Archive for November, 2010

Sony is about to release the first of ten albums agreed in a deal with Michael Jackson’s estate valued at up to $250 million. This week, the focus seems to be on whether or not that’s actually Michael singing on the album. His brother Randy, among others, is sure it is not, not on every track anyway. The fact that the Jackson family was prevented from attending any of the sessions to complete the album further aroused suspicions. Also, the quality of the first track made public, “Breaking News”, had Randy questioning its authenticity because it wasn’t up to the perfectionist standards he expected from his brother. On the other hand Randy, maybe there’s a reason why the material wasn’t released while MJ was alive.

Well, maybe it’s Michael and maybe it isn’t. Add this to the long of MJ-related rumours that will never be proved or disproved adequately enough to prevent people from believing whatever they chose to believe. Yawn.

I think the most interesting question has little to do with the preceding details. It is this: Why does Sony feel compelled to sign a 10 album deal with a dead guy? That’s as many studio albums as he released when he was alive. Does Sony even know whether there is ten albums worth of material? Or five? Reported rumblings suggest that the first one will be shredded by the critics.

Whatever spin may be put on it, I think the obvious answer is that Michael Jackson can be counted on to do something that most artists find more difficult with each passing year – sell massive quantities of CDS. Last year, MJ was responsible for about 7% of Sony’s sales, and over 40% of Epic’s (Epic is the label that Michael Jackson actually appears on, but Sony is the parent company) “This is It”, his first actual posthumous release, sold 696,000 units in its first three weeks. Sony expect the new album to do better.

I get a sense that Sony is panic buying in a desperate attempt to slow their decline and, by extension, the erosion of the music industry as we know it. Music sales on physical media have tanked, downloads haven’t provided the balance to maintain status quo, different enterprises are scrambling to find a workable, profitable model going forward, and it might not be there, at least not in the form that the current market leaders would like it to be. If it is there, it’s likely that new faces with radical ideas will run off with at least some of the diminishing market. The music empires that came to power on the old paradigm are appropriately nervous. Why wouldn’t Sony want to perpetuate one of its biggest sellers? For their sake, I
hope the MJ deal isn’t the iceberg to their Titanic.


Q: What’s always coming but never comes?
A: The Beatles on iTunes.

The punch line might not be as old as the joke, but it was catching up. However, the joke became obsolete yesterday when Steve Jobs announced that the Beatles catalog will finally, finally, finally, finally (is that enough finallies?) be available on iTunes from early next year, thus again avoiding the horrendous possibility of the tracks being purchased before Christmas.

The “news” pales in comparison to last year’s reissue of remastered Beatles CDs. If you’re like me, you’ve already bought those CDs and ripped them to higher-quality aiff files. You may have even purchased them at half price, as I did when they were first released, which brought the cost to about what iTunes will be asking for them. Of course, now that they’re back to the regular retail price of over €20, iTunes will be the more cost-effective solution, but you’ll get what you pay for. Trust me, this is one instance where it’s well worth buying the CDs.

Ringo was quoted as saying, “I am particularly glad to no longer be asked when the Beatles are coming to iTunes.” I’ll bet.

Addendum: I just got back from the Apple store, where all the Beatles albums are quite obviously, prominently for sale already, so I guess you can’t believe everything you read. A few extras are available too.

It was a dark and stormy night. No, really. It was last Sunday when what remained of Hurricane Tomas was starting to reach Ireland from across the Atlantic. I text Cathal to see if maybe we should postpone to a night when we don’t have to walk to the pub in an impending hurricane. He said he’d collect me in his car. OK.

To be honest, I guess I had cold feet. I wanted to play music with these guys again. It was generally great craic, except for the odd falling out. It was a few euro, maybe a few pints, depending on who was driving, and we’d always come away with a few new stories to tell. On the other hand, there was the hassle, the shifting gear, the narky publicans and opinionated patrons. The mentality of “I like what know, so yez had better play what I like.” I was once slapped by the bass guitarist’s sister-in-law for not singing a Garth Brooks’ song to her standards. I know in my head that the good usually outweighs the bad, but enough of the bad can leave a lasting impressions (and welts).

Plus I hadn’t done my homework, and we were meeting up in an hour and a half. Cathal sent around a text earlier in the week requesting that everyone compile a list of songs we could play, which I read as “what do you think we might remember well enough to put two sets together ASAP”. So I spent an hour going through some old set lists, weeding out the songs I could no longer bear to play, then going through iTunes to add a few new ones just to keep it interesting.

