Monday, 31 January 2011

A Minstrel In The Gallery: starring staring, swine flu, Spitfires, smiles, swifties, the Sixties and simple, solitary, sensual sexiness

Can you hear that curious, wheezing, deflating sound? My bank balance literally exhaling for joy. Payday. Glory!
I decided to take Scott Walker’s sagely advice and make it easy on myself by taking some time off across the final days of the month. What a splendid idea that was. First off, I got myself vaccinated against swine flu. OK, already this isn’t exactly thrilling whizz-o-jolly-fun to be had on a day off, but since I’m not bothered by needles, I rather enjoy that feeling I get after leaving the surgery that I have suddenly become Impregnable, Indomitable, Invincible and indeed any other Edwardian ironclad warships you’d care to mention. Doesn’t half make your upper arm sore, tho’.
Mrs M requested a trip to London’s National Gallery to see the Bridget Riley exhibition there. Another splendid idea! As you may know, the National is free to enter, offering no excuse to anyone with an hour or so to spare in Trafalgar Square not to go in and do some culture. However, before I sound like a miserable cheapskate, I decided to treat the missus to a bout of marital largesse. A giddy whirl ensued around the West End; a heady blend of lunch in a smart establishment, Medieval altar pieces, Impressionism, Pop Art and a trip to the Bead Shop, punctuated throughout with several swifties in some of our favourite drinking dens. Sometimes, occasionally, I must be a good hubby: I’ve just read this paragraph out to Mrs M, and she confirms that this is so.
Anyway, this week, I thought I’d tell you about my experience in the National Gallery as it’s been a few years since I last went. Returning there every time feels not dissimilar to reestablishing a casual, easy friendship with an old, reliable and admittedly rather sexy friend. There are several paintings there that just the mere prospect of seeing makes the pulse quicken. I’ll get to those before too long.
On a subconscious level of sensuality it’s also about the smell: as you move from the relative fresh air of the entrance hall into, say, the Impressionists’ rooms you literally smell the paint; you’re engaging with the works on display in rather more subtle ways than just the simple evidence of your eyes. It conspires to help create a rarefied atmosphere in which to study the art, even if sometimes you have to ‘tune out’ the other people who may be crowding the room. You move to another room — another time period — the smell changes, and you travel in time. 
On a more prosaic note, it’s also good to know that my feet can still take me round to my favourite paintings with certainty, without relying on a map or floor plan. 
The rooms of the main building are subtly but sumptuously appointed, decorated in muted, Wedgwood eggshell colours, and door-cases of dark marble; as you pass from one room to another you feel you are surrounded by tranquil, classic elegance and beauty that allows the masterpieces their fullest appraisal. However, we entered by the Sainsbury Wing, once referred to as a slice of discarded wedding cake, due to its crisp, white exterior, wedged shape and its slightly angled dislocation from the main building. If there is any connection to the supermarket giant, where good food — we are reliably informed — costs less, it’s not in evidence, least of all in the café.  
The Sainsbury Wing contains the earliest paintings in the entire collection, dating back to the Middle Ages, all the way up to the Renaissance. It is the newest part of the Gallery, dating from the late Eighties/early Nineties and the interior decor is very much of that time: a vast, cool, blank, white-walled world that makes the psychedelic colours in the Medieval pieces contained therein jump out with surreal high-definition lustre. My goodness. A chap’s head can swim in there if he takes his eyes off the paintings and considers the room instead.
So — let us begin. 
Before we went to Bridget Riley, the first painting I wanted to show the missus was the gentleman below, Leonardo Loredan, Doge of Venice, in a portrait by the Italian Renaissance master Giovanni Bellini:

The painting dates from about 1501 and is remarkable for its realism. The entire composition, through no fault of Bellini, is unfortunately, irresistibly, rather reminiscent of the cards that depict the suspects in Cluedo. I daresay the painted marble at the base of the portrait helped reinforce the idea that you were looking at a living bust of the Doge. I hope the reproduction is large enough for you to appreciate the stunning photorealism with which Bellini has rendered the satin of the Doge’s robe. One can imagine Loredan making very particular and exacting demands of Bellini to capture his silken Venetian finery, almost to the point where it takes over the painting and detracts from his face. Ah, but what a face. 
It’s often said of a portrait that captures the sitter’s personality or depicts them in a highly realistic fashion that ‘the eyes follow you around the room’ but here’s a new game altogether: a portrait that changes expression the closer you get. Try it now — fill the screen with the image, and stand back a few feet. Observe how stern the Doge appears. Then move closer, until you are as close as you can.
He smiles
Furthermore, he really smiles, with a twinkle in the eyes. He’s not such a bad stick after all. If you are fortunate to try this with the real portrait in situ at the National Gallery, do so: it will delight and spook you in equal measure!
Let’s move on. 
Remaining in the Sainsbury Wing for the time being, we found Paolo Uccello’s famous rendering of St George and the Dragon. As you’ve probably worked out from my fine-tuned, forensic evaluation of the Bellini, I will not be troubling you with an art historian’s eye view of this intriguing painting any time soon. You can find plenty of scholarly discourse elsewhere on the subject of Uccello’s unprecedented understanding of perspective and composition. 
At this point I should admit that I had enjoyed what Ringo Starr would call ‘a proper drink’ with my magnificent lunch and was free-associating my thoughts to Mrs M with more freewheeling abandon than even I would normally vouchsafe. Consequently I hit upon something about this painting that we both found amusing — and more than a little freaky.

