Saturday, April 18, 2020

"Lock the gates, Goofy, take my hand and lead me through the World of Self"

I've been away, so I'll start with the easy stuff. Here is some news from Hat Mansions - now known as Dystopia Cottages.

Last November I gave away my body...(thank you, but I've heard all the jokes about not being able to raise the bus fare home). I'll get back to that.
I also had to leave my lovely home in the mill as the landlady wanted to sell it. So I moved, amassed a squillion boxes of 'stuff', did my back in - and then I and my boxes got totally flooded out. And now, of course, like many of you, I am self soddingly isolated on my post flood replacement sofa. What's that throw-away line....."it never rains but"..?

 - well everything is weird right now - this fluent run of weird events reminded me of my long gone mother.....which is, in itself, pretty weird...

Not infrequently, when she was alive, vigorously bolshy and very difficult (all family traits), my mother regularly sat, knitting very noisily, in her favourite chair in the corner of the room and made doom-laden announcements. From what I have learned since, many of your mothers did the very same and, for all I know, are still doing it.

Her announcements were usually unprovoked, came from nowhere whilst flourishing a McVities Rich Tea Biscuit and were uttered in a way that only a fear-free imbecile would consider contradicting. “I never liked him anyway, he was probably a communist”; “As for the piano-playing, it will end in tears”; “He had that flashy American car, so what did you expect?” and “I don't see why she always has to dress like a gypsy”.....

Her scary needle-clicking came back to me as one of her most frequent and most assertive pronouncements - on the subject of tragedies, disasters, deaths and cut fingers...”you know these things always come in threes don't you”.  It never occurred to anyone in earshot that this possibly might not be true. On the contrary, you then spent an inordinate amount of time pondering what the next disaster hurtling round the bend might be. We weren't quite in 'we are all doomed' territory but, if you were smart you slept with one eye open....

As you can see, I have been, literally, up to the top of my green wellington boots in 'calamities' recently and I really have stopped counting past three. However, as yet, for unknown reasons, I seem to be able to brush them away with some 'tis but a scratch' bravura and independent cussedness. If you have spent any time in hospital, you quickly understand that there is always someone worse off than you and they are dealing with it all with great dignity, cheerfulness and courage. That certainly raises your personal game. Take that on board. There is a lot of that around at the moment.

The pain and stealth of the current pandemic have insinuated their dark fingers into every corner of our lives. Like many of you, I have lost people and been confronted with that cheerless raised hand that will not allow you to give them a decent, dignified and perhaps joyous and celebratory funeral. It is clear that no one has the magic invisibility cloak that will allow you to sneak out without being spotted. This foe is ruthless, it doesn't care about your situation – you or anyone else.

Freelancers lose their clients and future incomes lists at a stroke. If your life involves mobility to earn, that has disappeared. If you need to sell something to a customer face to face from your shop, sorry, think again. Supply lines are shot to pieces and may never recover. Loved ones are now just flickering untouchable images on a tiny screen.

In our musical landscape, incomes have disappeared overnight; access to that oxygen of existence, the live performance, has evaporated; two years work on a new music launch has almost died at birth; hours, days and weeks spent crafting a complicated detailed tour have turned to sand; small, medium and large festival and events teams have been confronted with the emotional and financial trauma of skidding to a halt with not much chance of the event being suddenly resuscitated in the near future. For the lone musical artist/creator that old joke about starving in a garret has suddenly become seriously unfunny....

But it has been fascinating watching the music world and its talented inhabitants standing up and punching this unwelcome marauder straight between the eyes. From huge and inspired virtual digital festivals to the solo artist in their front-room or bed-sit, the imaginative and resourceful response has been hugely impressive. The Creative Virus has spectacularly caught fire throughout the community - whether you are just starting out alone and exist from gig to gig or you are long time professionals with some support, the challenge gauntlet has been picked up and everyone is running with it. A wonderful alternative and strange new world has been invented and long may it exist. Audiences have been acquired from their armchairs and beds; the tip-jar and the trickle-down merchandise pages have become a generous currency and a real, albeit digital life-line.

Musicians are working together as never before. New artists have suddenly found access to hundreds of new fans and the often quite barmy business of performing to a silent audience on a dodgy internet connection has produced some wonderful characters and a huge warmth from those watching their formerly undiscovered talents. That band or artist that you have followed since their shaky start all those years ago are now on their way to being known by Absolutely Everybody...

