Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Moon Under Water. Part two.

Christmas Day, 1988. Yes, that's me, seventeen years old, watching the television premiere of Back To The Future on BBC1. I just fought the automatic urge to write ‘terrestrial premiere’ then, which not only betrays what I do for a living, but would be an unnecessary term given how Sky’s output was a mere glint in Rupert Murdochs rheumy eye in those simpler days. In any event, as I watched sterling Doc Emmett Brown hang from the Hill Valley Clock Tower, valiantly trying to reconnect the power cable that would channel the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity into the DeLorean’s flux capacitor and send plucky young Marty McFly back to the year 1985…I dully realised that things had moved on between Yule and yours truly. I was on a festive cusp, far too old for toys, yet still too young to have any practical ideas of the kind of grown-up fun one could have over Christmas — much less the disposable income to indulge in any of it. I would have been too embarrassed to ask my ageing parents to remember which Jethro Tull albums I coveted on my CD list. Besides, I already owned Back To The Future on VHS. I learned that day that Christmas was never going to deliver for me the way it had done so when I was a child. The cracks had started to show. Life had started to intervene — the boring bits especially as the coming years would prove: those involving job seeking, house hunting, bill paying, bereavement and unrequited love. 
Now, before I sound like some damnable Dickensian ingrate and disappear under a welter of voices decrying “Bah, humbug, etc” may I emphasise how much I do actually enjoy this time of year. For a start I’m saying nothing original here, I know, bemoaning the overt commercialisation of Christmas: we all feel that side of it. Nonetheless, like any person of sound mind, I enjoy giving and receiving presents and I have certainly received wonderful gifts these past few days, accepted with gratitude and affection, all. Without protesting my social credentials too loudly, you don’t need good Saint Nick to find me an excuse for a good hard, rousing carouse anytime, anywhere. Father Christmas, even at my embittered age, weaves his palpable magic over the Festive Season — manifest, if nothing else, as that self-determining atmosphere engendered among people amiably disposed to finding fun out in the cold air, the short days and long nights. Count me in for all of that, to say nothing of getting some decent time off work. No, I certainly don’t have an axe to grind with the Little Baby Jesus, if you’ll forgive an unnecessarily visceral visual image (coming soon to a cinema near you). Most conclusively, I also love Slade. Case closed.

Nonetheless, for me, there’s no denying that it’s been a long time — twenty-two years there, so I’ve reckoned — since Christmas Day itself has proven entirely able to equal, let alone surpass, the burden of expectation heaped upon it by the madness of the preceding weeks. Moreover, nearly every job I’ve had — whether they be in retail, publishing or education — has been informed by that galloping lunacy that seems to infect so many people in the run-up to Christmas Day. Consequently, it gets increasingly hard for me to feel it’s all been worthwhile by then. It needs to be said at least once more how there’s a lot to gain from a collective throttle-down on the financial outlay; better to observe the sanctity of a season where we turn our kindest thoughts to our dearest family and friends, irrespective of any religious leaning. That can be — could be, should be — a stunning human phenomenon, right there, one not to be underestimated. I think what I’m trying to say in so many, many words is: it shouldn’t just be for the kids, Christmas, should it?

