Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How to reduce government spending at a stroke

I saw this over at Burningourmoney and read it through. I encourage you to click on this link and read it yourself

Then tell me that government spending can't be reined in. I've been in despair for such a long time about how this country is being systematically strangled whilst being simultaeneously raped and looted.
How can we kill the beast that sucks the very life out of the country?
The petty regulations that prevent jobs being created, that stifle creativity and enterprise, that make it easier to stay and home rather than earn self respect as well as money?

I didn't know the answer. But now I have read something that shows us the way.
It's so simple that it just needed spelling out.
The very principles that enabled business to adapt and change over the last thirty years just need to be applied.
Why does the government do the things it does?
Has anyone ever asked that question?
If the answer is "because we've always done it", then it's time to take a long hard look.
I recall a story about an ordinary business. An ordinary worker used to file certain documents. She'd done it for years. She'd been told to do it on her first day at work. No-one asked her what happened to the documents once they'd been filed.
Had anyone ever asked for them? No.
Had anyone ever looked at them? No.
Had anyone ever gone through the files and thrown them away? No.

She did the same meaningless task day in, day out, because no-one ever told her not to. It filled up her day, but it was meaningless, futile, unproductive and expensive. So why do it?

Apply that to government. Can you now see where to start cutting?
It all starts with a simple one word question- "Why?"

Here's an excerpt to whet your appetite-

"What about regulations? The regulatory power is customarily delegated to non-elected officials who then constrain the people’s liberties with little or no accountability. These regulations are extremely difficult to eliminate once they are in place. But we found a way: We simply rewrote the statutes on which they were based. For instance, we rewrote the environmental laws, transforming them into the Resource Management Act—reducing a law that was 25 inches thick to 348 pages. We rewrote the tax code, all of the farm acts, and the occupational safety and health acts. To do this, we brought our brightest brains together and told them to pretend that there was no pre-existing law and that they should create for us the best possible environment for industry to thrive. We then marketed it in terms of what it would save in taxes. These new laws, in effect, repealed the old, which meant that all existing regulations died—the whole lot, every single one.

You see? There is hope.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Songwriting (part 2 of many)

There must be millions of songs written,and yet the raw material is quite limited. The Western musical scale is made up of twelve notes (semitones) which repeat over about five octaves. (any more than that and the human ear can't hear them)
Without going into too much detail, these notes are organised into scales using various combinations of the twelve notes. The standard DoReMi scale uses eight notes, while the blues can be played using a mere five notes. Play a run of single notes and you have a melody, add other notes to be played and sung at the same time and you have harmony (or discord- depending on the choice of note)
Play three notes and you make a chord.
Almost all music produced in the last fifty years uses a repeating pattern of chords. Rock and roll and blues songs use three chords repeating every twelve bars. Other song structures use 8, 16 or 24 bar structures.
(That's enough music theory I think. Any more and I'll show up my ignorance).

So you have a melody played over chords. The other variables are tempo (how fast you play or sing it) and sycopation/rhythm. These few elements are used to create almost all the music in the western tradition.
(Eastern music doesn't use the same rules).

Despite this limited array of elements, it's surprising what variety of songs can be produced. If you sometimes wonder why a tune sounds like another, now you know why.

This is a video by Axis of Awesome that shows how many songs share the same chord sequence. It's very clever, very funny, and some of the language is fruity. It's still worth a listen though.

So you have the music and melody. What are you going to sing about?
That's the beauty of music. You can sing about absolutely every aspect of the human condition. It can be factual, funny, sad, sexy....

There are so many ways to write a song. There are so many things to sing about. There are so many ways to express oneself...
And yet we still hear bad songs, cliches, naff rhymes, lines that don't scan. Songs that make absolutely no sense. And that's just some of the hits....

Going back to the video. Each of those 65 or so songs was a hit, even though they all used the same chord progression. They all managed to sound slightly different, and each one had something that made you remember it, that made it stand out from the millions of similar sounding songs, that all said the same thing albeit in a different way.

So what is it that makes you remember one song among millions?
It's called a hook.