It is no fun, nor is it funny. But we know that the togetherness that has come from this is a Powerful Force For Good. Everyone knows that eventually it will be over and musicians in particular have learned that they are not alone. It is certainly not 'just a scratch' and many will be hurt and damaged. However, self-isolation does not mean, as Warren Zevon (who I quoted above) points out, that you have to live in a lonely mentally-stressed menagerie of your own creation. You have friends, admirers, an audience – and they are not going to go away. Embrace them.

Oh, yes, actually I have given my body away – to the Leeds University School of Medicine. It was a decision I was very comfortable with – to make a contribution that may, one day, make a difference. Apparently they don't get enough such donations and were very appreciative. I'm sure my 'stuff comes in threes' mother would have had a robust view on that. Sadly it does mean that there won't be a big rumbustious funeral for my musician friends to attend...but given what is going on right now, that will indeed be 'just a scratch'....

Stay Safe My Friends. Keep on Keeping on...
Pip Pip!

The Hat

Wednesday, September 4, 2019


  What is this Blues-Rock thing and why is it taking over the World?  
(Asking for a Friend.)

Not that long ago Blues-Rock hadn't been invented. Nowadays, like a particularly virulent outbreak of measles, everyone who is anyone has caught it and it seems to be affecting the brains of musicians and their fans everywhere. You cannot get a rucksack and a tent together in one place these days unless you have your BR iD card with you.

Blues Rock now even has its own 'Official' Facebook page. What do you find there? Every band you have ever (or never) heard of simply using the page as yet another publicity outlet. Who is on their cover photo? That famous Rock Star Alexis Korner, FFS! If you read their rubbish 'About' notes you discover that “it's all about The Blues”.... Oh No It Isn't!

Want to start a band and have no idea what to play? Join the BR club. Wanna play recycled fast shit that gives the guitarist space to flash his credentials? Rock crazy but wanna play some slow stuff? Sign here. Not very good at playing slow stuff, with feeling, passion, atmosphere and skill? is bound to have an “app” that will fit into your rock-effects box. Tick those boxes? Then, you can join the other six sodding million 'blues rock' bands currently Clogging Up Festivals and Pubs all over the UK. I suspect by now that there are bands out there who even specialise in 'blues-rock covers' so that they can dress up as anyone in blues or rock history and twirl a mic stand - which will, of course, make them even better musicians....
I am turning into a Confused Outsider but I still have lucid moments when I continue to believe that a rock band is not a blues band. Just call yourself a band for heaven's sake. Lord, Please Deliver me from This Pestilence.

What's it all about then? I am getting as Mad as Hell I can tell you, and soon I am going start banging my saucepans on the windowsill which, by the way, is one of the things they do to great effect in Europe when they think stuff is total shit.......

There was a time, not too far distant, where there were many fine rock bands. I mean really good talented bands that could shake a building with their grooves and would get the audience on their feet. They wrote a huge stack of original stuff and often refined their music to its most elemental kick-arse basics. Chuck and Keef have been known to fight about it. Some picked up 'rock 'n roll' and ran with it; Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard fought with everybody about who was The Killer; some just polished the rock bit and invested in some show-boating clothes and some just sneaked off to Rockabilly Land where fans could both rock and wear gelled hair and starched petticoats. Crikey we all sure knew where we stood with Big Rock Bands. Big hair, tight trousers and a couple of pantechnicons packed with Marshalls and roadies was a pretty clear statement of intent.

Now don't misunderstand me. I know that there are great bands out there who don't use that handy naming device and still sell-out gigs wherever they go. There are thousands of bands who are just bands and they rock. (Some readers are going to be really pissed off that I am not naming any of their bands - my insurance won't cover the consequences). 

I think my current problem lies with the need that many music fans have of always trying to fit music into boxes or genres (and blues fans are one of the worst at this insistence). Not long ago The Hat wrote a piece about this box-labelling disease and gave a few examples of how stupid and pointless it is. (it's here for you to read again). My contention is that bands labelling themselves thus these days seldom give anything but a token nod to the blues – and blues fans who go to these gigs tend to go in order to be rocked off their arses rather than to listen to any musical revelations involving the blues.
Why oh Why would you want to be boxed anyway?

