He played all the right notes, in the right order

I awoke this morning to the news – broken to me via text message in the uniquely sensitive style I associate with the child who sent it to me – that “Andre Previn has died”.

Obituaries will focus, and rightly so, on his extraordinary work as a conductor, classical pianist, a composer of film scores and musical educator. And then, for British audiences at least, on his role in possibly the greatest sketch ever broadcast on television. But for me, he was the man who changed everything. When I was 15 I bought Donald Fagen’s album The Nightfly, which includes the line “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck, I like your eyes, I like him too.” I thought that if Fagen liked Brubeck I might too, so I bought a greatest hits album and found I did. And then I bought this.

Brubeck Previn

It’s a strange album which cherry picks half the tracks from two albums and lumps them together. Brubeck’s side was interesting, clever, maybe a bit challenging for me at that age. Previn’s was a revelation. He played with such wit, such lightness, used his incredible technique with such casual flair that the pure joy of jazz was opened up to me. I was literally never the same again. I’d thought jazz was difficult and to be appreciated – rewarding, but in a cerebral way. Previn made me laugh with glee at his audaciousness. He connected straight to that intangible essence which makes you love music with your very being.

He wasn’t a jazz pioneer, there won’t be lists of young musicians queuing up to say how much he influenced them. But his effect on my appreciation of what jazz could be was second to none. And I think that’s why I’ve been much more upset by this than I anticipated. He was 89, so it wasn’t like it was unexpected. But his impact was on the very core of what makes me who I am, and as such his death has hit me hard. Auf wiedersehen, Mr Preview.

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Waiting for the Big Funk Band

Recently, Stefan Redtenbacher has started drip-feeding tracks from his forthcoming, eagerly awaited album by the enhanced and expanded version of the Funkestra – the Big Funk Band. Just a couple thus far, so, how do they compare?

First off the block was Feed The Chicken, which I proceeded to listen to relentlessly for about three days, because it’s basically my two favourite kinds of music combined – Stefan’s infectious bass lines and the pure adrenaline of a big band, together at last. There’s a slightly harder edge than usual to the bass sound, especially in the verse, which just pulls my ear in and keeps me there the whole time. It’s what I’ve always loved about Stefan’s playing on the Funkestra albums – he creates these wonderful lines which are completely hypnotic, but which do exactly what a bass line should do with this sort of music, sit there and be the solid foundation without needing to steal the show. (Which, ironically, when you love the bass as much as I do, they do anyway.)

The second track to be released was Jump Up, which has more of a traditional Funkestra feel to it, albeit the bass sounds like it has some sort of synth effect (hard to be sure, I’m listening through pretty lousy computer speakers.) It feels bizarre to be comparing it negatively to anything, because it’s absolutely fantastic – not least, I absolutely love the guitar playing of Mike Outram, about whose work with Dave O’Higgins I was raving just yesterday. But compared to Feed The Chicken, which just roared out saying “This is big, this is visceral, this is what you’ve been waiting for”, Jump Up was a bit closer to what I expect from Stefan Redtenbacher. To wit, just plain brilliance, rather than revelatory brilliance.

Either way, it’s going to be a long few months waiting for the whole album to appear!

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A blog entry for everybody (no lads)

I have become obsessed with the current Ladbrokes advert starring former The Inbetweeners actor James Buckley. In it, he flies down in a robot suit, and addresses a small crowd of people about the exciting betting opportunities available to them. Then the suit malfunctions, the top half shooting away into the sky, leaving him to plod off, claiming he fancied a walk anyway. Oh the hilarity.

The source of my fascination is the opening line, uttered by Buckley as he descends. “Lads lads lads!” he cries. “And everybody!”

Lads… and everybody? What are we saying here Ladbrokes? If you want to appeal to lads, just do it – after all, 88% of sports gambling is done by men. If you don’t want to appeal exclusively to lads, then that’s easily done – just have him say “Hey everybody!” instead. But by separating lads out, it makes it seem like in the Ladbrokes world, there are lads, and then there are afterthoughts. “Lads are best, obviously – that’s why we’ve got James Buckley,” one presumes the meeting with the advertising agency went. “But I suppose in the namby-pamby, snowflake world of 2019, we’d better acknowledge that there are people out there who aren’t lads. Put some women in the crowd and stick “and everybody” on the end, that should cover it.”

There is a school of thought that it’s an attempt at humour. The idea being that James Buckley, obviously clearly associated with being laddish from The Inbetweeners, is so fixated on lads that he calls solely to them as he is landing, before realising that there are more than just lads standing there. So he hastily and clumsily adds “And everybody!” But, is that funny? Even by the standards of people who think The Inbetweeners hilarious, does that count as humour? It’s elusive at best.

Or perhaps it’s an effort, in the increasingly divided and compartmentalised world in which we live, to split the nation. Into Lads on the one hand, and Everybody on the other. But then, surely Everybody includes Lads? He would have to descend saying “Lads lads lads! And non-lads non-lads non-lads!” Which, let’s be honest, is clumsy. Anyway, the mystery continues. As someone who watches sport on television I have seen this advert roughly 20,000 times, and yet I still have no idea of what Ladbrokes are trying to say.