Someone once said that you need three things to make a hit song:
A hook, a hook, and a hook.
I'll have a look around the internet and come back to this again

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Songwriting part one (of many)

I'm a songwriter. I've had a few (about 60)accepted by the PRS/MCPS, but no hits to date. They say everyone has at least one song in them. Irving Berlin had aver 1000 "hits", Johnny Mercer had more than 800, while Lennon and Mccartney had over 300 together with countless others as solo songwriters. A few years ago, when Sony moved from being a manufacturer of tape recorders to a complete media organisation that manufactured the equipment, owned the songs, and then released the music though its own company, they bought the rights to over a million songs.

A million songs. How can they all be heard? And thousands if not millions added to the number of published works every year.

That goes some way to explain why the X Factor always uses an old song to launch the recording career of their talent show winner. I've not checked, but the chances are that the song is published by Sony and released through Syco (a division of Sony records).

I read "The Hobbit" by Tolkein a couple of times. Tolkein based his books on a traditional way of life that was dying out in 1930s England. As radio, cinema and phonographs became more popular, the old oral tradition of songs being passed down from generation was dying out, and collectors like Cecil Sharpe in the UK, and Alan Lomax in the US began to collect the old songs to save them for posterity. Those old songs served a valuable purpose.

I've read and studied the Bible. I'm told that the old testament prophets would enter a town, go into the market place and sing their prophesy. If you look at the different books of the Bible where prophesy plays a part, the actual prophesies are written as verse rather than prose. So songs can be used as prophesy.
Songs are also a way of remembering stories, of remembering past events, of history. Facts are easier to remember if they can be learned as rhyme. Take, for instance, how to remember how many days to each month.
This rhyme dates back to the sixteenth century, and is a perfect example of the use of song/rhyme as an aid to memory.

30 days hath September,
April, June and November,
All the rest have 31,
Excepting February alone.
Which only has but 28 days clear
And 29 in each leap year

In Tolkein's book the travellers spent the night with some people they meet along the way. The evening was spent singing songs to each other. This was a way of describing their culture to the other people and may account for why some songs turn up in different parts of the country (and as far away as the US, each with slight variations. The travelling musician brought the news in the form of ballads, and one reason why traditional ballads were so long may be due in part to the need to string the listener along (Authors like Dickens and H G Wells were first published in the Saturday newspapers and were paid by the column inch, hence the long descriptions in the narrative).

Indeed, the reason we now have songs that are limited to about three minute duration is a result of the technology available about a century ago. Wax cylinders could only record and store about three minutes of music, so songs were edited to fit the new medium. Eventually, three minutes became the norm, and I for one have become so accustomed to this that when I, for instance, sat in with a folk band playing jigs and reels whilst on holiday a year or two ago, found that tunes often went on and on beyond the "normal" three minutes. That's because the tunes were arranged for a set dance, which takes as long as it takes. Other traditional tunes like "The Masons Apron" or "Sally Goodin" have a basis tune structure which is them embellished by the performer. The prowess of the player is set by the number of different variations he/she can introduce into the basic tune.
Here's Hulda Quebe of the Quebe Sisters Band playing a traditional fiddle tune when she was about 15. I love the sponteneity of it all. A couple of players back stage amid the trucks and amplifiers just jamming. Notice how the bass player comes in after the Hulda and Joey start playing.

And while we're on the subject of traditional tunes, here's two versions of a fiddle tune called the Mason's Apron. The first is by the Chieftains, with Matt Molloy on wooden flute,a notoriously difficult instrument to play

And another, by Canadian band the Mudmen

Great tunes are not dependent on gadgets or gimmicks. But great songs need great tunes and hooks,and I hope to write about that on the next post.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Pretenders- an appreciation

I am a big fan of Chrissie Hynde. Anyone who can make music that still sounds fresh and relevant after 35 years in the business must have something going for her. When she burst on the scene with her band The Pretenders in the late 70s she was already "too old" to make it, according to today's pop music wisdom .
She was also smart and nobody's fool. I can't imagine Simon Cowell or Simon Fuller wanting to take her on today.
Born in Akron, Ohio, she is one of those people who was there or thereabouts during many of the events that shaped rock music history. For example, she was at Kent University in 1970 when the National Guard opened fire on the students (which inspired the CSNY song "Ohio"). Later in the decade she worked at Mclaren & Westwood's shop "Sex" and auditioned for many of the early punk bands. She was very much an intergal part of the early punk rock scene.
When she finally formed her band "The Pretenders" it was far more than just a punk band. For a start, she wrote great songs, the band were great musicians and she had a style all her own, even if she sometimes reminded me of a cross between 60s singers like Francoise Hardy, and Cathy McGowan with the backcombed hair and eye makeup.