Of course, many blues aficionados don't need or want to be given a ridiculous catch-all title. I kinda like the 'broad church' idea, which covers everything from purist and mainstream to the independent tricky make-you-think edgy fringe. Why would you want to box these musicians – where do you put the flutes, the loops and the cigar boxes, the saxophones and those occasional wonderful and original left field vocals? The idea of one or more of these popping up as a 'blues rock' band headliner is a bit remote. Yeah, I know that some rock bands can and do make that occasional jump (don't write and tell me who they are – I already know) but they are few and far between. If it happened regularly, the sound of clapping would be quickly replaced by the noise of some resounding WhatTheFuck/Where's The Rock ?' Blues fans meanwhile can stay comfortable in the arms of their 'broad church' where the mad interesting creative independents can start a punch-up with the blues heritage traditionalists and everybody knows where they stand.

Ok. Feel free to disagree but The Hat is not convinced that there is such a thing as 'Blues-Rock' any more than my Dad's ceilidh violin was folk-jive-blues-rock. 
Read My Lips...They are not the bleeding Blues Messiahs...they are just a Rock Band.   
It is just a convenient name for a Rock Band that occasionally plays a slow blues number to show their fans that they can do other stuff. Stopping off mid-set for yet another bendy string 'I'd rather go blind' as a showy guitar solo doesn't turn a rock band into a blues-rock band. Honest, guv, I actually quite like some bands that call themselves a blues-rock band. I just think that the name is a pointless, catch-all,  misleading and a confusing pox on the music scene that should be extinguished - before it takes over the whole world and every band is an Effing Blues Rock Band. Time we put on our yellow vests, trouser some paving stones and petition someone....
Pip Pip!
The Blues Man in The Hat

(Apologies if any blues-rock fans have been upset in the making of this blog)

Friday, July 26, 2019

The True Confessions of a Musician and His Shrinking Stuff

Stand Up. My name is (fill in gap). I am a Stuff Collector. I am here because I am a reforming Addict. There was A Successful Intervention over the double figure collection of guitars and pretty pedals and now I am working on other aspects of my habit.

The Hat is someone who is regarded by his long-suffering offspring as the World Champion of Keeping Pointless Stuff; the Emperor of the Universe of Never Throw Anything Away That might be Useful One Day and the Long Serving Chairman of the Committee that looks after things that can Never Be Re-cycled - until he, personally, has finally been rolled up and smoked - and then he won't know anything about it. I have a 'man drawer' the size of your local pub. I tell everybody who will listen that They Just Don't Understand Me.

However, to cut, painfully, to the chase. I recently gave away my metres high stacks of sheet music. Trust Me. It was not easy. Of course, I had to check it all very carefully, page by page – well, you would, wouldn't you?

Everything from P.J.Proby's version of 'Somewhere' to Purcell and Chopin via The Beatles, The Stones, Brubeck, Lonnie Donegan, Don Lang and his Frantic Five stopping off briefly for my love affairs with Fats Domino. Django, Errol Garner and Nat King Cole. Ballads, Boogie, Ragtime and loads and loads of Unadulterated Popular Rubbish from The Sweet to Peters Sarstedt, Skellern and Gabriel.
Two pages for two shillings, a whole musical for three and sixpence. My Band Life in a mountain-size pile of pages. Oh, Oh, Oklahoma! Unplayable Czerny exercise scales, for god's sake! Many dog-eared memories. Some tear-stained and Stolichnaya spotted, felt-pen annotated and many flecked with the telephone numbers of amazingly beautiful people I will never see again.

For a while, these tattered pages were my passport to Having Fun. You bought the proper notes, you modified them, of course, you stored them in memory-ville and then you put the pages away for when they shouted “do you know?” actually did. Being a Top Ten Pop Maestro at a weekly village hall 'hop' was the only way of getting paid. If you couldn't do 'The Hits' you were stuffed. The Trad Jazz, Jive and Rock and Roll gigs were rather different. Dance, keep dancing.....made-up Jerry Lee and Little Richard. Get your foot up on to the keyboard, a wet comb through your hair, too tight trousers...and the night was yours. You owned it Dude.  Life Changes but now they shout FreeBird.

