownership. I'm tired of paying daft money to travel for 45 minutes on a train. Paid £43 for a return trip from London to Oxford recently - nearly 50p a minute. Seriously. And while you're at it, please do something about the use of the word 'customer' on the railways. I am a P-A-S-S-E-N-G-E-R.

3. Stop privatising the Health Service. In Ireland, that little country to the west of Wales where I originate from, they rely on private operators to a silly degree for healthcare and the natives have to pay 60 Euros every time they see a GP. That is more painful than whatever they went to the doctor with in the first instance.

4. Stop foreigners buying British newspapers and slagging off, er, foreigners on the front page.

5. Ban Carol Vorderman (although admittedly Countdown kinda did that recently).

6. Buy my album.

7. Make Geoff Hoon do a humorous dance.

8. Make love not war.

9. Stop grumpy musicians from making lists (D'oh).

10. See point 6.

Etc., etc...just give us some decent Labour policies. While you still can, because you'll be out on your ear one way or the other soon. Feel faintly sorry for you, but I haven't forgiven you for Metronet and for letting First Great Western run anything. Particularly a train to Oxford.

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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Blogger's block

I've been feeling a bit uninspired lately. Maybe it's because I'm too busy, maybe it's because I'm too knackered or maybe it's because my girlfriend has yet to buy a laptop, but I feel I've got the equivalent of "writer's block"...let's call it blogger's block. So I thought I'd write a blog about not blogging.


There are plenty of things I want to write about, but seem unable to due to lack of time or energy.

The things I want to wax lyrical about this month are:
  • Determinism: does free will exist?
  • David Cameron: why he is so wrong about the causes (and treatment) of poverty.
  • Musicals and why they are full of fantastic pop songs.
  • The lack of good signage in Ireland (seriously).
If you have any views on any of the above, do let me know as I may refer to your thoughts in the relevant post.

If I ever write it.

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Thursday, 4 September 2008

Sarah Palin...and Ireland?

I read some interesting little posts about Sarah Palin today (the self-styled pit-bull terrier with lipstick, running for Vice President in the US elections) on the Slimming for the Beach and Maman Poulet blogs.

Apparently she's travelled outside of the United States three times. One of her visits abroad was to Ireland.

Now, being Irish myself, I was interested to hear this, and I was wondering where she went to. Giant's Causeway? Trinity College? Ring of Kerry? Glendalough? The Guinness Storehouse? Malahide?

Nope.

Turns out, it was Shannon Airport.

That's where planes returning to the US do a stopover to refuel. Passengers get out of the plane for a little bit and get back on again.

Made me chuckle that.


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Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Dawkins and Darwin

I really enjoyed Richard Dawkins' recent television series about Darwin, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Dawkins is treated like a god by atheists (or at least a pope), and it's easy to see why. He's a very intelligent guy who is passionate about evolution as the explanation for the development of life, intelligent or otherwise; and he explains how it all works brilliantly. Not for him the creationism or 'intelligent design' theories propounded by many religious groups.


I'm sold on evolution as the explanation of how life developed, and even more so after watching Dawkins' series. The evidence for evolution is there in abundance - in fossils, bones and DNA - and Dawkins' presentation of it, despite my prior knowledge of how the process generally works, was illuminating. Dawkins described nature as it really is: an arms race between species, with only the winners getting to pass on their genes - resulting, over time, in the emergence and development of different kinds of creatures.

Above all though,  The Genius of Charles Darwin depicted how bleak evolution is. Natural selection isn't concerned with morality; it is all about effective mechanisms passing their genes on, regardless of what the mechanisms in question do. This is why parasites that feed on young children's eyes have evolved successfully, or viruses like AIDS. When you look at these horrendous examples of nature's handywork, it almost seems as though they in themselves argue against the existence of a creator, or certainly a benign one. What kind of creator, for example, would want to create cancer?

Looking at the biological evidence presented by Dawkins and other scientists, and the sheer brutalness of nature, I'm convinced that natural selection, not godly intervention, is the driving force behind the development of species.

