Sunday, April 13, 2008

They worked together on The Sandinista Project and now they're...

...getting married. Hooray for Amy and Eric!

Which Sandinista Project contributors will be next?


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Greatest song of all time of the week: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel"

As digital sampling becomes more and more pervasive as a recording technique in pop, the belief that anything is possible in a studio nowadays is also on the rise. But "Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" took the cut-and-paste-sound approach used covertly on many records today and the scavenging of other songs as its very subject. The number asks: How smart can you steal? How slick can you mix? This technical apex of one of rap’s leading disc-spinners is tremendously influential—many of today’s dance-music and rock productions are unimaginable without it.

Grandmaster Flash started as a South Bronx dance-hall disc jockey whose trademark was taking his favorite rock and rap songs and repeating their hottest elements for heightened effect. "Wheels of Steel," despite being credited to the full Furious Five, was a solo shot by Flash designed to show off the wizardry that knocked 'em out live. After a stuttering intro, Flash lets Blondie’s "Rapture," Chic’s "Good Times," the Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," and Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust," as well as snippets from earlier Flash/Five singles glide in and slam out of the unwavering beat. These songs of different tempos all fit without being forced. Spoken sections, boasts, and song apexes are finely woven into an amazingly seamless whole. Before the serrated-edged righteousness of "The Message" and "White Lines (Don't Don't Do It)" turned attention to rapper and writer Melle Mel, the group was a showcase for Flash. This is why.

Visually pointless, but the only way I can point you to this song:

Speaking of visually pointless, but another song I love:


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

If this doesn't destroy Wal-Mart, nothing will

No kidding

I have no use for this band, but the headline cracked me up

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Listening to the east

Over the past two months I think I've listened to more Asian rock'n'roll than in the previous 45 years combined. I highly, highly, highly recommend the following:

Look Directly into the Sun is a collection of Beijing punk bands, recorded last year by Martin Atkins, who fellow oldtimers will remember as the drummer in the original PiL lineup. This magnificent compilation of punk, pop, and rock'n'roll bands is the sound of a revolution about to happen. It feels like a London 1977 roundup. No matter the culture, the political system, or the economic framework, young people everywhere wanna scream and some of 'em do it brilliantly. Like the ones here.

Friend, colleague, and esteemed Sandinista Project contributor Jim Duffy alerted me a while back to Dengue Fever, a California band that started out specializing in covers of Cambodian rock'n'roll of the early '70s and has subsequently delivered a number of tough garage rockers that extend the tradition. I wanted to hear what inspired this inspired band so I've picked up a number of CD compilations of the original performers, stirring and alive, before the Khmer Rouge got their hands on them. Some of the selections on these sets may not be quite legit -- I doubt that synthesizers and syndrums were available in pre-Pol Pot Phnom Penh -- but some of the performers here, like Sinn Sisamouth, are secret giants most American rock'n'roll fans have never heard of, let alone heard. Jewels & Binoculars readers, can you direct me to your favorite Cambodian rockers? If you're new to the band Dengue Fever, any of their three full-length sets -- Dengue Fever, Escape from Dragon House, and Venus on Earth -- offer exhilarating ways in.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Greatest song of all time of the week: Junior Senior, "Can I Get Get Get"

The user-generated video below ain't much (listen to it with your eyes closed if you wish, though it has charm), but this song offers endless pleasure. It's like Chic and Abba had a baby! (That's a compliment, by the way.)


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chinese Democracy When?

In my TED talk, I went after Axl Rose for not releasing Chinese Democracy. This amusing stunt takes matters into its own hands.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do

I gave a talk on "Why screwing up is the smartest thing you can do" last month at TED and delivered a (not as good) stripped-down version of it a week later at ETech. I've been asked by several Jewels and Binoculars readers to post the presentation as a blog entry. Here it is. I recognize that a flat blog post doesn't capture the experience of a live presentation, but I want to get the material out here. And, as an added benefit, you don't have to look at or listen to me present it!

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Being here first thing in the morning, I feel like the opening act at the beginning of one of those long package shows of rock bands. I feel like Yngvie Malmsteen, a godawful heavy metal guitarist not often celebrated at TED.

Indeed, "Yngvie," as we all know, is Swedish for "opening act."

So here we go…

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I edit Release 2.0, an expensive newsletter, so I hear a lot from readers. Sometimes they’re looking for rules, some secrets to guarantee success. I want to justify their investment in the newsletter, of course, so I tell 'em what I’ve learned.

And what I've learned is that they should screw up.

