Category: music & film

Freebox Batch Video Conversion (mp4 to mkv)


I often have the problem of needing to convert a folder full of video files to a format compatible with my Freebox, without spending ages in front of my machine doing each video individually. This often happens when I have several takes from my mobile phone or camcorder as mp4 files. Here’s how I worked out how to do it. These instructions apply to Windows 7, and may also work elsewhere on Windows machines.

I have tailored these instructions for a generic encode that will work on Freebox (ADSL triple-play box in France) but since the resulting files stick to standards they should work on most set-top boxes and portable players, including phones and tablets except iPhone/iPad, which read mp4 natively anyway… The typical conversion required is from mp4 to mkv or avi; I prefer mkv for the Freebox as it has worked in more cases for me.

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Foolish Games

Over a year ago now, I was in a band that got together for a gig in Paris which was a line-up of colleagues from work. I have been thinking about our vocalist recently, since she’s from Tunisia and has been very active on social networks following the revolution and helping people connect as regular digital communications were hampered.

This is a track from a time before that… a little bit of nostalgia for me recorded at rehearsal – the first run-through of the Jewel track Foolish Games for which I played the piano. The song itself is a story of unbalanced love, and the single was a big success which was nominated for best pop female vocal at the Grammy awards in 1998.

It was a wonderful moment of musical complicity – it starts off a little weak and sometimes slightly out of time, but somewhere in the middle it all comes together quite beautifully. Nothing like music to take you away from the anguish of existence and just let yourself relax for a few precious moments. Funny how this first run through was never matched afterwards, even though it has a couple of rough edges. Click the title or the “play” icon to hear it.

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V Special Club & Friends
Originally uploaded by simon_music

Five and Thirty Years

Dear John Lennon

On this very blog, five years ago, I wrote an article Manhattan 25 Years Ago. Today, it’s now thirty years on since John Lennon was assassinated in New York.

On French radio this morning on my way to work the station dedicated the day to Lennon. Aside from a few errors by some of the guests (mentioning that during Abbey Road sessions, the band played a concert on the roof when in fact it was for the Let It Be sessions) most of the guests seemed particularly knowledgeable and even mentioned that Strawberry Fields in Central Park post dates the song, which was inspired by a Salvation Army orphanage in Woolton, Liverpool – actually called Strawberry Field.

On of my first memories that can be accurately dated is hearing the announcement of the death of Lennon. My son Nathan is now about the same age as I was then. He’s now five; thirty years ago I was five.

Image credit: bloodyjohn

Tasty Guitar Solos

Playing a musical instrument well requires a lot of practice. Motivating yourself is difficult with no goal. When you have other people to play with, and a good vibe between the musicians, and an occasional audience to share the music with, then you might find yourself with good reasons to find that drive. Getting good means spending a lot of time working on ideas and choosing a common repertoire – never easy.

Musical ventures often come to naught. Time constraints, having to rely on other sources of income and commitments gradually take your free time away. There’s no recipe for success or good musical collaboration but one might be to have the social whirl of a life afforded to students, then take a pinch of loneliness, being out of your home country, and having nothing but a CD player and a guitar to keep you company. Two friends from university both found themselves in a similar quantum state at various times during 1995-1996. Of all the times when anything was recorded of their jams, the session when they put down a cover of the track Enola Gay (I don’t remember which other tracks we recorded at the same time) captured some of the keen guitar playing that one of them* was doling out quite regularly on his Squier Strat.
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A Farmer Has Got a Song For You

Lycée Hilaire de Chardonnet

Recent reminiscence with friends on Facebook led me to dig out an old CD. The music on it is older than the CD itself, which was burned after copying tapes over from old recording sessions.

