Sunday, 12 July 2020

Once Upon A Time With Morricone





In a previous life I used to make documentaries. In 1999 it was my great pride to be asked to write and direct a documentary, Once Upon a Time – Sergio Leone, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of this great Italian director’s death. 

 

You can’t talk about Leone without also mentioning his lifelong friend and musical accomplice Ennio Morricone. So it was that our researchers scheduled an interview to take place in his apartment in Rome. This was the first interview of many that we would conduct for the production and on the appointed day I set off nervously with my Italian-speaking producer, who would act as translator for the interview. We were nervous not only because this was obviously an important interview but also because the scene had been set by his PA who informed us that he always insisted on being addressed as Maestro. 

 

His apartment was grand, in the classical Italian style: dim lighting, archways, alcoves and heavy drapes. As we set up in the living room we were told that we were free to take some general shots but that we must not, under any circumstances, film near the window. My producer explained that the view outside the window was of a very famous monument and that if we had filmed this all Romans would have immediately learned where Morricone lived.

 

About half an hour later the rather serious and imperious Maestro appeared. From the start of the interview he made it quite clear that in his opinion his relationship with Leone was one of equals. His role as composer was not merely that of a hired hand but that he saw his job as being of equal importance to the actual filming and that he enjoyed working with Leone particularly because of the importance which Leone gave to the music of his films.


And who could disagree? You only have to see the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and your brain starts to hum the signature theme.


He explained that prior to working on film scores he had been very active in researching avant-garde music and that in this realm the use of sounds was often given as much import as the musical notes. 


Thus it was that when he composed the music for Leone’s first film with Clint Eastwood, Fistful of Dollars, he used a variety of bells, whistles and abstract vocal yelps that would establish the tone of all the films scores he composed for Leone's westerns. 


Link to Fistful of Dollars theme


By the time he was composing for Leone's third film the range of effects had taken on an almost symphonic level using gun shots whips and whistling and animal yelps. 


Link to The Good the Bad and the Ugly theme


As far as he was concerned these were all part of the musical pallet. In fact his involvement with the avant-garde was more than a passing fad and from 1964 up to their eventual disbandment in 1980, Morricone was part of the Gruppo d Improvvisazione Nuova Consananza, a group of composers who performed and recorded avant-garde free improvisations.  

 

I asked him if he composed at the piano and he scowled, saying, “Only amateurs compose at the keyboard. I write directly onto the musical page.”

In my mind I wanted to challenge him with the retort, “Do you mean amateurs like Beethoven?” but I was awestruck by the thought that he had mastered music notation to such a degree that could write directly from his musical imagination with no need to be reminded what the notes sounded like.

He went on to explain how he composed the music for Leone’s films before the films were shot and that Leone would often use extracts of his music to play on set to help create an atmosphere before a take. 

 

He then explained how his love of the avant-garde prompted him to take Leone to a see a performance artist perform Symphony for a Metal Ladder, in which a heavily amplified set of steps was used to create a whole range of weird and wonderful sounds. This, he explained, gave Leone the inspiration for the opening scene of his epic western Once Upon a Time in the West




If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the whole movie, but the opening sequence must certainly be one of the most transfixing opening scenes of any film. Seven minutes of sound symphony as three gunmen await the arrival of a train at an isolated and primitive railway station. Throughout the whole sequence the ‘musical beat’ is maintained: the repeated rusty squeak of a dilapidated windmill used to pump the water for locomotives. 

 

Link to opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West 

 

In a later sequence, music also composed prior to filming, Claudia Cardinale is seen arriving at another railway station. She is arriving to meet her fiancé who is not at the station to greet her and the music somehow captures the romance and deep sadness of the scene. Leone was able to use the music and its crescendo to choreograph this single shot and its reveal of the bustling town that is springing up in response to the arrival of the railroad. 

 

Link to Claudia Cardinale's arrival by train 


The range and magnitude of Morricone’s compositions is immense. In one year alone he was reported to have composed 20 film scores. 


Without doubt one of his most lauded scores was for Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America


Once again the score was written before the film was shot with Leone playing it on set to help create an ambience for the scenes being shot. 












