Sunday, 15 January 2017

Are labels harmful in music and fiction?

It's an odd question and one with the inevitable answer as far as I'm concerned of YES.... and NO.

I found labels immensely useful when I was kid learning about the entertainment I liked. I fluked my first love in both these forms. In music it was a BBC programme showing the Who smashing their instruments. In reading it was seeing a cover I liked on a carousel of books inside a kiosk shop on Great Yarmouth seafront during one of the many times we ducked inside one building or another to escape the rain. I seem to remember that summer holiday being something of a washout.

So there I was in 1977 encountering music and reading for the first time; really encountering it anyway. I'd obviously done both before. I'd heard music on TV shows. I'd read books because school kind of makes you. But with the Who and Asimov I found myself wanting to do both; just for the enjoyment of it. And so to labels.

You see I wanted more. And I wanted more that I would like. You see my nine year old brain knew a little of the value of money (i.e. I didn't have much of it) and so if I was going to spend the little amount of money I had I had to make it count. I suppose one thing that was obvious that I didn't do would have been concentrate on reading books from the library. That way I could have spent what little money I had just on records. Well if I told you I still have the first book I ever bought (Asimov - Through a Glass, Clearly) it might tell you something about me. I like keeping things; things I like anyway. I'm not a mad hoarder who has every newspaper since 1981 or something like that.

So I had to target my acquisitions well and fortunately I found the labels, or genres, that would help me. Asimov books were in science fiction. The Who were in rock music. So there was a reasonable chance I might like other authors and bands I found in those sections. And it worked. I found Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Edmund Cooper, Lester del Rey, Michael Moorcock and all the other writers I liked when I was a kid. And I read them all listening to the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Small Faces, Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and all of my other favourite bands.

Okay, that's the argument for yes. but I did mention there being alternate answer to my original question. Well, there is, and it is quite simple. They limit you. I read science fiction. I read horror. I would venture as far as fantasy from time to time but that was it. And I probably missed quite a lot of great fiction doing it. And the same in music. I liked rock music. I liked progressive rock music. Through Zeppelin I even branched out into Folk-Rock and then straight Folk. I bought albums by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span for instance and of course Roy Harper - how could I not.

But I didn't necessarily look all that far outside those limits, even though I knew when I heard music in other areas I liked it. I just didn't let myself buy it. The same for fiction only with the obvious restriction that you cannot just accidentally read a book in the way you can hear music while watching a film or commercial, on the radio or in a store as you shop.

Then I grew older and realised just how problematic these restrictive labels could be. So I escaped them. I found P.G. Wodehouse. I found Alan Bennett. I found Umberto Eco. And in more recent times I found Magnus Mills. I could mention Zoran Živković, possibly my favourite living writer but there is something of a crossover with the genres I like in his writing so I might well have read his novels and stories even if I'd stayed locked in. Same with an Australian author I've become rather partial to - Max Barry.

So they were useful for a while but I had to outgrow them. Flash forward some decades - annoyingly four (golly, I feel old)  - and I don't think things are the same for young people today. Because you see they have this big wild woolly thrill ride of an internet. They can take bigger risks with their entertainment because it is so much cheaper to access it. You can head to streaming sites, YouTube or any other of dozens and hear something and make your own mind up about it without having to worry about whether it's been categorised alongside the other stuff you listen to.

And it's the same with reading; although to a lesser degree. You can read samples online you can read entire short stories or novels in some cases. But you still have to put the time effort in. Reading is still far more intensive a process. But the internet does make it easier than it was.

I think when I started this I thought I might have a point; somewhere my thoughts were headed but I've realised the further I have gotten into this the less important that is. The truth is there are no labels; not that actually matter. Well maybe except one. Things now are either categorised into

 - I like this
 - I don't like this

And from my point of view, just as it should be from yours, that's all that matters. So if you want to listen to One Direction please do. I might not be joining you though. But I will have my guilty little secret pleasures. It might just be time to put on Madonna's True Blue album - look, I just like it, OK?