Uccello painted this picture around 1470, but dammit, if that dragon isn’t a Medieval representation of a Second World War Spitfire: camouflage green on top, but with darker wings on the underside to hide it in the sky complete with corresponding RAF-style markings on his wings. What do dragons do? They spit fire. Consider the swirling, turbulent cloud in the top right: Uccello no doubt intended it to represent a receding storm, moving out of sight and care as St George sends the dragon packing. St George’s lance draws the eye along and forces you to establish a relationship between the two troublesome elements in the picture, seemingly to imply that the beast may have emerged from within the vortex: a ‘wyrmhole’ if you will? The oddly formalised clods of turf upon the ground, which is painted in turn with a rather perfunctory ripple effect (clearly not a part of the painting Uccello was too interested in) look less like patches of grass and more like dense thickets of woodland and fields as seen from the air. Did Paolo Uccello have a dream where he saw a brief glimpse of the future? Better still, are we yet to unearth the remains of a wyrmhole-blown Spitfire that flew in Tuscan skies 450 years ago? 
Awesome, isn’t it?
It’s all right, you can return now, I’m back in the room.
With a blithe disregard for chronology, we decided next stop would be as far into the future as we could go, and hit the Bridget Riley exhibition in the main building. This was small, consisting of two rooms in essence, with little more than a dozen works on display. I bow to few others in my admiration for Riley’s work of the Sixties. She is the sharp, incisive graphic artist who all-but-singlehandedly invented the visual style and approach that informed and inspired entire musical, cinematic and sartorial movements across that most hectically-styled and still-restyled decade. 

Once again, a cursory Google search will yield instant, persuasive critiques of Riley’s supereminent place in modern art by scholars more learned and better qualified to discuss it than myself — to say nothing of her place as a woman in the tiresomely male-dominated preserve of Sixties art. You’ll also find more than enough visual examples of how her work, in one turn both funky yet familiar, pervades our ideas of graphic design, layout and imagery in all kinds of art and media to this very day.

It saddens me to report, then, that I was unenthused by the majority of what I saw. The examples on show of her Sixties output were both subtle yet striking, demonstrating wit and supreme execution within their dimensions. Here's one titled Arrest 3, from 1965: 

The more recent work, dating from about 1985 through to 2010 I'm afraid to say had little more to say on their predecessors. It was as if Bridget Riley spent the last 40 years doing nothing but reworking, by tiny iterations, her most celebrated work of the Sixties; a little more colour here, a slightly more complex patterning there. In fact the major statement, if any, seemed to be nothing more than ‘go large’, as several super-sized variations on familiar-shaped themes took up entire walls of the exhibition. This had a perversely reductive quality, as if sheer scale was trying, unsuccessfully, to make up for a lack of interesting visual interplay. To use a musical analogy: volume doesn’t always connote intensity. Purely my opinion. I was pleased to note that Mrs M enjoyed the Rileys immensely; her mind is definitely wired to appreciate abstractions in visual art better than mine. As you may have noticed, I seek form, comparison and analogy almost unceasingly and I envy Mrs M’s facility to disregard such rules.
On we go.
I mentioned earlier that there are paintings in the Gallery that make the pulse quicken. I can offer up — have offered up — examples of images that elicit delight, danger, drama, deep melancholy and visual zip-and-indeed-doo-dah, but for simple, solitary, sensual sexiness I can think of only one: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les Parapluies.

