Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Mick Philpott, The Daily Mail, and the welfare state

Mick Philpott in court

There are probably armies of beardy weirdy pinko-liberals like me all over the UK (or at least in Hackney) already furiously typing blog posts about this topic, and I feel like I'm slightly taking the bait here, and I suppose I've lived in the UK long enough now not to be shocked by anything The Daily Mail comes out with...but I have to say that their most recent headline ("Vile Product of Welfare UK") - which attempted to pin the blame for Mick Philpott's children's deaths on the benefits system - really, really got to me. 

Here's why:

Firstly, with this headline, the paper lets the bastard off the hook for the deaths of his children. It essentially says he's not to blame; the welfare state made him who he was, and led to him killing them. 

Secondly, it's outrageous that a newspaper - particularly in the wake of the phone hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry - would try to take advantage of the deaths of six little kids to push a political agenda (and a controversial one at that). How the welfare state operates and how generous it should be is obviously and properly fair game for debate, but this tragedy says nothing about the benefits system. You don't have to be a defender of the welfare state to see that fundamentally, this is simply the a story of a jilted, violent lover who burnt down his house in a stupid bid to gain revenge on an ex-girlfriend, killing his kids in the process. Yes, Philpott was on benefits. But he might as well have received his income from being an astronaut, or selling double glazing; because contrary to what The Daily Mail might have its readers believe, violent behaviour and stupidity are by no means the exclusive preserve of those in receipt of benefit payments, and trying to pin the blame for this terrible - but unique - tragedy on the welfare state is ridiculous. We may as well say that participating in the Paralympics leads to girlfriend-murdering (that's Oscar Pretorious off the hook); that all doctors are serial killers (Harold Shipman is clearly a vile product of medical training); or that being an American makes it a dead cert that you will enter a cinema and mow down a bunch of movie-goers with a machine gun. The arguments that the newspaper is making about the welfare state would be laughable, were they not succeeding in turning dead children into pawns in a horrible political game. This kind of journalism is up there with the hacking of Millie Dowler's phone, and it's depressing to see mainstream news channels use the controversial headline as an opportunity to host a 'debate' about whether the welfare state created Mick Philpott and led to his actions. It didn't. We may as well debate whether or not the welfare state was exclusively responsible for the enormous success of former benefit-recipient JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise, or indeed, whether the earth is flat.

Thirdly, the headline is a huge insult to anyone who receives benefits. That would be most (if not all, at some point) of the population, including the overwhelming majority of Daily Mail readers. Receive any child benefit? A state pension? Tax credits? Winter fuel allowance? Disability allowance? Do you visit a GP from time to time? Ever used an NHS hospital? If so, by the Mail's logic, you are now to some degree or other a vile product of the welfare state. Exactly how vile you are is no doubt dependent on the amount you receive in benefits, or the number of annual trips you make to your doctor's surgery, but most of us are clearly a step further along the road to becoming a child murderer. We are all vile products together, to coin a phrase.

Fourthly, it's a classic example of a newspaper taking the most extreme / unusual examples of benefit recipients and using them them to draw wide (and invariably false) conclusions about the whole system. As statistics from the ONS show, most people who receive benefits do not have 25 kids. They do not live in huge mansions. They don't drive BMWs. We can debate the welfare system and dependency traps until the cows come home, but the debate will be meaningless if we take hyperbole designed to sell newspapers or win votes as the starting point for the discussion.

Ultimately this headline, and George Osborne's effective endorsement of it, confirms something very nasty about the UK in 2013. There is a war being waged on the most vulnerable people in the country - and it's being waged by a cabinet of millionaire politicians and their political sympathisers in the press, few (if any) who have ever experienced what poverty really means. There's no 'all in this together' to be heard any more this war. No compassion in the conservatism. No hoodies being hugged. Just constant, relentless talk of chavs, scoungers and skivers. A huge divison between 'us' and 'them'. It's hate. Daily hate. But the sad story of the deaths of Mick Philpott's children does not represent a parable for our age, and the man himself is no poster boy for benefits receipients.

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A Valentine's Day gift

Valentine's Day - or VD as I like to call it - is here. So I thought I'd celebrate by giving you a couple of downloads from my last record, Lady Gasoline

  • Here's a nice cheery number, 'Blood', which is about the inability to love: download 'Blood' here.
  • And here's a song about valium, which you might need if you are stressed out by love or the lack of it today: download 'Valium' here.

NOTE: you might want to right click on the above links to save the songs onto your computer.

Hope these help you feel suitably loved up - or not. Meanwhile, work continues apace on the new record; more on that anon. 

Lady Gasoline can be bought exclusively from this site for now. Click here to get a copy.

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A man knocks on the door with a four track portastudio. I'm back in 1995.