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While anyone who's spent time with any of the members of Guns N Roses might find them to be screwups, the reason you haven't heard anything new and substantial from them on the radio for 16 years -- 16 years! -- is that they’ve committed the opposite of screwing up: overplanning. Since the mid-'90s, by which time every original member of the band except singer Axl Rose had left for one reason or another, Guns N Roses has been working on a new album called Chinese Democracy.

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Rose and his co-conspirators have been thinking and recording Chinese Democracy for 14 years, gone through at least six producers, 17 band members, and $16 million in recording costs. It's not out yet. They've waited so long, perfecting and planning, planning and perfecting, that the industry Axl Rose once ruled no longer exists. Democracy may arrive in China before Chinese Democracy arrives in record stores.

Oh -- wait -- there really aren't record stores any more, either. Too much planning, too much process, means no art, no product, nothing.

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For a different approach, let's consider the TV series Twin Peaks from the early '90s. To refresh your memory...

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This man, Leland Palmer...

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...possessed by the spirit of a supernatural character named BOB...

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...turned his daughter, Laura Palmer...

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...into this.

But where did BOB, the conceptual lynchpin of the series, come to be? Surely he was there from the beginning.

No. His introduction into the series came as a result of an accident while the cameras were running.

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In a scene late in the Twin Peaks pilot, Laura Palmer's mother experiences a vision while sitting on her living room couch. On the wall behind her, barely in the shot, there is a mirror. In the bottom corner of the mirror, there's the reflection of Frank Silva, a set dresser on the crew, unaware he's in the shot. You or I wouldn't have noticed it unless we were looking for it -- but on the set of a television show, there is someone whose job is to look for just such mistakes.

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After the take, that person alerted director David Lynch to the accident and began to set up a reshoot. Lynch stopped him. He spoke to Frank Silva, the set dresser in the mirror. "Can you act?" Lynch asked. This was Los Angeles, so you know the answer...

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...and the malevolent, mysterious character of BOB, the key to the weird mystery of the series, was born -- from an accident.

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Many popular products, advances, and countless works of art have emerged from accidents. In the Internet world, we have Blogger and Twitter. And those two are just from one guy: Evan Williams.

Things may go better with Coke, but Coke was originally designed to go better with pain. It was intended to be a pain remedy.

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in 1928, Alexander Fleming, researching the flu, noticed that a mold had taken over one of his petri dishes. That mold, he saw, had stopped bacteria in the dish. Voila! Penicillin. Indeed, the very idea of vaccines was discovered by accident, when Edward Jenner noticed that people who worked with cows didn't get smallpox.

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In 1894, John Harvey Kellogg left some cooked wheat to sit while he attended to some pressing matters at his sanitarium. When he returned, the wheat had gone stale. Because he was either cheap or broke -- historians disagree -- he tried to save the wheat by forcing it through rollers, expecting to get long sheets of dough he could use. Instead, he got ... flakes. He toasted them. He served them to his patients. He got very, very rich.

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Post-It notes came to be by accident, too, but the story isn't that interesting, so I'll just mention it and keep going.

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This one's more interesting. Fred Katz introduced the cello to modern jazz. One night in the late 1950s, during a break between sets while he was playing piano with a jazz band, Katz pulled a chair to the front of the stage and played some solo cello. When the rest of the band returned to the small stage, there was no room for Katz to return to his piano. Not sure what to do -- the set was starting, the band was playing -- Katz decided to play the piano lines on his cello. Out of his accident, his real, half-century-long, career began.

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Next time you enjoy some ferocious rock'n'roll encased in feedback, thank these guys. A spray of amplifier feedback at the beginning of The Beatles' 1965 recording of "I Feel Fine," an accident, sounded so unusual -- and so great -- that they kept it on the record. And, since I'm talking about brands favored by aging boomers...

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...Viagra was first thought to be a promising drug for angina. During 1992 clinical trials in a town in Wales, Pfizer researchers discovered that...

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...the drug had a different effect altogether.

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So mistakes can be great things. What do we do about 'em? How do we harness 'em? Well, if you’re the Harvard Business School, the font of management wisdom (and -- disclosure -- a client), you're not quite sure. Sometimes they tell us to be afraid of mistakes...

