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A Day or Two in the Life of a Part-time Hack

PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2005 10:00 am
by howard male
I thought you lot might like to hear how it's not all fun and free CDs with my new hobby as music reviewer. So I'm spilling the banal beans here, with the description of a day (or two) in the life of a part-time hack.

My first irritant is the wait for the word-count. Not that I mind being restricted to a certain number of words - in fact I enjoy it. As you hone in on the magic number you've been given - jumping back and forth between the word-count and the delete key - it's a bit like playing a very basic computer game...495 - nearly there... 508 - damn, just missed ....500! GOT IT!!

But what irritates me, is going to see the band on the Sunday night, and not getting the word-count until the morning of the day the piece is due in. As the newest contributor to the Indy on Sunday's ABC Magazine, I am also - quite reasonably - the one who fills whatever gap is left after all the regular writers have had their say, and all the advertisers - whatever space they want.

When I do get a proposal accepted (or 'pitch' as I believe the current terminology is) I then have to wait until the very last minute to find out what space my impressions and opinions have to squeeze into.

It's also frustratingly arbitrary whom I get to review. A couple of weeks ago the living legend Thomas Mapfumo was in town. What a privilege and challenge it would have been to put into words the pleasures of listening to his music. But it was not to be: no room at the inn at the Sunday due to a late chunk of advertising, and no room at the Daily (who for once at least acknowledge my 'pitch') due to Proms coverage.

But even if I had been given the go ahead, the man's management weren't making things easy. I spent the best part of a day trying to get contact details for the Meantime Club. The number given on Alan's Gig Guide proved to be a home number belonging to someone who hadn't worked at the club for four years and had no idea how to contact them. And all a Google search came up with - on Mapfumo's own website - was a reproduction of a poster for the event, but reproduced the size of a playing card. I printed it off anyway, but even under a magnifying glass (which conveniently turned up in the post that morning as a novelty promotional gift from weird theatre group Forkbeard Fantasy) the phone number was too pixilated to make out. However I could at least now just about read that punters would be let into the venue between 4.00pm and 8.00pm, but the event was an all-nighter (how strange is that?)

So I was beginning to hope I wouldn't be required to review the concert - who wants a potential wait of maybe 10 hours or more, to see a band, aspecially when you've got to stay reasonable sober to take notes.

Then I remember the old fashioned way of finding out telephone numbers - I dial 118 118 and a computerised voice gives me a number - and it's different from the other one - I'm actually getting somewhere! I phone the number, only to get the cheerful, pre-recorded response, "This number does not receive in coming calls." Now am I missing something here? What is the point of a telephone number if you can't ring it!


But then the week after Mapfumo has discretely slipped in and out of the country, a bunch of less interesting Zimbabwean musicians, who looked like extras from a Tarzan film, do a freebie outside the National Theatre - it's the only gig suitable in the first half of the week (gigs have to be on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday night to meet the magazine's printing deadline), so I send my pitch. Sod's Law - they've got room for 270 words. My job suddenly becomes to try and not be too damning to what was a decidedly average band, who weren't doing themselves any favours by laying on the romance of Africa-trip, a bit too heavily.

This week I was hoping I could review Yat-Kha at Ronnie Scotts next week, but instead, got my pitch accepted for a band I knew nothing about, apart from reading the intriguing description of their music on their website. Oh well - I already knew the characterful venue, so I could at least have fun describing the atmosphere of the place if the band turned out to be hopeless. Luckily they weren't bad - although I would much rather have reviewed the Luminescent Orchestrii who I 'proposed' (ah that's better) a couple of weeks ago.

Anyway, I tapped out these four hundred words or so, only to find out today they only need 275. So here for the delight of you CG forum folk, is the 12" mix of the review of a band who, simply because HMV decided not to promote their latest DVD releases this week, have their moment under the 40 Watt spotlight of the Independent on Sundays arts supplement. Lucky blighters.

But I should add that, whilst the process of deleting precious chunks of my review can be difficult (my monkey coincidence: gone, mention of the London song: gone, and mention of the far superior Luminescent Orchestrii: gone) there is some satisfaction at the end, in reading something which is much leaner, but hopefully not a lot meaner. And it's never going to do me any harm, having less room to be self-indulgent.