As it turned out, I was the only one who did the homework. No one seemed terribly surprised by this, as we passed around and commented on the list. Well, we all have our specialty areas, and list making had been my de facto domain. Cathal got the gigs. He is the front man after all. Martin seems to know where all the wires go in the PA system, and how to perform the light repair work. Ray is…very entertaining. John didn’t make it, being the one who lives furthest away.

Cathal reported that many people at his wedding liked us better than the ultra-professional swing band that was hired for the night. That’s where the latest version of Face the Facts started. Cathal was getting married again and decided that it would be gas if Face the Facts played a few songs at the wedding. So we had a couple of acoustic rehearsals, one with John on bass, none with Ray (probably just as well, since a full drum set might have been too much for the people adjacent to Cathal’s one bedroom apartment.).

There was a gap of at least half a dozen years since we’d played together, and I felt stressed and rusty on the day. We didn’t know when or where we were playing. When we learned that, we were going to set up around the other band, or what it was going to sound like live. I like to be prepared, and this was as unorganized as I’d played it in decades. but when I saw the videos later, we seemed to acquit ourselves much better than I feared we might. And everybody got the bug.

So here we are in the Monread Lodge discussing how we’re going to organize a few gigs for ourselves, just to try it out and see if we want to crank up the machinery again, whether the pain is worth the pleasure. No one is too worried about the songs – between us we have plenty of spaghetti to throw against the wall. Our three biggest concerns are where we’re going to play, whether we’ve got all the gear we need, and whether we’ve really got a full band.

Getting gigs for a five piece band is not as easy as it was before one-man midi-file bands became so prevalent. Many pubs don’t want to know about anything larger than a duo, regardless of how much room they have or how little you’re willing to play for. There are some names that we’re optimistic about, and reconnaissance work to be done.

We seem to have most of the old equipment between us. Martin has a lot of it in his garage, I’ve got the bass bins in the boy’s room, and Ray has the tops, which he is using in another band, which brings us to what may be our biggest hurdle.

John and Ray are both busy in other bands. Ray has several on the go, and is already having to miss gigs with one to play with another, without adding Face the Facts to the Roster. In fairness, he’s only playing once every couple of weeks, but that’s no guarantee that two or more of his bands won’t have gigs scheduled for the same night.

In addition, Ray and John are finishing up their second CD with Raglan Rodeo. In fact, Martin and I were propositioned by Ray to play a series of gigs after the CD release – Raglan Rodeo is between lead guitarists, and some of the tracks from the first CD call for double lead. The first gig is in Rathmines, probably in January. Then there’s one somewhere down country and, oh yes, one in England. Say what? I started the night wondering whether I wanted to do a few local gigs and now I’m being headhunted for one across the sea? Martin jumped at this – he sounds like he really wants to get out there again. I kinda sorta committed to the Rathmines gig, but England? A little too much too soon, but that’s next year. I may be ready, willing and able by then.

In the meantime, Cathal and I are thinking that maybe we should see who else is around to fill out the rhythm section, just in case.

Here’s an album that asks the musical question, “why?” When music business icon Clive Davis approached Carlos Santana to record this album of covers, his initial reaction was to say “no”. Clive finally wore him down. Carlos should have stuck to his guns.

On the surface it makes sense. Santana had massive success with a radical reworking of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There”, for example, and he made “Black Magic Woman” so much his own that I’m sure many people don’t realize that it’s a cover of a Peter Green penned Fleetwood Mac song.

Unfortunately, there’s little of the same inspiration here. Indeed, the common recipe here seems to be take the original arrangement, add Carlos’ guitar and some latin percussion, and release. However, the originals are mostly high-profile, landmark tracks loved by many, such as “Whole Lotta Love”, “Smoke on the Water”, and “Sunshine of Your Love”. You can’t help but compare Santana’s versions as either exact or inferior copies. On Def Leppard’s “Photograph”, for example, you could be forgiven for assuming that he’s playing over the original tracks.

The overall feeling is of Carlos Santana sitting in with a half decent pub band on a Saturday night. And, yes, Carlos’s guitar is as easy on the ear as ever. But it’s one thing having a go at these songs with your mates, it’s another thing asking people to shell out €14 or more for a copy.

It’s not entirely bad news. Carlos, India Arie and Yo-Yo Ma do a smooth and smoky version of “While My guitar Gently Weeps” that you should go out of your way to hear, and Nas helps Santana breathe fresh life into AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, turning it into a proper rap (OK, the Beastie Boys had a go at it, but that was over 25 years ago and everyone except me has forgotten).

As for the rest of the album, it just doesn’t work for me. Sorry Clive, but I think it was flawed from conception.