However, Boxing Day — with the knowledge that one is as far away from next Christmas Day as can be — is an altogether more relaxing and less anticlimactic proposition. And so it has proved this year. Splendid. How’s that for a longwinded way of saying that I hope you had the Christmastide of your desire? 
Now it’s time for me to turn to the comfortingly familiar subject of pubs. 
Several months ago, I wrote an article regarding The Moon Under Water — a short, entertaining essay George Orwell wrote for the London Evening Standard in 1946, which laid out his ten personal requirements for the perfect pub. Orwell’s article clocks in at around one thousand words of spare, fat-free writing. My own article took 500 words more to get no further than discussing what I’d have on the jukebox. I think therein lies the precise difference between Mr Eric Arthur Blair, master of punchy, prosal parsimony and me — a fat guy who likes increasingly irrelevant instances of awkward alliteration plus the odd drink or two. It never even occurred to me that my ideal pub may not have a jukebox at all. 
The matter of recorded music piped into public places raises a double standard for me. Who has not suppressed the urge while travelling on public transport to kill the moron whose mobile ringtone is clearly neither original, nor indeed loud enough for its idiotic owner to identify and answer without regaling fellow passengers to several bars? No, instead our Besuited Monkey Boy smiles his mooncalf smile at the phone like he’s never heard music emerge from it ever before in his life. Elsewhere, countless wretched Mexican restaurants across the nation would have gone out of business a lot sooner if the Mariachi band piped out — make that ‘ladled out’ — across the speakers at maximum volume didn’t distract the punters from their pre-frozen chimichangas and watered-down Margaritas. None of this is at all based on personal experience, can you tell?
I’ve been in pubs where the music is comically inappropriate: in London, just off Oxford Street, was a pub called Ben Crouches Tavern. Don’t look for it — it’s not there anymore, and I’m afraid the apostrophe in its name is still AWOL as well. It was one of a small chain of boozers wailing under the corporate nom-de-bleaaaghh of The Eerie Pub Company. Some of the other pubs in the chain may still be in existence, but I have no inclination to seek them out. The Eerie Pub Company. Certain terms should never be self-appointed. In the same way that someone who claims to be ‘laid-back’ usually tends to be persuading themselves more than anyone else, so can you expect neither thrills nor chills from a franchise outlet claiming to be eerie. Beneath the plastic stone cladding and gargoyles, the fibreglass cobwebs and the life-size effigy of Frankenstein’s monster sat a pub bereft of imagination or variety — but at least it was dark. They served the least demanding range of lager and ales you could find outside of a railway wine bar, plus a series of cocktail shots poured into test tubes and dubbed each of the Seven Deadly Sins. I remember being in Ben Crouches the afternoon we found out the Queen Mother had died. I don’t recall for certain, but it would have been a hollow tribute to Her Majesty’s memory if, as was entirely possible, we toasted her with ‘Lust’ or ‘Envy.’ But I digress. The oddest aspect of the Eerie Pub’s business model was how the creepy aesthetic worked at odds with the perky sounds of Blur, Stereo MCs and many, many more happy hitmakers of the Nineties. Not a single track by The Cramps, Fields Of The Nephilim or even Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers. Still, it could have been a lot worse. At least it was all good pop, anywhere you care to find it, but I can’t help thinking that all that good work — with the mock-Goth set design, those little shot-phials and the screens with the Dracula DVD on loop — ended up down the toilet to the twin sounds of Damon Albarn bleating and recorded screaming. I’m not joking about that last bit; actual screaming sound effects in the toilets, I tell you. Way to put a man off his stroke, in a manner of speaking.
Worst of all is the pub that plays out-and-out crap music, usually to cater — pander — to the lowest common denominator. Chain pubs are again the most likely perpetrators, playing a selection labelled ‘crowd pleasers and safe bets’ — songs that keep the beat simple, solid and bass-heavy, the exact, inanely generic chart pop tunes that end up filling the shelves, unloved and unsold, in charity shops. Mark their names with shame: Peter Andre, auto-tuned X Factor winners, anyone connected with Simon Cowell, in fact. It’s a given that the decor and lighting in these establishments works in harmonious sympathy with the sound, to create a brightly lit, blandly furnished, wipe-clean environment more akin to a provincial nightclub; a kind of alcoholics’ Guantanamo Bay. 
However, isn’t all this pretty rich coming from someone who wrote 1,500 words on a fantastical, fictional pub playlist for an idealised, imaginary pub? Well, largely, yes, it is. I’m a keen proponent of a decent jukebox. A tastefully chosen, subtly driven jukebox selection can lift an already good evening into an excellent one; it can even, on occasion, salt a bad night up into something good. On either occasion, it’s always gratifying to find one’s musical decisions elicit the desired cry of “Ohh, TUNE!” from your cronies as the intro to a beloved song kicks in — preferably with forefinger aloft. There’s a time and a place for it all; having the discrimination to judge when exactly is the trick of it. Similarly, some of you will know the Café-in-the-Crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London which, until quite recently, broadcast Baroque music of the most uplifting order at discreet levels; the strident strings and brass warmth conspiring with the shadows cast across displaced headstones and other memento mori to create a wondrous location for an assignation. Within these heavy, sunken stone walls, scented with Madeira cake, dried lichen and Earl Grey tea, relationships were formed, reformed and deformed, friendships consolidated and — more than once — dreams shattered. Still not personal experience, oh no sir. None at all.
As an admirer of film scores, I can think of many, many more occasions where music enhances and underlines the emotional tenor of a scene than I can of times where it proves intrusive and unwelcome. There’s a case for not having music at all, but that’s a boring sentiment to maintain in a medium where all emotion is artifice — whether it be projected directly from actors, through clever visual juxtaposition to suggest meaning or just courtesy of Big Johnny Williams conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. But I digress again. Anyway, all of this should have belonged in another essay entirely. I was here today to talk about pubs. I have reached nearly 2,000 words. Bollocks. I’ll have to leave it for another time.
Somewhere, George Orwell is slowly shaking his head. 
I wish you a Happy New Year.
Currently listening:
Michael Praetorius: Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh, 1994)
Heinrich Schütz: Christmas Vespers (Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh, 1999)
In Hoary Winter’s Night (Joglaresa, 2009)
Marc-Antoine Charpentier: Te Deum/Messe de minuit (Choeur et Musiciens de Louvre/ Marc Minkowski, 1997)
Currently watching:
The complete Harry Potter series (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, David Yates, 2001-2011)
The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)
The Great Escape (John Sturges, 1963)
Kelly’s Heroes (Brian G Hutton, 1970)
The First Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton, 1978)

Monday, 12 December 2011

A ghost story for Christmas — well, sort of...

My last article, written during ongoing demonstrations in London and elsewhere in protest against swingeing cuts in public sector expenditure, concerned the certain kind of courage it can take for people to confront their problems, face their fears, make known their unhappiness and propose how best to deal with all of it.