However, I am not here to tell you about the days when you could buy bread and dripping for tuppence and always got a farthing in your change - others do that better than me – but to wonder aloud about the things that you and I found in our tottering music towers. First, I wonder if you have ever stumbled on your old set lists? It is a surreal experience....did you actually play that? what on earth is that 'rumba-numba'? what is this bit called 'encore'? We actually had encores? My set lists were often written out by the drummer, (so they must be accurate)...although I did wonder about that "solo bit while he fucks around” number that cropped up regularly...
Yeah...set lists. I can hear you all nodding at the memory.
Then there are the carefully handwritten “chord books” inherited from the thirty-six bar break piano men from the trad era. Everything, and I mean Everything, was written down there. One of those precious volumes even had 'this is a good place to start' inscribed in it by someone who used to be quite famous.
Finally, the discovery that really floated my boat was finding a cache of staved manuscript pads and paper. Real handwritten music and lyrics, some of it transposed adaptations, much of it original. A mass of black-inked love full of heavily underlined crescendo markings, italian short words and those wiggly clef things. These pages were a sort of homage to my music teacher Maureen who struggled with my moods and potential for years but left me with that single wondrous mantra.....There is nothing like A Clean Page, a Pen and an Unplugged Imagination.. These days you can push a button on your computer and it offers you 'think bites'..

So now we have got to the heart of the matter. I didn't really need that mountain of music any more than I needed that growth of guitars. I have gone without missing them and I haven't died or lost a vital organ. There is always the internet. There are always the charity shops. There is always e-bay. I can replace everything. Is this the look of a sad broken ex-stuff man? Given time, I can replace everything. I can replace everything....I can replace.....I can.

You can sit down now. Meanwhile, I am here to help if you have people in your life who just don't understand the need for stuff....

Pip Pip!
The Blues Man in The Hat

Monday, April 8, 2019

"No no!   'E's just resting.."

Gosh! I recall that we started out together in 2011, when my hat still had lead in its pencil. However, it is now over a year since I wrote my last words about nothing significant or offered up an opionated music review. It is time I offered you Blog and Review Masochists an explanation for my sudden disappearance so long ago. Since then I have mainly confined my musings to checking the racing odds, meandering the Museum of My Life and shouting at bad shit on the television.

Some of you will know that I am of an age where one's list of colleagues slowly shortens as they fall off their perches or forget your name as Dr Alz closes in on them. Even old enough to have danced with your mother at The 100 Club. As I move nearer the front of the queue, as you would expect, I am quite ready for my turn. The empty chasms left in the Blues World by the sad, sudden and recent deaths of the hugely talented Jules Fothergill and Dave Raven have also given me pause for thought.

Curiously, I have had a close relationship with the Black Inevitability of it all since I was young – I had my funeral service planned (with music!) since my twenties – so you could say I am well prepared and have been on Stand-By for decades. You will understand therefore that it has come as something of a surprise to realise that of late I seemed to have joined the 'I really can dodge all the bullets' school of thought and am even musing that I may indeed Live for Ever.
Of course, if this came to pass, I will surely laugh at the dilemma that would face my nearest and dearest. The very idea that I would be lurking about For Ever in my Hat and Drainpipes demanding bacon butties and Stoly and seeking constant attention and supervision - whilst behaving disgracefully - is enough to unsettle even the most devoted relation.

Rumour has it that I have not been wonderfully well for some time. In truth, I have been knackered, pole-axed, banjaxed, inspected, injected, infected, lost my sense of taste, my finger and toe-nails, went weirdly daft bald, hurtily steroid stuffed, bleedingly bled, back-ached, head-ached, leg-ached, chemo-congested, gut scanned, eye-ball scanned, walked wobbly, X-rayed every which way and swallowed enough pills to fill an elephant. I have been up a creek without a paddle or a canoe or a compass. I even spent some time preparing the piano graphics for my cheap cardboard coffin. And That's Just The Edited Version.

I decided a year ago that this was definitely not a subject for a depressing angst-ridden HatBlog so I quickly pulled its hatted plug. Now I will try and explain how I reached this point, how Survivor Guilt is currently poking me in the eye and why I am now wearing a Different Hat.