I've just taken delivery of a fairly ancient piece of kit: a Tascam 424 MkII four track tape recorder (see picture above), which dates back to the mid-nineties - a lifetime ago in terms of recording technology. Back then I was a teenager recording some (very bad) songs on a similar device which had cost me a small fortune to buy. To pay for it I'd spent a whole summer selling tickets for bus tours of Dublin out of the back of a glorified wheelbarrow on Grafton Street (yes, think of all the Molly Malone jokes I was subjected to by tourists); and, tonight, running my fingers over the play and record buttons of my new (old) purchase, I am instantly taken back to October 1995, where I eagerly unboxed my shiny new four track portastudio and microphone, and prepared to embark on a multitrack audio adventure.

This adventure continues today; I now record (hopefully much better) songs on a shiny Apple Mac, using a program called Pro Tools. By comparison to Pro Tools, the old four track I've just bought is primitive - whereas the Pro Tools software allows you to record a virtually unlimited number of noises onto separate 'tracks', this only allows you to record four instruments individually. Options for processing the sound are very basic - you get four faders, a basic EQ and that's about it. That said, that's more or less what a certain well-known group called The Beatles had to play with when they recorded the likes of Revolver and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. They had bigger and better tapes to record onto (my four track uses simple cassettes) and experienced engineers like Geoff Emerick to work with, but the basic recording functionality and challenges involved were the same.

So why did I part cash for this relatively ancient piece of kit? Was it just to wallow in audio nostalgia? Nope (although I must say I have indulged in a bit of that). It's because when you record stuff onto a machine like this, you get a magical sound that is very hard to achieve with digital gear. It's the sound of tape, which virtually all my favourite songs were recorded onto, back in the 60s and 70s (and actually tape was still used fairly regularly up until the late 90s). Granted, the tapes were wonderfully huge reel to reel affairs, sonically far superior to a cassette...but still, when you record onto a four track portastudio, you do still get some of that sound, particularly as far as bass is concerned. 

So far, all the album's bass tracks were recorded onto one of these four tracks (kindly lent to me by my ex-bandmate Andy Fleet) and then fed back into Pro Tools, where they join a lot of digital stuff. It's involved a bit of jiggery pokery and editing, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that the taped bass lines sound gorgeous compared to the versions that I recorded straight onto the computer. A subtle effect called 'tape compression', (which you get when record an ever-so-slightly too loud signal onto the tape) comes into play and it imparts a bit of that deep, fat sound that you associate with the classic records of yore.

Now that I have my own four track again, and more time to play with it, I shall be experimenting with recording other instruments onto tape before transferring them into the digital world. I am sure that some sound engineers would conisder me bonkers for doing this - after all, I have some far more professional gear in my studio to work with, which delivers a technically 'better' sonic result. But I like this way of working - and above all, I love the sound, warts and all.

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150 years of the tube...and me

No, I'm not 150 years old (although perhaps I feel it). But today, the London Underground is. All the news coverage about this has been bringing back all sorts of memories for me today about the launch of my first album, Twisted City, back in 2006. The album was conceived as a tube journey through London, with every song a stop on the line and about a particular London place, person or experience. As such, we went and launched it by playing a few songs from it on the Underground...only to find out that a TV crew had rocked up. The result was a very surreal piece on the record on the ITV news that night. I cringe watching some of it in hindsight (particularly the bit where I'm coming down the escalator playing a guitar) but hey, I was young and I er, needed the publicity.

Some of this footage is available in my 'making of the album' video, and you can download Twisted City for free here.

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Geoff Emerick's book: bringing The Beatles back to life

The Beatles

As a young whippersnapper I was, like a lot of other young whippersnappers, obsessed by the music of The Beatles (and indeed the band themselves). They were a terribly bad influence on me though: they inspired me to pick up a guitar and write music. Possibly not the most sensible thing for a young chap to be doing really, and certainly an activity that would make the chance of getting rich quick much less likely, but there you go.

The other thing that the band did was inspire me to pick up lots of books - namely, books about The Beatles. From the age of ten up until my early twenties I devoured any Beatley tome I could get my mits on. Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head; Albert Goldman's The Lives of John Lennon; the Anthology book; Mark Lewisohn's various diary-style accounts of their career...and many, many more.

This voracious reading of Fab Four-related books resulted in a few interesting things happening: first, as a ten-year-old I encountered lots of detailed accounts in Beatles biographies of 'knee-tremblers' and other sexual antics during the band's stint in Hamburg that required explanations from a clearly embarrassed and obfuscating father who wasn't expecting the sex-ed chat for another couple of years. Then, I became much in demand at pub quizzes during the music round. And finally the elders in the village heard of my wonderous knowledge of all things Beatley and would call me up any time there was a Beatles-related clue that had them stumped in a crossword.

As I got older and more into recording equipment (yes, an interest in girls developed along the way somewhere too, but that's another and possibly less exciting blog post) my Beatle nerdiness turned to studio nerdiness. The Beatles books gathered dust on the shelf as I started reading Sound on Sound magazine and very technical books by its editor, Paul White, on how to put grey foam on the walls of a home studio. Precious few references to knee-tremblers in there but I must say I learned to love a bit of grey foam.