It was painted intermittently between 1881-86 and this can be discerned in two distinct ways: a fashion expert well-versed in late Nineteenth Century Parisienne couture will instantly explain how the style of clothing on the people on the right of the painting belong to the early 1880s, whereas the figures on the left belong several years into that decade. Moreover, an art expert au fait of Renoir’s brushwork can confirm for us that the harder, more defined lines, shapes and shading of the left-hand figures belong to the slightly older artist’s style than the softer, feathery strokes used to delineate the people so delicately rendered on the right. 
The other thing worth mentioning is that the painting shuttles back and forth across the Irish Sea every ten years or so, to reside in Dublin’s National Gallery. I am fuzzy on the niceties and preciseties of why this is, but I understand it’s due to a misunderstanding in the details of the bequest. An administrative cock-up led to both Dublin and London’s National Galleries staking an equal claim to exhibit the work, so to effect a solution, one gallery gets to keep it for a decade or so before handing it over. 
But you know that these facts, fascinating and enriching as they are, are not the reason I like this picture. How many times have I stood before this painting since I was a howlingly hormonal teenager and yearned for that young woman with the bandbox to tear herself away from that young moustachioed dullard in the top hat — not to mention those fuzzier, hazier figures from an earlier time — and step down from the painting to me. She’s beautiful. Her eyes hold you with their intelligence and sense of fun, but her smile is restrained, as if the social mores of the time preclude her from acknowledging you any further. I wondered — still wonder — what it would take to make her laugh out loud? 
I share with Renoir a fatal distraction where curvaceous redheads are concerned. He painted a considerable amount of nudes and while his technically brilliant execution, understanding of light-play and form are in clear evidence, all are but a smokescreen for the sheer erotic charge he must have got from being around such sumptuously appointed ladies. Here in Les Parapluies he goes one better, proving the maxim that it’s what you can’t see that makes it all so interesting: has such a lovely, fresh-faced young woman, with her vivid fringe of rich auburn, ever been covered up so intriguingly, in such austere, yet magnificently fitted clothing as it is here? Phew!
While all this shameless, silent perving was going on, Mrs M looked on indulgently, much as she is doing as I write this now, confident in her own lively, soulful eyes and flame-haired allure, her wit, humour, those splendid proportions and, clinchingly, their solid existence in the real world. 
Moving swiftly on...
The final painting we enjoyed was a new one on me. It’s by an artist I am unfamiliar with, name of Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour. Double-barrelled surname and triple-barrelled first name? Hm, his parents were clearly each used to getting their own way far too much of the time. It depicts Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards, wealthy art collectors and friends of the artist. Mr Edwards had been encouraged by his wife to give up a career in law to specialise in his own burgeoning art career as a landscape painter. 

A striking couple they make, don’t you think? Mr Edwards’ frankly fearsome facial foliage shows his alignment to many of the French painters of the time that he admired and patronised. His pose, gazing intently at what is presumably a sketch fished out of the large portfolio beside, is reminiscent and consistent with daguerreotype portraits of the time (1875), where a Victorian captain of industry or eminent scholar, typically, sits at a desk, absorbed in a manuscript or even just their own reverie, eyes cast down from the direct glare of the lens. 

So far, so good. I’m willing to bet that for most viewers, though, it’s Mrs Edwards who commands the scene, and one suspects beyond the confines of the portrait. She certainly dominates the frame in my opinion. What awesome countenance and self-possession she has: arms folded, back straight, head slightly raised, her calmly attractive, fine-boned features appraising the onlooker with an uncompromising, challenging glower. A remarkable woman.  Is this not the kind of confrontational stance demonstrated in modern times by Bob Dylan’s even-eyed stare back to camera on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited, Johnny Rotten’s sneer in his Sex Pistols heyday, or any random photo of Peter Cook in venomous mood?
I think the secret to the picture is the contrast between the two. By seating Mr E and having his wife tower imperiously over him in a possibly protective, almost proprietorial manner, I’m led to imagine that Mr Edwards merely supplies the finance while Mrs E is the cold, calculating brains behind the outfit. One might even surmise that he may be crippled. Whatever else, remember that this is a painting of a married couple from the height of the Victorian era; our received wisdom of this time is that women, Her Majesty excepted, simply did not have this kind of power and authority. In heroic defiance of this stereotype, Mrs Edwards presents a wife in charge, or at the very, very least the equal of, her husband. A formidable united front: The Edwards cartel. 
I could be entirely wrong: I haven’t gone to any lengths to find out more about The Edwardses, so all this is only my own response. But when Fantin-Latour has painted such persuasive personality from his subjects as I see them, I’m confident I’m not.
I haven’t commented on the fashion on display here. I don’t suppose that these clothes are funeral weeds, but their austerity and grave impact are considerable. These are smart, no-nonsense people, who like to leave a mark in whatever circles they socialise and leave no fools unsuffered. There are folk bands around today who should take inspiration from this picture for style, presentation and unity. Bands who would kill for a tenth of the attitude and confidence conveyed here. Come to think of it, there are probably killers who’d kill for this image and never achieve it.
I’m afraid this concludes the main stream of this evening’s symposium. Thank you for your time.
Not long after this, the Murphy cartel adjourned to the nearest decent boozer, and so a delightful day continued on in its established way. 
In other news this week: I saw the 1972 Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story ‘The Mutants’ for the first time. I bought some Caravan CDs and listened to some folk metal. Jethro Tull announced that they will play the High Voltage Festival in London this summer. My cactus, House, is sprouting yet another baby. Best of all, a new Chinese takeaway opened in my area, after several terrible months without — and they do deliveries to boot. I’ll discuss some of these exciting events in greater detail and much enthusiasm one day soon. But first, a drink.
I hope you had a ripper Australia Day, a stoatin’ Burns Night and I wish you all good health and prosperity in this, the Chinese New Year of the Rabbit.
Thank you, January: go away quickly, now.
Currently listening to: 
Foppt Den Dämon! (Subway To Sally, 1996)
Bannkreis (Subway To Sally, 1997)
Thick As A Brick (Jethro Tull, 1972)
A Passion Play (Jethro Tull, 1973)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Flos campi/An Oxford Elegy/Magnificat/Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune (Willcocks/Davies/Boult, 1969/1970/1971)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Willow-Wood/The Sons of Light/Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus/The Voice out of the Whirlwind (David Lloyd-Jones/RLPC&O, 2005)
Currently reading: 
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)
Currently watching: 
Doctor Who: The Mutants (BBC, 1972)

