Monday, 31 October 2011

A Bit Of A Bill Oddie

I never thought I'd say it but it seems that me and Bill Oddie have something in common.

Now I realise that for much of my intercontinental audience the name of Mr Oddie may be a new one so I guess that first, before I start, it's about time for some history.

Back in the 1970s there was a TV comedy show.  It was much in the same vein as Monty Python - quite anarchic with ideas that were often off the wall: the main difference being that there were only three stars of the show and that each episode told a single story: such stories encompassing such things as London being attacked by a giant cat.

Our hero's of each story were The Goodies (also the title of the show), as portrayed by Graeme Garden, Tim Brook-Taylor and the short beardy one Bill Oddie.

The programme is generally fondly remembered but seldom repeated.  Garden, a qualified Doctor is still very much a writer and performer on panel shows, Brook-Taylor still turns up from time to time and Oddie...well...

Bill got into birdwatching and then that got him into regular work on Springwatch (live nature watch during the spring), Autumnwatch (similar during the autumn) and a variety of other shows.

But the reason that I mention that he and I have something in common is for a show a couple of years ago where various celebrities learned to play an instrument in a short period of time.

Child star and TV presenter Aled Jones learned the drums, comedian Frank Skinner learned the banjo and Bill....

Well Bill had always wanted to be a musician - and had spurred his fellow Goodies onto several chart toppers - but right from the start his teacher on the programme encountered problems, because our Bill wasn't prepared to put the work in to get his chords sounding how they should sound.

Not because he was lazy or couldn't be bothered, but because he felt that he had reached a level where he could achieve the sound that was sufficient for what he wanted to do.  Yes the chords were a bit muddy, no he was not suddenly Dave Gilmore - not even Dave's long lost milk float driving brother Roger - but it was enough for him to get a tune out and for the average listener not to know the difference.

And the reason I feel that I am akin to Mr Oddie is related to my saxophone. OK - I know that my high notes still need a lot of work and I'm prepared to do that - also my fingerwork could do with some excercise - but the thing that I'm struggling to give a jot about is playing a piece of music exactly how it is written.

For a start written music only tells me so much - I don't understand it sufficiently to know instinctively when there is an accent or a short or long note and if I play against the pre-recorded saxophone line its immediately obvious that my notes are too long, short, soon, late - whatever. 

But half the time I feel - so what?

I can still keep to time with the beat without being precisely to what is written and have no real intention of playing with an orchestra where it would be important to play exactly what is written - i'd rather take the piece of music and be able to a) play the music in a way that is pleasing to me and b) just good enough to fool the average listener.

If, in the privacy of my own spare bedroom, my notes are not precicely how they are written then does it matter?  Is it more important to put a bit of feeling and personalisation into a piece than to be a mindless automaton just doing what is put in front of me?

True - given 8 hours free time a day to practice I could probably get notes exactly how they are supposed to be played, but no amount of practice is going to make me Courtney Pine (1)

If I ever were to play my saxophone to a live audience then it would, most likely, be part of a blues band and I'm guessing, that much like the guitar solo, I would probably be able to get away with a few overly short, long or non-specifically played notes without too much maiming of the ears. 

Still - I guess that whether I want to be the next Courtney Pine, John Coltraine, Charlie Parker or, as the case may be, not - I do need to go through the pain of playing it how it's written if I want to be good enough to be happy when playing a piece.

In the end I guess it's the same as txt spk - yes it's ok to break the rules, but I think it's important that you should understand what they are first before you do so.

(1) I'm not a great lover of jazz music so shall have to interject a reference that applies more to my kind of music.  100s of guitarists practice for 8 hours a day and, no doubt, 100s of them are very, very good - but only one in a million can be Eric Clapton levels of good no matter how much you practice.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Is The &*^% Working Now? (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps)

 So a few weeks ago my good friend Argent was kind enough to let me have the use of one of her old computers for recording purposes.  This was excellent timing as I had recently got rid of all my old machines to make space for said activity, only to find out that my only remaining computer was not powerful enough to do the job.