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Desk music

I am a man of habit; in the short term at least. I tend to do and redo things. Some of them last a long time - I'm still a fan of the Who four decades after first listening to their music and of Asimov's fiction the same length of time after first reading one of his short story collections (Through a Glass Clearly). But others are habits that come, stick around for a while and then disappear.

Well the one I am about to blog about is both. I keep a stack of CDs on my desk that are the core of my listening at any one time. They are not the only things I listen to - far from it. I will stand up and walk across to the shelves on the wall to my right and pick CDs off quite often as the mood strikes. But the ones on my desk are the ones that when I play them I don't want to put back - at least not for a while.

Well having just added one to the pile (and taken one off it which I will not name as its removal is my fault not its - I have heard it a few times recently so it can rest and re-acquaint itself with its friends on the shelves) I thought it might be time to talk about the current list.

The newly added CD (the one playing as I type) seemed a good place to start. It's arbitrary beyond that. I'll just list them from the top down. Oh - one rule; no artist can be in the pile twice

CD - 1.
Jethro Tull - Crest of a Knave.
This is probably not the first Jethro Tull album people might think of. It's not from their prime period (the 70s). But I like it. I'd not long discover the band when this came out so its timing for me was perfect. And also it came at the time when, because I was a student, I didn't have the kind of money I have now to buy music and there was no internet to casually listen when you had time. As a result the albums I bought back then had plenty of time to imprint themselves on my psyche. You'll probably notice another CD like this as I move down the pile.

CD - 2
Nick Drake - Bryter Layter
I first bought Nick Drake on vinyl back in my school days (LPs which are unfortunately long gone). I like his simple style, at odds in many ways with some of his complex melodies and scanning - listen to Hazey Jane II. (Apologies to anyone who knows the right words for musical stuff. I'm a musical ignoramus so I make do with the words my brain supplies me with).
Nick Drake died too young. He was only 26. He only released three albums. This was the second and it's a beautifully lyrical album.

CD - 3
Lou Reed - New York
This has been on this pile longer than any of the others currently in it. A friend of mine at University (a Swiss guy called Markus) bought this in Leicester on one of the mornings we headed for all the records shops (Leicester had quite a number in those days). We got back, put this album on, listened to it and then I had to go back into Leicester to get my own copy.
This is quite simply one of my favourite albums of all time. I love everything about it.

CD - 4
Rush - Clockwork Angels
Some bands get pretty bad late on in their careers. Rush however are not one of them. This is their final studio album (unless some miracle happens) and it is quite simply brilliant. A band that could go on forever as far as I'm concerned.

CD - 5
Tanita Tikaram - Closer to the People
The CD this replaced was her previous album - Can't Go Back. For quite a while I did regret my rule of only one CD per artist. Then I thought seriously about it. I do only have to go about six feet to go fetch from the shelf to play it. No great hardships.
TT is an artist I have followed since her first records came out back in 1988. I've listened to her as I turned from being a teenager into a grown up into my current middle age. And at every step of the way she has released an album I have loved.
This one is no exception

CD - 6
Ultravox - The Colllection
Normally I don't add compilations to this pile. I like to hear an album as it's supposed to be - the songs together as they were when they were first released and in the order they were original put in.
Compilations, for all that they contain the singles or most popular songs, often seem a mismatch. These Best Ofs usually live their lives in my car when all I want is the hits This one however works wonderfully well as a record. And it has one of my favourite songs on it - Hymn.

CD - 7
Kate Bush - The Sensual World
I like female singer/songwriters (this is not the last that will feature here). And Kate Bush is one of the best of them. This album would probably not be the pick of many KB fans. They'd probably go for one of the earlier ones but this reminds me of the summer when I bought it. I'd finished University and was about to start my teaching career and full of hope for the future. I shared a wonderful summer staying on in the Uni digs with friends I'd made in student days and we spent one last summer ignoring the fact we were all about to go our separate ways.
In the middle of that I bought this. It beings back those memories.