An ecstasy of bumbling: unfinished novels best left that way #1: Archie Chunnks

Archie Chunnks allowed only the slump of his shoulders and a slight lowering of his baton betray the supreme effort the Final Movement had cost him. The last triumphant note died away. 
There was a moment of almost suspended silence.
Then the crowd rose to their feet as if a single being. The orchestra equally stood as one, awash in the cheers, applause and whistles from the rapturous throng. But Archie, grimly lost in the exhausted moment, still had his back to the audience — his deafness preventing him from noticing the approbation of the entire House. 
With tears moistening her shining eyes, the prima ballerina moved to his side, touched his elbow tenderly and gently turned him to face his public so he could see, through eyes glistening now with tears of his own, just how much he was appreciated. 
From the shadow of the wings, Colonel Vögler visibly sagged, defeated and spent, his monocle crushed to crystal dust underfoot, his hearing trumpet dented and askew: this was supposed to be his night… night…
The images flickered and fled in a haze of synaptic flashbombs, gradually replaced by a steady, increasing sense of dark. Darkness, but no sense of peace. Then Archie realised: there had been no audience, no orchestra, no music…hell, not even one lissom prima ballerina. Furthermore, he wasn’t deaf. The ringing in his ears gave him ample reassurance of that.
No, dammit, someone had simply hit him hard across the back of the head. 
Groggily, Archie sat up in the darkness and gingerly fingered his skull. A lump the size of a golf ball was throbbing squarely at the rear of his cranium, each tentative touch making it hard to concentrate. All in a day’s work, old boy, thought Archie ruefully.
Suddenly a light came on in the room. As his eyes fought to adjust to the light, Archie noticed a classy leather swivel chair, a blank desk and something else in the room that was making it hard to concentrate. Thoughts of escape tried vainly to regain a foothold in Archie’s addled mind as Celeste blocked the exit — more than adequately — with her curvaceous body, one immaculately manicured nail tapping the light switch, a playful smile lighting up her exotic features. She lit them still further by sparking up a cigarette, and took a languid draw.
“Ohh, Mister Chunnks,” she admonished, her smoky accent tempered by a schoolgirl’s giggle, “you should know better by now than to tangle with my superiors! They cannot be defeated.”
“I wouldn’t count your chickens, love,” countered Archie, regaining his mettle and already warming up, “they’re hired gorillas doing a dirty job on a barman’s wages. You can’t get the staff these days…”
“SILENCE!” she barked, dispensing with the charm in an awful instant, “you will soon find that my staff are trained to pull more than pints and press more than optics…”
“No. You listen, sweetheart,” said Archie, his voice bitter, “I hired those goons to knock me unconscious, so I could get a closer look inside the lion’s den.”
Celeste almost managed to make the smoke from her cigarette stop dead in its tracks. 
“That’s right,” Archie continued, eyes narrowed, moving towards her, “like I said, you can’t get the staff these days.” He plucked the cigarette from Celeste’s parted lips, took a pull on it, and blew the smoke back into her face with a flourish. She didn’t flinch, but Archie could see the defeat in her black-lined eyes. Then those glacial green jewels melted like a spring thaw into another emotion altogether. She drew closer…
“Sorry, love,” said Archie, pulling away, face resolute, “I’m still gay, you know the score…” Then he turned on his heel, pushed past her and out of the door, leaving her standing, trembling slightly, her downcast face moist with a light sweat.
The moment passed. The face hardened. 
“DAMN YOU, ARCHIE CHUNNKS! DAMN YOU AND DAMN YOUR BAND!” she cried out after him, as finally Celeste slumped in the swivel chair, “GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!”
Archie’s only reply was the sound of his retreating footsteps, the Blakeys on his heels clicking against the ground marking purposeful strides that blocked out the cries from back down the corridor. Too close this time. It was getting increasingly harder and still yet harder to convince Celeste that he was gay. A hint was just another word for a small rocky outcrop back in the town that crazy, dangerous, incredible lady came from.
Stupid, stupid, he cursed himself in his head, never let your dick get in the way of the mission, any way you slice it. 
He arrived at a door with a round window. Peering in he could see an empty restaurant kitchen, the lights still on. He entered cautiously. No one around. Pausing to open the fridge door, he noticed with some delight that there was an uneaten sandwich on the shelf. Eagerly he snatched it up and devoured it. Egg and cress. Abyssinia! It reminded him he hadn’t eaten for over two days now. Then he noticed the Gaggia, steaming gently. Coffee. 
Black coffee. 
Lots of it. 
Oh yes.
As he drank cup after cup he could feel the strength returning to his grateful muscles along with his wits. Yeah, this was more like the old Archie, the Archie from that glorious summer of ‘79, who wowed the crowds in Hyde Park. He was back in the game, running on heart and soul again, a passion-fuelled ecstasy like none he’d experienced since ‘Brain Of Remand’ got into the Top 40.
Suddenly, snap — the lights went out. 
Archie spun in the dark towards the switch. Immediately it snapped back on, revealing a lanky figure, clad in drainpipe jeans and jacket, round specs perched on the end of a snub nose and a suedehead crop to top it off.

