Archive for April, 2008

The cha-cha-charts

Friday, April 25th, 2008

I have to confess there’s still a certain thrill when I watch something I’ve done climbing a chart. It’s not an experience I’ve had for some time. The very first time it ever happened to me I was ecstatic. I was 21. It was Lene Lovich’s ‘New Toy’ which I’d written and co-arranged, and played synths on. It got added to the BBC Radio 1 Playlist, which is an essential start, as in the 70′s and 80′s without it you couldn’t compete (unless you were the Sex Pistols or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but that’s another story.) After a couple of weeks it had risen high enough for us to get invited on Top Of The Pops, Britain’s one primetime music TV show, which again was essential if you wanted a hit. Without TOTP you had almost zero chance of reaching the Top 10; with it, you were likely to get there, even if your record was rubbish.

Even though the charts were only published weekly, when a song was going up them you could feel it. The phone was always ringing. A friend left you a message to say they heard it in their car. Your manager or someone from your record label called with a request for you to do an interview with Radio Aberystwyth. There would be a tiny mention on the Daily Mirror’s pop page. In the streets, you’d hear a titter from a group of kids as you walked by. Based on the accumulation of that buzz, as the day approached for the new chart to be announced, you would find yourself visualising and hoping for a certain number—#19, from last week’s #26? Then your manager would call and wake you early in the morning with the actual number, which would be a rush, or a shock.

When the record was struggling, you could feel that too. The phone would be eerily quiet. You feared the worst. And then when the chart position came in, and your record had stayed at #26, or worse, dropped to #29, you felt sad and deflated. You usually only get one shot at it. It’s almost impossible to turn a record around once it starts to fall. And this had a huge affect on your lifestyle. If the success continued, the offers would keep pouring in, each more exotic than the last: fly to Paris for a TV show, meet the NME’s top journalist who’s writing a feature, go to New York to play guest keyboards on some megaband’s new album. Your agent is desperate for you to tour in the Summer, playing bigger venues than ever before. But if the record went into freefall, within a week, people could be asking you when you’d start thinking about new material, a new album?

Thinking back, it was a crazy way to live. You couldn’t help it affecting your sense of self-worth, and the gratification you felt about your music, which was measured in radio playlists, chart positions, royalty statements. There was no way to truly get face to face with your audience. Signing autographs at the stage door certainly didn’t do it.

And the irony was, those charts were so manipulated. When you saw behind the scenes, the seamy underbelly of the pop business, you’d wish you hadn’t. Parties were thrown, peoples’ speedboats were berthed, their kids’ college funds received anonymous donations. You turned a blind eye to it, because you knew that in order to get heard by the public, and then to compete on a level with the other records that were out, you needed the dark machinery of the Music Business to be working in your favour, not against you.

I can’t tell you how happy I am that it’s all over! Those days are gone. Even if the mainstream music business is still ultimately more powerful than the MySpace world, it has changed beyond the point of no return. And I’m on the cusp. I have a reputation and core sales base that date back to my time on the charts; yet unlike some of my contemporaries, I have a good sense of how to take advantage of the new scheme of things. I feel lucky to have benefitted from the Music Biz when I did, even though there were other times when it did me no favours at all, and great songs got lost without trace just because the oily cogs never clicked into gear.

The main thing is, nowadays there’s not that disconnect between my sense of artistic self-worth, and the commercial realities of the charts and retail sales. Of course I do care whether people are taking notice, whether they’re listening to and buying my stuff, but it’s not a numbers racket any more. And I certainly don’t have to make any compromises just to make some A+R or marketing guy happy. I can live happily as a ‘cult’ artist, making great music and not caring too much about the charts—in fact, emulating my teenage musical heroes, few of whom ever got anywhere near Top Of The Pops.

