Saturday, 30 May 2009

Remembering the Roses

As the song goes, it was twenty years ago today, that Sgt Pepper taught the band - oh hang on, wrong album. Sorry. It was twenty years ago this month that The Stone Roses released their self-titled debut; and about thirteen years ago since I heard it for the first time. I was wandering fairly aimlessly around Clontarf in Dublin (worked up, if I recall correctly, about a girl who wasn't paying me sufficient attention) and I had a copy of the album, on cassette, in my cheapo walkman.

Despite the poor quality of my headphones (big fluorescent orange foam objects that I'd bought from a pound shop), as soon as I hit play, I knew the record was going to become the perfect soundtrack to that moment - and to that time in my life in general. Apologies for waxing lyrical here, but listening to it was like being let out of school early on a blisteringly hot summer's day; a first kiss; sagging off for a cheeky pint when you know you should be doing something officious. (See, I told you I was about to wax lyrical).

More simply put, it was a beautiful record. When it came out in 1989, its stunning melodies, jangly guitars, backwards tracks and close vocal harmonies must have represented an oasis (no pun intended) in the desert that was 1980s music. It was a return to decent record-making, and marked the advent of a 90s music scene - Britpop - which, whilst having a silly name, nonetheless brought with it better songs and hairdos than had been seen in a very long time.

And speaking of an oasis, The Stone Roses really set the tone for the 90s. The band that went on to dominate the decade, Oasis, were frequently likened to the Beatles - but any Stone Roses fan knew that in many respects, it was actually the Roses that were being ripped off - their look and Ian Brown's performance style in particular.

Oasis went on to outsell the Roses and become something of a national institution that the Roses never really were; but one thing Oasis never had, in my view, was the sense of mythology that surrounded the Roses. A lot of the great albums / bands are draped in this sense of mythology - to think of the classic Beatles, Pink Floyd or Velvet Underground albums is to immediately call to mind a tapestry of images, characters and stories that becomes interwoven and infused with the music itself and adds a sense of magic to it. It's a mythology that I think Oasis have strived for and tried to manufacture - watch that DVD about the making of their last album for a prime example of this - but have never been completely successful with. In contrast, The Stone Roses were a band that had this mystique / mythology in spades: Ian Brown's sullen stage act and almost whispered vocals; John Squire's Jackson Pollock-inspired artwork; lyrics that made dark and mysterious references to Christian myths.

"The Stone Roses" was the perfect name for the band and their first album; the juxtaposition of the hard and the soft in the title summed up the music perfectly. Their debut album was full of sunny music but also dark and enigmatic themes: when you pause to consider the lyrics of Made of Stone, for example, you realise that lurking underneath its gorgeous melody is a fantasy of killing off a lover.

20 years on, The Stone Roses is a record which still stands the test of time; it's regularly voted one of the top albums of all time in those polls that music magazines seem to feel the need to do every six months. It continues to inspire bands like Kasabian, Doves and Elbow. My own songwriting still references them a bit too (although not as much as when I was a teenager - you should have heard how ridiculous my efforts to copy Ian Brown's vocal style sounded).

It's a beautifully sunny day today, and I think I'm going to try to find the time to find a contraption, without big orange foam headphones, that will let me walk around the place listening to this album. Different city this time, but, for 40 minutes or so, probably the same feelings.

If you've got memories of the first time you heard The Stone Roses, I'd love to hear them - so do leave a comment. Cheers!


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Saturday, 23 May 2009

Chris Singleton music - for just a quid

As you may have noticed I've been experimenting a lot with how I get my music out to new audiences; in the past I've given away a lot of free music, and operated honesty box policies on downloads.

I'm currently trialling a system where you can choose what to pay for my last record, 'Twisted City', with prices starting from £1. It's a bit different from my previous honesty box payment system, because the more you pay, the more content you get (there are bonus tracks, e-books, downloadable videos and more on offer).

If you're curious, just hop on over to http://www.singletonmusic.com/buyalbum/choose/ where you can find out what it's all about. The bottom line though is that if you want to, you can download my entire last album for just a quid!

I hope you enjoy. If you have yet to sample my music, you can do so at http://www.singletonmusic.com/, where a free 3-track EP is available.

