University of Death: reviews online now

26 February 2008

Book cover: University of DeathI've just uploaded a page of reviews and testimonials of my novel 'University of Death', which I hope I'll be able to add to over time.

I'm particularly grateful to Mike Edwards, best known for his work with Jesus Jones, and Colin Vearncombe, best known for his string of hits as 'Black', for taking the time to read the book and put a thoughtful testimonial together. Although I have written for music magazines in the past, I'm not exactly a music industry insider, so these testimonials do a lot to add credibility to the book's view inside the music industry. Colin said:
"I cried 'til I laughed. There are some great ideas in here... and a few I hope the industry never hears about!"
Mike said:
University of Death is the most enjoyable, imaginative and perceptive insight into the plight and possible future of the music industry, a novel that illuminates as well as entertains. The best thing about it is its insight into how the music industry works, why it is dying and where it may very well be going.

I particularly enjoyed the way it shows how technology is abused by marketers to manipulate our subconscious. This rang true because some of the technology used in the story already exists and has been used in similar, albeit not quite as sinister (yet?), ways.

University of Death has a love-hate relationship with the music business, being cynical and reverential at the same time. The portrayal of the industry is both accurate and funny - it's hard not to identify with many of the characters in there.

The twist at the end fooled me but fitted in perfectly with the themes of the book. When I finished reading, the story made me feel optimistic, that there was an exciting new beginning for the music business.

University of Death is well worth buying if you like pop music itself or if you're interested in the machinations of the music industry.
On a personal level, it means a lot to me to get these reviews because these are the singer/songwriters behind two of my favourite albums ever, and whose entire careers I've followed. Black's second album 'Comedy' is sublime: moody and ambitious production matched with charismatic songs. And the third Jesus Jones album 'Perverse' still fizzes with energy, even after 15 years of listening to it.

I've also uploaded the reviews posted on Lulu by other readers on the new reviews page.

Today, I also found the first press coverage for the book, which is at local news site Herts24.

PS: Visit Colin's site to download his live album for free, including songs new and old played with a full band line-up. You can read my review of this April 2007 tour on my blog. Mike is currently in the studio with County & Western band The Blazing Zoos. Its debut album is due for release in Spring 2008.

University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now


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Gamekeeper turned poacher

23 February 2008

Book cover: University of DeathI had my first interview about my novel 'University of Death' yesterday. It was a strange experience being on the other end of the interview: usually, I'm the one trying to pose questions that will make the interviewee stop and really think hard about giving an original answer. This time, I was the one thinking 'gosh - didn't expect to be asked that'.

Although there were surprises, it wasn't too difficult. The journalist was well prepared and extremely professional. She gave me time to answer without interrupting and left a nice long pause after I'd replied to check I really had finished speaking (just like I do when I'm doing interviews).

I gabbled away no problem, but at the end had a suspicion that I hadn't answered the question some of the time. It's easy to do: you get so carried away with all the stuff you could say, that you fail to bring it back to why you started talking about that stuff in the first place. I was caught in the middle of a writing deadline frenzy when the phone rang, which didn't help, but for the next one (he says, presumptiously), I'll try to slow down and speak much more in 'bullet points'. And I'll use a notepad so I can write down the question at the start to make sure I'm actually answering it.

One of the questions I was asked was whether I'd been in a band before and whether that's where the whole 'struggling band' storyline came from. I hadn't expected that.

I was in a band at university for about a term, but none of us took it very seriously. There were four or five of us, and we had nothing in common except that we all wanted to play at least one gig. We used to rehearse in my tiny campus bedroom (without the drummer).