What still confuses me though, is the context in which all this happens. Natural selection has to operate in accordance to the laws of physics: it can't circumvent fundamental laws/units or concepts such as matter, time, space, or gravity - regardless of how much a clever insect wants to pass on its genes. There is an order in the universe which all processes and entities have to obey. The apple must fall from the tree; the electron has to spin around the atom; a triangle has to have three sides. 

Which inevitably leads to that age-old question: why? I don't think Dawkins or Darwin, for all their brilliance, offer us an answer to that. Accepting the reality of natural selection - and it is very real - doesn't detract from the other reality, which is that we may be naturally selected, but we're still living in a very odd (if beautiful) universe with lots of big balls going round other big balls. I find this profoundly weird, and natural selection doesn't explain the origin of the laws of physics, or, let's face it, natural selection. Frankly, I want to know why the universe was created the way it was, and why its fundamental units facilitate natural selection.

It is nature's fundamental laws - for laws they are - that leave the door open in my mind to the existence of a creator. During my time on this particular big ball, I've never come across a physical law that natural selection was responsible for (and not a civil servant). Earthly laws, at least, are created; could the physical ones be?

If a creator is responsible for the laws of the universe, I'm not sure whether he, she or it is a God, and I certainly think that if he/she/it exists, it's not necessarily benign, and maybe it's not even clever. Part of me suspects that the universe may have been created by the cosmic equivalent of a GSCE science student who heated up some dodgy chemicals using his Bunsen burner when his teacher wasn't looking (I know I tried that in the lab; somebody's probably blogging about it at a microscopic level right now). 

I remain a big fan of Dawkins and I love his work; he's really got me thinking about nature. But more than that he's got me thinking about why nature exists at all. And neither he nor any religious figure has ever answered that one satisfactorily for me.

There's always the comments section of this blog though - feel free to have a bash.

//

Thursday, 14 August 2008

West Side Story

Right, so off to Sadler's Wells for the first time to actually see a performance, rather than drink in the bar.

I went off theatre a bit after doing a degree in it - over the course of four years I saw (and occasionally contributed to) so many bad plays that I felt that a (poorly paid) life in the theatre just wasn't for me. Most directors I met were charlatans and most actors I encountered had bigger egos than mine (quite an achievement) so I opted instead for an attempt at a career in an even filthier, stupider business (music).

So in short, I haven't been to see a show in a while.

So why did I relent? Well, simply because the show that was on was West Side Story, of which I am a very big fan. There are some fantastic numbers in it - America, I think, is one of the best pop songs going, containing some incredibly sharp lyrics that provide a very apt social commentary on today's United States, never mind that of the era which produced the musical (the 1950s).

Try these:

I like to be in America! / O.K. by me in America! / Ev'rything free in America. / For a small fee in America!

or

Buying on credit is so nice / One look at us, and they charge twice / I have my own washing machine / What will you have, though, to keep clean?

or

Life can be bright in America / If you can fight in America / Life is all right in America/ If you're a white in America

So what did I think of the stage version? I felt it was a bit of a curate's egg; if I were a judge on one of those ghastly shows presented by Graham Norton, I'd have given it five, or maybe six out of ten.

Maybe my seat was the problem - watching the show as though I were in a helicopter definitely didn't help. I might have felt a bit warmer towards the performance had I been closer to the action (there were, after all, lots of skimpily dressed dancers to admire; despite my best efforts, my seat and eyesight prevented me from appreciating them to the full).

A bigger problem than my not being able to admire the scantily-clad dancers properly was arguably the set. In its day West Side Story was one of the most realistic, or naturalistic musicals going (if bursting into song a propos nothing can ever really be considered that realistic). But with this version, the set designer opted for minimalism - there was barely anything on stage, and the odd items we did get to see didn't look very 'period'. Despite this, the costume designer had opted for fairly authentic 1950s garb, so a very odd little world - a mismatch of real and unreal - was created on the stage. Maybe that was the intention, but it didn't really work - it felt oddly cheap or something, as though they had run out of money when it came to the set.

