When I first set out on this blogging caper I promised myself that I’d post with frequency: if not weekly regularity, then at least every ten days or so. Unfortunately, lately, I have a cold. It’s a big one. I came close to phoning in sick to work. Alright, I’m not going to overplay this fact too much. If anything I try my very best not to let these things slow me down. I have a special disdain for terms such as ‘man-flu’ and the commonly held assumption that men — for all their macho posturing when it comes to physical competition and combat ability — become complete wusses when germs come their way. I believe that a positive mental attitude goes a long way to speedy recovery. Furthermore — unlike many people it seems — I know the difference between the common cold in all its miserable, tiring but eminently bearable forms, and proper influenza, and so should you if you’ve ever had the misfortune to catch the dreaded ‘flu.
Nevertheless, I can’t deny that the aching limbs, loss of balance and endless torrents of mucus that currently seem to fill my head like a goldfish bowl full of rotten aspic wear away my patience, to say nothing of the general good humour for which I’d love to say I am so rightly famous. I find myself dispensing with certain niceties for the duration: the five minutes I set aside to insert my contact lenses in the morning, the need to shave every other day, not shouting at people — these things tend to go by the board. This alone has slowed down my rate of writing, blog fans — for which I can only apologise. Sorry about that. I’m here now, at least.
Many of you will not be remotely surprised to know that I have several friends who share my love of late Sixties/early Seventies rock music. Most of us can agree on what constitutes ‘the classics’ of this world and may stack them, the one against the other, like so many Top Trumps cards: Deep Purple in colour competition with the blues of Black Sabbath. The freshness of Cream set against Jimi Hendrix’s Experience. Hell, even that mouldiest of old chestnuts: Beatles versus Stones. I’m not going to debate the merits of one against the other. I have my preferences of course, but the Church of Rock is a broad one of many denominations and my tastes run to the catholic. All the boys hang out happily on my CD shelf in harmony and each gets their turn. There is, however, one scion of this musical tree that tends to provoke a hostile attitude among even some of my most otherwise musically hardened chums: that notorious subdivision of the genre we call Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ for short.
Oh, going so soon?
I know I’m losing some of you already. Some of you may be reaching for the revolver to effect my silence. Others may well have fled the room by the nearest point of egress. The window, possibly. The airlock on the International Space Station, even?
Now, now, come, come — no need to be like that. Come back, put down that pistol, replace the latch, tell that naughty HAL to close the pod-bay doors and fear not: this isn’t a blog on Prog. That will come in time, though, I warn ya. Oh, yes indeedy.
My friend M is one of the few people of around my age, height and criminal record to be as into Prog as I am. His love for and knowledge of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis outweighs my own. If phrases such as “Gabriel-era Genesis” either fill you with dread, or at best leave you nonplussed, be assured I will labour you with no more of them from here on in. Crucially, we can also agree on the overall magnificence of Pink Floyd — a band I’d argue are not as Prog as all that, but who certainly offer a different proposition to the bluesy riffage that constitutes the sonic vocabulary of the Zeps, Purps and Sabs of this world, great as they are.
Anyway, the most excellent M had managed to secure two tickets for a rare screening at the BFI in London of La Vallée, a French film from 1972 directed, most Frenchily, by a gentleman named Barbet Schroeder. Pink Floyd had provided the soundtrack for it, as they had done for a previous film of Schroeder’s, More. Furthermore, Barbet Schroeder himself would be present at the screening and taking questions afterwards. YAYER — let’s do this!
I don’t think you need to have more than a passing acquaintance with the early Seventies, certain films thereof and the music of ‘The Floyd’ to assume that a French flick consisting of these pungent cultural ingredients is highly likely to be a) freewheeling; b) trippy; c) morally flexible; d) too long; e) all of the above, plus f) nudity. You’d be right, up to a point, too — but La Vallée was almost disappointing inasmuch as it was surprisingly coherent and cohesive.
The lead role was played by Bulle Ogier, who found wit and subtlety in her performance as well as perfectly adequate loveliness. She’s Viviane, a bored young woman who finds herself alone in New Guinea with time on her hands and her husband abroad on diplomatic business. She develops a fascination with Birds of Paradise and, sensing an opportunity to add to her exotic feather collection, falls in with a bunch of hippie explorers. They in turn are searching for a valley on a map that places it at the centre of a blank space. Everyone it seems stands to get something out of the venture. Before too long our heroine has shacked up with one of the chaps, Olivier, who possesses the subtle blend of hunky, blond smugness that seems to drive the chicks crazy. It amused me to note that Olivier was played by Michael Gothard, who I’d previously seen playing an impressive inquisitor in Ken Russell’s deliriously barmy, yet oddly quite principled The Devils, complete with funky, anachronistic Ray Manzarek specs.
I shan’t give too much more away other than it plays out like a straightforward road movie, or off-road movie as the case may be. There’s a fair amount of al fresco bonking, there’s much talk of discovering oneself — as is inevitable with these affairs — and there’s a fascinating, extended scene where our heroes ‘go native’, don elaborate face paint and join in with a local tribe’s sacrificial ritual (look away: a real hog was slaughtered on camera for the occasion). The Pink Floyd sound drifts pleasingly in and out of the proceedings at regular intervals. It was extremely well photographed, and as the strikingly glabrous, but jovial monsieur le directeur Schroeder pointed out later, had latterly been digitally remastered to within an inch of its life for maximum visual impact — and it sure showed.
