Sunday, 3 January 2010

2009: A Year in Review

It is difficult to know where to begin in my summary of 2009. It has been action-packed, for sure.

2009 has seen me make the surprisingly speedy transition from college student to award winning writer. Within months I made the leap from writing essays and attending lectures to penning stories for the country's biggest newspaper, being interviewed on several news channels and even contributing to a bestselling book.

It has all been a bit of a blur but in hindsight I have squeezed a lot into the last 12 months.

I have stood metres from Michael Jackson as he annouced his comeback concerts inside the O2 arena and later stood outside the arena in the rain, watching his memorial service on a giant screen. I have interviewed rappers, filmmakers and jazz musicians, then published the stories in my own magazine. I have trodden the red carpet at a London film premiere and shared a stage with Motown legends.

It has been a year of extraordinary highs and lows, the highs understandably including my press accreditation for Michael Jackson's concert announcement. Other highs included completing my graduation ceremony without falling over, walking down the red carpet at a film premiere without falling over and accepting my Guardian award without falling over.

The lowest low, of course, was the death of Michael Jackson just weeks before I was due to see him live at the O2. In a way I had never quite believed that those concerts would go ahead, but I certainly didn't think he was going to die. I remember receiving a text message from my friend James, a jovial comment along the lines of 'What has Michael gone and done now?'

As I watched the news unfold I was initially not too concerned. I suspected he had manufactured some illness or injury in an attempt to postpone or cancel his comeback shows. Behind the scenes, Jackson insiders had been speculating all along that he would 'do anything' to get out of them.

When TMZ first announced Jackson's death I was again largely dismissive, partly because blog sites had inaccurately reported his death in the past and partly because it seemed like an impossibility that Michael Jackson could be dead. For Jackson at 50 years old to join the ranks of deceased icons like Elvis Presley, James Brown and Ray Charles - it seemed implausible; far too soon.

When BBC confirmed the news, I wilted.

Less than three years previously I had seen Michael Jackson and James Brown within weeks of one another. I had seen James Brown deliver what would become his last concert on British soil in late October 2006 and I saw Michael Jackson appear at the World Music Awards in November. I never dreamed that so soon afterwards we would have lost them both.

Speaking of Mr Brown, he figured into my year quite prominently for a man who had been deceased for the best part of three years. Before that concert in October 2006 I had been invited to Brown's pre-show press conference, where he spoke to me about an album he had been recording. In the wake of his death I wondered what had become of that album; surely that was the smartest time to release it? In the aftermath of Ray Charles's death his new album posthumously soared to the top of the charts. The same happened to Luther Vandross.

As time passed, I forget about the album. Then, in early 2008 I was dispatched by the US magazine 'Wax Poetics' to interview Brown's former sideman Fred Wesley. Knowing that Wesley had contributed to Brown's lost album I asked him about it and got to thinking that there could be a story in there somewhere.

I emailed a music magazine contact, who said they were interested in a piece about the album, so I set about researching it. I contacted and interviewed everybody I could who was involved in the recording - songwriters, session musicians, core band members, backing vocalists, studio engineers, managers and more. Then I got back in touch with my music magazine source and was discovered that they had lost interest in the project. Saddled with tens of thousands of words' worth of interview transcripts, a hefty transatlantic phonebill and no outlet, my research began gathering dust.

By early 2009 I had decided that if nobody else had the imagination to publish the article, I would do it myself. I believed in the piece. I knew it was a good story and I knew it was significant; Brown is widely considered to be the most influential musician of the 20th century and my research documented a significant milestone in his recording career; his final work. I set about whittling my interview material into a coherent piece - James Brown: The Lost Album - and published it in my own magazine; JIVE.

JIVE launched in May 2009. A one-off publication, I saw it as a reduced prototype for a British answer to VIBE or Wax Poetics, covering the areas of black music ignored by the UK's mainstream music press. With Brown as its cover star, the magazine also boasted in-depth interviews with rapper Sway DaSafo and calypso legend Eddy Grant, as well as an advance preview of Zaire '74 documentary 'Soul Power' and a candid chat with jazz stalwart Digby Fairweather, who mused on why musicians so frequently fall victim to addiction and detailed his own battle with the booze.

The magazine launch was attended by none other than the legendary, Grammy Award winning music writer Cliff White, with whom I chatted at length about his memories of James Brown, George Clinton, Bernie Worrell and others.

Creatively, the magazine was a success (apart from a few typos, inexplicably undetected by the countless spellchecks I carried out - curse you, Adobe InDesign!!). Financially, however, was another story.

The magazine, like the Brown article, was a labour of love. I conducted all of the interviews, I wrote all of the articles and I undertook the vast majority of the design work. I even included some of my own photography. However, I also footed the printing costs. The magazine was distributed for free apart from a handful sold over the internet, meaning that I made a net loss somewhere in the region of £900.

Taking home a prestigious Guardian Award for my James Brown article went a long way towards cushioning the blow of the £900 deficit. I had felt disheartened when I couldn't place the James Brown piece. At the time I had felt angry that the article was overlooked - that nobody saw the same potential in the story as I did. When members of the Guardian judging panel told me it was possibly the best piece they'd ever seen, I felt vindicated in my decision to pour so much time, effort and money into researching and publishing it. I had always believed in it and it was nice to know that I wasn't the only one.

