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Anatomy of a Review: Tony Allen at Cargo

PostPosted: Wed Feb 22, 2006 5:48 pm
by howard male
Anatomy of a Review: Tony Allen at Cargo

Yes I know - it's only tomorrow's fish and chip papers, yet it's hard to describe the frustration of having ones carefully honed review have 50-odd words trimmed from it. After all, I'd spent over two hours being my own editor, tightening it up from a bloated 750 words to a lean, mean 500. Obviously sometimes it's anticipated: Metro actually seem to ask for 130 just so they can have the fun of knocking it down to 110 - almost every time!

But as I'd had an e-mail from The Indy's editor the day before saying, "Excellent review." I was fairly confident it would run - but for the odd punctuation error - pretty much as I'd written it.

Now this isn't an ego thing you understand (well not much of one, anyway) it's a professional pride thing, and a knowing-other-world-music-hacks-might-be-reading-this thing. For when I described Yinka Davies as having "the easy grace and mile-wide smile of Diana Ross combined with the slightly scary, histrionic presence of a Russell Harty-rattled Grace Jones." I felt I'd pretty much summed up her stage persona, as she crooned jazzily one minute and ranted theatrically the next. However when that line got cleaved in half, and the Grace Jones bit was discarded, it's no longer a description of Yinka Davies, it's a description of a would-be Diana Ross! Perhaps the Russell Harty reference was thought to be too outdated for the ever-younger readership a broadsheet like the Indy is trying to attract. Well, I think carefully before using such references, and it was only because that Harty clip is still in constant circulation on TV, that I decided it would work.

We also got that Tony "mumbled", not that he mumbled in a "typically laidback and barely audible manner" which told you a little more about the man's persona. Then there was the line about the "typically inflexible and, let's face it, racist immigration department" gone - read into that what you will. And finally my summing up - which was such a sweet moment of the concert - was no where to be seen:

"The nine piece end with a charming, arms-linked series of synchronised bows in the theatrical manner, and the audience leave thrilled to have seen the man who co-created a musical genre, still making fresh and invigorating music."

There's no question in my mind that the cuts were made due to last-minute space restrictions. I also have no doubt I'd have been just as pissed off if other lines had been removed. The fact is I'm just a grumpy old perfectionist, and I'm just going to have to get used to not being so precious. I'd be interested to hear if any other writers have grieved over mutilated copy.

But anyway, you forum folk get to find out - for what it's worth - exactly what I thought, rather than approximately what I thought, of Tony Allen and his band - you luck people!

Tony Allen at Cargo
4 stars

We're a couple of songs into the show and the legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen mumbles in a typically laidback and barely audible manner, "I've gone there to bring it back here." Fortunately some of the audience seem to understand what this Confucius-like pronouncement means, and a small cheer erupts. But actually it wasn't 100% accurate: although Allen went back to Nigeria to record his excellent new album 'Lagos No Shaking' with Nigerian musicians, unfortunately, because of a typically inflexible and, let's face it, racist immigration department, only two of the musicians involved in the recording were allowed into the UK to perform at this concert. So expectations aren't as high as they might be for the makeshift band put together to try to recreate that unique Lagos alchemy tonight.

However, after a rather low-key start, with a trumpet-led instrumental, things start to warm up with the appearance on stage of the first of Allen's Lagos team who managed to get through customs; Fatai Rolling Dollar. The 76 year old palm wine singer is full of energy on the slow, tough funk of "Ise Nla", comfortable and relaxed as he playfully mimes karate chops between vocal lines. Next on is the second ace up Allen's sleeve: the young Yoruba singer Yinka Davies. She has the easy grace and mile-wide smile of Diana Ross combined with the slightly scary, histrionic presence of a Russell Harty-rattled Grace Jones. But she's what this band needs, even managing to get some call-and-response responses from this reserved London crowd on the anthemic "Lasun."

But what of Allen himself? Well, expecting the firing-on-all-cylinders fierceness that drove Fela Kuti's band between 64 and 78 to be repeated tonight, would of course be ridiculous - legend has it that when Allen left Kuti it took five drummers to kick up a comparable racket. But Allen runs a different kind of outfit these days. Solo projects have leant towards a dubbier more spacious vibe; even a kind of cubist deconsruction of Afrobeat on his 1999 album, 'Black Voices'. And now this latest project - particularly in its live manifestation - is essentially an Afrobeat jazz band: songs effortlessly unwind; soloists get their spots, and Allen simply collapses the groove when he decides he's had enough. During the quieter moments his hands barely hold the sticks which are played from the wrist - sometimes merely tickling the snare or drawing a whisper from the ride symbol. And then suddenly they'll be a thunder of toms and we're back into a chorus. The rest of the musicians relax into each groove, rather than being intent on chasing it, or driving it forward. This approach is reflected in tonight's head-nodding audience who seem blissfully happy without ever actually boogying on down.