It’s possible I’m overthinking it.

 

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All tildes carefully pasted in place

I was listening to Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes yesterday. You probably know it. It’s about a man who is tired of his lady (and if he insists on calling her a lady, we can presume the feeling is mutual). She’s sleeping in bed, he’s reading the paper, and he sees an advert:

If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape
I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape

And he thinks, well, that’s me to a tee. He replies and says yes, I do like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. He also says he’s not much into health food, which I suppose one could lump under a broad heading of “healthy living” with yoga. He dodges the having half a brain part of the question altogether, opting instead for the fact that he is “into” champagne. And he arranges to meet her at a bar.

He’s waiting there next day, full of high hopes, when who should walk in but his own partner? Awk-ward, right? Well, seemingly not. Because neither of them says “Wait a minute, you… you were willing to cheat on me?” Neither of them cringes, or runs away in embarrassment, or sighs and says “Well, this marriage is a bit of a farce, isn’t it?” No, she smiles, and says “Oh, it’s you”. As you would. And they laugh for a moment. As you would, when confronted with the fact that your romantic life is a complete sham. And then he says “I never knew”.

Because apparently he never knew that she liked piña coladas, or getting caught in the rain. Surely that would come up, over the course of a long relationship? Why would she not admit that she liked piña coladas? Does he have some dreadful allergy to pineapple and she didn’t like to mention it? And what about the rain? They must have been out together at some point when it started raining, why wouldn’t she say “This is fun!”, or words to that effect to indicate general positivity? What has she been playing at, keeping these to herself? Especially if they’re important enough to her that they’re top of her wish list when it comes to finding someone with whom to escape.

He also says he never knew that she liked the feel of the ocean, and the taste of champagne. Neither of which she even mentioned. She doesn’t say a word about the ocean. I think we’re starting to understand why she’s a bit fed up with him, because you don’t listen Rupert. As for champagne, she expresses no feelings there either – it’s he who is “into” it. He’s clearly one of those men who thinks that just because he likes something, she must too. She probably hates champagne. He never asked, did he? Too busy reading the paper.

One thing they do agree on, however, is that they like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape. Which all sounds lovely in principle, but:

  1. Midnight, precisely? Bit regimented, isn’t it? “Rupert, it’s 11.30, we should be heading for the cape.” “Can I just watch the end of Match of the Day?” “No, because then we’ll be late. The dunes won’t wait, Rupert.”
  2. Won’t that be a bit chilly? I mean, it depends which cape, clearly. Still, I’d take a nice cardigan.
  3. The sand. It’s bad enough getting sand off your feet.

They’re welcome to each other.

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Autumn in New York

Needless to say, I had certain expectations of New York. I assumed it would feel aggressive and abrasive, the people to be irritable and offhand. I anticipated feeling intimidated and anxious, and finding the city itself soulless and alienating. If I had to summarise my predicted response in a word, it would be discomfort.

The reality was more than a little surprising. In the first place, so much is familiar that it didn’t feel like I’d never been there before. I don’t just mean the obvious landmarks (although it was somewhat comical to head out of Penn Station on arrival and say to myself right, find something recognisable to look out for, to make finding my way back easier – and literally the first building I looked at was the Empire State). I mean the whole infrastructure, the road signs, the police directing traffic, the hot dog stands… everywhere are aspects of New York life that we’ve all seen thousands of times in TV shows and films, so they seem completely natural. The way people talk seems much less odd than the New Zealand accents I encountered in April, just through so much exposure.

There’s a slightly surreal sense of fiction coming to life. I went to Grand Central Station – you know, from ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘North By Northwest’ – and there it was as a sumptuous, majestic, fully-functioning railway station. Not a film set. There’s the Chrysler Building – you know, from ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ – just languidly appearing sporadically between the more prosaic skyscrapers, nonchalant in its architectural superiority.

Talking of skyscrapers, I definitely expected to find the urban landscape cold and overbearing. In reality, there’s such a mixture of styles from differing eras, so many buildings in deep red and brown brickwork or rich limestone, that the cumulative effect is quite the reverse – the environment feels warm, almost comforting. It’s like being embraced by the city. And the greenery! There are trees down practically every street, softening any sense of being in an urban grid. And it felt safe to be out cycling. Every crossroads a traffic light, every junction controlled. I never felt as likely to be knocked off my bike as I do trying to negotiate the roundabout at The Plain.