Deborah's theme from Once Upon a Time in America

 

In this epic gangster film the story jumps from one time period to another as the jigsaw of the story is gradually revealed. The director’s cut, released in 1984 at the Cannes film festival to rapturous applause, was 3 hours 49 minutes long.

But Warner Brothers, who were distributing it, decided that in order for the film to be a commercial success they would rearrange the film chronologically and edited it down to 2 hours 19 minutes. This act of vandalism made it the only film ever to be voted by screen critics as both the best and the worst film released in the same year based on the two edits. 

 

Sadly, one of the results of this shoddy editing by Warner was that Morricone’s name was edited off the credits, thereby excluding him from an American Academy Award on a technicality. (That year the award for best score was won by the film The Right Stuff – does anyone remember the score?) 

 

I suspect that Morricone was unmoved by this omission as it was apparent from my time with him that he had no doubt in his ability and expertise as a composer and was much more concerned with the job at hand. He died on July 6th 2020 at the age of 91 and was composing new scores till his last days. 

 

I believe he was, without doubt, deserving of his preferred epithet. Thank you, Maestro Morricone.

 

Link to Morricone biog.

 

 

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The Hi-Fi of Lo-Fi Jazz



I Iisten to a lot of music. Sometimes it feels like I am sifting through gravel, waiting for that moment when I encounter a precious stone amongst it. For me, these gems mostly appear as part of readily identifiable genres. I I find them hard to classify, I sometimes list them in my collection as 'Wonky',


It’s not often that I discover a whole seam of music but one day in mid-2018 I stumbled upon a track called The Accord by Harry Wolfman. For me it immediately stood out with its muddy mix of samples, with melody glinting, as those panning for gold might see a cleanly glittering speck of gold amidst the mud from the riverbed.

 

The Accord by Harry Wolfman

 

I dove straight in and listened to nearly everything Harry Wolfman had produced. Then, starting with the ‘Those who bought this also bought this’ facility on Juno Downloads, as well as checking other artists on the same record labels, I began to piece together names of others who I recognised as part of the same musical movement like Loz Goddard.

However, because I didn’t know a genre name to help me, I was lost as to how to describe this newly found (for me) genre. I created a folder on my computer simply titled Wolf to store everything I found. I then began sifting through my own collection to see if I could find other kindred tunes.

The constituents I was looking for were such elements as a ‘muddy mix’, excessive phasing, or otherwise distressing of the original samples, plus a particular fondness for mysterious spoken word samples or tantalising vocals that sound as if they are coming from a slightly out of tune radio.

 

I immediately identified what could well be described as a flag waver for this mystery genre. In 2013 Andhim had a hit with a gorgeous track called Hausch. I remember when it first came out being transfixed by the distressed, searingly soulful male vocalist with the oh so familiar line, ‘She’s not just a plaything, she’s flesh and blood just like a man’.

But who was the original male vocalist, and what was the song? Ah yes, it wasn’t a man, it was Queen Aretha singing Do Right Woman. So, time to resurrect Hausch. 

 

Hausch by Andhim

 

After a couple of months of musical mining I was gushing to a record producer friend about the tunes I had become obsessed with and he knew immediately what I was describing and gave me the genre label: Lo-Fi.

Now I had something to Google and soon discovered that the most recent incarnation of the term Lo-Fi was around 2016 and that there were some leaders of the pack like DJ Seinfeld and Mall Grab and DJ Boring. Leaders they might be, but I didn’t really like anything they produced. It seemed to me that for most of their output the fascination with distressed samples overweighed the power of melody which was often buried in a distorted Ketamine mumble. 

 

I read a comment from the time in which a journalist remarked that the reason Lo-Fi House had not taken off in clubs was because the muddy quality of the mixes sounded shit on a decent sound system. Consequently the scene tended to be located in smaller underground venues. 

What I was discovering was not poor quality but a lush additions to the soundscape, not negation of it. These distressed, phased tones with seemingly incompatible EQing were creating a new range of tones to the musical pallet. Tones which for me carried with them a powerful emotional quality.