The nine piece end with a charming, arms-linked series of synchronised bows in the theatrical manner, and the audience leave thrilled to have seen the man who co-created a musical genre, still making fresh and invigorating music.

Music Journalism Blues

PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 12:04 am
by Adam Blake
It's brutal isn't it? That's why I quit. What finally did it for me was when the (then) new editor of Music Week actually started inserting sentences into my reviews that I hadn't written. The guy seemed to know nothing about music at all. He'd come from a media background (of course) specializing in advertising (what else?) When I complained most bitterly to my colleagues I was told that, because he was new, he felt he had to make his presence felt.

I think it was the last time I wrote anything for them.

It was a shame but I'd had a good run. Highpoint was interviewing John Lee Hooker and having him sing down the phone to me. But I was never cut out for journalism. Maybe you aren't either! Being able to stomach your finely-wrought prose being butchered is just part of the deal. In the present case I would say that your piece was edited for political, cultural and logistical reasons. Obviously the remark about racist immigration was considered inappropriate in the context of a gig review. Most people under 35 wouldn't understand the Grace Jones-Russell Harty reference, even if they knew who they were, and if you re-read your piece from the point of view of a hassled and stressed out sub-editor who has to chop chunks out of a piece he or she has no particular interest in, then the "mumbling" excision and the axing of the last sentence is logical in that the piece still makes sense without them.

The best piece of advice I ever got as a journalist was from my first and by far best editor, Dave Laing. He told me that if I removed the bit I liked the best and the piece still made sense, then it was probably OK and I could put it back in. But the chances were good that I had, consciously or not, written the piece AROUND the bit I liked the best and that was not OK. It's not your writing, it's what you're writing about. Tough, huh? But true. That's probably why I chucked it in and only seem to flex my writing muscles here these days!

Re: Music Journalism Blues

PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 10:02 am
by Con Murphy
Adam Blake wrote:Most people under 35 wouldn't understand the Grace Jones-Russell Harty reference,

Or maybe like me the editor reads too many football reports and read 'rattled' as meaning 'frightened' (eg "Del Horno, clearly rattled by the pace and skill of Messi, clattered into the forward like an overwrought rhino" - sorry Alan!). Arguably, Harty was the one who was rattled in that context. FWIW, Howard, I had seen the review in The Independent before you posted about it, and thought it read very well anyway.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 10:51 am
by howard male
Thanks for the insightful advice, Adam. I'll certainly get used to the brutality - after all, it's relative brutality when one considers the atrocities being dished out to other people around the planet! We artists are so precious.

As I said, I'm already taking it on the chin most of the time, and barely even wince now at the extraction's made every week to my Metro reviews: they clearly deliberately ask for more words than they need so they can then impose the 'house style' onto everything - so how can one take it personally? It's just resulted on me spending a little less time on those reviews and trying to be less 'clever' with them.

I got my bolshy writers aggression out of my system with my first official hiring when I was contributing to an American on-line music mag called Stylus. The editor would take anything I sent him and do the most peculiar syntactical and grammatical cubist reshuffle on it, resulting in me staring at my unrecognisable piece in utter bewilderment - it would literally not make sense anymore! Then one day he simply wrote to me saying that I couldn't write, and that they no longer required anything more from me. So I wrote back and told him (quite politely believe it or not) that it was he in fact that couldn't read, and that perhaps he should spend some time reading some proper literature rather than just trendy music journalism. Needless to say I never heard back from him - he must have just thought - typical arrogant limey!

But I was initial quite shaken by the bluntness of his accusation: perhaps I couldn't write? The Arts is the easiest place to remain in a state of blissful ignorance of the level of ones abilities or lack of them. In fact it's a delusionist's paradise! Just look at American Idol and you'll see what I mean.

But as a painter, then songwriter, and now writer I've spent my whole life in the un-comfort zone with only the occasional, "You're doing the right thing - keep at it!", bolstering up my own fragile sense of self worth.

And Con. Yes the review was at least well edited and that did give me some consolation.

PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 7:12 pm
by jayne
I’m not subject to the egos and caprice of sub-editors, but I’m sure you’ll agree that you’re a sitting target for their excisions. They would be without a job if it wasn’t for folk like you. It goes with your job. Making omelettes/breaking eggs…

Why’d ya think they’re called hacks? (Just thought I’d keep up the football reference, Con.)

Chin up!

Enjoyed your review, by the way.


PostPosted: Thu Feb 23, 2006 8:09 pm
by ritchie
Staying with the football theme, I think all reports should be in the style of Stuart Hall or perhaps Alan Bennet or even one of the 'chaps' from the fast show.... yes that's it just think of the wear on the keyboard it would save...

aah yes ...drums....Ha! Diana,Russell, never ... what? Good though. thunder, toms, nine! mmmmm yes bliss.

Go on go for it Howard, cultivate a new style of review, honestly you could end up being a right cult figure.