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...sometimes they tell us we can manage accidents, thus making them not accidents. We might call this the Pee-Wee Herman "I meant to do that" theory of managing mistakes…

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..and, once, squeezed almost as an afterthought -- or, maybe, an accident -- as the very last entry in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, they celebrate it, thanks to a terrific, brief essay by Danny Hillis. I'm not trying to pick on Harvard. You can find similar advice from the other Ivy schools, even Stanford. But this is the conventional business wisdom. You can't be built to last or go from good to great or whatever unless you're careful to avoid mistakes, the thinking goes. Imagine the difference between the reaction if you tell your boss "I'm planning" and the one you get if you say, "I'm making mistakes."

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Established institutions are in the business of supporting the status quo. And mistakes, if nothing else, go against the status quo, the conventional wisdom, the expected. As Esther Dyson used to sign her emails, "Always make new mistakes!" A key part of planning is being open to mistakes.

The unexpected kiss, the unpredictable punch line: they're so much of what makes life worth living. Shouldn't we let the unexpected into our business work as well? It's by screwing up that we learn and discover. We can't predict accidents. But we can take advantage of them.

You never know where a mistake is going to lead. Maybe nowhere, maybe somewhere. But it's definitely nowhere if you don’t at least lean forward and peer down the road after you screw up.

You want the secret of success that my newsletter readers want to know? It's no secret. It's that, chances are, whatever you’re looking for -- that's not what you're going to find.

Thank you.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

I am old, volume 273

I stopped going to South by Southwest in 1995, because I felt it was getting too big. It's now 13 times larger than it was then.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

R.I.P. Mikey Dread

Mikey Dread (nee Michael Campbell), producer, songwriter, and performer, is dead. We were honored that the man who so influenced The Clash's Sandinista! was a contributor to our Sandinista Project (he accompanied The Blizzard of '78 on "Silicone on Sapphire").


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Greatest song of all time of the week: Carl Perkins, "Dixie Fried"

Carl Perkins's gracious, quavering tenor carried some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are "Turn Around," his first professional recording, and "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing," the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis in post-Hank Williams country music. But Perkins’s meat is his rockabilly, "Blue Suede Shoes" and all that, in which he repeatedly drives full speed to the edge of his world, leans over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knows he must, pulls back and carefully heads home.

"Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge," top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him a few decades ago. "It's the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid’s stuff compared to it." Yes, but Setzer and the many legions who adopted pompadours in the late seventies discovered the music and the accoutrements, not the culture. It's no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly was Gene Vincent's leer and Eddie Cochran's shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. Setzer's Stray Cats, eventually reduced to beer commercials, could afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn't have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock'n'roll, had no such romantic alternative.

Yet on "Dixie Fried," his greatest uptempo composition, Perkins comes as close as any rockabilly performer to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashes like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale chronicles; his voice dances with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. "Let's all get Dixie fried!" he screams, shattering any pretensions to caution, or civilized behavior. The violence escalates and the song smashes to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have the gleam of the honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye is fixed on home, where he prays his honky-tonk gal has returned.


Headline of the day

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

R.E.M., open source, and staying alive when an industry shifts

Over the weekend, Nat posted "Artistic License 2.0 and ... REM?!" which noted that the veteran rock'n'roll band was releasing its new video under an open license (if not in an open format). It's good to see an old band learn a new trick, and it suggests what those in the music industry might do if they want to have a future in it.

In "A rare post about the music industry that isn't completely depressing," I looked at Jill Sobule's attempt to fund her next record via online contributions. It's a savvy attempt that seems to be succeeding: she's more than two-thirds on her way to meeting her not-so-modest recording budget. A performer like Sobule (and, as we'll see shortly, R.E.M.) comes to alternate ways of funding or promoting new music with baggage -- unlike younger performers, like Yael Naim, who can get lucky thanks to novelty (see "Steve Jobs rules the recording industry. Now what?") These performers are experimenting with new ways to get heard because the old ways weren't working. Prince, to cite one high-profile example, wouldn't have started distributing his records via concert add-ons or newspaper inserts if the old distribution methods were still working for him.

R.E.M. can still be a thrilling band live, but its commercial heyday was long ago -- back when the U.S. president was Ronald Reagan, in fact -- and even diehard fans acknowledge that the trio's recorded work has limped since the band's original drummer, Bill Berry, left 11 years ago. The band's decision to distribute the "Supernatural Superserious" video is, at its heart, an attempt to create buzz for the record. That's something the band has been trying for months, in particular its attempt to hype the relatively rocking nature of the new record, after a number of ballad-heavy snoozefests.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial desperation can lead to innovation, both in terms of the art itself and the art with which you sell it. Everyone is eulogizing the death of the traditional rock'n'roll business, but the successful old rockers are still successful. Bruce Springsteen is selling out arenas and will move up to stadiums in the summer. Tom Petty's Super Bowl halftime gig -- timed right before his summer tour tickets went on sale -- rejuvenated his record sales. And the hoary hard-rock band Aerosmith has turned to a new installment in a successful videogame franchise to keep up its profile. Even when radio and even video outlets have turned cool to these performers, there's still an audience waiting to hear, see, or play with them. The lack of traditional intermediaries does not mean there's a lack of audience.

