Surfing For The Truth

A year or so ago, a relatively well-known British composer died after a long and distinguished career doing what he did best, namely writing theme tunes for television programs, advertising jingles, and game-show stings and fillers. Many of the UK's high-powered daily newspapers printed fulsome obituaries, as, on its website, did that bastion of truth and integrity, the BBC, for whom the composer had worked for many years.

Three of the newspapers, the UK weekly entertainment trade magazine, The Stage, the BBC website, and Reuters news agency listed among the many achievements of this composer the little-known fact that he had co-written a hit song called “Reach” for the pop group S Club 7. The reason that this was a little-known fact was that it wasn't actually true — the writing credit had been added to his Wikipedia entry by an anonymous prankster, a fact that could have been checked easily in a couple of minutes elsewhere on the Internet or by a simple phone call. But so quickly had Wikipedia become accepted as an unfailing oracle, that seasoned journalists were using it as their prime source of information for subjects outside their normal scope. The subsequent ridicule heaped on those who didn't bother to check their facts must have bucked up the ideas of many others who routinely turned to Wikipedia as their first, rather than their last, source of information. A few years ago, I coined Leonard's Law, which states that, just because you can't find it on the Internet, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Now, I'd add a corollary: just because it's on Wikipedia, doesn't mean it's correct.

I was reminded of this fiasco recently, in a rather embarrassing way, when I was asked to put together a soundtrack for a show on very short notice. I didn't know the play concerned and didn't have immediate access to a script so, in an effort to have some ideas before I met the director, I did an Internet search and, sure enough, came up with a Wikipedia entry which, among other things, listed a particular piece of music played on a jukebox that formed a theme for the show. Knowing that the director would need it in rehearsals, I sourced a version on iTunes and sent a CD over to the stage manager, who sent over a copy of the play in return.

The next day, almost simultaneously with my starting to read the script, the phone rang with a query from the stage manager. Was I sure that the music track was correct? It seemed far too long and really not right for the play. I said I'd call back, located the cue in the play, and found that it referred to a completely different piece of music by the same composer and performer. Another iTunes session later and a second, this time much more apposite, track was dispatched to the rehearsal room. I live within walking distance of two libraries and a short subway ride from any number of bookshops, and what I should have done was got my lazy ass up out of my comfy Eames chair and gone to the library or a bookshop and double checked before I wasted both time and money, albeit only a few cents, on the basis of an unsubstantiated Wikipedia entry.

Of course, before the days of the Internet, letters, telephone, trade directories, and intense footwork formed the basis for any factual research for the shows that I worked on and, in retrospect, I think I got much more out of that kind of research than I do from researching online. How much more satisfying it is to pursue a line of research through its various stages, gathering peripheral information on the way to reach a final goal, than to wallow lazily in the instant gratification afforded by Google and Wikipedia?

Some examples: in my efforts to get more information on period cannon fire, I found my way through various British Army establishments to the splendidly named Major Courage at The Ministry of Defense, who gave me helpful information on where I could record gun salutes in the royal parks and castles; years later, I encountered Major Courage again, now retired and living in the splendid surroundings of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where he wears the scarlet livery of a Chelsea Pensioner and advises on military music.

In researching a play about the rise of a political activist and reformer in Wales in the 1920s, I came across an archivist in the BBC Sound Library, whose encyclopedic knowledge and love of theatre got me access to many rare archive recordings; I discussed the habits of ravens with the Yeoman Warders in The Tower Of London, I met steam-train drivers and bus fanatics, interviewed high-powered politicians and noble lords who had once been coal miners and, on one memorable occasion, had to contact the Prime Minister of Great Britain to ask for permission to use an audio clip from a broadcast he'd made as a junior government minister after the end of the Second World War.

For the world premiere of Peter Whelan's play, The Accrington Pals, written about a company of WWI soldiers from the same town in the north of England, I traveled to the area and researched local newspaper archives to find out what shows were on at the local theatre at the time and how well the local football team had been doing. I met the bell-ringers of the local church, many of whom had lost relatives in the Great War, and recorded their change ringing. I visited the old pubs and the sites where the old mills and factories stood that were once the lifeblood of the town and, in consequence, was able to bring my research and a much better sense of time and place back to the rehearsal room to add to the overall picture of life in that town in 1915.

Music research was also a mind-expanding experience: once I'd exhausted the record stores (vinyl ruled back then) of the provincial city in which I lived, the next step was a day-trip to the flesh-pots of London and, in particular, to a den of iniquity called Shepherd's Market, notorious then as the hang-out of high-class call-girls, but much more exciting to me as the home of Discurio, one of the most extraordinary record shops in London, long since lost to rent-hikes and gentrification. To say that the stock was eclectic would be an understatement, and I found rare and wonderful things lurking in the racks — obscure music and sounds that could be plundered for curtain and scene drop music and underscore. I discovered the music of Scott Joplin long before Marvin Hamlisch's score for The Sting made The Entertainer famous; a wonderful album of Berlin dance-band music from the 1930s, issued on an Australian subsidiary of the EMI label that I've never seen anywhere else; folk music from all corners of the world; the Burundi drummers and the bizarre treatment by Rolling Stones' guitarist Brian Jones of the master musicians of Joujouka. I found the extraordinary combination of musique-concrete, French 1960s pop, and electronics produced by Pierre Henry (and incidentally, much sampled, remixed, and imitated 40 years later. The theme from Futurama owes a great debt to Henry, for example) and the weird and wonderful sounds of the sculpted glass and metal of Les Structures Sonores.

It was the owner of Discurio who, during a search for some particularly obscure jazz tracks, put me in touch with another expert, Brian Rust, whose knowledge of jazz and dance music of the late 19th and early 20th century was then, and is still now, unparalleled. I called Brian once to try to find a suitable version of “The Missouri Waltz” for Saroyan's The Time Of Your Life, and, in a few minutes, he was back on the phone with a choice of three, one of which was perfect and from exactly the right period. iTunes offers in excess of 30 versions of the same song today, but you can't tell iTunes the plot and location of the play and the period and style of the music you're looking for, and most of the versions available online are very far from a perfect fit for Saroyan's bitter-sweet piece.

And browsing an online store really isn't the same as standing in the middle of a second-hand record store, sorting through the haphazard piles of cutouts and long-deleted obscurity in the hope that something startlingly original will present itself — something I still do at another shop. Most importantly, you can't make friends with iTunes and send it a thank you note once the show has opened.

If all this sounds like the nostalgic ramblings of a grumpy old git, then yes, I suppose in some ways it is, but it's also a reminder from me to myself, and to you, that there's still a fascinating and tantalizing world out there that owes nothing to the cold electronic touch of the Internet and everything to the warmth and enthusiasm of real people. You (and I) really should get out more.