The people took me by surprise as well. I couldn’t say whether they’re friendly or not – I was never really in a position to test that – but they were largely courteous and pleasant, in terms of basic interactions on the subway and in the street. Sunday morning I was buying a bagel and a muffin in a busy bakery, and as the woman was in the middle of working out my change I decided to get an orange juice as well. If I’d done that in London I’d have expected at best a sigh of exasperation. She just waved her hand in a gesture of “it’s fine, just have it” and carried on. And it wasn’t because it was too much hassle or she was too busy to charge me for it, she was just being nice. I’m not going to extrapolate from that one incident to form an opinion of New Yorkers, but it did fit with my experience. People hold doors open, and say please and thank you, and apologise when their dog runs over and sniffs you. Only the way that people do in normal cities. But not like I expected them to in New York, where I imagined every interaction would be like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

Maybe all of those responses were just an artificial balance to the negative expectations I had. And obviously I got a limited view, having barely ventured outside Manhattan. But it felt comfortable, and natural, and almost cosy. And none of those were adjectives I expected to need.

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I blame that idiot prince

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the decline in popularity of the name Andrew, which was about to drop out of the top 100 boys’ names. Revisiting this theme, after emailing an Andrew in his late 20s recently, the scale of the crisis has become apparent.

Below is a graph (lifted, I should probably credit, from the Mirror’s website), into which you can insert names to check how they have progressed over the last 20 years. It’s very interesting, if you like that sort of thing. Witness peak Jack from 1996, and its slow decline over the last two decades as Oliver rose to its current dominance. See how my decision to name a child Alfie inspired a generation, taking it from 119th in 1996 to 4th from 2009 to 2011.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 12.40.31

But now look at the heartbreaking, lingering death of the name Andrew. A respectable 29th in 1996, it has drifted lower and lower, until in 2016 it comes in at 209th. 209th?! Could you even list 208 other boys’ names? Just to give some perspective as to how ridiculous this has got, let’s compare and contrast with the ludicrous name Joey, which is only really appropriate for either a budgerigar or a member of the Mafia. In 1996 – the very year I gave that name to a child (and it was me, his mother assumed I was joking) – only 22 baby boys were called Joey. And it trundled along at that level for a while, until the last few years where it has suddenly spiked. In 2016, 459 poor unfortunates were named Joey – nearly twice as many as Andrew. What is wrong with people?

Other names more popular than Andrew now include Jaxon, Rayan and Kayden, which all sound like household cleaning products to me; Wilfred, Grayson, Maximus, Milo, Kacper… and one which I find somewhat unsettling – Aryan. The 165th most popular name for boys now is Aryan. Let’s just hope they don’t all get together and try to establish a new society.

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Wotalottabot

There’s a been a lot of talk in recent years of the inevitable takeover of the robots, and how it won’t be long now before they can do everything we can and we will no longer be needed. Anyone who believes this has clearly never tried to deal with a bank’s Digital Assistant.

A Digital Assistant is basically a chat programme, which mimics human interactivity to try to make you feel more at ease as you navigate the automated faceless leviathan that is online banking. Or at least, it tries to. It doesn’t take much to get it out of its comfort zone though. Here’s what happened when I tried to find out why my bank had declined a payment to my electricity supplier.

Hi, you’re chatting to Cora and I’ll be your Digital Assistant. Ask me a question (the simpler the better) and I’ll help you find the answer.

Why was a direct debit payment declined?

I’m sorry, I’m not too sure. Could you try rephrasing the question? For example, “how do I amend a standing order?”

Declined a direct debit payment why was? Will asking like Yoda help?

OK, I see you want to manage your direct debits. Would you like to: Set up or change • View existing • Cancel • Get a refund • Reactivate • Switch

Nope, I want to know why one was declined.

Sorry, I think you are asking about Direct Debit but did not fully understand.

I did fully understand. Don’t be so condescending.

I’m just going to search our FAQs for your first question: How long does it take someone to receive money I’ve sent them? • I don’t recognise a direct debit, what can I do? • How do I cancel a direct debit? Was that helpful?

No.

Would you like me to see if one of the team is available?

Yes.

I’m sorry you haven’t found this service helpful. I can help with all sorts of everyday banking queries. Ask me a short, simple question, such as “how do I order a new card?” and I’ll be able to help.

Yes but this isn’t a short, simple question, is it? It’s a question which needs an actual human being. Hello, hello, is there an actual human being there?

Let’s see if I can help you in a different way. Just a moment. Ok, let’s see if one of my colleagues are available. This can take up to a minute. [Up to a minute passes.]

You are now chatting with Rajat. Hello.

Hello. ScottishPower tried to collect a final payment from my account yesterday and it was declined. Can you explain why?

I am very sorry to hear that, let’s work together to try and resolve this within this chat for you. Please help me with your full name and the account number last 4 digits.

Andrew Goodwin, xxxx

Thanks. Andrew, did they try via direct debit?

At which point, given that my opening question was “Why was a direct debit payment declined?”, I started to bang my head on my desk. In fact I wasn’t at all convinced that Rajat wasn’t also a computerised assistant until he wrote “No there is nothing from there end, it seems that they have not tried to take the money out for your account.” Only a human being would write “there” when they meant “their”. Dream on robots. You’ll never be able to mimic that level of basic ignorance.

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