The Review


The Marseille Figs At the South London Pacific

The South London Pacific has worked as hard as an Amsterdam coffee shop to create a kitsch and retro-hip environment for its youngish clientele. There's papier-mache primitive sculptures everywhere, and the intimate interior is lit as if by the glow from a wood fire. As I arrive the proto-T.Rex riff of Dave Bartholomew's 'The Monkey' is pumping out, perhaps in tribute to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Amanda, the evening's flamboyant vaudevillian host, informs us that the support band is two polish guys she's just met on the street outside. They do a spirited version of the banjo duel from the movie 'Deliverance' before being summarily dismissed to make way for the Figs - perhaps we are running late having spent an unnecessary half hour in the company of Bob the Mindreader.

The Marseille Figs - who have journeyed from Berlin, Barcelona and Hackney to play for us tonight - coincidentally open with a song called 'Me and My Monkey' which despite the fact they're only a three-piece with no laptop or backing tapes, manages to sound like a rousing, on-the-road, rock epic. The band are an intriguing mix of very old-school skiffle, bluegrass and jazz, with slightly less old-school post punk. At their poppiest sounding like a gentler 'They Might Be Giants'. 'I Love London' is a gentle and whimsical tribute to our beleaguered capital where "long gone sparrows are never going to sing" which, whilst not being up there with the likes of 'Waterloo Sunset' is nonetheless a charming, unassuming little ditty.

At their rootsiest they're refugees from a bygone age - immaculately and anachronistically dressed in suits and ties - completely free of the usual posing and posturing of would-be pop stars. They seem to change instruments with every song - drawing on sax, claranet, melodica, flugal horn, accordion, and so on - whilst still retaining a pleasing continuity of sound.

But what's most gratifying about bands like this (and there are others, such as the wonderful New York-based Luminescent Orchestrii) is the way they create vibrant, rhythmic music without a drummer or drum machine pedantically marking out time in the background. Instead, each song is pushed along by a vigorously strummed acoustic guitar or intricately plucked ukulele, and fleshed out by battered brass, wheezing accordion or the cheapest of children's casio keyboards. A different approach to live music is always welcome, and an escape from the decades-old dictate of electric guitar, bass, and drums, especially so.

Howard Male

Re: A Day or Two in the Life of a Part-time Hack

PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2005 3:14 pm
by RobHall
[quote="howard male"]novelty promotional gift from weird theatre group Forkbeard Fantasy[/quote]

I had dealings with the Forkbard Fantasists many, many years ago; I'm amazed to hear that they're still around.

Rob

PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2005 5:44 pm
by howard male
I think they're amazed too - but it's been at least thirty years. I first saw them, before I knew who they were, in a pub courtyard in Cambridge in about 1977 - dressed like John Cleese businessmen they walked in, did their routine (to complex and silly to describe but it involved having their feet attached to two sides of a square of planks) and walked out again.

I then saw them again about five years later when I was at Art School and we've been sort of pals ever since - I've never missed a show. They tend to tour a new show once a year. I often find the time spent with them after a performance is as much fun as the performance itself as these two brothers have such a rapport and individual charm. So I was thrilled for them when, about four years ago, they became the first independent theatre group to get a solo exhibition at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden.

For those not familiar with 'the Beard' ( they love it when I call them that, as it sounds a bit 'rock n' roll') they tend to write elaborate surreal fantasies based around the extraordinary props, mostly made by their assistant Penny. Twenty five years worth of strange contraptions and hideous semi-human creatures, made for a great show, rather incongruously opened by Lloyd Grossman. But one of my heroes Terry Gilliam (whose a big fan) was there too, so I got to have a great half hour chat with him.

One other curious thing. The last time I was at a Forkbeard show, I was discussing the meaningfulness of coincidence with a friend of mine. Right I said - there will be a meaningful coincidence waiting to happen here in this theatre now. He look sceptical. I scanned the intimate interior of the Riverside Studios and there, two seats away, was Adam Blake, Errol Linton's guitarist. A few days earlier Charlie had emailed him to try to persuade him to comment on my 'He Played it Left Hand' piece (as he was outed as a lefty in the piece), and he still hadn't. So I had the opportunity to say, "Ah, just the man I wanted to speak to...." A day or two later he posted his comments.

We've gone off the Forkbeard track a bit, but Adam had never seen them before, and told me he was impressed by all their on-stage trickery. As he came from, "a theatrical family" he could usually work out how most affects were done, but not everything the Beard did.

PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2005 10:52 pm
by RobHall
Well, my connection was from their many appearances at the Waterside Theatre in Rotherhithe - I think they did a piece called "Joanna Southcott's Box" - I had invited a bunch of art college pals along, and one of them got off with one of the Forkbeards (I think it was Tim?). Long story short... I ended up playing chaperone on a visit to their house, somewhere near Winchester. For my troubles I came away with their copy of Graham Parker's "Howling Wind" album that Tim gave to me because I loved it so much. Aaah, memories...