 

I have always enjoyed Jazz in its many variants and began to notice that much of the Lo-Fi that I favoured had a Jazz flavour in the samples so started to look for the crossover between Jazz remixes and Lo-Fi. Odd tracks started to filter into my sets and I discovered that many of the tracks I had collected had a rather cool and sophisticated tone that were well suited to early evenings.

 

Modal Miles by Cesare Dell' Anna

 

Before long I started to discover that some of the producers with an inclination towards Jazz remixing had added their own Lo-Fi signature with what I call ‘slurring’. It’s as though a jazz instrumental is playing on vinyl and someone keeps gently nudging the turntable to slur the notes.

It drove me mad when I first heard it, but then gradually became one of my favourite effects.

 

Eitt by Felix Leifur

 

After several months I was still gushing about this genre when I cornered a journalist friend of mine to tell him of my discovery and he burst out laughing.

He then went on to tell me that it was not the producers who first coined the term Lo-Fi but rather a group of music journalists during a long liquid lunch. He knew this for certain — because he was one of them!

Of course it is rarely the artists who name their movements. The artist’s rôle is to sense and develop art which captures the zeitgeist

 

The term Impressionism was not coined by the artists but rather an art critic, Louis Leroy from the French satirical magazine Le Charivari He wrote a review of an exhibition comprising a group of the founding fathers of the impressionist movement in 1874. The exhibition included work by Monet, Sisley, Degas and Cezanne.

One of Monet’s paintings was entitled ‘Impression: Soleil Levant'. This provided Leroy with the title for his satirical review: 'The Exhibition of the Impressionists'

It seems that despite drawing attention to one of the most important art movements of all time, Leroy wasn’t all that keen on what he saw. He summed up his view of the Monet work with the words:


Impression, I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it  — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished that this seascape.

 


So what is it that appeals to me about Lo-Fi and my own predeliction for Lo-Fi Jazz? Well, as the saying goes, ‘There’s no accounting for taste’, which is evident in the taste divide between those who love Marmite and those who can’t stand it. To me this music carries a great deal of emotion.

I began thinking about how we remember things. Often, looking back, our memory is cleaned and polished. We remember situations as though they have been shot in 35mm. In reality most of our experiences are rarely so clear — there will be background sounds and distractions, all of which help to cement events in our future memory. For me Lo-Fi captures this complexity and nuance of memory as events and stimuli drift in and out of the soundscape.


This might all be a silly theory written by someone who spends way too much time in his thoughts with music, but if you've read this far and you would like to get a glimpse of what I'm talking about I have just put together my third volume of Lo-Fi Jazz mixes, and below you will find the links to all three.

I'm aware that this might be the Marmite of music, but I have always been missionary spirited and love this seam of music so intend to keep putting it out there along with my usual Balearic journeys and hope that there are ears that will hear.


Love Howard.







Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 1



Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 2




Lo-Fi Jazz Vol 3



 

 

 

 

 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Everything is Better With You



In March 2020 during the first week of the Corona virus lockdown in Ibiza, I was asked by a friend if I would DJ for her virtual birthday party, using the Zoom app. I must admit that my initial thought was that this was something of a gimmick, but she was a friend so I agreed.


What I experienced was one of the most moving events I have ever participated in.

 

Looking at the screen full of enthusiastic dancing figures from around the world it suddenly struck me that for many of the participants the room I could see was the prison into which they were now condemned. I would like to imagine it was solely my music that was bringing such joy to the party but in truth it was just one element. The major force was the sense of shared community. A growing awareness that we were all sharing and in the process breaking out of our own sense of isolation. 

 

Based on this experience I decided I’d start my own weekly event with the title ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ because, as my experience of the Zoom birthday party showed me, sharing does improve the experience. A meal by oneself in a restaurant, no matter how good the food, is rarely as much fun as even a simple meal of bread cheese and wine when shared with friends. Those memorable evenings many of us have experienced in a nightclub have not just been about the music but the shared experience with our group of friends. 

Although many other DJ’s were starting to do their own live streams on Facebook and other platforms I decided that I was going to use the Zoom app because it allowed more of the human interaction that many of us were thirsting for. I knew that getting people to download the app and join in was not going to be easy, probably because many, like me, believed it was something of a gimmick. But amazingly a weekly hard core of around 30 individuals and families from Spain, UK, Nepal, Israel, Finland, Switzerland and France logged on week after week for nine weeks!



