Paul Jackson Music

Paul Jackson Music

Sunday, 28 July 2013

#14: "Lights, camera..... "

There is a camera shop in Brighouse that I remember first visiting when I was ten years old in 1984. I went there specifically to buy some film for a cine camera that I had been given by a relative. However between me receiving the cine camera, and me going to buy some film for it, I spent several months on a creative high. After receiving the camera, there was only one thing on my decade-old mind to do: make a movie.
I started plotting out a story and developing characters and soon began writing a script. I had a toy blaster gun which was to be used as a prop, and my dad helped me paint a large piece of hardboard jet black before I used a brush to spray white painted dots everywhere, resulting in a makeshift ‘space’ backdrop. This was to be a sci-fi adventure film heavily appropriating elements from Star Wars, Battle Beyond The Stars and Battle Of The Planets. I scouted locations for various scenes on the industrial estate and fields near where I lived in Elland, and I started casting at my primary school, persuading friends to take on various roles. At no point during this process did I consider how, where and when to buy film, or how I would edit it or even how I would dub the sound, as this was a silent camera. Regardless of that I started compiling a soundtrack which would include a recording I had of Finlandia by Sibelius for the main score, and a Hammermen recording of Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” for the end party celebration sequence. Besides music I also picked through a couple of BBC sound effects albums I had. I drew various scenes and poster ideas for it and very soon I felt ready to start making it. I went to the camera shop to inquire about buying film for the camera, somehow expecting to be able to afford it at ten years old. I learned that three minutes of silent film, which couldn’t be erased and used again, would be £15. This was in 1984. I was planning the film to be a lot longer than three minutes, and I hadn’t allowed for retakes or anything. That was when the creative flow came to an abrupt end and the idea of making a movie remained just that.

However, the sadness in failing to realise the vision I had seemed to disappear quite quickly. The creative process had been so much fun that it never felt like it had been a waste of time. I’ve always looked back on those months fondly and wonder if the end result, had I somehow managed to cobble together some movie footage accompanied by an audio cassette, might have been so bad that it would have ruined the whole experience.

El Mariachi
by Robert Rodriguez
By the time I was introduced to video cameras where you recorded directly onto a video cassette, my destiny was leading me on a more musical journey than a filmmaking one. The times when I did borrow a video camera at school and at university were more based around making little music videos and filming live performances.
My passion for films and how they are made and who makes them has never diminished. In fact it has grown and grown over the years. While I’ve never had plans or aims to consider making films, I’ve devoured many books and films on the craft of film making. Robert Rodriguez’s book on how he put his film El Mariachi together is still one of my favourites and I’m forever lapping up DVD commentaries and documentaries on the filmmaking process. Kevin Smith’s podcasts are now a regular fixture for me,particularly his Film School Fridays series where he talks and advises new filmmakers, and his series of Q&A shows give a fascinating insight into his journey into making movies.

While my path led me into focusing on making music, I occasionally have flashes of an alternative universe where I somehow managed to make a three minute film, and then continued down that road. The fact that I didn’t has never diminished my appreciation and interest into those who did.

Black Out
by Derek Boyes

At university I met an incredibly talented guitarist called Fil Hill who I also discovered had made some movies with friends which I found fascinating, inspiring and highly entertaining. A friend I made in London, Jason Young, went from acting to writing and directing his own films including three shorts that I contributed music to. And more recently, via MySpace, I came across a filmmaker based in Kent called Derek Boyes, whose DelFilm website is not only an impressive piece of design, but packed with  content that makes for an outstanding CV. It not only features completed short films, but also earlier film experiments and tryouts that tells his journey into film, as well as his ongoing work, in a very engaging way.

In a recent Q&A by Kevin Smith, he is asked by an audience member why he does all the different things he does, and how he finds time. His response is an outburst of passion, in very colourful language, for being creative and why everyone should – be it a film, a piece of music, a YouTube clip, a podcast, a blog, a cupcake store etc. It is highly motivating and actually pushed me into starting this blog, for no other reason than to create and put something out there while I continue to work on making music.