But of course nothing ever runs smoothly, particularly where computers are involved.  Yes they may be the future of mankind, but if that is so then the future of mankind is going to be mostly spent with us talking to one another whilst lit by an unhealthy glow whether it be from a mobile phone, pad or pc and swearing profusely at the surely deliberately awkward way of getting the damn things to do anything that you couldn't do in half the time if only you had been taught stuff like adding up and spelling at school rather than just being told to ask the sodding computer in the first place.

OK, OK, breathe slowly...

So - the first problem was finding the software for the plug in that would allow me to connect to the internet.  This was not where it should have been - ie with all the other software.  Most of my stuff is currently in boxes whilst it takes a slow but steady trip to charity shops.  This is the same battle that we all face with entropy on an ongoing basis - no matter how much junk we clear away we still find our houses and lives full of yet more stuff.

After two days of trawling through boxes I eventually remembered that I had put all my old mobile phones into a box ready to be destroyed or re-sold and looked in there on the off chance - lo and behold...

So - the second problem was anti-virus.  I spent a good half an hour talking on the internet to some chap in India explaining that yes, I was aware that my copy of the anti-virus was already on two machines but that I felt strongly that this fact was negated by the equally persuasive fact that both machines were now in bits at the local tip.  Finally he agreed to give me a 30 day trial period of grace that would take me up to when the AV was due to be renewed anyway.

Next issue - no sound.  Easily solved this one, and an excuse to pop around to Argent's and have a practice whilst the drivers loaded.

And then there was the issue of the package itself - now for those that don't know there are now a myriad of ways to record oneself at home if one so wishes.  No longer do you have to sit with two seperate tape players playing back your first recording loudly whilst singing along to the next (as my father was wont to do when I was a kid - to the point where there would be a whole choir of fathers claiming tunefully that Lloyd George knew their father)

Nor does one need to invest hundreds of pounds in microphones and big spooling tape machines, or decks of recording paraphernalia (although clearly when I win the lottery...)

Packages like Q-Base (a professional standard PC based recorder) can be bought in truncated form for £50, the i-pad comes with a small version of Garage Band on it (which has been famously used by several musicians of late for entire albums) - and, for those of us on a budget - there is Audacity.

Audacity isn't really designed for music recording - it's more aimed at people making jingles, or radio shows, so it lacks some of the mixing finesse of the other packages, but it does have one major advantage - it's totally free, and quite frankly its facilities are more than sufficient for the likes of me.

The first problem I encountered was that there was a significant delay between playing the sound and hearing the sound on Audacity.  Also some sounds seemed to be slowing down as I went - which meant that when it came to adding tracks and then additional tracks it was almost impossible.  After yet more trawling around the internet and a brief trip to Unhelpful Music (Unhelpful Music are our only local music shop - unless you are a guitarist and have a guitar related question they are less use than a chocolate Tea-pot on the grounds that at least you can still eat some of the melted chocolate afterwards) I established that what I needed was a low latency sound card (whatever one of those may be)

As the price of this was more than the current value of the computer I decided that a viable alternative was just to switch off the "playback as you record" option, provided i could find a way to hear the sound through the PC as i went. 

This immediately solved one problem and caused another - i could hear myself perfectly when i plugged in the microphone, but not when i plugged the guitar into exactly the same slot.  I went to the shop and bought a new adapter - no difference.  Eventually, and quite by accident, i discovered that plugging the instrument half-way into the slot solved the problem, indicating the slot itself might be faulty (why it works perfectly well with the microphone but nothing else remains a mystery)

Having solved this I then ran into one final problem - converting the Audacity file into MP3 format.  No matter how many times I downloaded the converter from the directed link it refused to work.  i uninstalled the converter, uninstalled Audacity and went back to a previous version - no effect.  Eventually, and after yet more trawling of FAQs I found someone who had downloaded exactly the same decoder, only via a different link and then moved the files to a different folder

And lo and behold, we have music...