While this was happening I, like many others, started to spend more of my newly acquired free time on Facebook where the tone of communication seemed much less collaborative, more tribal and polarised. I wish I could claim that I was a model of tolerance but instead became angrily determined to challenge all with reason and fact. I eventually realised eventually that in a world where nothing seemed certain I was fighting to resist any ideas that challenged my own views, particularly when many of those views were expressed in such an uncompromising way that they excluded any dissent. 

 

One day I remembered some words from my Buddhist mentor Daisaku Ikeda. Starting in the 70’s Ikeda began a series of dialogues with academics and leading thinkers covering a wide range of topics concerning society and attempting to find the common thread between Buddhist thought and contemporary issues.

 

At one point Ikeda was interviewed by a journalist who asked him how it was possible for him to conduct seemingly creative dialogues with such a diverse range of people. His answer was very simple. He said that first of all they established a friendship based on those areas on which they agreed. Then, and only then, were they able to move on to discuss those areas on which they disagreed.

 

It struck me that with Facebook and other apps we are apparently able to create friendships with the click of a button, which circumvents the need to create human bonds of friendship and mutual respect before tackling areas of disagreement. Many of us are learning confrontational and polarising manners of speech that are antisocial that simply don’t work in the real world. 

 

It is well documented that a sense of isolation and loneliness is growing in the world. The British government has even appointed a minister tasked with looking at how to remedy this in the UK ,which in recent research found that 9 million people often or always feel lonely. I am certainly not saying that Facebook and other social media is responsible for loneliness but I do find the tone of much dialogue is divisive.

 

This set me on a journey to investigate how is it possible to improve our relationships with each other, starting with myself. A book called The Talking Revolution* led me to discover The 

Harvard Study of Adult Development*. Initiated in 1938, the researchers began collecting data initially on a group of 268 male undergraduates, covering health, work, income and general well-being.

 

A few years later an additional study was started based round 456 teenage boys from Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods. After a few years these two projects were combined and eventually it continued for 75 years. Most of the participants continued to participate in the study for as long as they were able to, creating one of the broadest and longest- running studies of human well-being.

 

The results from these tens of thousand pages of data are startling and Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the study, noted that, ‘People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier. They’re physically healthier and they live longer than people who are less well connected’

 

But surely, it was asked, ‘What about exercise, diet, position in society and money? Don’t they make a difference?’ The answer, according to the study (which as I noted covered a broad cross-section of society), was categorically,  ‘No.’ Those people with good personal relationship are healthier and live longer regardless of background and personal habits and diet. 

 

It seems therefore that it’s not just music that ‘sounds better with you’ but our whole experience of life itself is improved by our good relationships with those around us. This is the thought that is now etched into my brain as I contemplate the coming season in Ibiza and beyond.


* The Talking Revolution 


Harvard Study of Adult Development



Thursday, 24 January 2019

Balearic Beats That Motivate an Island

The following article first appeared in the online magazine Electric Mode (http://electric-mode.co.uk)

Ibiza has long remained an eclectic paradise that offers freedom in choice for global visitors and residents that have been drawn to the energy and ethos of the island. Every season our lives are soundtracked by a mix of amazing DJ’s setting the scene to enjoy everything from sunsets to afterparties. 


It was by unique chance we discovered Howard Hill, who is one of a relatively small group of DJs who continues to champion the original Balearic style of DJing in Ibiza. This sound and character led mix has become a distant memory for some, and was once hailed as the heartbeat of the island, led by prominent icons such as Cafe Del Mar, Jon Sa Trinxa and Cafe Mambo (before becoming a house music mecca). 


As a DJ, Howard takes listeners on a musical journey by encompassing a variety of genres and fluidly moving from chill out soundscapes to a modern electronica mix that has seen him grace venues such as Pikes, KM5, Harbour Club, Amante, ME Ibiza, Coco Beach, Es Vive Hotel and Atzaro. 


The Electric Mode team sat down with the Balearic DJ to find out what makes him tick, what motivated his move to the island and essentially why his musical choice has become an island staple.