CD - 8
Bruce Springsteen - the Rising
Again possibly not the first choice of other fans and I will agree with to a large degree. My favourite Springsteen album is probably Nebraska and that was on this pile for a long time but I just wanted a change and so it was replaced wit this one. I find the Rising a wonderfully balanced album. There are moments of sorrow and moments of loss and they come together superbly time and time again. It's a great heartfelt album. A true single piece of work - no grouping of unrelated tracks joined only by proximity timewise

CD - 9
Marillion - Season's End
See the previous comment about timing. This came out the same summer as the Kate Bush.
It might be the first after he left the band but in many ways this is a Fish album. The vocalist is different but the style is unmistakably 80s Marillion. and in my opinion up their with Misplaced Childhood.

CD - 10
Roy Harper - Stormcock
I bought this when I was about 12. I can remember every part of doing so. There was a second hand record dealer not too far from my parents house - just a short bus ride away. My mother was going to the same place (for a different shop just down from the record dealer) and I tagged along. I took some of the money I'd been saving up for summer holidays having decided I was going to buy a record and I chose this.
My mother thought I was mad. What 12 year old buys a record where there are just four tracks, each more than ten minutes where the music is little more than one man playing an acoustic guitar and not-quite-singing some pretty harsh lyrics. Well, I did. And in truth she should have known better than to think this a weird pick. by that time I already had King Crimson, Brian Eno and John Lee Hooker in my record collection so this wasn't all that far out there. Oh, and the other recor dI bought that day was Iron Butterfly's In-A-Gadda-da-Vida. Maybe I wasn't a normal 12 year old

CD - 11
Suzanne Vega - First Album
I did say there was another female singer songwriter on my desk pile. SV always features in the pile. I love all of her albums and it's only a question of which one. Well it changed recently back to the first one. You just can't beat songs like Small Blue Thing

Anyway, that's the end of the pile and very near the end of this blog entry. I don't know if it's told you anything about my psyche. Other than what you might already know from reading my blog, my fiction (I do keep my fingers crossed some of you have read some) and my tweets. If I wake up tomorrow to someone banging on the door with restraints and sedatives then I'll know this had some effect.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Blogging Oblivion

I've realised, despite all my good intentions another month has gone by since I last blogged. It is very remiss of me. I'm not sure why but I seem to have just got out of the habit. I will work on it. I'm not going to make it a New Year's Resolution or anything like that. I don't make Resolutions. They are only made to be broken. But I am going to try to change my ways

Okay, so it has been 29 days since I last even logged into this website. An absolute age. But not logging in here and blogging doesn't mean I've been inactive. Since my last blog entry, on the occasion of completing my novel "How to Run a Business", I have written another Ben Williamson novella, clocking in at a fraction under 30K. It's called "Were It Was So" in case you are interested and features a number of devices I remember from the 1970s. It's another weird tale and was very enjoyable to write.

Of course the news on the Ben Williamsons isn't as rosy as I had hoped. I spoke to someone just before Christmas who was thinking of starting up a new weird fiction small press focussing on novellas - mainly eBooks but with POD as an option. Well, he's decided against. I can understand it. He spent the time over Christmas doing some research and realised how much time it would consume to run such an operation. The cost didn't seem a problem; the time did. So it's not going to happen. And as a result I haven't found a new market. Back to the old ones.

In other writing related matters I have revised the YA supernatural novel "The Stairs Lead Down" and started to submit it to UK agencies. It is currently out with 25 agencies. Two more have been sent. One returned as no such email and the agency seems to have ceased trading; another was an instant rejection albeit because the agent is no longer looking for YA or horror/fantasy so he didn't read it. Not a rejection as such but it's not going to turn into a possible deal.

I'm currently trying to work out which of the ideas floating around my brain should become the next novel or novella. I have a few possibles but none has taken over as yet. There are more Ben Williamson ideas. I guess there always will be. I enjoy writing about the guy and tormenting him in any number of weird ways. I'm just glad he's fictional so unlikely to come looking for revenge. And there are a couple of possible novels in my head. I just have to sort out a plot point or two then I'll be good to go.

In the meantime I'm going to look for a few more possible submissions. Wish me luck