I’ve found over the years that regardless of the outcome and where it takes you, the creative process is such an important thing. Success in something doesn’t always have to be tied to how much money it will make. Music artist Moby has referenced filmmaker David Lynch saying ‘creativity, in and of itself, is beautiful’.
Nearly three decades on from the creative process of making a movie coming to an end in that camera shop, you can essentially make a movie on your phone and upload it to the web for anyone, anywhere to see. Similarly with music, any audio or visual creation can now be more easily accessible and discoverable to any audience. What happens after that isn’t something you can really control, but you can control the creation and realisation of those initial ideas. And the result, or future course, shouldn’t deter one from embracing the creative process. 

As well as being inspired what other filmmakers, and in fact creative people in general, have done, what I have more recently found most inspiring closer to home, is that my 6 year old son has taken an interest in film making. He has been planning out stories with his Thomas the Tank Engine toys, and together we have filmed and edited shots on a computer into mini-movies. Even as I write this he is mapping out a camera shot list for his next creation and it feels great that he has us to here to help and guide him. And should he continue down that road (or track in his case) he is growing up in a world where tools such as a camera and editing software are more easily available and affordable than they were a generation ago. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

#13: The Single

So this year I’ve finally realised that I don’t actually know what a single is anymore.
I can still go out and buy a physical single 7”, 12” or CD single, or buy a digital track, but the concept of the ‘single’ release by an artist is, for me at least, a bit of a mysterious grey area.
It’s not so much the choice of format because, be it a digital or analogue release, you are still buying the song you want and it is now far easier and more convenient to do so. Furthermore, the digital format is a more convenient way for people to listen to the song and a cheaper way for an artist to distribute their music.
But I’m quite fascinated by how that convenience has compromised other aspects of the ‘single’ that I’ve been so accustomed to over the years. Be they out of date, no longer relevant or no longer cost effective, it now leaves me wondering if or why I’m bothered as to which song is released as single.

The 7"
In the early days I only really knew about 7” vinyl singles and it was via TV, radio and magazines I would get to hear about these being released. On buying a 7” single you were presented with the main song and then a b-side song, or a remixed version of the a-side. The single would be promoted on the radio and on various TV shows, the ultimate accolade being the Top Of The Pops performance usually once the single had reached the charts. On BBC’s Saturday Superstore, Mike Reid would clutch a bunch of 7” singles telling you how you can win that week’s “Top Ten”.

The 12"
Thompson Twins "You Take Me Up" was released
in 1984 on 7",  2x12", 10" picture disc and 3x
interlocking 7" picture discs
Sometime later I spotted a 12” single at a friend’s house and thought it was an album. A Billy Joel single I think it was. Until that moment, I didn’t realise you could get ‘bigger’ singles. I would then look out for the 12” release of a record and would later opt for that instead of the 7” format. Sometimes I’d get both. The 12” would usually feature an extended version of the song with the main track in the middle of a lengthy introduction, and extra bits at the end. All bonus extras to the song you previously knew inside out. The b-side might feature the same b-side as on the 7”, or sometimes an alternative mix or even a new track altogether. The sleeve artwork would usually remain the same in just a bigger form.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood's
"The Power Of Love' in double
sleeved 7" and 12" plus a gatefold
12" release. 
A single would sometimes come in various limited edition formats. There maybe a gatefold sleeve, or a fold out poster sleeve, or one that came with a set of postcards, or even a picture disc version. I later discovered that more than one 12” single may be released with alternative versions and more experimental remixes.

By exploring discographies of various artists through magazines like Record Collector, I found a pattern emerging with certain record releases by certain artists: 
A couple of singles each with b-sides and 12" mixes, followed by an album featuring those singles, and then another couple of singles of songs remixed or re-edited from the album. Then the pattern starts over again. 

The singles would have accompanying promo videos and TV performances depending on the chart entry.
There may be some deviation from this pattern with some artists but it was one I observed more often than not.

The CD
The KLF released "3am Eternal" in 1989 and
1991 resulting in multiple 12" singles
The CD single later appeared with a smaller sleeve that to me was less exciting than the vinyl packaging. The writing was a lot smaller and it felt more of a pain to play. Well it was for me as I didn’t get a CD player until the early nineties. But the CD single format would usually follow the track-listing of the 12” single with the addition of the 7” a-side.
Later a band would choose to release 2 CD singles with some experiments in packaging by having both singles fit into one box or wallet.
Kraftwerk's "The Robots" on 7", 12"
and cd single
Due to restrictions on the number of chart eligible formats a band could release, some acts chose to release 2 CD singles instead of a 7” or 12" and soon artists would take advantage of the amount of music you could fit on a disc and start filling it up with lots of remixes of the main song onto a CD single.