EM: Retracing your steps back, how did you first become involved with the electronic scene?


HH: My adolescence was from the late sixties through to the seventies – a very rich musical period. On reflection I
have always had the rather obsessive, nerdish mentality that seems to be a major character trait of many DJ’s,
however at that time the career path of being a DJ didn’t really exist. My musical obsessions were with the psychedelic rock scene, everything by virtuoso musician and composer Frank Zappa and the endless filigree guitar solos of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.


Periodically I used to sit down with an old Roberts Radio and slowly turn the dial to see what new music I could find. Towards the end of the 80’s I began to stumble on some of the rather rough and ready pirate radio stations that seemed to be springing up across London. Eventually a friend of mine took me by the hand and said, “take this” and led me to “Rage” on Thursday nights at Heaven under the arches near Charing Cross station. I was an immediate enthusiastic convert!


Sometime around the mid 90’s I visited Ibiza and had a further revelation listening to my friend Jon Sa Trinxa playing
on Salinas beach. I immediately fell in love with the Balearic style of genre breaking DJing that took one on a music
journey. Although I didn’t immediately start DJing myself, when I did I knew that I too wanted to champion theBalearic ethos.


EM: What is Balearic?


HH: Balearic music is often used to describe a downtempo genre of dance music. However Balearic is also used to describe a style of DJing. How would I describe it? Well Balearic has a sunny complexion. It’s eclectic, all embracing. A friend of mine calls it kaleidoscopic. Yes some Balearic is lush, sweet and tranquil but too much tranquillity turns your brain to mush so for me it’s the light and shade. It can be dramatic and deep but essentially it has a positive tone. Sometimes Balearic makes you want to dance for joy at other times you just want to close your eyes and drift off. Sometimes Balearic is incredibly beautiful and it can also be very, very sexy.


EM: What inspires your sets or does the curation come from a very deep record collection?


HH: I do have a pretty deep record collection but most of it is in digital format so my home isn’t walled in with thousands of vinyl records. However, I do have a valve driven hifi system and feed it with my treasured collection of vinyl albums which is mainly pre dance music. 


In terms of inspiration for sets, it’s all about the people who are around me. In over 20 years of DJing I have never once arrived at a gig knowing what track I am going to play to start off, let alone what is going to follow. Of course I have favoured tracks of the moment but I might also abandon these if I think that something else would be more appropriate. I like to play a track and see what ripples it makes.


EM: What sort of venues do you prefer playing?


HH: My preferred venues (and where I spend most of my time) are beaches, poolsides, rooftops, and cocktail bars.


Most of these are venues where there is no absolute requirement to dance but where no one would think it out of
place if one did. However, just because people aren’t dancing certainly doesn’t mean you are not connecting with
the audience. I have often noticed that younger DJ’s, who are more used to playing clubs, often feel a bit uncomfortable if people aren’t dancing and so try to push people musically. The response from people in beach bars and poolsides is much
more subtle but I have often said that I welcome head nodders and horizontal dancers at my gigs. The clientele at
many of my gigs are often a bit more mature too. My audiences are often musically educated and so will appreciate
the weird and wonderful remixes that I frequently drop and also wont mind if I take them off the dance menu
altogether for a short time. 


I would find it very hard to name a top 5 sunset tracks. My favourite tracks will change but my style remains pretty consistent.


EM: Where would you like to play?


HH: I have a dream (which seems to be gradually unfolding) of taking the Balearic vibe to more of the major cities in
the world. I am certain that I will find many lush cocktail lounges, rooftops and other similar venues that would be
ideal places to unfold my musical moods.


EM: What are the marked differences between you and a modern DJ’s approach to performance?


HH: I think I am a modern DJ. I am totally committed to the digital method of playing and try to challenge the concept that true DJing only exists in clubs. Perhaps in some ways I would regard myself as a musical curator in that I certainly value musical selection over the much vaunted skills of mixing. However, I try not to compare myself with others. I would say though that I think there are rather too many DJ’s who seem to promote style over enjoyment. Yes, by using such things as mixing in key it is now possible to produce a seamless beatmatched set. How boring. Sometimes I will consciously drop in a track that is a surprise because I feel that I
need to wake people up not lull them to sleep with a featureless set.