Only things left to do now are to try re-installing the more up to date version of Audacity and see if it will run with my working coder and secondly, and more importantly, find a way of recording my saxophone so that it doesn't sound like a constipated Gnat. 

  Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps by Don't Feed The Pixies

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Get This Party Started (Willow Manor Ball)

 So it seems that over at Willow Manor they’re having something of an Ocktoberfest and are inviting everyone who wants to participate to throw their own individual party, all on Wednesday 12th October, or thereabouts.

And despite the fact that you will always recognize me at parties by the fact that I’m the one sitting in a corner constantly checking their watch, I’ve decided to present an invite and some ideas of what will be happening at MY idea of a party (with tongue ever so slightly in cheek) – along with a pome I’ve previously published on this blog.

Casual - None of this Smart-Casual nonsense: no one really knows what that means anyway. Jeans, trainers, t-shirt – or whatever you feel comfortable in. Prize for best costume will be that you will be locked in one of the cells until you are prepared to dress normally.

Cheese, Sausage, Pineapple – served on cocktail sticks (has to be done)
Crudite – no idea what one is or how you cook it, but it looks impressive on a menu (joke – I was once attacked by a particularly large Crudite)
Quiche (see brackets for Cheese on stick)
Sausage Rolls (slightly singed)
Lobster Thermidore in a mornet sauce
Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans and Spam

Buffet menu from favourite Indian Restaurant (yum, yum, yum and indeed yum)

Served 80% vegetarian to placate the Celery Crunchers and ensure that the Meat eaters don’t eat all the meat plus all the veggie food



BB King and his all star band Ft Eric Clapton, Roy Orbison, Bruce Springsteen
Elvis Presley will attend later, time permitting
Batman and Robin will be dancing the Batusi

Maybe they’ll let me join in with the band – I’d settle for rhythm guitar, maybe a solo somewhere – or to join in on saxophone

NO Dexy’s Midnight Runners, no ABBA, no Grease megamix and DEFINITELY no Macarena

Persons found sitting in a line on the dance floor and pretending to row to “oops, upside your head” will be forcibly ejected

Entertainment from Mr Saxman, my music teacher.  Quite frankly I’d be quite happy spending the evening listening to him play – damn, but he’s good.

From 8:30pm until 11:30pm – bearing in mind it’s a school night.

Or maybe I’d just go to whichever party these guys wrote that song about… (scroll down past the video for the poem)

Get This Party Started

At the end of the world disco party
The crowd splits to two different rooms
The believers in one quietly praying
Whilst Satan keeps all the best tunes

With the Judgement day finally over
They wait for the main star to appear
From the back of his private stretch limo
And finally make his plan clear

The lights dim, the music starts playing
The smoke machine belches a haze
And in white suit and medallion God enters
Still moving in mysterious ways

- we couldn't finish a post about parties without mentioning possibly the second worst song of all time.  Worst being "Stop The Cavalry" by the same artist - 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Coffee Culture

Let’s face it: if you ever actually met any of the characters from Friends you’d probably hate their guts.

Only in Sit-Com land can you meet characters who are so totally self-obsessed, contribute less to society and whose problems are so insignificant that they can be solved in half an hour.

Just take a look at them: Rachel - A Prom Queen who adapted to life without Daddy’s credit card by getting a high flying job in fashion (with no qualifications, training or experience mind you), Monica – a cleanliness obsessed chef in a fancy restaurant where a starter costs a weeks wages, Phoebe – an occasional masseuse and not-so-great musician, Joey – a permanently out of work actor, Ross – a not-so-popular with his students lecturer and Chandler – a whatever the hell it is that Chandler does.

And to be fair a) I have probably watched every episode of Friends at least twice and would have to admit under torture to quite liking it and b) the problem is generic across the whole of the genre and not purely limited to Friends: even the greats like Fawlty Towers rely on a set of characters that would, in reality, soon be consigned to some form of institution for the socially inept.