The story of this song began some time in 94-95 in Chalon sur Sa̫ne, where I lived for a year as an English assistant in a French lyc̩e (pictured). We did some busking there. I had a small room in an outbuilding of the school and we often jammed there, usually playing blues and making up words. The songs were full of private jokes and pointless Рoften lewd Рlyrics, improvised on the spot and recorded onto an old CD/tape combo box I had at the time. One or two songs survived those sessions and were revived in a later session, back in Letchworth, UK, probably in the summer of 95. The lyrics for this one had, for some reason, stuck around in our heads.

The track was put together with a keyboard backing, with a nice kind of fairground / harmonium organ sound playing cheesy thirds up and down. Paul played a rhythm guitar stab overdub and on the last chorus a second clean guitar was added while I randomly added a manual chorus/vibrato in real time with the tremolo arm a.k.a. “whammy bar” – you can hear it’s way out of tune at the end. We then overdubbed the solo – Paul playing incongruous distorted electric guitar – then each took turns layering in animal sounds (ahem) in the “farmyard break” before coming back to the chorus at the end. I sing the verses and Paul the chorus.

It’s not exactly a musical masterpiece, but it still makes me laugh. Friends at the time found it quite funny too, but then they were easily amused. Click the play button / song title below to hear it.

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Well hello and I’m a farmer…
Well hello there and my name’s Fred, and I live on a farm
I love organic fertilisers, and all their country charm
And I’ve worked hard all my life, and now I’m 92
So listen here* ‘cos I’ve got a song for you

Sheep and dogs and dogs and pigs
And pigs and cows and cows and pigs
And geese and goats, and goats and geese on a farm
BSE and a HGV and a HGV and a JBC** and a JBC and little old me on me farm

Now I’m a farmer and I’ve got a wife
She’s the farmer’s wife, her’s the farmer’s wife
And she loves to cook in the farmhouse kitchen (lovely jubly)
And now I’ve got me combine harvester, and I’ve given her a name
Me combine harvester’s called Nelly


Incongruous Solo – Farmyard break – Chorus

*The tape suffered an accident – the erase protection tab hadn’t been snapped out of the tape, and someone accidentally hit record instead of play on the line marked with the first asterisk. I have added back the same part from the second verse to preserve continuity but you can see it’s a dodgy fix. No surviving mix of the full song is known to be extant.

**Yes, we realised very quickly it was JCB and not JBC.

Sweaty Betty Serendipity

Sweaty Betty

I took a picture of a bookshop that I pass on my route to the offices my company has recently moved to in La Défense. I liked the fact that it was a weathered, old shop sign. No doubt it hasn’t been open for years, though it may be caught in a time warp and still in business. What really piqued me was that the name. Horribly wrong punctuation. No use of apostrophe to indicate possession unless they only sold books about characters called Betty. The whole thing, in two words and one misplaced apostrophe, was a mess.

Having posted the photo to Flickr, a talented musician and songwriter friend of mine (Paul) immediately picked up on the “Betty” reference, it having been part of the title of possible one of the simplest but most effective tracks we ever played together, Sweaty Betty.

A couple of days later, I found an old USB stick which had a random selection of 300 tracks from my mp3 collection. I plugged it into my car stereo and was listening to some old tunes when I heard the familiar riff from the start of Sweaty Betty, and it started right around the point where Betty Book’s (sic) is. Thus the triple reference to Betty – the shop, the comment and the tune – in one short week reminded me that I had always intended to post about it.

Paul recollects this on the songwriting:

The song is basically about a smelly girlfriend. Wrote it in about 30 seconds. The true story is that one day I was walking past Betty’s Bistro [in Leamington Spa, where we lived as students] and saw (what looked like) the owner sweeping up outside. She was absolutely massive and had sweaty armpits so we nicknamed it Sweaty Betty’s.

The song lyrics were finalised just a couple of days before our booked studio time to record a few tracks as a demo EP – mostly as a souvenir of the band, which was forced apart as the three members all changed jobs in the space of a few months and could no longer meet to rehearse easily. The verses are structured around a A – G – Em7 progression, and the chorus is A – Gsus4 which gives it a little edge. The bass line was improvised and built around the guitar riff and progressions, and a breakdown in the song towards the end let me come up with a bass line which drives the song to the finale.