Her first single was a cover of a Kinks song "Sobbing". I must admit I heard it and wasn't that impressed, dismissing her as just another wannabee one hit wonder. I was wrong. Two things happened to change my opinion. Firstly, our drummer's sister Karla started singing with a local teenage band, and aged 16 auditioned and joined our band as keyboard/vocalist. We started playing Pretenders songs.
Secondly, The Pretenders released their first album and had a smash hit with "Brass in Pocket". Everybody started to cover her songs. Grace Jones did a stunning version of "Private Lives".
It's one thing to write hit songs for your own band, but when other artistes start covering your songs, then you are something special.
I was lead guitarist in our band Conspiracy, and I had to learn how to play the many and various hit singles that the Pretenders had in the late 70s/early 80s.
They were very clever and well put together songs. I particularly like this song "Kid"

I love that guitar solo. I'll come back to this song later.
The original band consisted of Martin Chambers on drums (who left for a while and is back again), plus Pete Farndon on bass, and James Honeyman-Scott on lead guitar, with Chrissie taking lead vocals and rhythm guitar. Boy could they rock. Here's some footage from an ABC tv show "Fridays" where they played live in the studio, and boy, they looked great and could really kick ass.

No lipsynch to backing tracks for Chrissie and her band!

I saw the Pretenders play live at the DeMontfort Hall, Leicester in the early 80s. At around this time she was involved with Kinks songwriter Ray Davies, and had a huge hit with his song "I go to sleep" (yet another song I had to learn how to play- by lifting the stylus on and off the record and playing each phrase over and over.)
This tour would be the final tour for this lineup of the band. Two members, Pete (bass) and James (guitar) had serious drug habits and Pete was sacked from the band in 1982. Two days later James died of heart failure associated with cocaine use.
Here's a radio broadcast of a live performance of "I go to sleep" recorded in LA in 1984

Thirty years on,and Chrissie and the Pretenders are still going strong. She'll be 60 next year, and she still rocks. She is one hell of a talented lady, fronting her band through highs and lows, and writing some great tunes. Here's the song she released soon after James Honeyman-Scott's death (and just a few months before Pete Farndon od'd on heroin and drowned in his bath)

Back on the chain gang. Keep on rocking Chrissie!

There's a score of great songs I could have included, and there's some great video of the band out there, so why not check her out for yourself? As she once sang
"I'm special, so special, I'm gonna have some of your attention baby, give it to me!"

In closing, I believe that the mark of a truly great song is whether it be played with minimal instruments.
Here's Chrissie and her guitarist playing "Kid" on acoustic guitars a couple of years. This is a great song, a great performance by a great artist.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rulers and leaders part two

My first post was a bit of a ramble that tried to tie in the threads of top-down vanity projects and ruling by consent. I just re-read it and, like many of my blogs, starts as one thing and becomes a stream of consciousness that goes where it will.

So I'll try again to pull together all the different thoughts going through my mind these past few days.

Question- how do you know if you're a leader?
Answer- people follow you. If they don't follow you then you're not a leader.

Which is why our rulers have to resort to the law or the threat of force in order to get us to go where they want us to go. But then they're not leading us, they're driving us. Or they may appeal to some concept like tradition, respect, allegiance to a flag or organisation. So instead of following the man, you follow the flag, or the party. (I use the term "man" in a non-gender way)

We've just endured the Party political conference season, a bunch of staged events put on for the media's benefit. I don't know how many people are actually members of these parties. The Conservatives refuse to disclose the numbers, so it must be pretty low. I expect that Manchester United fan clubs have more members than any of the political parties, and some church denominations would probably have more as well. These conferences are so boring and predictable that many MPs don't bother to attend, unless there's a chance of appearing on TV. It's a bit like professional cycling. Every now and then a no-hoper goes to the front of the field, not that he has any chance of winning, but just so that his sponsors can see their logo on TV. Meaningless apart from showing the face/brand/logo. An MP gets his face on TV and it gives the impression to his constituency that he is "getting the job done" or "representing his voters". All windowdressing and meaningless.