PostPosted: Tue Sep 13, 2005 11:53 am
by howard male
I won't make a habit of posting both the long and the published version of reviews, but as I've gone to some length with the story of this piece I thought some of you might be interested to see the cute little article as it ended up. I made all the cuts myself accept for the reference to them sounding like a gentler They Might Be Giants, which perhaps had to go for space reasons - ironic though, as there couldn't have been a more precise description of what the band sounded like.

The Marseille Figs At the South London Pacific

The South London Pacific has worked as hard as an Amsterdam coffee shop to
create a kitsch and retro-hip environment for its youngish clientele. There's
papier-mache primitive sculptures everywhere, and the intimate interior
is lit as if by the glow from a wood fire.
Amanda, the evening's vaudevillian host, informs us that the support band
is two polish guys she's just met on the street. They do a spirited version
of the banjo duel from 'Deliverance' before being summarily dismissed to
make way for the Figs - perhaps we are running late having spent an unnecessary
half hour in the company of Bob the Mindreader.
The Marseille Figs, who have journeyed from Berlin, Barcelona and Hackney
to play for us tonight, tear straight into 'Me and My Monkey' which despite
the fact they're only a three-piece, manages to sound like a rousing rock
epic.
The band are an intriguing mix of very old-school skiffle, bluegrass and
jazz, with slightly less old-school post punk. They change instruments with every
song, drawing on sax, melodica, flugal horn, accordion, and so on. But most
gratifying is the way they create vibrant, driven music without a drummer
or drum machine pedantically marking out time in the background. Instead,
each song is pushed along by a vigorously strummed acoustic guitar or intricately
plucked ukulele, and fleshed out by battered brass, wheezing accordion or
the cheapest of children's Casio keyboards.
A different approach to live music is always welcome, and an escape from
the decades-old dictate of electric guitar, bass, and drums, especially so.


A Worse Day in the Life of a Part-time Hack

My trials and tribulations as a struggling hack stepped up a gear towards the end of last week. I'd been entertaining my best friend who had arrived from Tokyo on Wednesday, and I had kind of lost track of what day it was, due partly to certain over-indulgences, and partly to simply having my weekend start on Wednesday.

I ended up making the, as it turned out, awful error of thinking Thursday was Friday and contacted the Daily about reviewing Yat-Kha, thinking the Sunday had passed on it - they would normally have contacted me by Friday afternoon.

You see, although as a freelancer I am allowed to go to other papers (and the daily version of the Independent is considered another paper) I am obliged to give the Sunday, first refusal, as they hired me first.

Almost as soon as I'd sent the proposal I realised my error, but just thought that as the Daily rarely gets back to me (on average I would say I've only had about one in ten pitches accepted) I should be OK. But of course Sod's Law was in operation, and the email came back saying they'd like a review of Yat-Kha.

To cut a long story short, the editor at the Sunday was not happy. I received a polite but clearly pissed off email late Friday afternoon telling me they would get someone else to do their world music live reviews in future.

I was mortified. Firstly because I had lost a good chunk of my new part-time job, and secondly because I appeared to have wilfully broken a gentleman's agreement. I emailed a heartfelt apology but as it was after office hours I had the whole weekend to dwell on my stupidity.

It was only this morning that I was finally able to phone the man and win him around by further explaining what had occurred. I had a whole bunch of stuff I was planning to say to support my case but in the end it was the fact I was wrecked at the time of committing the misdemeanour that produced a chuckle and seemed to make the whole episode forgivable.

If I was a tree-surgeon of something, I doubt that being stoned would have been an acceptable excuse for this kind of unprofessional conduct!

PostPosted: Wed Sep 14, 2005 9:28 am
by howard male
One of the reasons I started this strand was I was hoping some of you other journalists out there (Garth, Jamie, Ian, and so on) might have some stories to tell.

As you would also have travelled abroad on occasion, in search of an obscure festival or wayward performer, I'm sure the potential for things going wrong expands exponentially, and there are anecdotes to relay to us, far more interesting than my everyday tales of getting the day of the week wrong or dialling a discontinued telephone number!

PostPosted: Mon Sep 26, 2005 10:41 pm
by Jamie Renton
I'm standing in the middle of a playing field in Barbados. It's my first day there covering the Congaline Festival & I'm feeling lonely & jet lagged.

There's a soca singer on stage who has decided, for reasons known only to her, to perform that MOR ballad that goes something like 'You can take a boat or a plane / I don't mind just as long as you get here' (I don't know what it's called or who it's by, but hopefully you know the one I mean).