“Boz!” said Archie, relaxing visibly, ”You nearly gave me an ‘eart attack. Thank Christ I’ve found you, we’ve gotta…”
“This way, Chunnksy,” interrupted Boz crisply and indicating a far door with one hand while proffering a cigarette from the top pocket of his jeans jacket with the other, “the gaffer knows you’re in ‘ere and he’s out for blood, mate. YOUR blood.”
“Ta, geez,” replied Archie, taking the ciggy and already slipping effortlessly back into band speak upon sight of his rangy guitarist and lead singer. They dashed through the door, straight into the back of a busy pizza restaurant. Single-mindedly they tore past bemused waiters and customers and out the front door. They were back on the London streets, and it felt good. They stood there in the light of a beautiful Eighties midday for a moment, Boz tall and wiry, lopsided grin forever in place, Archie shorter but no less thin, the breeze gently disturbing his thinning mullet. The Proper Boys. Then a crash from inside made them break into long strides down the street. 
“He’s coming after us!” cried Boz, “Leg it!”
They hared off down the street. From out of the restaurant, Celeste emerged in a pleasing fashion and behind her stepped a familiar face. It was Uri Geller, smooth-talking TV psychic and ladies’ man from Tel Aviv. The breeze failed to ruffle his dyed black John Craven barnet as he peered after the two men.
“They’ll be back,” he said under his breath, “they love all that.”
Celeste gazed on alongside, her face set hard with admiring eyes.
Boz and Archie had stopped running before too long as a Routemaster bus at the traffic lights had provided a faster means of escape. Before long they were back at Boz’s place. 
Archie never failed to marvel at how organised Boz kept his life at home, and how similar Boz’s wife Maz looked to him, with her short hair and glasses. In the living room sat two other gentlemen. One had shoulder-length, dark, bouffant hair and looked like Rodney Bewes out of The Likely Lads, only with less puppy fat and more cheekbones instead. The other looked like a younger, harder Richard Briers, with the initials “S-P-E-Z” tattooed blurry on the knuckles of his left hand and ”V-E-G-!” on the right. Next to Boz’s professorial skinhead and Archie’s Robert Mitchumesque features and heroic, spiky mullet, the four guys presented a mismatched bunch of dudes, but to Maz they were special, still special: they were Boz, Spez, Fisher and Chunnksy of The Veg, NME Single Of The Week makers back in that heady May of ‘79. The intervening seven years had been kind, she thought, in a reverie for a brief moment as she poured out the kettle into mugs with those new round teabags in: The Veg were nothing if not innovators, one step ahead of the pack. 
Inside the living room, the boys were hunkered down, talking business. Archie, doing the majority of the hunkering in the centre of the circle like a king lion, produced a piece of paper from inside his jacket and handed it to Fisher. Fisher looked at it sceptically and scanned its length for several seconds.
“It’s a joke, right?” he said in his slightly too-high West Country accent.
“No joke,” said Archie, “he’s on the run and what more elegant way to do it than hide in a tour van? All we gotta do is wait until he gets to England…”
Fisher looked again at the paper.
“Oh, come off it! I mean: ‘Andrew WK 2002 Tour Dates!! DO WHAT EVER YOU WANT! NEVER LET DOWN! LIFE IS TOO SHORT! NO REGRETS! LIVE HARD! PARTY HARD!!’” he read aloud, his voice losing credulity and adding derision the further in he went, “he’s a terminal wally is what he is!”
“What does the...“h’tuhp, wuh-wuh-wuh andrewuh-kom” bit at the bottom mean?” added Spez, to no response.
Maz tried to catch a glimpse over Fisher’s shoulder but the type was a little too small to read unless Fisher kept it still. From what she could make out, it looked like a typical jobbing band’s tour itinerary, with columns of dates alongside a list of likely venues, but none Maz had heard of.

“Wow,” said Fisher when he’d finished, “a message from the future…this is dated 2002. So, what — we wait, uh…16 years to catch up with this bloke?”
“No,” said Archie, with the same glint in his eye Fisher had seen when he first showed him the chords to ‘Brain Of Remand’, “…we don’t have to wait any longer at all…”
More soon…
Currently listening to: 
The Book Of Invasions: A Celtic Symphony (Horslips, 1976)
The Man Who Built America (Horslips, 1979)
Currently reading: 
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)
Currently watching:  
X Men (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Men In Black (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1997)

Monday, 24 January 2011

This week in music: unrequited love, a list, intimations of mortality, skullduggery, bratwurst etc. But first, a drink.