There were only two newsworthy items in all the three weeks of conferences. The first one of note was the speech by a deputy head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh. Here it is:

The second was the interminably boring election of a new Labour leader.
The reason it was boring was because of:
the quality (or lack thereof)of candidates;
the length of time from nomination to the result;
and the sheer irrelevance of it all.

I read a lot of books and one of my favourite authors is Kurt Vonnegut Jr. About forty years ago he gave an interview that was published in a magazine which was subsequently republished in a book called "Wampeters, Foma and Grandfalloons".
He was asked why a particular candidate lost a presidential election and his answer was simple and to the point.

"People vote for winners and he was a loser"

The reason the Labour leadership election was so boring was that it was electing a bunch of losers to lead a party of losers.

The second reason is was so underwhelming was that although the contest was about electing a "leader", none of the candidates could in any way be described as natural leaders. This country has had very few natural leaders in the recent past. Churchill was one, and so was Thatcher. Bliar was more concerned about his "legacy" and how good he looked on TV, and the least said about Brown the better. There are plenty of natual leaders in industry and commerce, but so few in politics. Why is that?

The third reason for the lack of interest in the Labour leadership election was to do with the voting arrangements. As Vonnegut famously said, people vote for winners, not losers, but the top losing candidate (the one who came second) was declared to have won.

So a party of political losers ended up with a loser as a leader.

Except of course, he is an unproven leader. He has no identifiable leadership skills. He has no charisma, no spark of whatever it is that makes other people want to follow him, to risk everything if necessary. All he has at his disposal is patronage. And as any newly poor person will tell you, you don't need those kind of friends, those who befriend you for what they can get.

Rulers and leaders part one.

It’s been a week or more since my last post. I’ve had other things to do.

The Commonwealth Games has been on the TV and I haven’t bothered to watch any of it, and I’m an athletics fan. It’s all to depressing to read about to actually want to watch it. Vanity projects almost always fail. Look at the Millennium Dome. When Labour to power in 1997, they could have scrapped it. It was by then already running late and over budget, but Bliar was always more interested in his legacy, so he gave the order to continue with it.

(As an aside- the Dome concept was identical to Wonderworld, which was to be built in an old quarry at Corby. For years the only evidence to any progress was a fading sign alongside the A43.)

There’s an old saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. The same with vanity projects. The same with any top-down decision. Just because our rulers want a big circus to show off how great they are, doesn’t always translate into willing bums on seats.
Look at the sites of the last two Olympic Games. Athens is deserted and ruined, and some of the arenas in Beijing have already been demolished.
In Delhi they didn’t even complete the damn eyesore. The stars of track and field have planned their programmes through to 2012 and Delhi was not part of their plan. No amount of money would persuade them to change their minds, so it was always going to be second rate.
Then there’s the audience, or lack of it. When you displace thousands of people to build your vanity project, you can hardly expect them to spend their own money coming to support it can you? When you factor in the publicity about the filth and bridges falling down and bits falling off buildings, the real risk of a terrorist attack…. It’s no wonder that people stay home.

A few thousand miles North West, in Afghanistan (another vanity project, this time costing lives and broken bodies as well), our soldiers, fighting an unwinnable war with outdated equipment against an invisible enemy, see the local population making themselves scarce, and they know that an attack is imminent. Was I the only one who looked at the empty arenas and made the same connection?

We may be witnessing the final Commonwealth Games. Our Queen is now in her eighties and commands respect and receives love from all of the world’s people. Her son does not. Australia has made it clear that they are happy to have the Queen as the monarch, but less happy about having Charles/George succeed her. I expect the Republicans to win the day there, closely followed by Canada and New Zealand. Once they become republics, the Commonwealth is no more.

Charliegeorge is not a popular man. He blew it when he dumped Diana for Camilla. I recall the headline in Bristol’s main newspaper on the day his wedding was announced. It said “Tetbury man to wed”. In any other age that would be tantamount to treason, but no-one objected. No-one.

Rulers aren’t always leaders. There’s a great scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that sums it up nicely. It’s the first two minutes of this clip.

Rulers may rule, but only with the consent of the powerful.
More to come on this.