I could even take credit for some of the lyrics. The skeleton structure was improvised and extended during jamming sessions with The Rosco. Paul gave “I don’t really know you, all I know is that I itch like crazy” to which I added “I don’t really know you, all I know is that your dog’s got rabies!”.

Here’s the song, with player courtesy of the Haiku audio plugin.

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Betty Book’s
Originally uploaded by simon_music.
Sweaty Betty by Evans/White, © 2005 All Rights Reserved

Michael Jackson dead at 50

Michael Jackson Graffiti, Berlin, by stylespion (Flickr)

Michael Jackson suffered a heart attack last night (European time), and could not be resuscitated. Wacko Jacko he may have been, but it’s the end of an era. Love or hate him or his music, he’s the biggest selling album artist of all time. His music, his pop videos and his dancing have influenced pop forever, just like the Beatles and Elvis before him. His collaborations with Paul McCartney (Say Say Say, The Girl is Mine) are among my favourites.

I had a copy of Thriller on vinyl, and I’ll always remember the day I was at Auntie Val’s and we put on the first side. The needle dropped on the record and “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” started up… I must have been about 8 years old at the time. There goes another part of my childhood.

[update] There are a few articles around now that are covering the story of Michael’s life and death with a bit more depth; notably the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman with “This is not a Diana Moment” and an excellent article over at Urban Semiotic, “The Veneration of Michael Jackson begins“. As for the cause of death (direct or indirect) news is emerging that he may have been addicted to Demerol or Morphine.

Image credit: stylespion

…I’m Just the Piano Player

I’ve been influenced by a number of piano players. My paternal grandfather and my father both played a lot when I was a child – my father still does. A few of the schoolteachers I admired played a mean piano. Billy Joel, Elton John and Stevie Wonder are musicians I appreciate who sing and accompany themselves on piano. I’ve also heard a lot of keyboard jazz from Jimmy Smith (organ) and ragtime piano from Scott Joplin.

Many times I’ve been lonely but never when I’m in front of a piano keyboard. I’ve gone out of my way to ask to play pianos in hotels in New York and Dallas when travelling in the States – the former specifically to play “New York State of Mind” while in New York, which I managed to do even though I was only there for 24 hours. I’ve played dodgy pianos in pubs and got job offers because it keeps people in the bar – I’m not that good so mostly the offers were for payment in beer.

Fewer and fewer places offer you the chance to be able to just sit down in public and play, because there just aren’t pianos around any more except auto-playing ones in aseptic hotel lobbies. I’ve been refused more often than accepted when I’ve asked to play piano in those kind of places. Then again, I’m not a virtuoso, and sometimes I’ve asked at times which might well be inconvenient for the gathered public.

For some time I’ve wanted to record a quick film of my piano playing. After learning the recorder at junior school at around 7-8 years old, my next instrument was the piano. I always loved playing keyboard instruments, and had lessons on classical organ, pop organ, and piano. The piano is one of the best instruments to play solo, because it has a large range. The 88 notes on a full piano keyboard represent the range of most instruments in an orchestra – much more than a guitar. It’s also an instrument which lends itself to playing several notes at once, to explore harmony, counter-melody and playing interesting left hand bass accompaniment to all sorts of melodies. It’s harder to accompany yourself and sing with a piano, I think the guitar better lends itself to that. But the piano by itself is really versatile and a great instrument which adds to many musical styles.

So here’s a single-take shot of me playing a piano solo of a composition I wrote when I was 16 as part of my coursework for GCSE music – it’s called City Nights. It is a little bit changed from the original version, but the melody, structure and sequence is the same. I’ve just added in a few variations in a repeated section to make it last three minutes. I passed the exam with flying colours, by the way.