In other news, I'm nearly there with the new record - I hope to have it all done and dusted by the end of the month. Will keep you posted on that.


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Thursday, 21 May 2009

We're closing in...

At the end of my road there is a bus stop. For ages it had a poster slapped on the side of it which featured a rather rotund woman on it. Accompanying this image were the words 'We're closing in' and an encouragement for members of the public to dob in benefit cheats. Helpfully a hotline was provided for said dobbing-in purposes.



Now, forgive me if I'm wrong but it looked suspiciously like the woman on the poster in question was yes, poor, and dear me, coming out of a house on a council estate. Ah, I get it now - the people who are ripping off the system are without exception poor and they live in council estates.

I never liked this campaign, because at the same time that I was encountering these posters, I seemed to be reading more and more about this little thing called the credit crunch, caused by insanely wealthy bankers, who flagrantly abused the system to the point where it collapsed and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer - and there was a distinct lack of posters critical of them.

It all seemed pretty hypocritical to me then, but it seems incredibly hypocritical now. The expenses scandal has highlighted that the political class which organised this campaign and paid for it with, yes, taxpayers' money were, dear me, benefit thieves themselves.
(Incidentally I don't know why I'm saying 'dear me' a lot - perhaps I have had a pint too many and I'm overdoing the incredulity. Apologies.)

Right, so now that it has become clear that the money that I thought I was paying in tax to fund, you know, things like schools and hospitals is also bankrolling duck islands, moat-cleaning, property 'flipping', taxi-rides to Celtic games, capital gains tax avoidance, gardening costs, porno films, porticos, helipads, nappies and plasma TVs, I fully expect my bus shelter to feature a publicly-funded poster of my local MP looking shifty and being closed in on. And I don't want them to forget the hotline either.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The charts they are a-changing

Traditionally, music charts have been all about music sales. You sell records, you get in the charts; you don't, and you spin yourself as an serious, tortured act with a cult following who wouldn't be seen dead on a hit parade. Frankly, I know which camp I'd rather be in.

The UK (and other) charts have undergone a number of changes over the past few years. As physical cd sales declined, the chart rules were modified so that MP3 sales on iTunes and other digital retailers were taken into account. This led to some interesting effects: popular album tracks started entering the single charts; and obscure songs that had not been released as physical singles started to make surprise appearances, due to positive word of mouth and "grassroots" followings of underground acts.

The charts may be about to undergo another profound change. This is because I think that conventional sales - upon which charts are built - are on the way out. It seems increasingly likely (thanks to services such as Spotify) that people soon won't buy MP3s or cds any more, but will stream whatever songs they like over the internet (either on a subscription basis or by agreeing to hear adverts between tracks).

If this happens, the focus of charts is inevitably going to switch away from sales to the number of plays of particular songs. To a certain extent, this is already happening. The music social network Last FM currently tracks what its users are playing (see http://www.last.fm/charts for what's currently hot) and Spotify also shows you how popular tracks are as you play them.

In many ways, this emphasis on how many times songs are played is a more accurate reflection of the popularity of music than music sales. After all, a lot of people may buy a track - say, a novelty or charity single like Mr Blobby - only to rarely play it. Equally, a great album, released by an independent artist, may not sell many copies but get repeated plays by a dedicated, small following.

Interestingly, what all this raises is the possibility that some sort of 'song quality' indicator may emerge - something that goes beyond telling us how many people own a song, and lets us know how many people actually like a song. We could arrive at this indicator by dividing the number of plays of a track by the number of people playing it; for example, if 10 unique Spotify users play a song 100 times, you could give the song a popularity rating of 10 (100 divided by 10). But if the same 10 users played another song 1000 times, that track would have a popularity rating of 100 (1000 divided by 10).

Listening to music has traditionally been viewed as an intensely subjective experience, but what examples like the above point to is that maybe beauty does not entirely lie in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps certain songs have intrinsically good qualities that charts have not, hitherto, been able to highlight accurately. Online data could change all that, and start to highlight the fact that some songs have inherent and enduring appeal.

As with so many other things right now, the internet is allowing us to measure our behaviour in entirely new ways - and leading us to make remarkable conclusions about things. I wasn't really expecting the net to tell me how well-written a song is; but it's now looking like a distinct possibility. To conclude, the internet will become a rock critic.

Crikey.


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