However the reason I picked Friends for special attention was because of what they represented. Perhaps more than any other sit-com of the last few years the cast of Friends are reflective of our obsession with social climbing.

This is one of the reasons that places like Starbuck’s, Costa and the like are so successful. Let’s face it: before the coffee house came along we were all happy to go to our local Greasy Spoon CafĂ© and pay 40 pence or so for a cup of tea with bits of limescale floating in the top (for added flavour you understand) and half the contents served in the saucer.

Then the big coffee houses came along and realised that what they were selling was not actually coffee, but aspirations: and that with the right setting they could easily charge three pounds for a cup of hot coffee flavoured milk.

People wanted to go somewhere where they could talk quietly to their friends and not be drowned out by music, or to read the newspaper before going to work – they wanted the big apartments, no real problems and easy lifestyle of the people they saw on TV – people like they saw in Sitcoms and on dramas.

Which is why, in turn, the cast of Friends – bent on selling us this ideal for life – spent so much time hogging the sofa at Central Perk. We aspired to be there in their easy lives, never seeming to actually have to go to work, never having any real problems – able to suddenly drop everything and go to the Bahamas

The trend for this new way of living has become so successful that I can immediately think of 6 Starbuck’s and 4-5 Costas all based within a 10 mile radius. Even that old bastion of social gathering, the Public House, has had to resort to trying to sell coffee (albeit on beer soaked tables) to get us back.

Why do I spend so much of my life regretting that I am unable to live this life? Well, actually I don’t really – but I am certainly aware that such a lifestyle exists, just outside of my financial range. Let’s face it, and as Douglas Adams once said, many of this planet’s problems are caused by the movement of small pieces of paper (or, increasingly, plastic cards). Wouldn’t it be better to forget these aspirations and be happy with our lot? Is such a thing even possible today?  We as a society have somehow bought into the idea that this way of life is somehow our right and allowed ourselves to become miserable and disgruntled due to our lack of ability to claim it.

Still, I can’t help that feel that even with all of this the coffee shops are missing out on a trick: one that Friends showed us on almost a weekly basis.

Just once, when I walk into a coffee shop I would like to see a corner cleared of tables and a little stage erected. On that stage I would like to see someone sitting with an acoustic guitar, singing gentle songs.

If one of them is “Smelly Cat” that would definitely be a bonus

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cheese Rap

I tried to write a rap - and since I am in no way shape or form built to perform Rap (I'm not so much Street as Cul-de-sac) I tried to think of a subject as un-Gangsta as I could...

(NB if you're a Beastie Boys fan try shouting the last word of each line for added effect)

I was sitting on my own, flicking on the TV
But something from the fridge kept a callin me
Da Red Leicester block just kept calling me back
If i couldn't get my cheese i'd have to turn to crack

So I tried to lay it down for fermented milk
Maybe just Gruyere, or something of that ilk
Full flavor in da house, for that i still yearn
maybe with a rind or fresh from the churn

Gimme cheese, give me what i need, white lightning, cheese gimme cheese, gimme what i need
Gimme cheese, give me what i need, white lightning, cheese gimme cheese, gimme what i need

Still i tried to turn away, but it was way too near
All that tempting Danish Blue and fragrant Paneer
Leerdamer is my weakness and the Edam's makes me whinny
But nothing can replace the Dorset Blue Vinney

Yes there is no place right now that i would rather be
than sat here with a drink and a slice of Brie
Yes a lack of calcium can leave me way too pale
If i cant get my cranberries stuffed into Wensleydale

So listen to tha' rhymes that'll leave you illin
Till i get my slice of cheese there will be no chillin'
You can get it from the dairy at the corner shop
So come and join along with some Hereford Hop
Hop, h-h-h-op, Hereford Hop
Hop, h-h-h-op, Hereford Hop