Usually CD1 would feature the main song and a couple of b-sides (b-side now becomes a loose term) and maybe a remix, while CD2 would have a stream of remixes by various DJ’s sampling bits of the main song over a new backing track. I never always found these to be pleasurable listening experiences . Thirty minutes of remixes including dub versions of those remixes that hade very little trace of the original song became quite hard work to digest.
The ‘line-crossing’ moment for me was the release of The Lightning Seeds’ ” You Showed Me” in 1997. I had been a big fan of the group for a few years and would usually buy both CD single formats for each single release. But I stopped when they released “You Showed Me” for the reason I shall present in the form of the tracklisting for each CD single.
Lightning Seeds single
"You Showed Me"
CD1 “You Showed Me”
1 You Showed Me (Radio Edit)                
2 You Showed Me (Attica Blues Vocal Mix)
3 You Showed Me (Attica Blues Instrumental)
4 You Showed Me (Wiseguys Remix)
5 You Showed Me (Wiseguys Instrumental)
6 You Showed Me (Strike Twice Vocal Mix)
7 You Showed Me (Strike Twice Instrumental)      
CD2 “You Showed Me”
1  You Showed Me (Radio Edit)
2  You Showed Me (Tee's Alternative Mix) 
3  You Showed Me (Tee's Club Mix) 
4  You Showed Me (Tee's Freeze Mix) 
5  You Showed Me (TNT's Frozen Dub) 
6  You Showed Me (Bonus Beats)
7  You Showed Me (Tee's Radio) 

Well over an hour of listening to remixes of a Turtles cover, mostly bearing no relation to the original.
I stopped being, what my record buying friends would term, ‘a completist’ around that point.
The shrinking sleeve artwork and the stampede of club DJ mixes onto the commercial release with little quality control resulted in my affection for the single release diminishing a little.

The MP3
Fast forward a few years and the digital format has now taken precedence. It’s incredibly fast, easy to buy and very convenient to play on either computer or a mobile device. You don’t have to record your favourite tracks onto cassette to take out and about with you in the car or on a Walkman. You can either drag the file into the relevant folder on the relevant device, or even buy the track straight onto your phone. And while vinyl releases have since started growing again with more bands going back to 7” and 12” releases and more collectible Record Store Day releases, it seems the digital release is at the forefront with or without an accompanying physical release. The digital release of several tracks to accompany the main song has the horrible title of “digital bundle” which I’m sure could be improved upon.
A consequence of this is that a track can be made available and chart eligible outside any sort of promoted release date. A few years ago a technical error by one online store resulted in all the tracks on an Arctic Monkeys albums being individually chart eligible and appearing in the Top 40. Although later rectified, this did raise the question of what constitutes a single release if you can make any track eligible for the chart if you want to. Now you get YouTube videos being made to promote a song which you can then buy on iTunes without it being clear if it’s actually a ‘single’ release or not. While Pet Shop Boys are due to release the single "Vocal" from their new album, they had already made one track, "Axis", available to buy as a download prior to the album. However without the usual promotion surrounding a single release, the song is now engraved on their discography listing as their worst chart placing to date. 

Johnny Marr's album 
"The Messenger"
In November 2012, Johnny Marr's song "The Messenger" appeared as a YouTube video to promote his forthcoming album, though it wasn't actually a single. Yet the YouTube video was there to do the same promotional task. 
So whereas years ago the single was created to promote the album, then later a video was created to promote the single, nowadays the lines are so blurred that a track can be watched as a video on the web, or downloaded in a digital store regardless of whether it is promoted as a single release or not.