But recently, I came across a book which seemed to appeal to both the Beatles and studio technology anoraks in me: Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles by Geoff Emerick (co-written with music journalist Howard Massey). Now, as any proper Beatles fan will tell you, Emerick is the guy that engineered a truckload of their music, including the Revolver, Sgt Pepper's and Abbey Road albums; he was present at the first ever Beatles recording session and was involved in some way or other with nearly all of their output. And I have to say that this is probably the most interesting book about the band I've read.

Whereas most other people writing about the band have had to rely on conjecture or second-hand accounts to paint a picture of what went on the studio, Emerick's account of their recording sessions is a completely first-hand, fly-on-the wall affair. Emerick spent much of the sixties holed up in the same room as the world's most influential rock band as they recorded their most important work, and as such he is able to provide a unique, intimate warts-and-all portrayal of the group - a portrayal that almost leaves you feeling like you were 'there at the time'. As you read the book you get an incredibly vivid sense of The Beatles' personalities; and what's interesting about this is that rather than warming to the band members, you start to dislike them. Many other authors of Beatles history indulge in hero-worship, to the point where the band are god-like individuals that can do no wrong, musically or otherwise; however, Emerick is not afraid to point out that The Beatles were assholes a lot of the time. According to Emerick, they were frequently stand-offish; they wouldn't share their food (particularly digestive biscuits); they had huge egos; they were selfish; and they were snobbish towards the Abbey Road staff. And occasionally, Emerick is pretty critical of their musical skills: for example, George Harrison is portrayed throughout much of the book as a very average guitarist who took ages to get any solos right. Ringo is depicted as a fairly disinterested sort of individual who didn't have that much musical input into anything.

Emerick has interesting things to say about George Martin too; namely, that he wasn't half as important to proceedings as he is generally considered today. In the book Emerick describes him as more of a string arranger than a producer, who was reluctant to give any of his engineering team any credit for their work; he also states that from 1966 onwards he was viewed by the band as a bit superfluous to the recording process. It's also remarkable to discover that the place where this recording took place - Abbey Road Studio 2, so revered by Beatles fans all over the globe - was actually intensely disliked by the band and many of the EMI staff who worked there (who considered it a dank, dark sort of a place).

And then of course, there's the accounts of the technical side of the recordings. The danger with this aspect of the book was that the passages on the actual sound engineering would be a turn-off to the reader who is not really interested in familiarising themselves with the ins and outs of valve compression and microphone placement, but somehow Emerick, with his co-writer's help, manages to make this sort of thing entertaining for the non-technically minded reader. His description of how he engineered Tomorrow Never Knows, which involved a giant tape loop going all around Abbey Road (via white-coated staff members holding up pencils for the tape to spin upon) is particularly fascinating, not to mention very humorous.

Now, as authors of these sorts of books tend to do, Emerick is writing history to suit himself and doesn't hold back from portraying his own contribution to the Beatles' recordings in a very positive light. Sometimes this feels a little too self-congratulatory, and an engineer who worked alongside him, Ken Scott (who later went on to be a famous producer, best-known for his work with Bowie), completely disputes Emerick's version of events and largely dismisses the book as fantasy. It's an interesting spat, which you can read about here. There do certainly seem to be some factual errors here and there (Scott would argue here, there and everywhere), and it does seem a bit suspect that Emerick is magically able to recall exactly what the Beatles said in specific recording sessions well enough to quote them verbatim, i.e.,

"We can't hear ourselves onstage anymore for all the screaming," Paul interjected earnestly, "so what's the point? We did try performing song songs off the last album, but there are so many complicated overdubs we can't do them justice. All we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever."

Well, Sir Paul might have said something to that effect, and I suppose creating a sentence and putting it in quotations does help drive a narrative - however, it's a bit silly to present stuff like this as sentences that were actually uttered by the band.

But despite these gripes - Ken Scott's or my own - I feel that Emerick's contribution towards the Beatles' recordings was so significant (his groundbreaking work on Revolver and Pepper was arguably more production than engineering), and his vantage point so unique within their history, that his take on thing deserves a fair hearing. Maybe the passage of time, along with his lack of a diary / detailed notes of the Beatles recording sessions has led to some inaccuracies creeping into proceedings, but I don't get the sense that Emerick is making stuff up for the sake of it. Besides which, his accounts of what went on in the studio chime fairly consistently with the stories of other important Beatley witnesses. Regardless of how accurate Emerick is on the technical side of things though, or on the exact dates on which various events occurred, what's really captivating is the basic insights you get into the personnel involved in the sessions; it's very refreshing to see people routinely described throughout rock history as geniuses who can do no wrong come in for fairly robust criticism. The Beatles become real people rather than rock gods, and as such, you can identify with them more.

So all in all, this is book is seriously worth a read, even for the most jaded of Beatles nerds. Emerick is a huge player in and important observer of Beatles history and this book takes you right inside this history, so much so that when you've finished reading the book, you feel like you've just spent the 60s in a recording studio with a grumpy, chaotic, egotistical but extraordinary talented rock band.