The reason for this Road to Damascus conversion is not The Hat being perverse – no change there guv.  It has been the long-term overwhelming influence of a rather brilliant, jolly, articulate, smart, realistic, no messing, give 'em both barrels, exotically accented Bavarian NHS consultant who, with her crack team of Macmillan staff, seems to spend most of her waking hours saving lives and keeping people positive and cheerful. I tend to call her my 'Head of Programming' and for over a year now I have felt obliged to do everything she has told me to do and believe every word she has ever said to me – regardless of the many hurty steroid-tinged diversions offering themselves up euphemistically as 'Side Effects'. She and her staff are the epitome of everything that is so uniquely brilliant about the NHS. Excellence with skill, diligence, care and love.

As a result, nowadays, after being surrounded for a year by a battalion of strong, talented and defiantly cheerful women, I feel sufficiently smiley to say that having looked Serious Trouble in the eye for a year and tried hard not to blink or cry with self-pity, I am pretty sure that I have reasons to be cheerful and plan ahead. I have not actually escaped on my motorbike over the wire yet, but the fact that last month Jules and Dave were so cruelly stolen from their loved ones while I am, Inexplicably, still standing, has made me remind myself that I still have a lot to do, kick myself up the arse, get my ducks in a row and buy a new pencil. I have run out of excuses.  I feel I can now even renew my subscriptions to Smart-Arse Monthly and Teach Yourself Punctuation...

So Thank You for indulging me. That was my cover story. I'm pleased you read it. You are therefore warned that the gobby Hatblog, the discerning Hat Reviews, the gossipy HatShorts and the free for all Hat Facebook page may soon be all over you again like a really irritating Literary Rash. Go know you want to.  If you like, you can blame the NHS. As Melissa Etheridge put it so beautifully “I have talked to my angel and she says it's ok”

I do hope you never have need of a genius 'Head of Programming' like mine but in the meantime please fight hard and then harder to support and defend the NHS from those who wish to do it harm.

Pip Pip!

The Blues Man in The Hat.....of course, still with the essentials - a pencil, a pulse and a sense of humour....

Friday, March 15, 2019

Thank You My Friend..

Dave, I know, for sure, we will meet later further on down that road and as Lennie put it so poignantly.."if you stretch out your hand you will reach mine.."

We will drink and dine For Free, whilst we argue about Music and Life. You will go on about boats, blues and broadcasting and I will bore you with boogie-woogie, blues and literary bollox about 'books wat I red'. We will gently spar over who had the most exciting anecdotes. I will let you win by a whisker - but I will walk away with the Longest Sentences Trophy - and of course - we will, indeed, put the band back together.
What fun we will have.

For many years the best of friends, we met but seldom, yet the internet world - particularly over the last desperately tough six months - regularly groaned under the weight of our frequent tedious voice mails. Ah, Messenger - that place where we gossipped for years like two old wet-elbowed Blues geezers in their favourite seats at the bar and traded a thousand of our Quite Brilliant Ideas. I am so glad I got to sneak into your radio show now and again and my words could still make you laugh out loud in those hard, hard times, right to the end – exactly as they were meant to.

Nobody said life would be fair, but I was supposed to head off before you, Dave – so fuck whoever decided that order of events. They got that so badly wrong. I will have a word....indeed, many words...

Life without your twinkling radio presence in our ears will be strangely quiet. What kind of world will we have without your rapid-fire, gun-slinging presentation, the knowledge, the wit, the lending of discoveries, the encouragement of new talent and the reminders of what we had forgotten? All broadcast from that brilliant bobbing boat.
Radio World will be so awfully diminished.

For me, however, and I know for a lot of your other close friends too, that is but a part of our loss. Having you as a friend, was quite something....ebullient and witty, knowledgeable, unashamed to criticise or praise, candid and loyal to a fault, lunch by the river or a distant sea - and such, such good company.

I guess I was but a small moment in your life and I regard myself as very lucky for that. Your life was World Wide and your friends could be found in every corner of that world, rocking a jolly table and sampling a fine wine. For some, I don't doubt for a moment that you were the DJ who, as they say in the song, 'saved their life' in the middle of a dark night. For others, you were one of that mighty BFBS Broadcasting Clan that bestrode the world from Belize to Hong Kong, from Cyprus
 to The Falklands, bringing light and fun to those millions far from home who really needed it. For yet others, years ago, the daft moustached, tight-trousered 'Dave the Rave' would bring thumping joy to their Saturday night and open their eyes to Dangerous Music. That's some legacy, my friend.