Pardon my French, but as a blogging arriviste, I’ve hit an impasse that doubtless must arise for everyone posting up their thoughts for the whole online community to read. On one hand, you want to tell everyone what’s been going on. Why bother otherwise? On the other, the worst thing in the world is for everyone to know what’s been going on. As Vito Corleone so memorably put it in The Godfather, ‘never tell anyone outside the Family what you’re thinking.’ 

So again, my plan to write something witty and wise on the vagaries of modern existence, the caprice of fate, the whim of chance and the passing week will have to wait, I’m afraid. That’s a sort of lesson in itself, isn’t it?

It’s not that life has been dull these past few days. Oh no, far from it. Unfortunately the events are mostly of an ongoing nature and are continually in the process of being digested and assimilated. It would therefore be premature of me to outline them now. Moreover, it would be gauche of me to divulge the sensitivity of my recent intelligence until sufficient time has passed. All you need to know is it runs to a veritable spectrum of fascination, encompassing corporate skullduggery, unrequited love and the worst intimations of mortality. Some of this concerns me directly, some of it thankfully doesn’t.

So, if you may feel that I am teasing you all with tiny droplets of detail flicked carelessly your way from the ocean of intimate information, I am sorry. Take heart in knowing that most things will manifest themselves on this blog with both subtlety and blatancy in the weeks to come. You know how it is sometimes.

One thing I can mention is that the majority of my intelligence has been gathered this past week in that most consistent, traditional and time-honoured fashion: I went to the pub. Several times. You may jump to an obvious conclusion from this, but I would argue — with vehemence, and probably plenty of unnecessary repetition — that I am a rather fiercely sociable individual.

I am of course neither the first nor the last to say that the boozer is one of the great social exchanges. Sadly it is becoming one of the last great social exchanges. Sometimes, there is nothing cooler than to take someone to a restaurant where you are on first-name terms with the staff and/or can order off-menu if need be. There is something immensely satisfying from knowing a shop where the proprietor has, over weeks or months of your custom, acquired a working idea of your likes, dislikes and requirements — to which end, their suggestions can turn you on to other things. Whether it’s a bespoke tailor putting something by in your colour or the butcher reserving an obscure cut of meat for you for the weekend, it demonstrates your willingness to engage with the world and what it can offer. An elementary, obvious sentiment, maybe, but one that is becoming less of a given as time wears on, I fear. 

I can offer up two practical examples of how this positive interest in the smaller, if not-always-so-convenient things in life can do you favours — and they both happened this very week. On Monday, I attended the pub that I consider to be the finest nearest my place of work. Those of you who know me will chuckle when I say with considerable understatement that I am very familiar with this tavern. In recognition of my regular custom I was awarded the right, under landlord’s orders, to purchase Guinness, in perpetuity, at the discounted rate otherwise enjoyed solely by the pub staff. When I tell you that this brings the price of a pint down to £3, you will appreciate, especially in these economically benighted times, what difference that can make to someone known to enjoy a pint of the Black Stuff. I shan’t tell you the name of the pub otherwise you’ll all be at it, so there.

On Saturdays in my local town can be found a German gentleman who sells a fine selection of tasty Teutonic treats: bewildering and ever-changing arrays of wurst, sliced meats, schweinshaxn, Bavarian noodles and Swabische ravioli. I have been to his stall on no more than half a dozen times and I have never walked away without being given something in addition to my custom, whether this be a weisswurst or frikadeller offered without prompting — on the haus as it were — or a sly rounding-down of the overall reckoning of my bill by a considerable saving. I suspect he gets a kick out of my game attempts to pronounce the names of the produce mit akzent perfekt, but whatever, I return most weekends. We all win.

Maybe it is worth reiterating several more times before we’re done. This decline in the social niceties that are bound up with the charm of retail individuality is a problem that affects us all. Tragically or fortunately, depending on your cynicism or faith, it is in our hands to resolve.  I feel we live in a world where markets are becoming a mere occasional novelty in town centres; where the centres themselves are left to rot at their core in pedestrianised mediocrity; where independent shops see their specialised knowledge and business taken away by mass-market concerns that specialise in nothing if not homogenisation, leaving every High Street a clone of the next; and where a good restaurant can often shut down within weeks because it suffers from slow-burn success…well, in this world, the pub is one of the few places left in the world where people — whether they know one another or not — can meet for the simple pleasure of each other’s company, and where a good relationship with the proprietor and staff of said establishment can be cultivated to mutual advantage. I like to do this very much indeed.

So — support small local businesses, be civil to people, make friends and cultivate good relationships with any places like these you are still fortunate to have where you are. Know what you like and why you like it. Life’s often nicer when you get what you want rather than what someone else thinks you should.

Anyway, in a tectonic shift of subject, here’s a list of five keyboard players I rate most highly. I’ve included examples of each candidate’s skill for you to look up, with the truly frightening detail of precise instances in minutes and seconds in certain examples. Don’t be afraid, they pass by quickly before they can offend. 