In spite of Michael Jackson's passing, 2009 was a good year for live music. A mid-summer evening spent in the company of BB King was a highlight. The aging blues man's vocals and guitar work don't betray his age whatsoever; his rendition of 'Thrill Is Gone' sounded no different to the original 1970 recording. At 83 (now 84) he seemed to have years left in him.

October offered a double helping of Motown magic. First, Gladys Knight enchanted Wembley Arena, ably supported by Tito Jackson. The pair played to an audience which included Jackson family matriarch Katherine and British pop sensation Boy George. Tito Jackson and his Bowler Boys delivered funky renditions of Jacksons classics such as Dancing Machine, Shake Your Body and This Place Hotel. Gladys Knight's followed with a plethora of hits including a gutsy delivery on Licence to Kill, performed to a backdrop of Bond title-esque flames.

Three weeks later Smokey Robinson breezed into town for the BBC's Electric Proms. I watched from the front row of the Roundhouse's standing pit as Smokey crooned his way through hits from his own back catalogue as well as songs he penned for other acts, such as the Temptations' Get Ready and My Girl. Like Ms Knight, Smokey remains on fantastic vocal form and his unique performance style sucks the audience in. During ballads such as 'Ohh Baby Baby' and 'Tracks of My Tears' Robinson paced the stage, holding eye contact with what seemed like each individual member of the front row at one time or another. As his piercing blue eyes lock onto your own, he holds you captive and his syrupy falsetto digs deep into your soul.

Smokey Robinson performs at the Camden Roundhouse

November saw a roster of Motown legends perform a week of engagements in London. Described by the Jazz Cafe's Chris Steele as 'a week of real Motown, true Motown', the line-up included several significant figures from Motown history; Mable John - the first female act signed to Motown, Chris Clark - the first white artist signed to Motown, and Thelma Houston, the first Motown artist to win a Grammy.

Supporting the line-up was none other than Jack Ashford, the legendary percussionist and last surviving member of the original Motown Rhythm Section. I interviewed Jack in January 2008 for Wax Poetics and we have remained in touch. He kindly invited me backstage during rehearsals for the Hammersmith Apollo DVD recording. As it turned out, backstage meant onstage. My friend Angela stood to the side of the stage as we watched the Supremes rehearse their set before they were joined by Mabel John, Thelma Houston, Chris Clark and Brenda Holloway. Then we watched Jack put his Funk Brothers through their paces as they rehearsed songs including Dancing In The Street.

Jack Ashford conducts his Funk Brothers during a rehearsal

Afterwards, we joined Jack in his dressing room as he was interviewed for the DVD extras and chatted with him briefly before making our way to the auditorium and taking our seats. For Motown enthusiasts there was much to enjoy; Mabel John looked and sounded sprightly at 79 as she prowled the stage during hits such as 'Same Time, Same Place', 'Able Mable' and 'Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like That'. Thelma Houston's performance of 'Don't Leave Me This Way' got the whole auditorium on its feet and Scherrie Payne's vocal performance on Supremes hit 'Stoned Love' ellicited a huge response.

I had intended to round off my live music year with Chuck Berry, but his tour was cancelled at the last minute. The official reason was that there wasn't enough preparation time, but the tour had been scheduled for months. I hear that the cancellation was actually due to a problem with the promoters.

While 2009 may have been a great year for live music, it wasn't such a great year for film. Highlights were few and far between. Much praise was heaped upon Michael Jackson's This Is It but while it was enjoyable and Jackson did seem to be on good form, the film is inherently untrustworthy. When I saw it I noticed immediately that old vocals had been dubbed into the film. The filmmakers had used obscure vocals in a bid to trick fans - for instance, using Jackson's 1991 demo version of Earth Song instead of the 1995 album track, and using a 1982 demo of Billie Jean instead of the version we all know and love. But it was dubbed nonetheless, a fact to which Sony admitted once the Sun hired audio experts to prove it.

This year's best music flick was actually 'Soul Power', Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's dazzling verite docmentary composed entirely of original footage from the Zaire '74 music festival, organised to coincide with Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle. Featuring stunning performances by artists including Bill Withers, BB King, James Brown, the Spinners and Miriam Makeba at the height of their powers, the film transports you back to 1974 and viewing it on a big screen almost felt like you were there watching it live. The film serves as a stark reminder of what soul and talent truly mean and proved a glorious antidote to today's depressing music scene.

My JIVE interview with Soul Power director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte

I was fortunate this year to find myself in possession of two tickets to the London premiere of 'The Men Who Stare at Goats', where I repeatedly walked past George Clooney but was more excited by the free popcorn and chocolate bar that awaited me in my seat. Despite a fairly poor critical reception I thought the film was solid. Brilliantly acted by a dream cast including Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, the film was adapted by Jon Ronson's hilarious non-fiction book about the US Army's long obsession with teachng soldiers to harness psychic ability. Although not entirely faithful to Ronson's source material, Peter Straughan did a good job of weaving Ronson's research into a more linear narrative and I didn't feel the film was deserving of the harsh reviews that it received.

2009 will be most remembered for two major world events - the inauguration of America's first black president and the death of its biggest superstar. On a personal level, 2009 has been a good year. It hasn't been without its disappointments but on the whole it has been positive.

My new year's resolution? To make 2010 even better.