I think two things:
1) Why is this singer wasting her rather fine & by the sound of it, church trained voice on such bland pap.
2) The words of this song perfectly express how I feel about my wife & children right now.

If this were a film, I think, at this point I'd turn round to find Sue and the kids standing next to me shouting "Surprise!". I turn with a flourish only to find that standing next to me is .... a big bloke eating a chicken leg

The movies lie to us!

Funny, I had a good time in Barbados in the end. Heard a lot of good music, got to know some nice people, stayed in a very nice hotel. But that moment on the first night is my strongest memory of the trip.

Jamie

Get (outta) here

PostPosted: Tue Sep 27, 2005 8:24 am
by Con Murphy
Jamie Renton wrote:that MOR ballad that goes something like 'You can take a boat or a plane / I don't mind just as long as you get here' (I don't know what it's called or who it's by, but hopefully you know the one I mean).


I believe this is the song that contains the immortal line "You can reach me by caravan/Cross the desert like an Arab man". World music or what? Can anyone beat that lyric for naffness?

A Day or Two in the Life of a Part-time Hack

PostPosted: Tue Sep 27, 2005 11:57 am
by Quintin
Naff for sure, but for the champion naffer you can't beat Manu Chao who manages to excel in 3 languages. In fact the only song he's ever written with non-naff lyrics is "Clandestino".

PostPosted: Tue Sep 27, 2005 7:35 pm
by Jamie Renton
There's a Nick Lowe song that contains the line "She's got a pair of tits that just won't quit" Surely the naffest lyric of all time & I don't actually know what it means.

Jamie

PostPosted: Sat Oct 01, 2005 3:18 pm
by Jamie Renton
"Have some vodka Jamie," said David Bovee, lead singer of Think of One. "I think that would be a good idea" & with that he filled a plastic beer glass right up to the rim. I'm no heavy drinker & the prospect of a beer glass full of neat vodka was a daunting one. But David had proved himself a friendly host, so it would be rude to say no. Beside which it was cold in the tent where ToO had just preformed & we had a long, chilly drive right across Belgium ahead of us, so a few sips wouldn't do any harm & might offer some much needed internal warmth.

I still had the beer glass in my hand when we staggered out of the band's bus in Antwerp an hour or two later. Only now it was empty. Strange, I didn't remember drinking very much on the journey, but there was no denying that all the vodka was now out of the glass & inside of me & I felt (to quote Withnail & I) most unusual.

By the time we'd unloaded ToO's instruments, I felt even colder & just as pissed. I shivered & staggered along behind David & his bandmates in search of some food. Finally we found a traditional local eaterie & tucked into snails & steaks & frites & beer & red wine ... lots of red wine. That was when I realised that I had yet to conduct the interview that I'd travelled since dawn to get.

Thank god for tape recorders. Remember their answers? I don't even remember asking the question. Yet when I listened back to the tape back in London, I was surprised to hear how lucid & at one with the world I sounded. I asked all the right questions, I made sense, I laughed in all the right places.

I'm sure there's a lesson to be learnt from all that, but for the sake of my liver it's probably best not to consider what that might be.

Mine's an Orange Juice

Jamie

PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2005 5:25 pm
by howard male
Hack Moan of the Day!

How distressing it is when you spend hours fine tuning a review only to have it inexplicably mangled by the editor. Here is what I wrote:

But what's most appealing about Amadou and Mariam are the way they integrate their diverse influences...


Here is the Ed's version:

But what's most appealing about Amadou and Mariam are is way they integrate their diverse influences...


For once I'm lost for any further words...

PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2005 6:51 pm
by NormanD
And the correct answer is:
But what's most appealing about Amadou and Mariam is the way they integrate their diverse influences...
Gis a job.....

Norman

PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2005 8:05 pm
by howard male
Of course your absolutely right Norman. Now this strangely re-jiggled sentence makes a lot more sense: Mr Ed was about to substitute my 'are' for his 'is' when someone interupted him, in order to take a Starbucks order, and the next thing you know...

Which leads to my next moan - how can one be expected to spot those inconspicuous errors when a review has to be in at 10.15am, the morning after the concert? The devilish little mistakes are in the details.

PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2005 8:30 pm
by Jamie Renton
howard male wrote:how can one be expected to spot those inconspicuous errors when a review has to be in at 10.15am, the morning after the concert?


That's why I gave up writing live reviews for the dailies soon after I started a couple of years back. I had to get up in the middle of the night, two hours before I went to bed, in order to write the review before I went off to my day job.

You tell that to the young people today & they don't believe a word.

Jamie