I am so glad we bumped into each other on our rickety rackety accidental journeys.

As you so frequently said at the end of your show “Thank you for lending me an hour of your time”.  Now, let me offer you my last sentence, Dave – you will be amazed at how impressively short it is!

You Made A Difference, my friend.
Thank you x

The Blues Man in The Hat

This Thank You comes with a huge hug for the amazing Suellen x
I am certain that Dave would be much amused by the idea that the ancient Hat wrote an entire blog just about 'a nice bloke having fun'.....

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

...And you, and you, and you can Shut Up as well...

As the UK Election looms closer by the hour, the Mad Rhetoric gets louder; the claims and counter claims become more shrill; the trolls grow fat under their bridges as they consume a thousand innocents a minute; the keyboard economists gather together on the top of the most crowded pin-head in the world and in a small unpleasant corner of the social media world, the abuse of those who simply voice their opinion - however well-meant - becomes standard. Apparently, if you work in the entertainment or the arts world, you are right at the top of that list and immediately qualify for a kicking of the highest order.

It is nothing new, but nevertheless it is still bizarre watching the ritual punishment of actors, writers and musicians in particular, who have the nerve to utter a public opinion on anything that does not involve them acting, writing or playing music. It is of course quite absurd that if you build bridges, drive buses, nurse the sick, erect scaffolding or run the local pub, then it is usually ok for you to have a 'political' opinion. However, if you are known for writing the best selling children's books ever, then you become an ignorant rich loony who knows nothing. If you happen to be a famous Hollywood actor well known for playing an opinionated Taxi Driver, then you should shuddup and get whacked for mouthing off. If you drive The Most Famous Spaceship in the Universe for a few years then this immediately disqualifies you from having an Earthly Opinion. If you spend all your life on stage playing music and singing to millions about the tribulations and hard times of American working life and love, then suddenly you become a gobby know-nothing who should Can It and give away all your money.

Yes. It is ridiculous is it not that anyone in the arts in particular suddenly becomes easy-meat for derision and abuse. Shouting at Bono when he comes on your screens talking Politics and Poverty becomes a national sport, in the manner of virtual fox-hunting except in this case the fox has something interesting to say and won't shut up and roll over. Love him or hate him, it is not too well known, that Bono did his homework and usually knew more about global politics, economics and poverty than most of the people who were anxious to meet him. Similarly, take a look at Springsteen's back-drop, listen to 'The Rising' the album about 9/11 and then decide if he has nothing to say worth listening to. Their straight forward articulacy, based on their own knowledge and experience enable people like J K Rowling and Patrick Stewart to mainline straight into the public consciousness in a way less able people cannot. When Robert de Niro stands up to be publicly counted and suffer the tsunami of 'libtard/snowflake' abuse that thunders down on him, I doubt that he cares very much. Agree with him or not, his voice reaches millions who would otherwise be excluded from the discussion, who may not even have had the opportunity to hear such a point of view. It is ironic that the London Taxi Driver is one of the most satirised opinionated and frequently quoted people in the kingdom and yet de Niro can be shut down for simply being 'an actor'.

Let me flip you back a few decades. It is what has become known as The McCarthy Era. Often centred on Hollywood, America's obsession with the fear of communism and 'The Red Scare' was personified in the Committee on Un-American Activities. Echoed years later by the Stasi and various other organisations around the world, people were actively encouraged to inform on their friends and family for often simply just voicing views they didn't agree with. Whilst the FBI agents doubled in number, thousands lost their jobs and their careers, frequently for reasons that were kept secret. What in particular makes this moment in time significant is that its most high profile accusations and inquisitions were saved for Hollywood, for writers and actors, sound men and photographers, for playwrights, producers and musicians. In the meantime, somewhat absurdly, it made for gripping soap-style TV.