Having emerged from the early-'80s Amerindie movement, an assemblage of rock'n'roll bands with a combination of optimism and hardheadedness that mirrored the very best of the open source movement, R.E.M. knows it can't compete with what's at the top of the charts. It's unlikely that fans of the current flavors -- Miley Cyrus, Flo Rida, or T-Pain -- will be moved by R.E.M.'s music. But the band isn't ready to rent its songs to Madison Avenue or diverge from the aesthetic that made them stars. If you can't play on an even field, change the field. Just as open source projects reached critical mass by serving areas the proprietary vendors were ignoring or giving short shrift, the Amerindie bands -- in love with punk's sense of possibility -- provided an alternative to the mainstream. Now, the thinking goes, we can't get people to find out about our new record the usual ways, we have to find new ways. The future, as always, belongs to the clever.

(A slightly different version of this was posted earlier today on the O'Reilly Radar.)

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Harp ... or oven mitt?

harp or oven mittOver the weekend, I had the great pleasure of hearing Lydia sing with a chorus and small orchestra at Sanders Theater. During the intermission, the harpist wrapped up her instrument and wheeled it away. Since Monday is supposed to be cooking day at Jimmy Guterman's Jewels & Binoculars, I should note that her wrapped harp looked to me like a giant oven mitt.
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Greatest. Misheard lyric video. Ever.

And they said we took liberties on The Sandinista Project.

Thanks to R.C. for the pointer. Sorry for taking so long to acknowledge it.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Steve Jobs rules the recording industry. Now what?

Last night's Grammy Awards ceremonies were even less relevant than usual, no small achievement. The TV broadcast began with a "performance" by that cutting-edge new artist Frank Sinatra and fell down from there. The only real emotional charge of an evening celebrating the most emotional of media came when we viewers were confronted with the disparity between the preternatural confidence of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and the shaky, shell-shocked manner in which Winehouse accepted her award for it. Alpha geeks had a moment to celebrate, too, when one of the winners behind Historical Album of the Year (Woody Guthrie's Live Wire) turned out to be a mathematician.

But, those and few other brief moments notwithstanding, the action in the music industry is elsewhere.

One of those places is Apple's iTunes online music store. For several days last week, the top-selling track on the store was Yael Naim's "New Soul," a song available, at least to U.S. audiences, exclusively via iTunes. The exclusivity isn't a big deal -- the store is powerful enough to offer plenty of high-profile exclusives -- but the reason "New Soul" became a hit is a big deal. "New Soul" was a hit solely because it appeared in Apple's commercial for the MacBook Air. Until the 1980s, record companies looked to radio to break new artists. Until five years ago, the place to launch new performers was music video. For most of this decade, the breakdown of traditional music channels has led to new songs being noticed via video games, television shows, and -- most of all -- commercials. Whoever is programming the music for Apple's television commercials may be, right now, the most powerful talent scout in the record industry.

How did Apple gain all this power? The record companies, desperate, vain, and stupid, handed it over. As Michael Hirschorn wrote in the March Atlantic (I'd link to his terrific essay, but the venerable Atlantic tends to get around to uploading new articles to its website weeks after they appear in print), "Steve Jobs shanghaied and basically destroyed the CD business. The major record labels, in giving Apple's iTunes the right to sell individual songs for 99 cents each, undermind their own business model -- selling bundles of songs gathered together into something called an album for up to $20 a pop -- because they didn't see that people were about to consumer music in an entirely new way. The labels saw iTunes as free money; 'ancillary,' in the legal vernacular. Jobs took their cheap music and used it as a loss leader to sell his expensive iPods, and the traditional music business now lies in tatters." The punch line, of course, is that the record industry is trying to shut out Apple by selling music online elsewhere such as Amazon -- for a mere 89 cents per cut.