For certain artists some formats may not be cost effective to produce and sell, or a ‘single’ release may not be as relevant as it once was.
Then again, not only does it allow the artist to release and promote a track on their own terms and in their own time,  it also allows fans to promote a track themselves without any input or influence from a record label or even the artist.
Public Enemy's 2007 single
"Harder Than You Think"
was revived in 2012
An online campaign saw Rage Against The Machine achieve a Christmas number one in an attempt to prevent The X Factor winning single getting there. It also saw a Public Enemy single from 2007 achieve a high chart position thanks to its use in TV coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games and a simple ‘buy this track’ link appearing in the right places. And instead of the one high chart entry and then a sudden drop seen by a lot of singles in the last couple of decades, this one moved upwards and upwards; like records used to do some twenty to thirty years ago. It wasn’t solely dependent on a certain number of physical copies being made available in certain places on a certain date, nor a promotional campaign by the band or label.
Perhaps this elimination of record label control over what records are made available and when, what deals are struck in record shops, or what influence pluggers have with radio stations might be a good thing for a lot of artists and their fans.

While on one hand I like the idea of fans and artists having the freedom to control their own promotional campaigns online and choice of songs to release and chart, on the other I still like record labels putting out a nicely packaged 12” picture disc edition in gatefold, double sleeve with a specially chosen b-side track and a couple of remixes. Perhaps we can have both.   

Thursday, 11 July 2013

#12: Pet Shop Boys: Electric

So when the Pet Shop Boys released their 11th studio album, Elysium, last October, I didn’t expect to hear news of another album for quite a long time. Their Electric tour was announced before the end of the year and I assumed that was just the name they’d given to the show. It then emerged that they had already been working on a dance orientated album with Stuart Price and Electric would be the title. In the weeks leading up to seeing them on the Electric tour in June 2013, the release date had been set for the album as well as teaser snippets appearing on their website.

Hearing that it would be more dance orientated made me think more along the lines of it being mainly instrumental maybe reminiscent of the Relentless album that accompanied the 1993 album Very. But knowing Stuart Price was producing it, and knowing one of his favourite albums is Pet Shop Boys’ 1986 remix album Disco, and also knowing his musical direction of the Pandemonium tour and the Brits medley of 2009, I knew this was to be more than just a generic dance music album.

Overall the album is epic, energetic and full of all the elements I’ve always loved in Pet Shop Boys records. Since their full on big synth productions of the mid-eighties with people such as Stephen Hague, Julian Mendelsohn, Shep Pettibone  and Bobby O, over the years they have expanded their sound palette to incorporate orchestras, guitars, choirs, latin percussion and even a brass band at one time, before occasionally going back to their pure synth pop song roots.
Elysium had a more smooth, down-tempo mood about it with heavy use of backing vocals, lush strings and rich sounding keyboard elements. Electric sees them moving back onto the dance-floor with plenty of musical references and nods to where they started from, and what first influenced them, from house music to electro. While Neil and Chris have mainly used software synth plugins via Logic, Stuart Price has contributed real synths to the blend culminating in an electro tour de force.

This was the first teaser on YouTube and formed the opening to their show. It’s a no holds barred pounding instrumental dance track with brief snatches of sampled vocal and vocoder. A torrent of synth lines pour in from every direction over electro drum machine hits that are recognisable from the days of the Please and Disco albums.
A incredibly catchy pop tune with elements of house in the bassline and synth riffs. The chiming bell lead line reminds me a lot of mid-eighties hip hop/electro pop records including Pet Shop Boys’ own such as You Know Where You Went Wrong and Why Don’t We Live Together. It starts as a pop song before steering away into a house dub track with a synth bass track that reminds me of something by A Guy Called Gerald.
Love Is A Bourgeois Construct
A full on Hi-Nrg track with a mock-sampled disco/baroque opening, quoting a piece by Michael Nyman, itself based on a piece by Henry Purcell. This filters into the main track which storms in over a hi-nrg bassline (bom-baba-bom-baba) which they’ve visited many times before.
The mood darkens slightly for this one with a minimal drum track and a deep modulating synth bassline. Very atmospheric and still very exciting to hear conjuring up pictures of late night club land. Featuring the sort of sounds that you'd hear on their early b-sides.
Inside A Dream
Again, this has many elements that remind me of tracks from Please or their b-sides around 1986/7 with the chiming bell lead sound, drum machine hand claps and pulsating synth bass sound. It blends ingredients of New York hip hop and Chicago house records.
The Last To Die
Then we get the Pet Shop Boys take on a Bruce Springsteen song with its catchy chorus over a straight four-four backing with big crashing synth chords giving the track a fuller sound.
Shouting In The Evening
This is a mainly instrumental track with a processed vocal chorus in the breakdown sections. It is peppered with vocal samples, cut up squelchy synth bass lines and fast drum edits.
We get familiar sounds all over this if you know your '86-'87 PSB tracks inside out. The warm string pad sounds over the top of electro drum machine beats and a synth bassline, with the chiming bell lead again. It has staple early Pet Shop Boys moments reminding me of bits from West End Girls, Domino Dancing and A Man Could Get Arrested. A very catchy chorus brings in Chris Lowe’s spoken vocal that has occasionally cropped up on their records. And then we launch into a guest appearance from Example bringing in a rap section before he continues to sing a fantastic bridge section.
An incredibly uplifting track starting off quite mellow, before the backing kicks in, moving through the house music period of Introspective and then European dance music of the nineties and beyond. It is based around the type of synth riff that would raise the hands of crowds of club-goers to the sky.