However, I think that what made me feel most unimpressed by the stage show was something the cast and crew couldn't really do anything about: the 1961 film version. The movie is so spectacular, containing such exhilarating performances, that whenever you thought of them during the stage version, it couldn't help but feeling a bit flat.

Take a look at the film version of 'America', below. Even in pixelated Youtube, you can't help but think that Rita Moreno's performance is one of the most exuberant, sexy performances ever to grace the silver screen. And the prancing dudes are pretty cool too.



In the stage version, this number sadly didn't have the prancing dudes - they were offstage doing something else, so the girls had the debate about the merits of America, or lack thereof, amongst themselves. As a result the piece didn't have half the sexual tension of the film version, or the 'battle of the sexes' angle.

In any event, despite my misgivings, the Sadler's Well version was great in one respect: it revived my interest in West Side Story, and has got me spending far too much time looking at dancing Puerto Ricans on my computer...and I feel faintly in love with Rita Moreno, below.



West Side Story also got me thinking about how some of the best pop songs ever are to be found hidden in camp musicals - but more on that in another blog post.

//

Saturday, 9 August 2008

The easiest way to support my music yet...

I've developed a nice little online gadget which makes it really easy for my supporters (slightly embarrassed to say fans) to spread the word about my music. I got the idea from the rather nifty 'Facebook Friend Finder' technology.

I'd be really grateful if you could use it to spread the word! Just...

  • Go to www.singletonmusic.com/invite/tellfriends.htm
  • Enter your email address and password (for example, your Hotmail email address and the password for that account).
  • You'll see a list of all your contacts, and you can select which ones you'd like to send my free album to.
To use it you'll need to have one of the following webmail accounts: Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Lycos, ICQ, Rambler, Fastmail, Live, Katamail, Mailcom or Rediffmail. If you don't have one of those, you can use my other tell-a-friend tool here.

Your details are not stored, and your contacts will not end up on my mailing list. It's dead easy to use, you'll be supporting independent music, and your friends will get a free album. That link again is www.singletonmusic.com/invite/tellfriends.htm.

Ah go on.

//

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Music by numbers

A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the increasing importance of data to musicians. The gist of it was that in the burgeoning 'free music' era, bands and musicians should aim to capture the details of people who are downloading their songs for free. The idea being that even if artists are not making money directly from recorded songs, they can generate income in other ways by marketing merchandise, tours and so on to fans whose email addresses they have obtained.

There's another type of data which is of increasing significance to musicians, and it doesn't necessarily involve email addresses. It's statistical data.

With the rise of social networks like Facebook, Myspace, iLike and Last FM, musicians now have a plethora of ways to measure how many people are listening to their music. For example, any band with a Myspace page will be able to see how many plays of their songs they are getting; which tracks tend to be more popular; and how many songs are downloaded (as opposed to just listened to). On iLike, there are similar statistics, which again let musicians see how many plays their tracks are getting, and other interesting counts, like how many people are adding a band's songs to Facebook pages and how many people are sharing particular songs with friends.

These statistics tend to focus on two things: popularity of songs, and listeners' behaviour. Both are of enormous interest to musicians.

The popularity measurement is fairly straightforward. Thanks to Myspace and Facebook a band can put up, say, five tracks on a profile and run an unofficial focus group on which of their songs would make the best singles (depending on how commercial-minded the band is, the tracks that get the most plays).

Looking at listeners' behaviour is more complicated, but extremely interesting. Thanks to social networks (and other sites) you can examine what listeners are doing with music. With a bit of investigation, you can find out who is

  • adding your song to their social networking page
  • dedicating your songs to friends
  • listing themselves as being a fan of your music
  • recommending you as an artist to online communities
  • feeding back on your music
  • talking about you behind your back
The list goes on, depending on which websites a you are using, but essentially, when you look at the data, pictures of behaviour emerge that can influence how bands and artists communicate and build relationships with fans.