The problem — and the beauty — of fear though, especially irrational fear, is that the more you can define it, the more it becomes the precise solution to end its grip on you. In other words, if you jump every time you meet a spider in the bath first thing in the morning, you know deep down that you will never be rid of the phobia until the day comes when you cease to jump, or can even tolerate holding one in your hand. You can blame the origin of your fear on all kinds of things in your past, but there’s no escaping the same conclusion: the only way not to be afraid is to be unafraid. Therein lies the rub. The trick of course, is to unlock this secret, to find a way of rendering the fear impotent in some way. There’s little else in life that fails so abjectly as a truly crap horror film, for example. Finding the inherent crapness in something scary is laudable and effective, but let’s accentuate the positive and be a little more creative in our diagnosis. Many ostensibly fearsome things on this planet can be dealt away with by making them:

A) funny
B)  tasty
C)  sexy

So, a spider in the bath, you say?

A) Put it in a clown costume and see how you feel about it now*.
B)  Dip it in chocolate and deep fry it to make a toothsome post-bath breakfast sweetmeat.
C)  Clad all eight lissom pins in fishnets and have yourself an erotic arachnid encounter before you leave for work.

Problem solved. There’s no extra charge for this online therapy, by the way.

On a related subject, and one mainly concerning that most private sector of all — one’s own mind — I am pleased to tell you I laid an obscure ghost to rest earlier this month, and even more pleased to relate this story to you now.

John Nathan Turner, the controversial producer of Doctor Who in the Eighties (relax already, this is not going to be about Who) had a catchphrase, a maxim if you like, that was invoked on numerous occasions: ‘the memory cheats. Such a neat, compact expression with a variety of applications. It’s how continuity errors crop up in scripts. It’s the thing that makes people convinced they’ve seen a cut of The Great Escape in which Steve McQueen successfully jumps the final wire fence on his motorbike. It explains how the slimy, looming alien beast you remember with terror from an episode of Doctor Who from 1975 looks to your jaded adult eyes as about as scary as the luminous green-painted bubblewrap it really is (you know what episode I mean). Your memory, yoked to imagination often creates and reiterates the information much more vividly than being confronted with the stark, prosaic reality of an unchanging visual image. In other words, the pictures are better on radio.

Sometimes, however, the memory does not cheat. Sometimes it recalls something with exact clarity undiminished by increasing years away from the event. Some visual images get burned in and can’t be burned out — and if they are scary enough, you may not be able to shake them off. They float in a loose cranial orbit within, inside, unwanted — and then when you least expect it, the memory makes good on its promise and it will return to visit you, equally as unbidden, especially in your sleep.

As a very tiny child (on holiday by the seaside if I recall correctly — and you’ll find out, I do) I remember watching a film on television with scene of a woman driving recklessly and ending in a sudden car crash. At the moment of impact, the camera zoomed in on a still shot of her terrified face. Then, horribly, and in complete silence,

the image split                                                      into several                          pieces and                                               each one





The film then cut to the woman lying in a hospital bed in a full body cast. She had survived, but I don’t believe I wanted to know what happened next.

Forgive me if you’ve deduced already what film I describe, but let me assure the rest of you that this stylised, stark and brutal image lurked unnamed in my subconscious for over 35 years. It would lay dormant for months at a time and then choose to gatecrash my slumber and wake me, leaving behind a creeping sense of inexorable, encroaching fear and a powerlessness to meet it or defeat it. Over the years I had even begun to think that maybe it wasn’t something I saw at all, but merely my Id’s powerful conflation of numerous, nameless terrors into something cinematically visual with which to nobble me here and there. It could have remained that way, but then it haunted me again the other day. Right, I thought, I’ve bloody had enough of this. It was time to nail this sucker once and for all.

Now, I have told you the salient details of the scene, but the more I thought about it, the more something didn’t make sense. It wasn’t anything to do with the film itself, but the fact I saw it at all. I’m placing my memory of this incident from when I was of pre-school age, round about 1974 or 1975. My parents were pretty strict on the appropriate bedtime for a wee chap my age and yet here I was watching what my adult mind assumed to be some kind of thriller, or even a horror film. Then I remembered that I was watching this film in broad daylight. The recollection of this detail proved to be pivotal. There was, after all, no afternoon programming of note on British television in the mid-Seventies, nor any form of VHS playback available. Since I was at the seaside, it would have been summer, but also before my bedtime. This placed the transmission time anywhere from between 6pm and 8pm, but certainly no later. The concept of a watershed in broadcasting wasn’t as explicitly stated in those unreconstructed days, but all the same, a film on in the early evening couldn’t have been a horror film, nor a thriller of any great intensity.

So far, so forensic. I then proceeded to pull out my investigative sledgehammer and Googled:


and one of the first results led me to a site listing all manner of films in which a central character undergoes a complete physical transformation thanks to plastic surgery (especially the kind of surgery that really doesn't quite exist yet, making one actor look like another completely) and role recasting. One of the films mentioned was "the 1973 TV movie The Girl Most Likely To…, in which an ugly woman is remade beautiful after a car accident. She then uses her new beauty to take revenge on all the men who were cruel to her." 