Though I was expecting it to be a great album based on their track record and what bits I had heard on the web and in concert, it excels even further into a magnificent record. You can tell it has been produced by a big fan of theirs who likes to acknowledge, and honour, where they have come from.

The sleeve, designed by Mark Farrow who remains a fixed part of the Pet Shop Boys’ presentation, features a repeated zigzag pattern against a white background and nothing else. Inside we get photos of Neil and Chris donning big shades and wearing what looks like jackets made up of spiky black straws. They seem to incorporate themselves into the designs and artwork so they become works of art themselves and more than just a couple of middle age blokes making music.

Electric is another example of them standing out from everyone else and never resting on their laurels. It salutes many great moments from the Pet Shop Boys back catalogue as well as the influences that started them off, and it carries them onwards and upwards as they reinvent themselves and explore musical territories keeping them in the ‘now’.
Another masterpiece from the grand masters.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

#11: "Live on stage at the Pav"

This is a little story of a ‘gig’ that should have been. By the mid nineties I had performed either in a number of different line-ups or solo under a number of different guises. By 1995 I was singing in a soul band around West Yorkshire, playing background lounge piano at a couple of dinner parties, performing ‘cover versions’ in lightly attended pubs sat behind a piano with a rack of backing keyboards and sequencers, standing up behind a keyboard with the same rack doing my own material as ‘Production’, and also using the same set-up without a microphone performing electronica music as ‘S-cape’. A keyboard set-up that has filled many a car boot of a friend or the back seats of a taxi when I’ve been ferried around to various venues. In fact at one pub, after I’d delivered two sets of keyboard based cover songs, an audience member praised my efforts while also delivering the never forgotten line ‘usually when I see lots of keyboards, my first thought is Heavy Metal’. To this day I’m still confused by the line as I’m sure he meant the music genre whereas literally, and ironically, ‘heavy metal’ was more accurate.
In hindsight I was probably spreading myself too thinly when I should have really focused and mastered one of the various forms of presentation. However it kept me busy programming, arranging and rehearsing a variety of tracks, be they my own dalliances with electro pop, ventures into ambient house music, reworkings of pop hits of yesteryear or a piano medley of James Bond themes. I guess I was really trying to find the right avenue by trying different ones.
Although it was fun to perform other people's songs, it was in writing and arranging my own material either under the ‘Production’ moniker, or its instrumental electronica brother ‘S-cape’, where my main passion lie.

At university I found opportunity to try out my music in a live setting in the form of the ‘Afternoon Gig’ which bands could sign up for. I started doing a few of these as a solo act for a little while, surrounded by a mess of wires and doing my best to sing and play a little ditty or two to a little gathering. I had also started performing outside the university at club nights hosted by the Manchester collective BoomBooom at venues such as the Night and Day Café and the Roadhouse.  However, trying to get gigs on my own continued to be a struggle no thanks to my naivity, so I was grateful for any invitation and opportunity that came my way.
In January 1995, I spotted a poster on a noticeboard at the university asking for support bands for a series of gigs at the Pavillion. The Pavillion, or ‘Pav’ as it was commonly known, was one of the student union bars situated at a campus some distance from where I was based and so wasn’t a venue I had visited or was familiar with. The poster said that support acts were needed to suit the following styles of bands that were due to play there including one that said ‘techno rock’.  Now I was a bit removed from ‘rock’ but was quite a bit closer to the ‘techno’ side so I immediately thought my ‘S-cape’ set -up may just be the thing. Or rather, being a support act to a ‘techno rock’ band might be just the thing for me. I found a phone in a room somewhere (in the days before mobile phones were in common use) and rang the number on the poster. I offered my ‘techno’ services to the manager at the ‘Pav’ who said the band were performing the next night and told me to turn up to soundcheck at a certain time. The idea of performing as a support act at a student union club gave me a vision of a ready assembled audience of punters keen to hear some loud, pumping,exciting music of a ‘techno’ flavour.

