Friday, 16 September 2016

The Best Guitar Solo Ever

It's late and I'm meant to be writing a script, but I'm listening to music and I'm being distracted by a song I've heard a thousand times. It contains the greatest guitar solo ever and it's called Out There by Dinosaur Jr.

Out There is on an unimpressive studio album called Where You Been.

I got into Dinosaur Jr in 1988 because I was told to by the Melody Maker. I bought Bug and loved Freak Scene.

The guitar noise was visceral and mixed to be very loud, and J Mascis' tuneless drawl was ace.

After Bug, Dinosaur Jr recorded and released a cover of The Cure's Just Like Heaven. I have no idea why, but it raised their profile.

I read a few interviews with J Mascis and got the impression he was not the greatest talker. Fine. I knew I liked Dinosaur Jr, but I didn't love them.

When Where You Been came out in 1993, I bought it. My life is plagued by albums I have bought with One Good Song on them. Where You Been is in that category, but it was that One Good Song which made me fall in love with Dinosaur Jr.

Out There is a towering piece of music. It starts with a scratchy rhythm guitar riff, which is great. Before you've come to understand how good it really is, a blistering crash bangs it out of the way and a lead guitar line takes you up to the opening vocal. It's already so loud it hurts.

Out There is in a minor key and has a sombre edge. After years of listening to it, I was made aware it was about J's departed father, but I can't find any corroboration for that on google. Nonetheless it helped me make sense of the refrain:

I know you're out there
I know you're gone
You can't say that's fair
Can't you be wrong?

... which comes in at 1m11s. It lets the song subtly change up a gear. The riff disappears, J's voice picks up the melody, the drums go into fills and the tune and the rhythm and lead guitar lines start banging against each other.

After the first chorus, the riff resets and we embark on verse 2.

So far so normal.

After chorus 2, something weird happens. The lead guitar just pings off and, seemingly at will, induces a middle eight key change, which J's voice (flat and weak at the best of times), patently can't handle. J goes for it anyway. It's strangely affecting. One of the guitar parts starts chiming sevenths, like bells. It's haunting.

The middle eight finishes. In the final bar the lead guitar climbs down into the original key. The riff returns, but now it doesn't sound so scratchy - it's bounding along, almost swinging, straight into verse 3. Verse 3 is sonically the same as verses 1 and 2, but feels different. We've gone through something together. We're now there, ready for anything.

Verse 3 finishes. At 3m38s, the Greatest Guitar Solo Ever begins.

Imagine having such supernatural control of an inanimate object you could make it come alive with your bare hands. That is what J Mascis is doing with his guitar in this solo. It is lyrical and soulful and electrifying and loud and poignant and tuneful and beautiful and clear and fuzzy and spontaneous and you can't help but think: "This is quite good."

After transporting you with its brilliance for a full minute, it remembers it has to prepare the ground for a second middle eight. And this is what makes it the Best Guitar Solo Ever. Instead of stopping at the point the second middle eight starts, the solo just ploughs on through. The chiming overdub comes back, the vocal returns - stretched, flat, but somehow triumphant, and underneath, the solo keeps going, pulling down the stars. It's dazzling. A technical skill allied to a noise very few people on the planet are capable of making.

The final 1m14s of Out There is a collision of terrible vocals, awe-inspiring technical skills and a thumping climax to an already draining near six minute epic.

Try it. You might like it.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Julian Wilson

Julian Wilson 1949 - 2016
I only met Julian a couple of times. I spoke to him quite a bit on the phone and got to know something of his life over the course of the last five years. 

He was, I suppose, what we journalists call a contact. But his gentle manner, generous spirit and calm good humour made me think of him as more than that.

Julian Wilson was a Subpostmaster and one of the founding members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. He and his wife Karen had their lives turned upside down by problems with the Horizon computer system in their Post Office. 

Julian was prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting, pleaded guilty and went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal. Julian was one of the many former Subpostmasters accepted onto the mediation scheme launched in 2013, only to be told, more than a year later, that as a convicted criminal, the Post Office would not mediate with him.

When he died, Julian’s conviction was one of the twenty being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He was also one of the dozens of former Subpostmasters currently suing the Post Office at the High Court for the damage done to their reputations and lives.

Julian found out he had terminal cancer towards the end of last year. This summer he deteriorated rapidly.

I never made a film specifically about Julian. I just used to call him for a chat, to get an alternative perspective on what was happening with the Horizon story and get his opinion of how things were going.

“Hello Nick…” he’d say every time I called up. “What can I do for you?”

That was Julian in a nutshell. It was all about what he could do for me. He never once asked me to do anything for him. Not once. He would always take the call and always help where he could. Then he would ask after my kids and my work and always end the conversation by saying “Call me anytime, Nick. Any time you like.”