You may know of this film. I didn't. So I looked it up on YouTubeI should have done this years ago. All too easy. Go to about 3 mins 50 secs in. That is EXACTLY what I remembered.

The sense of smell, it’s often said, is the key that can unlock by association the deepest vaults of memory. Fear, however, is an older and more subtle caresser of the darker, lizardine parts of our brain. As I watched this sequence play out on YouTube, the hairs on my arms bristled. I went cold in exactly the same way as you greet bad news. Look there, mark you, I was staring my nightmare squarely and precisely in its breaking-broken, falling-fallen, fell face.

The Girl Most Likely To…

I maintain that this scene, while it demonstrates an imaginative way to describe someone’s facial disfigurement in a film shown before the watershed, still conveys a harsh finality — car crashes, after all, are car crashes. However, while the memory had not cheated, context was everything, and in this case my torment was ended instantly, because —  yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen — aside from the sense of ‘closure’ achieved by finally naming and nailing this dark and worrying corner of my childhood was the joy to learn that the The Girl Most Likely To…is a comedy film. A black one, for sure, but apparently very funny indeed, written with wit, bite and delicious spite by no less than Joan Rivers, to be precise. So now it’s not enough to live with the information in my head; I want to see this film too.

A young Stockard Channing stars in the title role and it was indeed her face that descended from frame in such a disturbing fashion, her features distorted not only by film blur and her horrified expression but also, most crucially, by what I now realise is the kind of exaggeratedly comic ugly-duckling makeup beloved of cinema from The Nutty Professor through to Ugly Betty and even Neighbours. Take your leading lady/lad, shove tissue up one nostril, add a mole on the face, hairy eyebrows, crap teeth, bad hair, a fat suit and optional specs. Et voila! For me as a child, Channing’s altered features had enough doll-like creepiness to lay in a stock of nightmares lasting over 35 years. Now, I realise that even the full-body plaster cast she wore in the next scene is really a pure touch of Carry On-style costume bandaging.

Look at me, I’m writing about it, it’s that exciting to me, but I really can't express in words the feeling of mental weight that lifted in exchange for all this knowledge. Seriously, I can look myself in the mirror and know that the greying, middle-aged apprentice wizard staring back has slain an ancient nightmare. Moreover, I did it using rational thought, deduction, application to the task and a little help from Google. If all problems were as easily solved. Let me say it one more time, just so the full meaning of what happened is completely clear: I confronted and slew a nightmare. It will never return.

Best of all, the real-life Stockard Channing, having been divested of her ugly makeup and fat suit in the post-accident scenes, plays out the rest of the film in delightfully minxy fashion: a glamorous blend of Carrie played for laughs and Vincent Price in Theatre Of Blood — and just as vengefully campy, with a wicked glint in the eye and some frankly splendid, figure-hugging costumes.

Suddenly, I find I am, like, SO no longer afraid.

I hope Yuletide offers you a chance to bury a phantom or two as well. Merry Christmas to you all!

* for some people, of course, clowns are absolutely terrifying, so feel free to substitute it for a rabbit suit, Spider-Man costume or suchlike. The Spider-Man outfit not only has the advantage of being witty and appropriate, but also kinda sexy as well if you’re that way inclined. Course you are.


Currently watching:
The Indiana Jones tetralogy of films (Steven Spielberg,  1981, 1984, 1989, 2008)
The Star Trek films, from The Motion Picture (1979), through to First Contact (1997), then Star Trek (2009)
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977, revised 1981 and 1997)

Currently listening to:
T*E*R*R*A*N*O*S*T*R*A (Paul Murphy & The Bishops, work in progress)

Monday, 5 December 2011

We can be heroes.

As the five of you who read this will have observed, I have been quiet on here lately. The explanation, like myself, is short and easy. I’ve been out — yes, you guessed it — in single-minded pursuit of fun, laughter and the dispersal of over-introspection, too engaged elsewhere to find the time even to gather my thoughts, let alone spill them forth onto Mac and out into the cyber-beyond. Indeed I have countenanced the possibility that to do so may simply be an exercise in deepening the burgeoning melancholy that passes so much more quickly for placing myself in carefree situations.

Since the days have become shorter, a powerful childhood emotion has arisen and remains, indelibly hardwired into my psyche. No, I’m not going to start talking about that funny feeling I get in my tummy when I think about girls. I’m talking about that curious blend of anticipation, renewal, reluctance and stark fear that comes with the arrival of autumn: “Back To School” time. I’m sure for this reason alone, autumn is a time of self-audit and stock-taking for many. For me, the occurrence of my birthday at the end of September brings with it a definite high-water-mark awareness of the lengthening nights and the concomitant realisation that summer — such as we get here for about three days at any rate — is truly over. This year I’ve felt it more than most: I started 2011 as a thirtysomething chap. With a cruel sense of timing, the autumn has conspired to remind me, as only this time of year can, that on top of everything else upon which to take stock, I am — at 40 — no longer a very young man.