There was a singer called Zoe, a guitarist called Richard, a drummer we borrowed from another band, and me on keyboards. There might have been someone else - I can't remember. We played in the students' union bar on a 'band club' night, and there were probably about 30 people there. We only played covers: 'Thinking about you' by Radiohead, 'Weather with you' by Crowded House, 'More than Words' by Extreme, 'Twist in my sobriety' by Tanita Tikaram and 'Wish you were here' by Pink Floyd. You could have called us lots of things, but 'punk' wasn't one of them. The setlist was a distillation of what four people with nothing in common could agree on, and what we could reasonably attempt with our limited talent. We put as much imagination into our name as we did the setlist: we went out as a covers band called 'Blanket'.

I remember it being too dark to see the keys properly, and remember my fingers being sweaty and sliding on the keyboard. But once we'd got through the first song (can't remember which it was) and got some applause, it all got a lot easier.

At the end, this guy came up to me and told me that 'Wish you were here' was his favourite song ever. That made me nervous. I knew I'd fumbled one of the notes at the start and I knew how I felt about my favourite songs: pretty defensive. "Thanks for playing it," he said. "I love that song and I've never heard it live before. That was brilliant." He'd had a few, but he meant it. We'd made his night. And he'd made mine.

My experience was completely different to the performers in the novel. I wasn't good enough to wing it, so I had to concentrate on what I'd practised and repeat that. The characters in my novel (even those jamming in obscurity) are all talented musicians, who can play intuitively and really relax into a performance and turn it into something creative, feeding off the energy of the crowd. In many ways, Simon's band Goblin is an ambassador for all those fantastic bands on MySpace who have about 50 fans and who deserve a bigger audience that just isn't there for them.

I didn't tell the journalist all this. I just told her I was in a band at uni, but we didn't take it very seriously and we weren't very good. But maybe, for that one night, we were good enough. If that guy heard his favourite song played live, and it made him feel something, then perhaps the odd bum note and complete lack of chemistry on the stage don't matter. If you're in the audience, half the gig's in your head anyway: it's about how you respond to the music, and the thoughts and feelings it evokes in you.

University of Death:
Download the first two chapters | Author interview | Buy now

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Putting the guff into guffaw

22 February 2008

Poster says: The sun's come out and you're floating on air. The wind's back in your sails. It's so good to really let rip.

Be honest. Read that advert and tell me the first bodily function you thought of was blowing your nose.


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You're not the only one

19 February 2008

Remember Shaggy Blog Stories, the compendium of humorous blog posts created in aid of Comic Relief? The book went on to raise over £2200 for charity, and continues to sell.

Now it's inspired a new collection entitled 'You are not the only one', and dedicated to raising money for War Child. There's a call for submissions online now, and you've got two weeks to dig out your best stuff from your blog archive. Keep it short, and you'll stand more chance of getting in, they say.

Here's the run-down:
We would like you to submit (to us at a written piece about something you've been through from any aspect of your life that you want to share. It can literally be about anything: your relationships, your past, a road not taken, being a parent, an illness or your regrets etc. We've called it "You're Not The Only One" to reflect the camaraderie of blogging.
See the more detailed guidelines here. If you don't have a blog, keep an eye on the site for news of when it goes on sale. It's bound to be special.

I have submitted my Tribute to Syd Barrett for consideration. I'm not the kind of blogger that shares their private life extensively, but I do know it meant something to me to be able to write that story while listening to Piper on the day I heard Syd had died.


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A fresh breath of Oxygene

03 February 2008

I meant to write this before Christmas, but didn't get around to it. Now I have...

The red and white lights of cars travelling on the Champs-Elysees combined with the blue Christmas lights in the trees to make a twinkling French flag. My schoolboy French and a swift internet browser had got me ticket number 94 to see Jean-Michel Jarre performing Oxygene in Paris. As I approached the theatre, near Place de la Concorde where Jarre entertained a million in 1979, there were spotlights reaching up from the theatre's pillars, reminiscent of the lights used at Docklands.

I collected my ticket. As the man on the desk whistled Oxygene IV to himself, I studied the cardboard model of the auditorium. I was in row four. Not bad. Not bad at all. The theatre sat 1000 and was a surprisingly intimate venue for a musician more noted for using skyscrapers as projection screens.