I've written before here about clever ways to sell music nowadays. Like the performers I celebrated in that post, record companies have to adopt new ways of packaging and selling if they want to stay in business. Just as twin geniuses Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun reinvented the record industry in the 1950s, we need a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who accept that recorded music consumed in $20 increments -- except for that created by a small subset of veteran performers with large and reliable fan bases -- is a dead notion for now. Music is everywhere, just as software is everywhere. We've seen an explosion of new models in recent years for selling software -- web-based, software as a service, various levels of open source, and so on -- some of which have been quite successful. Software may be useful, but for the most part it doesn't satisfy the emotional need that music does. It should be easy to sell music, certainly easier than it is to sell software. The music industry has much to learn from the computer software industry about reinvention and staying in touch with the customer. (In future posts, I'll probe what the music biz can learn from the software biz.) If what remains of the music industry doesn't look to successful technology industries for ideas, it'll be as lifeless as the Frank Sinatra half of last night's Grammy "duet."

This post was written for O'Reilly Radar

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Greatest song of all time of the week: R.E.M., "The One I Love"

Sometimes you learn more from songs you've heard 10,000 times already after you haven't heard them in years. That old warhorse "Baba O'Riley," for example, is pretty terrific after you've kept away from it for a good long time.

And that's the way I felt when R.E.M.'s radio breakthrough, "The One I Love," came over the radio the other day. There's so much there: the nasty repetition of the lyrics, the combination of yearning and disgust, deep desire and no affect, in Michael Stipe's voice, the bruising jangle of Peter Buck's guitar, the otherworldly counterpoints of Mike Mills's bass and harmonies, and the emphatic closure of Bill Berry's drums. This is thrilling, impolite, dangerous stuff.


Friday, February 1, 2008

Good for the Jews

Jews rock in Norwalk

So now we know what Bob Dylan and Laura Branigan have in common, sort of.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Oh, Pretty Beetle...

Greatest song of all time of the week: Amy Rigby, "Balls"

It's an all-out rock'n'roll barnburner that captures the frustration and excitement of desire with anger and a great punch line.

It's nasty, it's welcoming, it's as confusing and wonderful and awful as your life.

Did I mention the slide guitar?

Did I mention how Amy tosses off the aside "this one's gonna hurt"?

Did I mention it's on two great albums: The Sugar Tree (along with "Rode Hard," another greatest song of all time of the week candidate and perhaps the most convincing argument for bad behavior on disc this side of "Dead Flowers") and 18 Again (a terrific greatest hits record, but all her records are greatest hits records)?

See her website, buy everything she's recorded (February is sale month!), and don't forget that she is one of the performers on the greatest tribute album of all time of the week.


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Jill Sobule rules

It's about music, it's on my work blog: A rare post about the music industry that isn't completely depressing

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"I'm going to be late for Davos because of this?"


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Friday, January 25, 2008

Jimmy Guterman's Jewels and Binoculars: new (and, perhaps, improved) 2008 edition

Hello to both of you who've waited for this humble weblog to return. I'm going to try something different this year. As those closest to me know, structure and I are not close friends. Everything reminds me of something else, which reminds me of something else, which ... well, you get the idea. No structure. If I'm going to stick to blogging for more than a little while this time, I suspect it will be only if I create a structure that encourages me to post here almost every day. And a different topic every day keeps this blogger unbored.

So, here's the structure that I'm going to attempt:

Every Monday, I will post about Cooking. [insert pause for laughter.] Yeah, I know, but hear me out. When I look at the things about myself that I want to improve, cooking keeps coming up at the top of the list. Partly it's because I'm a lousy cook (married to an adventurous, imaginative one) and I want to become a better one. Partly it's because my failure in the kitchen often feels like a metaphor for other failures in my life. Just as last year my cryptic decision to post sentences here from my novel-in-progress helped me focus on writing every day, I'm hoping that chronicling my disasters and occasional successes in the kitchen will keep me focused. The possibility of public embarrassment remains a powerful motivator.

Every Tuesday, I will post something Work-Related. The vast majority of my writing these days is for my work at O'Reilly (and, to a much lesser degree, Harvard). On Tuesdays, I'll post something related to what I actually do for a living.

Every Wednesday, I will post the latest Greatest Song of All Time of the Week. No further explanation necessary.

Every Thursday, I will post something related to the Novel-in-Progress. They may be sentences from the work (currently, but tentatively, titled The Rock Star Next Door), they may be complaints about the process, they may be lessons I've learned.

Every Friday, I will post nothing, probably, because Man was not meant to blog with the weekend coming so soon.

Random Crap can appear any day, as it is, er, random.

I will also tag each post, to make searching by topic easier, and to help anyone coming here who wants to peruse, say, the music posts but none of the cooking posts.

Seeya Monday...

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