All sites are not equal when it comes to music statistics though. Of all the social networks that I've used to promote my music, the one I trust the most for music statistics is Last FM. This is because it doesn't just measure online plays of music - it goes far beyond that. Every time a registered Last FM user plugs their iPod or MP3 player into their computer, it looks at what they've been listening to and uses it to compile statistics; the same happens when a user plays a cd on their PC. The statistics are extremely comprehensive too, with charts being compiled on a band's most popular songs overall, by week or over a 6 month period. And you can see exactly who's been playing your music, and how much.

Crucially, Last FM distinguishes between listeners and plays. This is not the case with Myspace, where you can only look at the number of plays of songs - there is no listener data. This is pretty useless really; generally, once a Myspace page is visited by either a human or a search engine webbot, the play tally goes up, regardless of whether the song has been listened to by the human or, er, webbot in question. And unlike Last FM, none of the data is stored; once you've removed a song from your page, the data goes with it.

In essence though there is a lot to be gleaned from the musical information that the web provides - by looking at who is playing your music, and what they're doing with it, I think it is possible to grow fanbases and understand what makes people tick musically. But it's hard work, and you have to be able to work out the good stats from the bad.

If you want to check out some of my statistics, my Last FM profile is at http://www.last.fm/music/Chris+Singleton.

//

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

David and David

David Miliband's article in today's Guardian seems to have provoked a lot of speculation about whether or not he'll take a shot at the Labour leadership.

Whilst battling a horrendous hangover this morning, I read said article. It wasn't much of a hangover cure (and certainly not as effective as the bacon sandwich which was also being consumed at the time).

Despite the media fuss, basically what Miliband is offering is exactly what Brown is currently providing - Blairite "reform" of public services (read creeping privatisation). The 'platform for change' that his article refers to is more of the same, albeit maybe at a faster pace.

What David Miliband might be able to provide which Gordon seemingly cannot is a bit more personality. He's definitely more likeable and seems more at ease with the media. I could see him having a reasonable chance of improving Labour's situation should he become leader (then again, it couldn't get much worse).

If Miliband does lead Labour into the next election, it will amount to a personality contest between two rather well-to-do Davids. This is because Miliband's New Labour politics are so close to Tory positions that there will be little for voters to choose from except the likeability of the respective Davids. Once again, voters will be denied a proper choice, and will have to elect a right-wing government or a er, right-wing government.

In other words, it would be like voting for David...or David.

//

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Chris Singleton on iLike

This is a post for those of you using iLike - would be grateful if you could 'iLike me' (another weird social-networking verb is creeping into my lexicon).

If you are on Facebook:

  • Visit http://apps.facebook.com/ilike/artist/Chris+Singleton and click the 'Click to iLike' button (you may be prompted to log in / add the application).

  • Then, please dedicate a song of mine to your friends: just scroll down a bit to 'featured songs' and pick a song that you'd like to dedicate. I suggest 'Worry Number One', as your friends will be able to download that MP3 for free, but feel free to choose whichever one you'd like.

If you are not on Facebook:


Many thanks,
Chris

//

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Mrs Thatcher and the state funeral

So Thatcher is getting a state funeral.

I'll have more to say about that another time, but what I'll say now is this: Thatcher always fought intensively for a smaller state and low public spending. It's deeply ironic that there is going to be a big state-organised event when she dies, which will cost taxpayers millions.

I wouldn't mind so much if it were a party celebrating her departure, but the event is actually going to be in her honour.

Perhaps some of the people who got rather rich when she sold off our public services might be better placed to organise and finance the funeral.

//

Thursday, 17 July 2008

New track: "Bad Ambitions"

Hello all,

If you go to my Facebook page, you can stream one of the tracks I'm working on for my new album:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Chris-Singleton/6947253243?ref=ts

Scroll down a bit and click 'Bad Ambitions' - it's one of the tracks in the music player. You can also hear it on Myspace but it sounds pants on there (Myspace MP3 compression is rubbish!). Listen to it on headphones, not tinny cheap computer speakers, and play it loud please.