EM: What artists do you feel are seriously under promoted these days that should be further along the current industry chain? What excites you most about their talent or productions. 


HH: I think I will answer this question the other way round. I have often been entranced by a new track to the extent that I would then start following the producer in the hope that further works of greatness would follow. Often they don’t. In most cases I think that talent and creativity will out. Henrik Schwarz, Joris Voorn and Acid Pauli consistently produce great work, whether it is remixing someone else or producing completely unique work of their own. Sadly many other producers who have used producing as a way to enhance their life as a DJ often fail to excite me. They can not avoid playing mostly their own music in their sets which then become rather two dimensional. Maybe DJ’s should take an oath of none partisanship. This is difficult when they have been booked on the back of the music they themselves produced.


Recently a young aspiring DJ asked me what advice I could give him. I suggested he listen to as wide a range of music as possible and also learn to play a musical instrument so that he would gain a bit of understanding about the way that musical structure and chord changes work. Undoubtedly there are some great producers out there who can’t play any musical instrument but that are expert at creating a groove of depth and subtlety.

EM: Name your 5 top tracks (not so secret) that you always showcase during your sunset sessions and why.


HH: I find it amazing how conventions can be established in music which everyone then follows. With sunsets the idea generally seems to be that the tone will be chilled and lush (or sometimes so chilled that you wont even notice what is playing). I recently played a sunset from a rooftop bar to the accompaniment of a Jazzy Drum and Bass sequence. I was a bit nervous at first but after a stiflingly hot day followed by an awakening cool breeze it proved to be remarkably appropriate and popular. As I hope this illustrates I would find it very hard to name a top 5 sunset tracks. I would much rather people get to know (and hopefully like) my style of mixing rather than individual tracks. My favourite tracks will change but my style remains pretty consistent. There are often groups of tracks that are favourites so here are a few of my mixes that I would recommend.


Sunny & Wonky Beats

As always I have a preference for ‘Sunny’ beats which to me feels as though it is an essential part of the Balearic ethos but this also contains a number of other tracks which I chose to call ‘Wonky’. I can’t really explain this but hopefully all will become apparent as you listen. 

https://www.mixcloud.com/djhowardhill/sunny-wonky-beats/

Organic and Electric Sunshine

This mix features two musical fascinations. First what I would term ‘Organic’, which comprises traditional tribal music, primarily from South America, with a minimal techno twist. The secondly genre I call Deep Desert. It is influenced by middle eastern melodies and instrumentation but with Deep House sensibilities. These are combined with a further selection of Sun Drenched Techno including a couple of ‘Granular’ tunes – you’ll see what I mean. 

https://www.mixcloud.com/djhowardhill/organic-electronic-sunshine/


Sun & Bass

This mix really is a bit of a journey, taking in everything from Nu Disco, Drum & Bass, Latin, Reggae and some less
definable genres.

https://www.mixcloud.com/djhowardhill/sun-bass/


Trippy Balearic Disco

This mix is from a few years back but I think it has stood the test of time and I still love many of the tracks on it. I’ve
long enjoyed psychedelic flavours in music and over the summer months playing round pools and beaches of Ibiza I
began to realise that phased and trippy tones go very well floating on the breeze. This is a collection of  favourite spaced out tunes. A little music for the mind and dancing feet. 

https://www.mixcloud.com/djhowardhill/trippy-balearic-disco/


If you would like to see the original of this article or see many more features and articles about the electronic dance scene here is a link to Electric Mode.

http://electric-mode.co.uk/index.php/2018/10/15/balearic-beats-that-motvate-an-island/

Friday, 3 February 2017

No Accounting For Taste?

I’m fascinated by musical taste and its diversity. Why will certain pieces of music move one person to ecstasy while another may be nonplussed or even irritated by it.

Many years ago a girl friend of mine, I think out of her concern over my new-found Buddhist faith, invited me for tea with her local vicar. He was quite young and a very nice non-judgmental person. After briefly questioning me about the nature of my beliefs, he quickly seemed to conclude that there was nothing sinister about my practice and the conversation moved on to more general topics.