Best of all, via the Internet, I get to read what real people truly think about my music. When it has affected someone in a profound way, I know I hit the mark. Each chord change or line of lyrics that I struggled with, deliberated over, and eventually settled on because it hit me in the gut—I hear back from somebody who felt it the same way I intended it. I communicated, I touched someone’s soul.

Regina Spector said it best:

“this is how it works
you peer inside yourself
you take the things you like
and try to love the things you took
and then you take that love you made
and stick it into some–
someone else’s heart
pumping someone else’s blood.”

(From ‘On The Radio.’)

More Radiohead… and Shane MacGowan

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I just found out an amusing fact about Radiohead. They met while attending Abindgon School in Oxfordshire. I was there too! I took my A-levels there (ok since you asked, I got a B in French, a C in English, and I went to the pub during the History exam). My family at that point lived about 3 miles outside Abindgon, as my father was an Oxford professor, but after being at boarding school in London for 3 years I was a real REBEL and demanded that I move to a local school where I could be a day boy. So I was at Abingdon from 1975 to 76, approximately, and left not long before my 17th birthday to go and get a job in a fruit and vegetable shop. Of course, I was Tom Robertson back in those days. Someone needs to list me as a famous alumnus in the Wikipedia entry about the school! Screw Radiohead being the only famous people to have gone there, along with Zippo the Clown and a rowing cox called Nicholas Bradie.

Shane MacGowan

Oh and another curious thing, while I’m on the subject of famous shoolboys. At my previous school in London I was good friends with Shane MacGowan, of The Pogues. He and I used to sit together in the back row of English Lit. He was extremely smart. On one occasion during a boring reading of some classic novel or other, the teacher spotted me and Shane nattering. He singled me out saying something like ‘what figure of speech is “indubitably”…. Robertson?’ Shane whispered under his breath: ‘It’s an onanism.’ Ha. ‘IT’S AN ONANISM, SIR!’ I blurted out. Deadly pause. ‘Robertson, please come up to the front of the class, take down the Oxford English Dictionary and read out to the class the definition of the word onanism.’ Which I did. Much to the delight of Shane and the rest of the class.

Shane was the most knowledegable kid in school about rock music. A gang of us used to sit all afternoon in a cafe a few streets away from the school, drinking tea and smoking Woodbines, talking about progressive music like Yes, Genesis and Soft Machine. We also loved the Allman Bros who we considered raunchy and Steely Dan who were jazzy, experimental and rebellious. One day—this would have been around early 1975—Shane walks in to out cafe with a scowl on his face. ‘That’s all CRAP!’ he spits out from between his already rotten teeth. ‘The Beatles—bloody Pink Floyd—they’re just a bunch of old FUCKS!’

You could almost hear the collective gasp. How could our music guru possibly utter such sacrilege! We were shocked and upset. Well, who should we be listening to now then, we asked? Shane listed a bunch of bands we’d never heard of, though we’d sure enough rush off to Oxford St later to find them at the Virgin Records shop, where you could sit in an aircraft seat and listen to any album on headphones. ‘The New York Dolls. The MC5. Johnny Thunders. Wayne County. That’s the new stuff! Fuck the old fart bands!’

Of course, Shane’s proclamation was a barometer of the era we were about to live through. Rock music had indeed become staid and self-important. In the mid-1970′s merchant bankers were getting monthly subscriptions to Rolling Stone magazine. It was high time some new kid with a different hairdo, a new cut to his jeans, and a menacing snarl to his lip, came along and shook us all up. And that kid was Johnny Rotten, who appeared on the scene about a year later. The collective intake of breath could now be heard all over the nation. I can remember the review of a Marquee gig by the Sex Pistols in NME: ‘Who do they think they are? They played too loud and too fast while this Rotten bloke spat and sweared at the audience, kicked the monitor, and walked offstage half way through the set. Have young people today no respect for rock music?’