The song features the fantastic drumming of Ben Woollacott, who is kindly helping me out with some tracks at the moment. He's doing some fab overdubs and I'm really pleased to be working with him. We recorded some of this song down in Hackney's Exostudios, and the rest in my own setup.

Assuming you like David Bowie mixed with Blondie, it should hopefully appeal. We still need to tidy a few things up on it, add some more strings and maybe some soulful John Gibbons backing vocals, but it's getting there. Enjoy it while you can 'cos I'm taking it down in a couple of days!

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Knives out for the economy

There are two things which seem to be dominating the UK news at the moment: the state of the economy, and knife crime. Both serious topics.

But I can't help feeling that the more the media tell us that the economy is deteriorating, and that knife crime is spiralling, the worse the economy gets (because people are scared to spend their money) and the more kids carry knives (because they're scared of being knifed).

I may be wrong, but it feels to me that we're all talking ourselves into bad situations, or reading ourselves into them.

English newspapers being (broadly) the muck that they are, they are clearly using both stories to sell papers, but I reckon it's time for a bit of calm-headedness. Or else more kids could die - and the economy will get so bad that we'll cut back on buying papers.

Obviously Murdoch will worry more about the latter.

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Thursday, 10 July 2008

Songwriting

Been talking to some mates about songwriting lately, and reading some blogs about it. Several musicians I know have recently done courses on the subject, facilitated by people who are presumably qualified to instruct others in the art of songwriting. It got me wondering whether you can actually teach somebody how to write a song.

The way these songwriting courses seem to work is that there are various workshops where an 'expert' in songwriting imparts words of wisdom on how it's done to an audience of (presumably) aspiring songwriters. Then everybody pairs off and writes songs together, and there's a bit of a love-in where everybody's efforts get discussed en masse at the end of the day.

Thinking back to how I learnt how to write songs, I suppose that in a roundabout way, somebody did show me how to do it: Lennon or McCartney, but (sadly) not in person. From listening to their songs, I worked out how to structure my own, write a Beatle-esque melody, harmonise and so on. As a precocious songwriting teenager, I copied the poor band shamelessly (some would say that I still do -- and that I'm still precocious). I listened to them non-stop and tried to soak up as many of their ideas as I could; and in their day, the Beatles did exactly the same, with Elvis and Chuck Berry. This 'soaking up' forms the building blocks of every songwriter's music (there's no such thing as an original idea after all).

This makes me think that a) songwriting is, initially at least, all about copying stuff and b) other musicians influence songwriting immensely. Which leads to this: how good a songwriter you are will depend in no small way on your ability to copy things (think of it as similar to being a good draughtsman) and on the quality of the musicians you are copying.

In other words, if you're into James Blunt, you're fucked.

Of course, the thing about these songwriting workshops is that it's highly unlikely that the great songwriters are going to turn up at them to do a spot of teaching (you're probably going to get somebody who had a bit of a hit in the 80s or knew a man down the pub who did). And if you were lucky enough to have a great artist show up, would they really be able to teach you anything?

If McCartney decided to give a masterclass in songwriting, I'd love to attend it: he is universally acclaimed as one of the best writers the world has known, and he is a massive inspiration to me. However, I still doubt there is anything he could verbally articulate that that could teach me how to write a song. In fact, and being slightly cruel here, he hasn't written a good one himself in quite a while -- so if he can't teach himself how to do it again, how on earth would he instruct me? I'd say he'd be more interested in suing me for occasional attempts at plagiarism.

The other thing about songwriting which makes me think that it is difficult to teach is the personal dimension. The great songs are all inspired by personal traumas or joys. I could not imagine anybody at a songwriting course being able to supply either of those on tap (well, unless a certain Mr Blunt I referred to earlier was doing the teaching -- there would be plenty of trauma in that instance). The great songwriters do not overtly teach; we listen to their music and absorb their ideas over time.

Maybe I'm being a bit too harsh on the notion of songwriting classes. There are very basic elements which I suppose can be taught: structures (intro/verse/bridge/chorus -- you know it all now), and maybe some history around the topic. But not much more.