If I wasn’t browsing through one of the Sunday tabloids yesterday at Costa Coffee, I would still be unaware that there is a Spiderman musical about to open on Broadway with a score by U2’s Bono and The Edge. I’ve heard U2’s contributions to film soundtracks, so I don’t have high expectations. I hope I’m wrong.

As it happens, the premier has been pushed back to January because of health and safety concerns. Apparently one of the various Spidermen required to stage the show broke both wrists while being catapulted across the stage as though from a slingshot. No actual acting was involved in the incident.

The production involves hurtling actors from balconies and staging fights above the audience. I’ll bet that all cross New York there are lawyers with tingling spider-senses.

Whether this turns out to be a roaring success or a $60 million disaster, I think Broadway has been watching too many movies.

The Radio Nova Rock Report has been entertaining us with summarized excerpts from Keith Richard’s upcoming autobiography. The book may or may not downplay his image as a junkie, as he intends. However, if one of Richard’s reasons for writing it is damage control, I’m not sure that will work out for him.

Last night we were told of an incident concerning himself and a friend. They set off to raid an abandoned WWII bunker, hoping to find porno magazines. Once inside, they found the body of a presumably homeless man who had been dead four or five days. So they robbed him of what cash he had, and left him there without telling a soul. Oh, and they got the porno mags too. Boys will be boys.

Is this an autobiography or a Stephen King novel?

Bruce Springsteen’s “new” album, “The Promise” is being hyped as the great lost Springsteen album. Truth is, had he been able to put this album out when the material was recorded, instead of being prevented from doing so legally, the album surely would have been 45 minutes of vinyl, not two CDs. So there’s one more reason to be grateful for its release now.

“The promise” is the logical bridge between “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. Bruce is somewhere between the tearaway of “Born to Run” but not yet the working class adult of “Darkness” trying to break through a world of compromise and limitations that seem to be holding him back.

The album starts with “Racing in the Streets” and ends with “Come On (Let’s Go Tonight)” and “The Promise” (let’s call “City of the Night” a Wild, innocent, and E-Street-esque coda). The three songs are perfectly appropriate as bookends that foreshadow the restlessness of what is to come on “Darkness”, The first one is on that album (in a more understated but emotive version). The music of the second one was lifted intact for “The Factory”, which is also on that album, although lyrically a completely different, if just as sombre song here. The last one sounds like (and nearly was) on “Darkness.

Everything sandwiched in between the above tracks is a celebration of the joy and heartbreak of youth that sounds like it was created by a band unaware of the ramifications of clocking into adulthood. One last night where nothing is more important than cars, trying to impress girls, and what’s on the radio.

Early rock ‘n’ roll spirits permeate this album. For example “Fire” sounds like it was written for a pre-Hollywood Elvis. “The Brokenhearted” is tailor-made to be a Roy Orbison torch song. Whoever played drums on Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” seems to be driving “Outside Looking In”. None of it sounds derivative, but the influences are clearly there. Even when you can’t name the ghost, you can feel it in the 50s and 60s musical styles throughout. But as usual, the E Street Band make it all their own, and the tracks sound no more dated than anything else they released in those years.

Another highlight is “Ain’t Good Enough for You”, the most light-hearted song on the album. It sounds like it came from the same well as “This Little Girl is Mine”, which Bruce penned for Gary US Bonds” around the same era. It’s got a boogie beat, call and response vocals, and Bruce gets downright goofy by the time he gets to the hand-clap driven last verse.

“The Promise” comes with two hits that aren’t even released yet, at least not in the versions here. You might remember “Fire” as done by the Pointer Sisters, and I think we’ve all heard Patty Smyth’s version of “Because the Night”. The latter gets its E Street studio version debut, although anyone who has seen the band a few times has no doubt heard it in concert. Surprisingly, the lads had to go back and finish that one – it was handed to Patty half written.

If there is an odd one out here, it’s “Candy’s Boy”, not because it isn’t worthwhile, but because musically it sounds a bit like Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from “Highway 61 Revisited”, a little outside the musical scope of the body of this album. You know this one better as the full-on rocker “Candy’s Room” from “Darkness”.

I could continue on about each and every track, but at this point you’re going to listen to it or not. Yes, “The Promise” is hyped, but I’m reluctant to say it’s over hyped. Good as “Tracks” was, this album is on a different level. Sure it could have been released as an authentic single album, as it certainly would have been back then. And it could have been weeded for any songs that were only good, not spectacular, as most other Springsteen albums were at that time. It’s too late now – I ain’t handing any tracks back!