When I was told Julian had cancer I didn’t immediately pick up the phone. I got round to it in April. He was fresh out of surgery and preparing for another bout of chemotherapy. I’d heard things were touch and go, but his voice sounded strong and he was cheery as ever.

“Don’t worry.” he told me “I’m on the mend. I'm feeling better. Things are going to be alright.”

We spoke about his determination to see his name cleared and the latest on the various legal obstacles he and the JFSA were facing. There was never a trace of bitterness about Julian. He accepted things with great patience even though he was still in danger of losing his house because of the Post Office’s pursuit of him.

Given that activists have been campaigning against the Post Office for more than a decade, I felt Julian’s situation could be used to highlight how long everything was taking and that, for some, time may be running out.  Julian agreed it made sense. He had no qualms about appearing on camera, even though he might not be looking his best. 

I remember interviewing Julian in December 2014 alongside his wife Karen in a village hall in Fenny Compton, where the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance met for the first time back in 2009. Karen stood there with tears streaming down her face as Julian explained in his measured, Hampshire burr how problems with the computer system at their Post Office in Astwood Bank had caused their lives to fall apart.

Julian and Karen's story will be told another day. For now I just want to say goodbye to a lovely man whose company and time I enjoyed very much. It is a crying shame he had to dedicate the latter years of his life to fighting penury and trying to clear his name.

He was a kind-hearted and genuine human being.

I feel like I’ve lost a friend.


Monday, 4 July 2016

Why I have set up a training company

Zoe, Nick David and Natt
Clockwise from top left: Zoe Battley, me, David Yeoward and Natt Tapley
Last year I started hosting awards ceremonies. That side of things is going well and I enjoy it. Through the awards hosting and some of the corporate media work I do I've spoken to a few people who need public speaking skills as part of their job - either in front of an audience, or whilst someone is pointing a camera at of them.

It's learnable, but it's not something most folk get much practice at. A lot of corporate offices are full of bright young things emailing each other, rather than speaking on the phone. David Hepworth writes about this on his blog. His post immediately reminded me of my first job in London, working at a music PR company in Soho in the mid-nineties.

We had phones, a fax machine and a 28K dial-up modem for two ancient macs which we used mainly as word processors. Watching Tim, Paul, Shabs (especially Shabs), Asha, Shazia, Elliott and Nihal do their thing on the phone gave me an understanding of the performance art of business. The hustle. How to project yourself as a competent, confident, entertaining individual. My colleagues had no problem acting out to me, their peers or their clients. For them it was a natural progression to hold forth at pitch meetings or stand on stage and say clever things to large audiences.

Nowadays it might be entirely possible to go through the first ten years of your career without having to address an audience of any size, let alone appear on camera.

And then suddenly, you're expected to. You pick up a cause, you start a new business, you're made a senior manager. You have to espouse a perspective to groups of people who may not care a fig about you or the idea you're selling. Your career can depend on how well you perform. How do you make that work? What are the tricks? Where do you start?

I am surrounded by self-confident gobby sorts at the places I am lucky enough to work. Telly-land is not a place for shrinking violets. Hosting awards ceremonies plugged me into a world of people who have huge amounts of drive, talent and expertise, but when it comes to standing on stage and addressing an audience, or projecting themselves on camera, some of them have no idea. Why should they? They've never needed to.

But now they've reached a level of seniority which requires them to speak to people or talk on camera, and do it well. And they need someone to teach them either from scratch, or to tweak and refine what they do into something properly inspirational. Hence my new venture.

I've got together with some lovely people (see above - Natt was the nice man who trained me up in comedy writing and performance for Comic Relief - he's now a contract writer on Have I Got News For you) who know what they're doing, and between us, we are helping clients develop everything they need to articulate their stories and give them the right level of impact.

This is not about teaching people how to game a TV interview. That's not the sort of work I'm interested in and it's not compatible with my work as a journalist. This is about helping people with the theories of storytelling, preparing a pitch, winning a pitch, writing skills, engaging an audience, body language, memory techniques, stagecraft, adrenaline management, crowd-wrangling, microphone technique, being funny, speaking notes, what to wear, what not to wear, how to work with TV/AV crews, conducting a technical rehearsal and all the other stuff a lot of people just don't know the first thing about.

On a practical level, it's relatively straightforward. We need a quiet room with access to caffeine. We've got an HD camera, projector and laptop. We make you write. We make you speak. We make you tell jokes. We can film and watch you back as many times as you like. We work you hard, but we can make a positive difference to your public speaking skillset in one day. And we make it fun and friendly, too. If you're hiring us for a specific event, after the initial training day one of us will come down to the venue with you before you take the stage and make sure you're okay.