However, I'm quite Cartesian at heart, and in the spirit of trying to teach people how to write a song, I'm going to give it a bash. In a mathematical way. Here's an equation which I think will predict how well you will be able to write a song:

Ability to rip an artist off + quality of artist being ripped off + own personal experience/inspiration = Quality of song

Sadly the word 'quality' crops up too many times in my little equation. Quality is an impossibly subjective notion: one man's meat will inevitably be another man's poison. So even if somebody thinks they know how to teach somebody else how to write a fantastic song...somebody else will think that the song that ends up being written is, quite frankly, shit.

My conclusion: songwriting can be learnt, but it sure can't be taught.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Scouting for Girls...

Well, I'm just back from a well-deserved break in Italy. It was great. Visited an island that had a volcano on it and smelt of farts; went on a trip at sea that involved a small boat, a singing captain and no life jacket; saw a Pizza called 'McDonalds Pizza' which had chips and a burger on it (note: didn't order it, just looked at it). All in all a good holiday.

The one thing I'm extremely glad I didn't encounter was any Scouting for Girls songs. As I lay back on the beach, reading my overpriced international edition of the Guardian and getting a Cornetto all over my chest, I was listening to the stuff that they're currently playing on Italian radio. Much of it was the same as what is dominating the airwaves in the UK right now: Estelle, Duffy, Mark Ronson doing his celebrity karaoke thing - but thankfully there was absolutely no Scouting for Girls.

Clearly the Italians have taste (when it comes to music - we shouldn't forget that they recently re-elected Berlusconi.)

Now, I've been at the receiving end of rock criticism, both good and bad, so I tend not to write blog posts slagging off other music. And I don't want to encounter the inevitable response of 'You're jealous - they're selling more albums than you'. Or the 'You can't argue with popularity' argument. (Popularity is hard to argue with. Mind you, Hitler, Thatcher and James Blunt all enjoyed massive degrees of it).

But I'm sorry, I simply have to make an exception to my 'no slagging musicians off' rule for Scouting for Girls. I can't bear them. It pains me to have to hear them every time I turn on the radio.

In one way, what they've done is quite an achievement: they've effectively released pretty much the exact same single 3 times. And they've got massive airplay on each occasion.

The formula is simple: a tune with one note repeated ad nauseum, some staccato piano, and a pained, earnest voice singing any of the below trite lyrics:

She's so lovely, she's so lovely, she's so lovely, she's so lovely
or
Elvis isn't dead, Elvis isn't dead, Elvis isn't dead
or
I miss a heartbeat, I miss a heartbeat...

The band will also stop at various points in each song, and sadly, just as you think it's over and you're getting a much-needed respite from the staccato piano and crap one-note tune, they'll start up again, singing the same crap one-note tune again over a backdrop of staccato piano.

I just don't get it. Or maybe I'm getting old. But I have to say, I think this is the worst band I've ever heard. Westlife appeal more and I bloody hate them too.

But one way or the other, if this continues I'm moving to Italy. If you haven't heard them yet (unlikely), go to http://www.myspace.com/scoutingforgirls. Bring earmuffs.

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Thursday, 19 June 2008

Your very own White Album

I was reading a book recently by a chap called David Quantick called 'Revolution' which is about the making of The Beatles' White Album. It was entertaining, but ultimately not very enlightening, and certainly wasn't in the same league as Ian MacDonald's similarly-formatted 'Revolution in the Head'.

In any event it reminded me that this year is the 40th birthday of the record.

I first heard The White Album in Cologne, when I was 11 or 12. At that point I'd absorbed all the Beatles albums that happened to be in my parents' record collection or which they had copied onto tapes (tapes, remember those?) . They had all of them except The White Album and Abbey Road (more on the latter another time).

We were in Cologne because my parents were during a tour of Europe of sorts - my dad is an academic, and at the time we were driving round Europe in a blue and white VW camper van, stopping off at various university towns so that he could be suitably professorial (I'm sure he would put it differently, but you get the gist). We had stopped off at my uncle Ciaran's place, who at the time was in his mid-20s and living with a bunch of slightly eccentric Germans. One of them had the White Album on a couple of cassettes.