At one point I mentioned how sometimes it can be quite frustrating when one is unable to share an enthusiasm with someone else. As an example I described walking through a forest and being struck by the glorious light of the sun cutting through the foliage. “Imagine,” I said, “that you turn to your friend and say, ‘Hey look at that, isn’t it beautiful?’ but all your friend does is shrug and carry on walking. “Yes,” he said solemnly, “that’s because it’s something you can only share with God. More tea?”

Years later, in the early days of the emerging rave scene, I thought about this again but this time revelling in the joy of the shared experience. Swaying to the music in my favourite East End club Labrynth (not a typo, that’s how they spelled it), the DJ would start a new tune – and as an example I can vividly remember this happened with Crystal Waters track “Gypsy Woman”.  As the first few feeble organ notes sounded, a spontaneous ripple of recognition and joy passed through the club, catapulting everyone onto the dance floor.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this shared musical experience felt like a religious one as each individual became linked, hearts and faces open, to the ecstasy of the moment. It was a very powerful experience and kept drawing me and many others back to dance floors around the country for that buzz of shared recognition.

Later on, when I began to DJ myself, I began to search for and question myself how I might be able to discover tunes that would be enjoyed and shared by many others. Although my love for dance music was passionate and all encompassing, believing that it was fulcrum for the creation of new sounds, I was also not able to unlike the many other genres that I had embraced prior to its arrival. On the one hand my adolescence was informed by the complex intricacies of Soft Machine and Frank Zappa, while on the other I could be equally touched and moved by the minimal and sometime banal. One of the first house tracks I heard was by a band called Technotronic. The lyric to one track was:

This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
This beat is Technotronic
There’s the dance floor, let’s get on it.

To me it was as elegant as a haiku poem and I loved it.

The diversity of musical genres is now much more able to satisfy the limitless diversity of individual taste, but it wasn’t always so.

It’s hard to imagine now but contemporary music used to be quite rare. In the early 60’s it wasn’t possible to hear much contemporary music on a UK radio in part due to the fact that the Musicians Union deal with the BBC limited the amount of recorded music that could be played. Radio Luxemburg broadcast from outside the UK and was thus able to sidestep such limits and provided the musical backdrop for much of the 50’s/60’s generation. Pirate radios broke this logjam and eventually the BBC responded with the launch of Radio One.

But even so the music available was largely dictated by the major record companies. Very few people could afford to record their own music and, even if they could, there was no way of getting the records out there if you didn’t have a recording contract. Yes there was an explosion of musical creativity during the late Sixties and Seventies, but the production and distribution was still tightly controlled by the record companies so what you heard on the radio one week would doubtless be in the charts the next. At one point it seemed as though the whole youthful populace was locked in a two-way taste division as people would ask, “Who do you follow — The Beatles or Rolling Stones?”

But rarity in the late Sixties wasn’t just confined to output. My parents didn’t purchase a record player till my teens in the late 60’s and even then it wasn’t because they wanted to hear more music but because they had come to regard a stereogram, similar to a cocktail cabinet, as a “must have” item of furniture for any self-respecting middle-class family. As soon as the stereogram entered our lounge there began a battle of attrition between my mother, who saw it as a platform on which to mount a vase of flowers, and me, who wanted to open it up for its intended function of playing music.

Most Saturday evenings I would cling to the back of my friend’s Lambretta scooter as we headed off to village halls across Cheshire that were holding a “disco”. One evening the disco was particularly disappointing and my friend mentioned that the parents of one of our school friends were away for the weekend and their son was having a party. “We could go there if you want,” before adding what proved to be a clincher, “and he’s got a copy of Abbey Road”.

When we arrived the living room was full of school friends, covering every bit of sofa and floor space smoking cigarettes, snogging and deferentially nodding to the latest Beatles album. I suspect that both sides had already been played several times when we arrived and would be played several more times before anyone could build up the courage to challenge the mood of adulation. My friend’s family had a stereogram similar to my parents and throughout the evening there remained a patient line of people queuing up by it, waiting to take their turn to examine the Abbey Road album cover.

