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 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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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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