Yes I'm doing this to make money, but I'm doing it because I enjoy it. It's a joy to help people find a way of confidently speaking with intelligence and clarity about a subject which is often their passion. Showing people how to keep things together and project confidently on camera is something which took me a long time to work out (as many early editors of mine will attest). I'm happy to pass those skills on.

If you want to have a look at our website, please do. If you are able to forward our details to someone who might be looking for this sort of thing, I'd be grateful. We're aiming at senior level corporate clients for one-to-one or two-to-one training, but the whole thing is bespoke. We take your desired outcome and design the training so it works for you. If you have a cohort of people you want to sort out we have an arrangement with an organisation which does company-wide training at manager/sales exec level for the likes of Mercedes and Porsche, and one of our trainers is a founder of Never Second, which does deep level business proposal training. We will scale up according to your needs and pitch accordingly.

Just in case you were wondering, I'm not about to start easing up on the work I'm doing for the BBC and ITN. I have a contract with the BBC and I'm thoroughly enjoying the reporting I'm doing for ITN. Over the last few weeks I've interviewed Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and spent a busy afternoon the day after the referendum on one of the TV gantries outside parliament. It's a good time to be in the news business and I intend to remain part of it for as long as they let me.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The superlification of language

Unless someone has already done so, I'd like to claim the term "superlification" as a process, specifically the superlification of language.
We used to say "right" or "good" or "thanks". We graduated to "great" and "brilliant", and now it's "awesome!" or "perfect!" (seemingly interchangeable terms despite having wholly different meanings). 
There's more, of course. "Epic" still seems popular among my teenage relatives and half decent albums by average bands are routinely (and rather desperately) described as "iconic".
A hotel receptionist recently called my completed registration form (or perhaps the competence with which I completed the registration form) "perfect". I thought I could have done better.
Likewise I am always delighted when someone thinks my agreement with or willingness to do something is "awesome", but it's not really, is it? It's usually the minimum expectation given the circumstances.
"Awesome" tends to exist more in speech. "Perfect" seems to be proliferating wildly in both emails and speech. 
I have no real problem with any of this, language and meaning always changing etc, but I do wonder now we've hit "perfect" where the superlification of language can go next. Will it create a problem that superlification cannot overcome, so we leave that element of our exchanges behind? Maybe emojis and gifs in emails are already doing that. 
Anyway. Whatever. 
Have an amazing day.

I've just remembered I have form on this. Here's something from 2010 called Have a Lovely Day.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

New website, new agent

I have hooked up with Seamus Lyte, from Seamus Lyte Management. He politely suggested that whilst this blog was fine, I needed something a bit more professional looking. So I have built a new website. It has lots of photos of me - like this one...

.... my TV and radio credits, my showreel and a short biog. If you dialled it used to bring you here. Now it takes you to my proper website. I hope you like it.


Monday, 11 January 2016

Meeting David Jones in Bromley, a long time ago.

My wife's uncle Jonathan has a David Bowie reminiscence. He once shared it with me over lunch...

Bromley, the summer holidays of 1958. Jonathan was twelve. He was told by his parents to stop knocking around the house, so he wandered down to the local park, King's Meadow, off Burnt Ash Lane, to play on the swing.

The swing was a big one ("what they used to call a 'Long Lizzie'") which could accommodate several children.

The park was deserted save for a younger boy already sitting on the swing. Jonathan joined him and they got talking.

"He asked me which school I went to and I said Bromley Tech. He became quite animated and said 'I'm starting there this September.'"

Jonathan doesn't remember much more about what they said or did, other than sit idly and chat, watching the trains go past.

"We finished our conversation and I thought no more about it until the first day of school in September. This boy came bouncing up and said, 'Hello do you remember me? I'm David Jones... you know, we met...' And I vaguely remembered, so I said 'Oh yes. Hello.'"

"And that was it, really. It wasn't particularly politic to mix with the first years, so I didn't."

Jonathan kept tabs on David because they had a mutual friend in George Underwood, who Jonathan knew from primary school. George was responsible for giving David his famous eye condition whilst at Bromley Tech when they fell out over a girl.

Jonathan remembers David chose to make a guitar in his woodwork class, which he played in the school band he formed with George.

I don't know why I found this story so affecting when I first heard it, and I don't know why I find it affecting now. Perhaps it's in the moment of humiliation for the guileless young Jones, bursting with enthusiasm on his first day at school, being snubbed by someone he thought might be a friend.

Or it could be the image of that 1950s child, sitting alone in the park on the swing, passing time like any young schoolboy, unable even to conceive of the life he'd one day live.