I spent the evening programming and rearranging some of the more uptempo dance and techno driven tracks in my repertoire into a segued set of about 30-40 minutes as required. I mentioned it to what friends I could find on the day (in the days before Facebook, Twitter, email and the world wide web were in common use) and then headed up to the ‘Pav’.

I walked through the large bar area and through to the live room which I remember being quite big. The band I would be supporting were a London based band called Fat. Fronted by an American rapper/singer and backed by a guitar based band featuring samples. I watched them soundcheck where they delivered a mix of hip hop and rock and sounded great. It was incredibly loud, energetic and very exciting. I was up to soundcheck next and I clambered onto this high stage and set up my gear in the middle. I had never before heard my music pump out of the speakers in the way it did. It sounded immense and gave me quite a buzz. I looked out to the audience area and thought of how great a gig this could be when it is full of punters bouncing, jumping and dancing about. After I had finished soundchecking, one of the sound engineers, who seemed very pleased and enthusiastic, said he could project some visuals behind me on the screen that would go well with my set if I wanted. I said that would be great and I retreated to the bar. There I was approached by AD who was the frontman of Fat who complimented my live musical endeavors and we chatted at length about music and gigging and so forth. I also chatted with other members of the band including the drummer known as Woody. (There’s a reason I’ve mentioned him which I’ll come to later).
Four of my friends from university showed up to give me some moral support which pleased me no end.
And then it was soon time for the gig to start.
But something wasn’t quite right. Or at least not what I expected.
With the exception of the four members of Fat, my four friends, the two sound engineers and maybe another two people…. The place was empty. I played for 30-40 minutes and then Fat took to the stage and performed an amazing set. But it was to just a very small group of people. In fact, Fat played to less people than I did because they were half of the audience I had played to, and then I swapped with them to be in the audience myself. I was so gutted and totally baffled.  I couldn’t work out if it was a case of zero promotion, or if the ‘Pav’ was always this poorly attended. For such great music in such a great looking and sounding venue, it seemed such a great waste.
My friends and I were invited by Fat to join them for a beer or two in their dressing room and we continued chatting. I think my main topic of conversation was how much I couldn’t believe how empty the place was. That shows how naïve and presumptious I was at that time to expect there to be an audience waiting. You live and learn.
We said goodbye and I jumped into a car with my gear packed up and crashed out at a friends flat nearby.
Fast forward eight months and I’m watching ‘The Chart Show’ on ITV on one Saturday morning and who should appear promoting their debut single but Fat. ‘The Chart Show’ used to feature bits of text on the screen giving you extra info on the band. I’ll never forget the one that appeared saying ‘Members of Fat include drummer Woody who is also a member of Madness. I couldn’t believe it. Madness were a group I loved and had grown up with and it never clicked that it was the same guy I had shared a beer and a stage with earlier in the year. I bought the single and I also had a demo tape of the group that I had been given at the gig. Both serve as a good reminder of a great band I had the pleasure of supporting at one time, albeit to not many people.
I later learned that Fat had continued to release a couple of albums and had successfully toured to a packed houses around the UK and the US. I nearly saw them again when I read they were to support Catherine Wheel at Manchester University a year or so later. I bought a ticket and went to the gig only to discover that Fat had broken down somewhere on a motorway and wouldn’t be turning up. So I couldn’t ‘support’ them that time.
Very recently I did get to see Woody again when I finally achieved a long awaited goal of seeing Madness live in concert. And I have learned that AD has forged a successful career in the US as a TV and radio host.
And while the ‘Pav’ gig wasn’t successful in terms of entertaining a large crowd, it holds enough good memories to warrant me blogging about it some 18 years later.