Now, I have previously promised myself — and of course you, dear reader — never more to write an article about writing an article. However, it must be said that keeping a Blog so far has been an interesting way to chart the activity in one’s life. Never mind the content tho’ — the frequency with which I manage to write and post up these articles in particular is the part I find most telling. Consider that I started this thing, conveniently enough, in January — and the austerity of the New Year brought enforced evenings in on those so very cold winter days; consequently, the rate of mental activity increased. Talk is cheap, and blogging equally so, as I found out. As the year wore on and the days lengthened, so I noticed the rate of posting became more limited, restricted as outside events and social activities vied for my fickle, sybaritic attention. So may you forgive me if I have not been quite so active than in previous months. I suspect with the oncoming Festive Season and all its attendant carousing, this situation is not likely soon to change, but once the whirl winds down and Christmastide becomes that other thing — a good time when not to see people — I will find ample subject matter to occupy my idle hands and your time.

Out in the wider world, the news brings daily word of still more unrest, sadness and discord. There’s squalor in the air and protest on the wind, as David Bowie put it in 1977, his time reflecting and projecting onto ours with many similarities. Strike action, public protest demonstrations, racial tension (particularly with the police) and economic instability. We are reliving the Seventies — only much worse: the music’s rubbish this time.

Regarding the recent spate of protesting, I find myself divided on these matters in much the same way as I teeter perilously either side of the young/old meridian. Let’s start with the downside: I have occasionally viewed protest with disdain. I dislike this about myself as it makes me feel like I’m some kind of  reactionary, perpetually scared Daily Mail reader, but I can’t deny it is there. Fighting off the urge to start a sentence with the instantly detestable gambit, ‘As a tax-payer…’, I must confess a small part of me, upon seeing hundreds of people camping out in central London, creating obstruction and — here’s the part that really annoys me — getting in my way, makes me wonder sometimes where I mislaid my flamethrower.

I blame my personal experience of protesting, confined as it is to my student days and several events I attended in the mid-Nineties demonstrating against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. On all those occasions, I found a considerable percentage of humourless, self-righteous pricks among the worthy masses, who mainly demonstrate nothing if not their desire to get laid by making obvious show of their ‘commitment’ to whatever cause they think will earn a place in the pants of their heart’s desire. Consequently, I felt that no protest I ever attended furthered the cause one iota — what I actually felt was abject powerlessness, futility and a bit of a lemon. Nor am I entirely convinced that industrial action — make that ‘inaction — is the best way of negotiating better terms and conditions in one’s chosen place of work. Ask most people who work in London during a Tube strike and they’ll tell you exactly what they think of Bob Crow. Down to the same word, in fact.

On the other hand, I feel more strongly that I am entirely wrong on this matter and have largely been allowing my past personal experience to sway my judgement — and besides, this is simply not the attitude that wins, is it? David Cameron this week past described the Public Sector protests as ‘a damp squib — revealing, if you hadn’t suspected already, a despicable, blatantly blokeish, throughly cuntish contempt for the deeply felt concerns of thousands of honest, voting taxpayers. Not the way a gentleman should behave, Dave. Go to your room.

Some people may view the protesting as ultimately unproductive, a mere gesture that achieves nothing except aggravation — and sometimes this is true, sometimes not — but take a moment and consider that those who have grievance, having exhausted all other options, may find themselves having no sensible alternative given the eternally dull and tiresome tendency for companies to adopt a rigorous lack of imagination, compassion or interest in the plight of the individual on individual terms. Sometimes it takes a certain kind of courage to speak out when your personal lines have been crossed. Some of us will only complain when it is too late — if ever. Do we simply go gently into that good night? No. Why the fuck should we? It’s not even a good night out there.

Amidst my slightly conflicted opinion, I am mostly heartened by the conviction of thousands of people who believe — and it is to be hoped, quite rightly — that peaceful, organised, civilised demonstration is a valid way to effect constitutional change. Wherever your sympathies lie, compare and contrast the aggrieved thousands of Occupy London/Wall St or the Public Sector funding protests with the moronic, misguided, inarticulate and selfishly destructive actions of thousands of people across the country in the riots that punctuated this summer. I know which group deserve a sympathetic ear. Let’s just say if since August you’re one of those who seem to have magically acquired a flatscreen TV because you claim not to be happy with this country, then shame on you and a pox on your house.

I’ll say no more on the subject. I read this back and conclude that I really am not very highly politicised, given the wan wishy-washiness poorly concealed in the prolixity of my prose. Well, I have promised before not to let this Blog become too political. On that point at least, I’ll make some kind of stand.

 But first, a drink.