Well God, I didn't know what to make of the album (nor did the Germans when I woke them up with it every morning for a week). I loved 'Back in the USSR', misheard the lyrics of 'Sexy Sadie' as 'Sex is easy' (very exciting that for a 12 year old, I must say), and was utterly bemused by Revolution 9.

And I still don't know what to make of it. There are some fantastic songs on it, but as a whole it leaves me somewhat cold, or bemused. I think that I agree with George Martin's initial assessment, that the band should have opted for what would have been an incredible single album, rather than a double one. To my ears, the record sounds like a load of amazing songs interspersed with a load of bootlegs; indeed, much of the Anthology stuff that came out years later could have happily sat on the White Album - it certainly reminded me of it.

Many will swear by The White Album in its entirety. For those of us who are less gone on tracks like 'Wild Honey Pie' or 'Don't Pass Me By', it presents us with a fascinating (and fun) opportunity: to edit it down, and make our own 'single' album version of it. The idea being to reduce the 30 songs to, say, a more manageable 12-14. After some reflection, here is my perfect White Album - if you've got your own, I'd love to hear about it.

My ultimate White Album:

1. Back in the USSR
2. Dear Prudence
3. Happiness is a Warm Gun
4. Martha My Dear
5. I'm So Tired
6. Why Don't We Do It in the Road?
7. I Will
8. Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey
9. Sexy Sadie
11. Revolution 1
12. Cry Baby Cry

I know, it's sacrilege. But it would have been bloody good, eh?

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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Like a goat: misheard lyrics

I was on a short break in Kerry recently when I heard a track come on the radio by Sam Sparrow. It was the first time I heard it and I was convinced, listening to it, that he was singing "like a goat, like a goat, like a goat". In fact, he was singing "black and gold, black and gold, black and gold" and the song has since become a bit of a hit.

Which got me thinking about other misheard lyrics. And I did some googling and came across quite an entertaining site, www.kissthisguy.com. It's an archive of misheard lyrics which takes its name from Jimi Hendrix's 'Purple Haze' track - there's a line in the song where he goes "Scuse me while I kiss the sky", but many people heard it as "Scuse me, while I kiss this guy".

On www.kissthisguy.com you can find a veritable treasure trove of misheard lyrics submitted by music fans (mind you, I don't think all of them were misheard, I think some people submitting them are being mischievous, or clearly have very odd ears).

How and ever, some of my favourites from the ones I found on the site are:

  • Robert Palmer: "Might as well face it, you're a dick with a glove" (instead of "might as well face it, you're addicted to love" from Addicted to Love)
  • REM: "Let's pee in the corner, let's pee in the spotlight" (instead of I'm Losing my Religion's heartfelt "That's me in the corner...")
  • Beatles: "Something in the way she moos, attracts me like no other lover" (instead of Something's "Something in the way she moves...")
  • Beatles: "Michelle, ma belle, some say monkeys play piano well" (convinced somebody's having a laugh with that one).
  • JLO: "Don't be fooled by the socks that I got..." (socks instead of "rocks").
All this reminds me of two incidents from my youth. One was singing in a church choir at Christmas and desperately trying to slip"While shepherds washed their socks at night" into the famous carol. And giggling appropriately.

The other was when I recorded a song containing the words "Looking in your dark brown eyes". Back in the nineties, when I was a whippersnapper, I had a Tascam 4-track casette machine which I used to record my "music". It it had fantastic thing on it called 'varispeed' wheel which you could use to speed up songs, and give them some zip. Problem with doing that was that the song didn't just get faster, it went up in pitch dramatically. And it tended to have rather disturbing effects on lyrics: in this instance, it turned "Looking in your dark brown eyes" into "Looking up your dark brown ass".

I, being familiar with the lyric, didn't notice this. But I'm convinced to this day that the girl who I had a crush on, and whom I sent the song to, definitely heard the 'ass' version, and unsurprisingly I didn't hear from her again.

Misheard lyrics can be bad for your love life.

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