A word or fifty on selection criteria here. Vincent Crane, one of the greats listed below, was somewhat disdainful of his ability on the piano. He reasoned that a truly great musician — one of classical concert performance standard — would have put in hours of practice every day since childhood and through most of their professional adult life. Crane, by comparison had sold his anima to rock — and indeed, soul — and maintained that his talent, linked as it was to his lifestyle, was slack and undisciplined by comparison.

In other words: practice makes perfect.

Well, if only life was that simple. Thank God it’s nowhere near as dull.

I’ve confined this list to rock musicians. There are no concert pianists here. Don’t get me wrong, I like ‘em: however, to narrow down whether Jenő Jandó interprets Bartók better than Zoltán Kocsis (for example), would require a considerable amount of research with no guarantee of a satisfactory answer. It would be like arguing whether apples are better than oranges with no starting frame of reference. I’m just not ready for that just yet, dear reader. Furthermore I’m aware that I’m cutting into your quality time. So, enough!

Here they are, in no particular order:

Jon Lord (Deep Purple): he brought technical virtuosity informed by early training to his work on the Hammond organ and added a great deal of personality, good taste and humour. Also innovative: his organ was amplified, via some cunning rewiring, to a Marshall stack, creating a grinding, cutting block wall of sound — affectionately dubbed ‘The Beast‘ — that was more than able to hold its own against Ritchie Blackmore’s scything, supercool guitar. For me though, it’s Lord’s keyboards that define the major magic of the Purple sound. He plays lovely, lush piano too and seems like a really jovial gent into the bargain.

Sample: the almost Baroque solo (2:09) in Highway Star (Machine Head, 1972) that ends, to my ears, in a quote of The Everly Brothers’ Wake Up Little Suzy is famous, outstanding and rightly so. Do take time out to appreciate the less flashy aspects of Lord’s approach to keyboards elsewhere: his subtle climb to the sly, bluesy seventh chord that is simply the only place to start his solo (3:55) on Burn (Burn, 1974) puts a smile on my face every time; his clavinet playing on Dealer (Come Taste The Band, 1975) supplies the solid funk base that holds the entire song together, almost on a subliminal level. But I will offer up one — possibly the sole — example of where Lord’s tastefulness becomes dominated by his humour, with embarrassing results: Rat Bat Blue (Who Do We Think We Are, 1973). A promisingly funky groove in the middle section shifts gear into double-time and promises some keyboard fireworks, gaining momentum and power until finally, we get…a speeded-up blither of organ, piano and guitar widdling away in unison at who-cares-per-hour. It’s cartoon-daft and a classic example of a meretricious studio effect that must have sounded so good on the first playback, but palls considerably on repeated listening. Aw, it was great until then!

Graham Bond (The Graham Bond Organization): contemporary photos of Mr Bond in his heyday around 1965-66 show a sweaty, mercurial fellow with a Hitler fringe/drooping moustache combo and a tendency to run to fat. His unlikely appearance belied a total, consummate, hard-driving performer who left behind him some of the sexiest grooves of any white, British R’n’B band of the Sixties. Graham Bond was a barnstorming showman who would frequently play slinky alto sax with the right hand, stinky organ grind with the left hand and growl spiritedly into the mic with an endearingly flawed, fag-raddled singing voice marinated in purest Romford. He was ahead of his time in playing style and pioneering devices such as the Mellotron and the revolving Leslie speaker cabinet that became standard-issue rock equipment by the time Bond died in suspicious circumstances in 1974. You often get the impression that his solos are only just hanging together sometimes, making them as wild, unpredictable and exciting as the lad himself.

Sample: the typical Bond sound is exemplified on the instrumental Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (There’s A BOND Between Us, 1966) which has Bond on sax/organ double duty. His Hammond groove and gravel vocals work at their best on I Want You (The Sound Of ’65, 1965) and his frankly astonishing delivery on Moses In The Bullrushourses (as part of the Dick Heckstall-Smith Band, A Story Ended, 1972) which also features a keyboard part that bustles busily through the song like an extended, endlessly inventive solo, making the solo itself (1:58) seem simply like a moment when everyone stops singing and lets Bond go.

John Evan (Jethro Tull): while some people think Jethro Tull is the name of someone in the band, and other people think frontman Ian Anderson is Tull, their success has always rested on a equal division of quality musicianship. John Evan was brought into the band as an ex-school colleague of Anderson studying medicine at University and playing as a sideline to help out. He stayed for ten years and became an integral part of the sound, look and outlook of the classic 1970s Jethro Tull lineup. Live, he brought  visual humour into his performance, endearing himself to the fans, while never relinquishing his grip on good taste where the music was concerned. Also, scintillating piano, raving Hammond work and a healthy suspicion of synthesisers: a good thing, going on how things panned out for Tull in the Eighties.

Sample: Thick As A Brick (Thick As A Brick, 1972). Yes, the entire album, being one song across two sides. Evan plays through his keyboard arsenal, at first adding some lively, intelligent piano and later some of the aforementioned raving organ work (the solo at 3:42 on Side One is outstanding in this regard) and  a classy harpsichord part on Side Two (7:29). His introduction to Locomotive Breath (Aqualung, 1971) is much-imitated, never-equalled and requires no further analysis.

Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer/The Nice): Keith Emerson’s reputation is instantly divisive. Mention his name to anyone who knows it and you’ll get either an excited nod of appreciation or (more often, in my experience) a groan of remembered agony. It’s interesting that he described in an interview, over twenty years after ELP’s debut, how he fondly recalled the band possessing a ‘tacky, aggressive…almost  distorted sound.’ In that thumbnail, he gains marks for not only seeing the shortcomings, but blithely carrying on regardless. His output is patchy to say the least, but awesome when he's on form. He also writes music mostly showcasing the keyboards, necessitated by the limited instrumental array of both ELP and The Nice (bass, drums, keyboards). This casts him in a constant lead capacity, whereas the other guys listed here tend to be accompanists and aren't always carrying the music the way Emerson has to. Keith’s attitude is one of sheer, joyous bombast, a delight in his own skill and an overwhelming desire to impress and please you. It’s a measure of his brilliance when successful that the times when he fails are at worst hilarious, rather than hateful. He's a lunatic and the world would be less fun without him!

Sample: Ars Longa Vita Brevis (Ars Longa Vita Brevis, The Nice, 1968) the sidelong song suite from the eponymous album gets underway with some ur-prog, avant-garde keyboard work that culminates in a stunning glissando climax (1:35) to the first movement. Later in the song, Emerson demonstrates brilliant two-handed facility on a remarkable and deliciously groovy salsa-tinged piano part (8:28). Elsewhere in Emerson’s career, a tuneful, graceful, jazzy fugue provides a wonderful blend of serenity and joy at the heart (6:44) of ELP’s The Endless Enigma (Trilogy, 1972). Next, Ladies and Gentlemen, prepare to experience the amazing world of the Hammond organ on Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part 2 (Brain Salad Surgery, 1973. The solo occurs at (1:08) on the single edit and (9:43) on the unedited album cut. Which sort of says it all, really). Conversely, for a truly arse-clenching two minutes out of your life, try Are You Ready, Eddy? (Tarkus, 1971) — a sonic abortion that offers no counter to anyone arguing the case for Emerson as unrepentant tack-merchant.

Vincent Crane (Atomic Rooster/The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown): More people need to hear his beautifully understated, crisp, funky piano playing and percussive Hammond chops. A shame he's not with us. He was also that rarest of beasts: a keyboard player with a firm sense of quality control. A by-product of this is the not-so-well-known fact that Crane often eschewed the need for a bassist and in those cases would play the bassline himself on keyboard, to ensure concision. No one was a tougher critic on his skill and ability than Crane himself — albeit to the aforementioned unnecessary degree. He also owned Graham Bond’s Hammond organ later on down the line, and sadly joined Bond elsewhere in a tragic, untimely end.

Sample: Stand By Me (Made In England, Atomic Rooster 1972) shows off Crane’s effortless, funky piano chops throughout, plus his understated brass arrangement, which sadly is performed by the session players with a little too much drag in the tempo: shame on all concerned at (2:33). Close Your Eyes from the same album amply demonstrates Crane’s no-need-for-bassist policy to good effect. In other respects, hear the   creepy piano footsteps pursuing the magnificently hammy, Hammer Horror Hammond line on the intro to Death Walks Behind You (Death Walks Behind You, 1971) and the straight, no messing, heads-down riffola of Watch Out! (Atomic Rooster, 1980) which showed how Crane could ‘do a Deep Purple’ like a true-born Lord.

Before I go, some honourable mention to ivory smashers and pipe-prodders of renown who could easily have made the list on any other day: Kerry Minnear, the choirboy-voiced multi instrumentalist of Gentle Giant, Dave "Egg" Stewart (not the tiresome chap in the Eurythmics), Ian McLagan of the (Small) Faces, Rick Wakeman, professional Grumpy Old Man, mainly of Yes. William D Drake, the geeky professor and architect of the ‘television organ’, a defining part of the Cardiacs’ sound. Billy Preston, steady Sixties soul man, arguably the man who kept the Beatles together for longer than anyone else in their last days. Session giant Nicky Hopkins, responsible for the funky, confident pianistic sparkle of countless late-Sixties/early-Seventies rock songs. Finally, anyone who's played keyboards for Frank Zappa, especially Ian Underwood…oh, the list goes on, but I’ll end it here.

Gentlemen, I salute you.


Currently listening to:
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: Songbook 1 (various artists, 2010)
Leader Of The Starry Skies: A Tribute To Tim Smith: A Loyal Companion (various artists, 2010)

Currently reading:
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Apathy For The Devil: A 70s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)

Currently watching:  
O Thou Transcendent: Ralph Vaughan Williams (Tony Palmer, 2007)
A Time There Was: Benjamin Britten (Tony Palmer, 1978)
Passchendaele (Paul Gross, 2007)
Red Baron (Nikolai Muellerschoen, 2008)
Wild Wild West (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1999) - a palate-clearing guilty pleasure.