Currently watching:
The Black Hole (Gary Nelson, 1979)
Escape From New York (John Carpenter, 1980)
Escape From LA (John Carpenter, 1996)
Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, 1982)
Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Brian Gibson 1986)

Currently listening to:
Oora (Edgar Broughton Band, 1973)
You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine (Death From Above 1979, 2004)
Wish You Were Here: Immersion Edition (Pink Floyd, 1975, 2011)
Quadrophenia: The Director’s Cut (The Who, 1973, 2011)
T*E*R*R*A*N*O*S*T*R*A (Paul Murphy & The Bishops, work in progress)

Monday, 7 November 2011

1967, part two: Sgt Pepper’s Sinister Summer of Love (Side One).

The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, having been in fermentation since the last days of 1966, burst like a cork from a colourful carboy onto the public on June 1st, 1967. It was instantly hailed unanimously as a masterpiece, almost certainly the single most outstanding artistic contribution to the collective idea, in pop culture terms, that the summer of ’67 was the ‘Summer Of Love.’

From the outset, I’d like to assert how much I find this expression irritating. Such a tiresome, oft-used term, frequently employed with no thought as to its accuracy. I’ll come back to that later, but while I’m on the subject of things that annoy me, all too often do I find people adopting an automatic, contrary stance when confronted with lists of time-honoured exemplars in popular culture: The 50 Greatest Albums Of All Time, 100 Films You Must See Before You Die, and so on. OK, it’s often true that these lists are lazily compiled, with opinion canvassed from people with short memories and dubious quality control — not the likes of you of I, of course, dear reader — and consequently consist, particularly among the highest-ranking nominees, of the usual suspects: tediously inevitable mentions of say, The Godfather, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Casablanca, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, and Sgt Pepper itself. How easy it is to knock these sacred cows when they have been so visibly hoist by their own petards onto ever higher pedestals, if you’ll allow me my hideous head-on collision of metaphor (and I fully understand if you won’t).

Nonetheless, I do believe that some things recur on these lists for a good reason; that they may actually be rated so highly because they truly contain the necessary elements to move the soul, animate the feet, lift the spirit and have the legs to do so time and again — and their widespread mainstream acceptance shouldn’t always be taken to indicate appeal of the lowest common denominator. In other words, some things are so good, everyone can see it. Subsequently, I share the general critical consensus of 1967 and beyond in believing Sgt Pepper to be a significant work, not just in pop music, the Beatles’ career or even the Sixties, but as an outstanding cultural artefact of all time. Furthermore, it’s not even my favourite Beatles album — I oscillate wildly between the consistently heavier, snappier Revolver of 1966 and 1968’s luxuriant, eclectic variety on the ‘White Album‘ — but it captures a certain spirit quite like no other.

The album had a long gestation by any standards of pop music working practices now as then. August 1966 saw The Beatles release Revolver and play their final live shows as a touring band. George Harrison famously said at the time of that last concert, in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, ‘That’s it — I’m not a Beatle any more,‘ — and while the group seemed happy enough to continue recording together, their suggestions for what would become their next album, their first as a studio-based band, implied that some distance had already set in regarding how they saw themselves as an ongoing concern. Initially, they conceived of an album that would revisit their childhoods in Liverpool. Secondly, they could record under a pseudonym, affording them the freedom perhaps to explore different musical styles and personae. As it turned out, the album became an amalgam of both ideas, but either direction promised to place the music somewhere else other than ‘now’, in a way The Beatles had never quite tried before on this scale.

Instantly, one can hear a difference. Sgt Pepper is a triumph of composition and artifice artfully piled upon artifice. Sound effects dominate: audience ambience, animal cries, hunting horns, steam organs and alarm clocks punctuate the record at regular intervals. Session musicians provide a richer template of backing than ever before, with half the songs featuring string, brass or woodwind arrangements — or all three. It’s a far cry from the punchy, 1-2-3-4 garage-rock sound of Revolver. Even Tomorrow Never Knows on that album, for all its spaced-out acid sprawl and technical wizardry, has an edgy, exciting live quality to it — as well it might; even the tape loops were ‘played’ live, with each Beatle manning faders and piping the repeated sounds up and down in takes every bit as instant as a guitar solo. The first sounds heard on Pepper, in direct contrast to Revolver’s audio verité cough’n’count-in opening, are of an expectant theatre audience cribbed from a Beyond The Fringe LP (another George Martin production) and the overdubbed sound of an orchestra tuning up. It creates a marvellously anticipatory atmosphere. Time to start the show:

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a brilliantly pitched song, being one that conveys enough swagger and excitement in of itself, yet promises greater things to come. McCartney dominates proceedings, a high-falutin’ huckster talking up the fictional band and the show, in a manner reminiscent of the Edwardian music hall style that so many groups of the mid-Sixties would come to admire. McCartney’s truly remarkable contribution to the song is a stinging lead guitar that evokes Jimi Hendrix — a compliment acknowledged and reciprocated within two days of the album’s release when Hendrix opened a live set with a suitably ‘Experienced’ cover version. Elsewhere, it’s business as usual for The Beatles, with their familiar, close-knit three-part harmonies in the choruses — even as they claim to be another band entirely — and some droll interjections from a mock-pompous parping brass section arranged skillfully as ever by George Martin. The song segues into the next one, as Sgt Pepper’s band introduce a new singer — the one and only Billy Shears...