Since the 90’s, thanks to advances in technology, we can now enjoy a universe of music and most people have a number of ways that they can listen to it whether at home, their place of work or on the bus. Popular music has transmogrified into a multiplicity of genres often produced in home studio and distributed via websites to niche audiences.

When I started to DJ I quickly discovered that there was no point in trying to second guess other people’s tastes and the best I could do was to keep digging to find things that truly moved me in the hope that others would share some of my passions. 

What amazes me is how precise our taste can be. Sometimes it will be a minor component that will capture my attention. The buzz of a bass that turns me to jelly. Hearing a piece of minimal techno I begin to fantasize that each note has been hand carved to perfection in the same way that a jeweller might cut and polish a diamond. On other occasions it will be the heart-warming tones of a skilfully played marimba that will fill me with awe or maybe a repetitive electro theme building, layer on layer, to a sun-drenched, anthemic crescendo.

As a Buddhist I don’t believe in the idea of an external God but I think more and more about that young vicar’s explanation of being touched by something. Our taste is a unique expression of our unique lives. However, sometimes we can find within music an eloquence that speaks to our shared experience, like the sun cutting through the trees in a forest. I don’t understand it but I know what I like and hopefully others do to.











Wednesday, 4 May 2016

DJ’s Getting It Wrong

Being a DJ is much like any other profession in that when a group of them get together the conversation can very easily slide into complaints about “Them and us”. The gigs we played that would have been marvellous if only the management hadn’t provided us with a crap sound system, or the punters had shown at least a basic appreciation of music, etc, etc.

Recently it occurred to me, from some of my own experience, that of course not all failed gigs are down to external circumstances and just as tired drivers make for car crashes, fatigued or bored DJ’s can also result in problems with the flow of an event. Of course few DJ’s are willing to publicly admit to any of these failings, so after talking to a number of fellow DJ’s I agreed to write about some of their experiences anonymously. Not all of these are technical problems and some are just simply embarrassing. The following were transcribed from memory and I offer them with no comment.

1. The place was full and it was a very hot day. I ordered a beer and because I didn’t want it near the decks placed it on one of the bass speakers by my side. I’d been playing for about half an hour when suddenly not only the music cut out but also the lights of the venue. My first words were, “What the fuck!” as I appealed to anyone who could help as my eyes caught sight of the broken glass by my feet. The glass of beer had vibrated off the speaker and onto the power source blowing the amplifier and taking out the power for most of the venue.

2. I generally only use headphone to line up the next track but this was going to be quite a complex mix so I kept them on while I was mixing from one to another. I was bouncing about excited by the mix, which had worked very well, and hadn’t noticed perplexing stares coming from the dance floor. I’d forgotten to push one of the volume sliders up so that the epic mix I had just completed had only been experience by me in the headphones and I had in fact plunged the whole dance floor into silence.

3. I like to dance when I play. Sometimes I dance a lot, very enthusiastically. One night the whole place was rocking and I was so carried away by the music that I hadn’t noticed the multi-plug block by my feet until I jumped on it, turning off the power supply for both the CD decks and amplifier in one move.

4. A couple of years ago I discovered a great deep and dark remix of a very cheesy pop song. Unfortunately I also had the original cheesy pop version on my computer. In the middle of a very deep set I accidentally put the wrong version on. Everyone stared at me but I just smiled and shrugged hoping they would think I was being cool and ironic. It worked as a few people began making silly dance moves while I found something take the mood back to where it had been before.

5. Many of the producers who create dance tunes are pretty anonymous and you would have to be a real nerd to recognise them all. A guy came up to me once to ask about a particular mix I was playing. “Yes it’s great isn’t. I can’t stand the original but I think they have made this into a pretty good track.” “Thanks,” he said, “I made the original.”

6. I was playing in a beach bar. A rather pretty girl came into the booth for a chat. As I was just about to take a break for lunch I asked her if she would mind if I joined here and her group of friends. Seated at the table we were chatting away about music and Ibiza. Then came one of those moments when it seemed as everyone else’s conversations came to an end as I spoke. Turning to her I asked, “So what do you do Kate?” The whole table erupted in laughter. Her second name was Moss.


If anyone has any more DJ tales of 'DJ's Getting it Wrong', please forward them to me and I promise not to use any names.