The 45 minute ambient piece 'Waiting for Cousteau' was played in the foyer and theatre before the show. There were a few familiar faces from the Teo & Tea showcase in the audience, which I attended in March.

When the curtain went up, there was an egg shaped chair on the stage which spun around to show JMJ sat on it. It was a nice entrance, but there was no reaction from the audience until he spoke. The weird thing about theatre gigs is that people treat them like plays, and only clap at the end of the acts or when prompted. He delivered a spoken introduction (in French, but with a short English greeting to foreign visitors), brought on the band, and then set up at one of the banks of synthesisers.

Photo of JMJ concert by Duncan Walls
Photo of Jean-Michel Jarre at Theatre Marigny in Paris. © Duncan Walls. Used with permission
There's always been an element of, shall we say... 'computer assisted performance' about a JMJ gig. Quite a few fans maintain that the Teo & Tea showcase was mimed, although it felt pretty real to me at the time. The full spectacle of the typical Jarre concert could only be achieved using some kind of computer synchronisation, but I choose to believe the music is mostly live, most of the time. With your favourite bands, as with religion, faith is everything.

For this show, there would be no fancy slideshows or lasers to hide behind: just a lot of analogue instruments and four musicians. It's trendy for bands to play albums from start to finish at the moment, but that robs the set of most surprises. For Oxygene, one of the first albums I owned, it was good to hear the spontaneity in this performance. Three new variations were included too, which were previously only released on DVD, and the whole set was concluded with one of the tracks from the 1997 sequel album to Oxygene.

At one point, a mirror was lowered over the stage so that everybody could see what was being played. It was odd to see the bass notes on the right hand side of the keyboards, but it reinforced the feeling that this was real. During the show, Jean-Michel played a theramin, some kind of weird stick instrument and a number of other instruments and synths. When he played, he concentrated hard. There was the feeling that this was a show where he was taking real risks and things could go wrong.

The crowd cheered for Oxygene IV, which was an odd reaction. I would have thought any real fan would be mostly tired of it by now (as I am), and would prefer the more mellow Oxygene II and Oxygene VI. But the hit single did sound fresh and the bassline was hypnotic.

Second photo of JMJ by Duncan Walls
Photo of Jean-Michel Jarre at Theatre Marigny in Paris. © Duncan Walls. Used with permission
Last year, Jarre released a re-recording of Oxygene, including a DVD edition that filmed the performance in 3D and provided red and green glasses for watching it. The 3D effects were fun but gave me a headache after a while. The film (also available in a flat version on the 3D disc and separately) is a fine memento of the show I saw. Alongside the DVD edition, a single CD edition of the re-recording was released.

JMJ's now announced that he's going to tour this production worldwide, with gigs announced in the UK, Denmark and Belgium. To promote this, he released the Oxygene re-recording for free with the Mail on Sunday the other week. It's an approach that Prince tried with his new studio album, but it seems JMJ's trying to have his cake and eat it. This isn't previously unavailable material, as Prince's album was: it's a CD that was released for sale just eight weeks ago. Those who bought the album in December are going to be a bit miffed to find it's available for free now. There might well be shops carrying stock that is now virtually worthless too, given that you can buy the CD on Ebay cheaper than you could have bought the newspaper. (The DVD content is still exclusively available through retail).

Newspapers have a unique channel for distributing millions of copies of an album. I'm pleased that some of my favourite acts can reach new audiences this way, but isn't it time for newspapers to start being a bit more creative? The day that an up-and-coming band releases its album for free through a newspaper, and the newspaper has the vision to recognise the opportunity there, will be a scary day for the music industry. Until then, giveaways are basically publicity stunts and artists should be careful whose hand they bite.

Thanks to Duncan Walls for permission to use these photos. See more at Duncan's flickr stream and visit his site JarreUK for the latest tour news.

More from Jean-Michel Jarre

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