With A Little Help From My Friends — the by-now obligatory Ringo number on Beatles records tended to be something of a little novelty nestled in among weightier material, such as the mildly dated-sounding, simplistic rock’n’roll of Boys, What Goes On, I Wanna Be Your Man and Matchbox. Anything, it would seem, to suit his somewhat gruff and unfashionably mature-sounding baritone. On Revolver and Sgt Pepper, things start to change. Yellow Submarine on the former album, while a lightweight piece often likened to a nursery rhyme, has the remarkable distinction of sounding like it has been around forever — and as any writer of children’s novels will tell you, that’s not easy to achieve. With A Little Help From My Friends is a gentle, straight-ahead, but credible pop-rock song, sung and played with an engaging insouciance and slightly mocking doo-wop-style backing vocals. It’s probably the first song written specially for Ringo that sounds like the kind of music Starr would find solo success with on albums such as Ringo in 1973 or 1974‘s Goodnight Vienna — not just in execution but in semi-autobiographical sentiment as well.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds — it’s time to get a little grimy, sonically speaking. We need to talk about reproduction — stereo versus mono. Studio recording, mastering and cutting procedures in the Sixties tended to favour mono mixing; most households owned mono playback sets at the time. Like quadrophonic sound some ten years hence, the new dual speaker systems were viewed as expensive, indulgent audiophile follies and the public, much as they have done with CDs over vinyl, Laserdiscs over VHS or Blu-ray over HD Discs, displayed initial consumer resistance to the brave new format. They knew what they liked, liked what they had and held onto it as long as they could. Consequently, all work on a single or album was in service to the best sound in mono playback — a stereo mix was often done as an afterthought, and not usually carried out with a quarter of the time or effort.

I mention all of this because the mono version of Lucy is not only markedly different, but arguably superior. It’s probably fair to say that the stereo recording of Lucy is the more widespread version of the song year-on-year, played most likely on the radio and in pubs via the medium of CD: until recently, it was almost certainly the only way I had heard it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song any way it comes. Starting with the beautifully spidery organ intro leading into a kind of waltz-stepping minuet of a verse, Lennon clearly delineates his surreal, colour-strewn landscapes with a plaintive, high-register vocal. The song grows darker with Harrison’s sinister metallic shimmering drone on tambura, phased cymbal washes from Starr and Lennon’s increasingly icy delivery. Come the chorus, we hit what George Martin happily describes as a ‘clutchless gear change’ into a straightahead 4/4 rock groove, replete with tight vocal harmonies, organ quips and a curiously ‘squidgy’ sounding guitar part achieved by feeding the output through a Leslie speaker cabinet (normally used to create the skirling growl of the Hammond Organ). However, straightahead is how it sounds: the mono version is the whole story, swamping the song, the chorus especially, in numerous phasing effects that render the song ethereal and indefinable in a way that was clearly left off the stereo mix. Now this is the version that would have provided the soundtrack to a million Sixties bedsits, households and parties. Whoa, The Beatles, man. I could explain the process of phasing that creates the difference, but really, just find a mono recording and play it, then the stereo. You’ll thank me for it.

Getting Better — what a bright, chirpy sound we have to start this song, with the chipper guitar stabs and the friendly warmth of an electric piano to accompany yet more harmony vocals. There’s a lazy groove to the tune, aided by Ringo’s laidback bongo part, McCartney’s eternally breezy vocals and that piano/guitar chime that feels no need to do anything but play the same note throughout to such brilliant effect. However, not for the first time on a Beatles record, we find a ghost at the feast. It apparates in the middle of the song, riding on the returning tambura drone in the sonic equivalent of a sudden drop in temperature:

I used to be cruel to my woman; I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved.

Seriously, consider this lyric. It’s simply not funny. If it was a spoken confession on a police interview tape it’d be stark, brutal and scary. It’s also sung by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in bright two-part harmony. I’m amazed they got away with this — it’s not exactly I Want To Hold Your Hand now, is it? Nor is it even as ambiguous as Lennon’s threat to ‘let you down and leave you flat’ on 1964’s You Can’t Do That, The Beatles’ previous song alluding to violence against women (previous!) in which the menace is mostly implied through Starr’s relentless wife-beater cowbell, a sound that conjures up the comically inappropriate image of the drummer sat at the kit in a gravy-stained string vest. In any event, the moment on Getting Better takes itself at its word and literally gets better, our protagonist moving along, pledging to change his ‘scene’ and improve himself. The juxtaposition of upbeat music melody and harsh lyrical subject matter is both artless and oddly effortless, as if the lyrics were written first and the melody wedded to it later in a glassy-eyed moment of stoned acceptance. It could be a one-off on the album, an ambiguous detour, except that the song that follows on its heels is...