Why did they take a run at those professions? Well apart from the obvious paranoia of associating the arts with a 'corrosive' liberalism, it is clear that in its widest sense, the community of the arts world reached places no politician can dream of going. When I recently wrote here about David Bowie's contribution, it became self-evident that whilst there are never-ending government cut-backs and deletion of arts budgets across the country, the chances of there being another Bowie get less and less likely. He was a product of freedom of education, freedom of thought and spirit, freedom of opportunity and most importantly the key-holder of the door that would open to let millions follow him through. Even the most plank-like politician would never have attempted to 'shut-down' Bowie – any more than they would have been unwise to intervene in the extraordinary power and love that emanated from the Ariana Grande concert. Yep, I'm with you if you're not crazy about the selfie posing and ego tripping but, my friends, that does not make their contribution any less valid or significant.

Artists are no different from you and me, other than that their particular stunning skills sometimes enable them to reach a wider and often adoring audience. Like you and me they have opinions in every shape and colour. Many choose, like you or me, not to air those opinions and keep their own counsel. Some are bolshier and mouthier than others. Some are more articulate than others. But, just because you write, act, play the guitar, the drums or sing, it doesn't mean you left your brain in a cupboard somewhere. Some of them you may not agree with, so feel free to engage them in a discussion and debate. To assume that they are not allowed an opinion simply because of what they do with their talent makes you much dumber than any of them...

Pip Pip!
The Blues Man in The Hat

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We're Gonna Need a Bigger Box!

Let me take you on a quick trip down Musicboxes Lane, sometimes known as Intolerance Alley or the Have You Gone Mad Highway and now, much more recently known to many bewildered managers, record company execs and music public relations people as The Commercial Cul-de-sac.

Many decades ago, fortunately before the prickly selfie world of social media, the jazz world went into spluttering paroxysms because one of the titans of the then vibrant 'trad' jazz scene - the hugely popular Humphrey Littleton - fed up and feeling trapped playing the same old, albeit commercially attractive stuff, introduced the talented killer saxophonist Bruce Turner into his band and started to 'swing'. So upset were some of his fans that they took a banner to his gigs reading “Go Home Dirty Bopper”. Yeah. Music Fans. Nice One. Humph carried on regardless.

Unlike the ancient Hat, you may not remember that, but you will certainly have heard all about the famous 'Judas!' cry that went out years later at the 1966 Dylan concert in Manchester when, after a nice familiar opening acoustic set, he played the second half of his concert on an electric guitar. His reply to the now infamous shout was to tell his band to play louder. Often characterised as a pivotal moment in music (actually, he had been booed in Newport a year earlier for the same thing), it tells us as much about fans resistance to change as it does about the artist's development.

That was a long time ago, wasn't it? We don't do that any more do we? Oh Really? Come with me over here and look at that violin-playing bloke. He plays Vivaldi you know. He is called Nigel Kennedy and he plays Vivaldi. He always plays bleedin' Vivaldi, My grandad really likes his Four Seasons. It's written by Vivaldi you know. What do you mean he plays Django Reinhardt and Irish ceilidh music? He wears a football scarf? He has ridiculous hair? Nah, he can't do that – he plays Vivaldi. If that's the case then I'm not buying any more of his stuff. That's outrageous. He's a Judas, he's a Dirty Bopper who should Go Home..... At least there wasn't a riot - which was the case when Stravinsky launched his Rite of Spring in Paris....rien ne change...

Ok, they are a just a few high profile examples of how battalions of music fans like their music boxed up and labelled and you will know many more examples of where an artist has made an unexpected moonwalk right in the middle of their oh-so-familiar foxtrot. It happened and it still happens and wouldn't we be so much the poorer if it didn't? Music fans, like many other type of fans, often consider they are experts in their field – particularly in the modern age of the instant keyboard warrior – and there are millions who still have a need to take a belligerent stand against change of any kind. The examples above are from the jazz, folk and classical worlds but no musical form is exempt. The semi-mythical 'Blues Police' are legendary in their rapid shoot-from-the-hip condemnation and many forests of blues trees have suffered at the hands of those who find it difficult dealing with any artist who steps out of their neat and tidy 'genre box' - (even The Hat has been on the sharp end of their devastating original wit).... and please, let's not go anywhere near the Literary and Literal punch-ups that go on about 'Metal' from Rock to Death and from Doom to Crust and Christian......