I only saw Shane once after we left school. I bumped into him on King’s Rd in about 1979. He was by then a famous figure in the London punk scene, and he was getting his photo taken standing next to some tourists. He was in bondage trousers and safety pins (I don’t remember what I wearing but in those pre-New Romantic days before the start of the 80′s it was probably a Demob WW2 suit and a fluffy shirt.) It was clear Shane and I had grown apart. He told me he was forming a band of his own. I was not surprised, though I had never suspected he had any singing talent. What kind of music was his band going to play, I asked? ‘Sorta punk folk,’ he said. I suppressed a giggle. That’ll never work, I thought! Wrong again.

Never underestimate Shane MacGowan. I should have learned my lesson with the Onanism thing.

Thomas Dolby remixes Radiohead!

Friday, April 18th, 2008


I’ve done a remix of Radiohead’s gorgeous ‘Nude’ from the Rainbows album. This was not solicited by the band. They are running a remix contest for their single, and I just went to iTunes and bought the ‘stems’ to the song for $5 just like everybody else. Here’s how it came about…

A few days ago I received my new super-groovy Apple Airport Extreme wireless router. It has a much wider range than my previous Linksys. I was keen to see if it would reach the beach, which is about 150 ft from my house. The weather was fine if a little nippy so I took my MacBook Pro and a warm blanket down to the water’s edge and was delighted to find I could get Internet reception. I happened to check iTunes store where I saw a banner advertising the Radiohead remix contest. I love their album and especially ‘Nude’ so I was intrigued, and I downloaded the guitar stem and opened it in Logic 8. Now, each of the stems starts from 00:00 so it took a while before the guitar started to play. While waiting for it I just listened to the lapping of the waves on the shore, and the cry of some seagulls fighting over a crab shell. By the time the beautiful plaintive guitar part came in I was completely mesmerised. It left such a vivid impression on me that this became the basis for a remix, and I recorded a sample of the waves and seagulls and included it in the track. I downloaded the rest of the stems, and after two straight nights with no sleep, the mix is finally finished, and I’ve just posted it on Check it out, it’s called ‘Bathing In The Icefloe’ and to hear it you can click on the widget at the bottom of this page.

You don’t have to vote for my mix! I’m not trying to win anything. There are some pretty interesting remixes up there, very unexpected and original. There’s also some complete dross which I’m sure will make Thom Yorke’s stomach turn. There are ravey Ibiza floor fillers which disregard the original 6/8 time signature and put the vocal over a 4/4 beat. Some of them swap the upbeat and downbeat so Thom is singing ‘back to front.’ Mine is not a radical remix, mainly I’ve learned their parts and played them myself with a few new sounds that double what’s already there. What I tried to do is dig deeper into the song itself without disrespecting the band’s own lovely arrangement.

The lyrics, which are hard to make out, are quite amusing—a tale of a man tempted by the sins of the flesh. ‘Don’t get any big ideas’, he tells himself, ‘they’re not gonna happen.’ Then later: ‘You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking!’ When I saw them play this live I thought he sang some additional lyrics about her beckoning him to the bed. I kinda like that he’s stripped it back and left it minimal. And I love how the seagulls in my Icefloe mix seem to be laughing at him.

[kml_flashembed movie="" height="305" width="425" /]

Found Missing Sub!

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008


Click to enlarge. =)

This wooden sub is outside the Maritime Museum in Barcelona, Spain–a visit that I totally recommend if you’re ever in town. It was designed in the 1860s and held six people. A later design by the same inventor held 30 people, had lateral stabilisers, gauze filters to freshen the interior breathing air, and even a net and ‘poker’ on the bow for scraping coral samples off underwater reefs! I’m quite sure this helped inspire Jules Verne, not to mention George Dunning who animated the Beatles’ famous movie. The windows are rather minimal, in fact you’d get a better view from a deep sea diving suit. And of course, this was all before my namesake Morgan Robertson invented the periscope. But the rudder and propellor are excellent. All it lacked was a couple of hydrogen balloons to make it a dual purpose, go-anywhere radical steampunk ride!