Fixing A Hole — Dig that harpsichord that splays out in decadent fashion at the start. Notice also how the harpsichord relies on the same on-beat, repetitive quality as the guitar/piano in Getting Better — this particular technique manifests itself on many subsequent Beatles songs and is one of the quintessential elements that constitutes whatever nebulous, intangible, but instantly identifiable ingredients come together, right now, to make music ‘Beatlesque’. It’s interesting that these songs are placed together when they betray such similar songwriting traits. I remember reading somewhere that this song has been interpreted as about heroin — the ‘fix’ of the title, filling the ‘hole’ made in an addict’s vein. What a visceral notion. Given what we know about Paul McCartney, his state of mind at this point in The Beatles and his usual lyrical style, I’d be inclined to discard this theory outright. Lyrically, the song’s meandering, literally wandering sentiment and mental equanimity (it really doesn’t matter, if I’m wrong, I’m right) suggest to me a kind of stoned bliss state, our hero evaluating everything with holistic, evened-out judgement and coming to calm conclusions. Therefore I do think the song is a drug song, but obliquely so, wrapped up in a brisk bit of classy psych pop and being drug-induced rather than explicitly about mind-altering substances in itself.

She’s Leaving Home — here, we find melodic beauty colliding with the lyrical seriousness of kitchen sink drama. The story was based on a real newspaper report about the heiress to a respectable family business upping sticks to find adventure with new friends. The words in the chorus have the gritty, terse quality of panicked, parental quotes bodily lifted from the newspaper copy (“We gave her most of our lives, sacrificed most of our lives. We struggled hard all our lives to get by”) while McCartney’s vocal brings compassion and empathy, adroitly avoiding mawkishness. A beautiful, extended melody underscored by strings: like Yesterday, or Eleanor Rigby before it, it would usually be the work of Paul McCartney and George Martin — except in this case. McCartney was keen for Martin to get down to the studio and block out a string score, but found Martin unable to pull out of another producing obligation. Piqued by rejection and allegedly feeling so hot-to-trot with his new song, McCartney contacted arranger Mike Leander, who effectively created an angelic arrangement that wouldn’t disgrace George Martin. Martin was upset at McCartney’s offhand willingness to usurp and replace him momentarily, but graciously conducted the score in any event, conceding that his old friend Leander had indeed done a good job. And so he had, creating a witty arrangement wholly reminiscent of Martin’s trademark fussy, Edwardian parlour-room sound, complete with morse-tapping emergency strings and a serene, plagal ending. Nonetheless, recent interviews reveal Martin clearly still feels the slight McCartney gave him that day. As for Mike Leander, he would later find fortune as the musical force behind most of Gary Glitter’s greatest hits. We’ll have to forgive him for that — he knew not what Gary was doing.

Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! — it’s well documented how John Lennon created his kaleidoscopic carnivalesque lyrics from an antique poster advertising “the last night but three!” of a successful run of the great 19th century showman Pablo Fanque and his Circus. Having had his imagination fired by the playbill, and being a chap of occasional laziness, Lennon must have been delighted to find the majority of his lyrics waltzing clean onto the page by themselves with little need to alter them from the original. Nonetheless the alterations he makes are witty, in keeping not only with the spirit of the billing but also Lennon’s own time — “what a scene!” Again, we find the Beatles leading a vanguard of musicians in the mid-Sixties in a psychedelicised preoccupation with the style and attitude of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was Hendrix in his little drummer boy military jacket, boutiques such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and The Beatles themselves in their day-glo marching Pepper Band outfits and matching ‘taches, reaching back farther than the Teds had in the Fifties to something…frillier, more arch, stylised and dressy — and boy, didn’t it catch on in Swinging London. Lennon’s triumph on Mr Kite is not just his eye for a snazzy poster, but the lugubrious, almost comedic music he constructed to fit the song like a bespoke Crimean artillery jacket. The push-pull wheeze of the tune appealed to George Martin who found it easy to grant Lennon’s request that the listener be able to ‘smell the sawdust’ in the score. Enter a calliope,  a steam-powered organ favoured by fairgrounds. Martin instantly aced his own idea by cutting up the recording of the organ into sections that ran randomly backwards and forwards, creating a giddy, ambient whirl with a suitably lysergic twist to proceedings. It wasn’t just Lennon who had the Sixties ‘found idea’ ethos coursing thrillingly through his veins. The mono version, for featuring George Martin’s magical musical melange to the fore, trumps the stereo version for this reason alone.

So there you have it: a rocking intro to usher in the show, a legitimately good song for the drummer, tangerine trees and marmalade skies, allusions to dark, terrible violence and the promise of redemption, contradictory, blissful insouciance, hand-wringing domestic drama and Victorian cirque-a-delia — and we’re only halfway through, nineteen-odd minutes. Nineteen really odd minutes.

End of Side One and already it’s shaping up into something varied, unusual, compelling. Seriously, who knows what the second side will bring?


Currently watching:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003)
Kingdom Of Heaven: Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 2005)
Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2009)

Currently listening:
Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Edition (Jethro Tull, 1971, 2011)
The Dark Side Of The Moon: Immersion Edition (Pink Floyd, 1973, 2011)