And yet...and yet...Some of the world's most successful artists are those who are always pushing boundaries, breaking rules and thinking outside of their classified box. Look no farther than the recent losses of Bowie and Prince, both of whom were far too big and interesting in their musical development for anyone to slam them into a box. The Hat is not suggesting that we should all go off and study Laurie Anderson or Bjork's next move or clap with joy when Brian Eno or Philip Glass show us two conventional fingers. The attractive thing is that they are constantly moving on and exploring. They are not abandoning what they do, or have done. They are investigating and evolving. Listen. The phenomenal talent doesn't disappear simply because Am/Em have got boring.

There are problems of course with all this 'musical freedom' stuff. Firstly, many fans, understandably, like to know what they are getting and the label on the box gives them a clue. Not all fans will appreciate the nuances, the twists and the breadth of vision that an artist brings with them unless they have been forewarned. Secondly, for artists who can't be boxed, don't wish to be boxed or move across many 'genres', this is a problem that can bring with it, some hard-nosed financial questions....and this is where the record promoters, radio show producers, sharp-end sales outlets and marketing people enter the equation. Simple questions like 'what heading does the record review appear under in the paper or magazine'; 'what rack does the album sit in on the shop display' and 'when does a DJ give it a play in his 'boxed genre' show' are somewhat minor issues compared to the conversation on the record company sixth floor when the execs have to decide how to promote their potential commercial prodigy. 'Brilliant, but it won't sell' is often the mantra for such meetings.

Yeah, I know that it's bollox that this is even a consideration - and an inevitable by-product is the Xfactor world - but, however regrettable, that part of the industry is never going to disappear. Meanwhile, The Hat loves to take succour from the fact that the head of Island Records wanted the Tom Jones gospel and blues album 'Praise and Blame' pulled – because he 'didn't want hymns' It went on to become Tom's biggest you can put your box where the sun etc...

Today, Independence can be the watchword for many artists.... independent production, independent or self promotion and the maintenance of control over what you do and how you do it. It is difficult to escape the need for funds, even if crowd-funding and kick-starter are throwing a life line to some free spirits. Nevertheless, as with Art, struggling to maintain what you regard as your integrity and principles may mean getting used to living on chips in a garret....and that doesn't appeal to everyone.

In the final reckoning though, nothing can overshadow the force of nature that is Pure Rare Talent. Every successful artist has that magical ability to take their feelings and emotions out there through their music and transmit them to the listener, totally regardless of genre, box, or neat and tidy classification. I am sure you will know many examples of such artists but I will give you just three recent illustrations of how this unique artistry works:

Jo Harman, a stunning vocalist now on the brink of international acclaim, refused to be known as a 'blues' singer from the start of her career, politely declined the box label, and is now at the point where her adoring audience and collaborators come from every corner of the music world. As she put it succinctly about her latest album “this is just about me being me”. Then there is the totally unclassifiable duo the RedDirt Skinners, a truly wizard and original combination of guitar, sax and beautiful harmonies now selling out virtually every venue on a nation-wide Canada tour. But wait...they just happened to pick up nominations in both the Blues and Country awards worlds – er, that can't be the hell did that happen? - and yes, you got it - 'they just do what they do – brilliantly'.

Finally, let me leave you with this third example of Anti-Boxness. I recently saw the band Northsyde at a festival. They are known throughout the UK and the continent as one of the finest 'blues-rock' bands on the planet and I admit to having seen them on more than one occasion. The point here is that they are actually NOT a blues-rock band. They are four hugely talented artists who don't give a bugger about the box but do care about giving everything to their audience. On this occasion, right in the middle of their set, they played Stevie Wonder's 'I Wish'. The singer emotionally tore down the walls and ceiling, the guitarist went off to that place where only special guitarists have special notes on their fretboard and the drummer and bassist laid down a groove so deep, tight and heavy that there isn't any box anywhere in the world it would fit. But wait a minute – where's da blues? Where's da rock?....surely, this is soul, this is hip cool, this is funking funkmaster jazz-funking like you never heard it...what's it doing in the middle of a blues-rock gig....why is the audience going bonkers? Yep. Box Off Brother. Blues-rock it ain't.

So there you have three exciting and successful Antidotes to the Genre-Box-Pox. Of course it's not going to go away, but as Jaws hero Roy Scheider might say if he went to a gig of any of those three artists...”Guys, we're gonna need a Bigger Box”...

Pip Pip!

The Blues Man in The Hat

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