The other thing worth mentioning — and trust me, this is hardly spoiler territory — is that the ending of the film is ambiguous. It amused me that barely had the end credits rolled before M. Schroeder, with no prompting, gave us his thoughts on how he viewed the climactic last moments. With that, the one question I may have had to ask him was done away with in seconds, leaving M and me to leave the auditorium with all speed and rejoin our better, but less Prog-tolerant halves in a few rip-roaring pints of quality Belgian beer in the BFI bar. In this fashion, a good evening was had by all.
Anyway, I wasn’t going to discuss the film quite as much as I have done so already, as it really was a slight piece, but the single biggest thing I got out of seeing La Vallée was that it reacquainted me with the Floyd’s soundtrack album, retitled Obscured By Clouds — a line mentioned in the film. I was first introduced to this album in the late Eighties by my good friend June, who ran me off a tape copy. Compact cassettes! Happy days. We were all in our late teens, in Sixth Form at secondary school — a time when I covered acres of musical ground — but I shall not trouble you with the details this time around. I may yet do so.
In any event, I wasn’t too impressed with Obscured By Clouds at the time, being more the kind of chap to have his vessel aquatically displaced by somewhat heavier, harder-hitting sounds. The Who’s Tommy and the soundtrack of Ken Russell’s (him again) 1975 film version were both preferred sonic experiences in my bedroom at this time, for example. Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness & Charm offered another regular excursion into headphone space for me too, and I think this was also the time I started to ‘get’ Led Zeppelin. Pink Floyd’s stoned-yet-mannered mid-tempo grooves and occasional laid-back pastoral feyness on both Obscured By Clouds and its ‘sister’ album, the More soundtrack, were not quite yet offering me what I wanted at 18 years of age. So there it laid, unheard and unconsidered in my life for years, obscured by doubts, until the prospect of seeing the film led me to dig the album out again and give it another go.
Bugger. What a great little album I have been missing out on all these years. I mean no condescension when I say ‘great little album‘ — but the keyword to describe the pieces on it is ‘miniature’: it comes at a time when Floyd had their first, legitimate ‘classic’ album since Syd Barrett’s departure in 1968 — 1971’s Meddle, with its sidelong opus, ‘Echoes’ and the luxuriant sprawl of ‘One Of These Days‘ — and their next album, needing no introduction, The Dark Side Of The Moon, with its seamlessly segueing suite of songs. By comparison, Obscured By Clouds finds Pink Floyd making concise musical statements; only two of the songs — 10 in all, clocking up 40 minutes in total — last over five minutes, and the average running time of any given song is between three to four minutes.
That’s not to say that OBC is suddenly a snappy, sharp listen. This is still a stoner’s delight, a trip of an album with a supinely cool hat-trick of opening songs in ‘Obscured By Clouds’, ‘When You’re In’ and ‘Burning Bridges‘ — the latter being the first one with lyrics.
One song that I find specially remarkable is Roger Waters’ ‘Free Four’, where old Rog’s lyric effectively outlines his entire game-plan for the rest of his tenure in Floyd. Lines like ‘shuffle in the gloom of the sick room/and talk to yourself as you die‘ anticipate Dark Side’s prevailing mood of passing time and wasted opportunity, while a sardonic verse about touring America prefigures ‘Have A Cigar’, ‘Welcome To The Machine’, most of Wish You Were Here and The Wall in its entirety. Other verses, with allusions to fox hunting, courtrooms and most significantly, Waters’ assertion that he is ‘the dead man’s son’ effectively cover the preoccupations of his latter albums in Pink Floyd. All in just over four minutes.
It’s not a deep, complex listen by any stretch, though. There’s plenty of funky, mid-tempo rocking out to be found on ‘The Gold It’s In The…’, ‘Childhood’s End’ and elsewhere that anticipate some of the moments on The Dark Side Of The Moon that endear that album to millions, me included. It’s good fun. It makes me wonder why I didn’t get into it sooner. Don’t you just love it when that happens? In fact, typing this right now is encouraging me to give the More soundtrack another go very soon, so watch this space. Just don’t expect me to review that film while I’m at it.
Oh, one last thing I really should mention about Obscured By Clouds: it’s a great album for those special I-didn’t-invite-you-back-here-just-for-coffee-you-know moments; check out ‘Mudmen’ and ‘Stay’ for the laid-back languor and longing that should let the lad or lady in your life know what’s goin’ on, as they say.
Speaking of seduction, the other thing I feel obliged to discuss when looking back on the week’s events is of course Valentine’s Day. I dislike Valentine’s Day. There you go. I suspect that I would like it a whole lot more if I have ever received a card from an anonymous admirer, but it pains me to admit that I never have. Not one. Not ever. Niente. As a dreadful, inarticulate teenager I recall getting a card in the post with the suitably enigmatic sign-off u no me from school! set in careful, generic but decidedly girly handwriting. My sister cross-questioned me eagerly about any girls at school I suspected with designs. Slightly too eagerly, as I guessed within minutes; she’d sent it herself just to wind me up and try to extract blackmailable information from me. So, bloody great: net result, I got a Valentine’s card from my own sister. I think it’s safe to say that one didn’t count.
Another time, a normally tactful and delightful friend gave me a Valentine’s card up front, handing it over with the explanation that she thought it would cheer me up to get one. Damned with faint praise on the path to hell that’s paved with good intentions. Arrgh! Can you even see the effect it has on my metaphors? How I hated myself for being in thrall to such emotion.
Lest I sound like a cold fish of the first and worst water, I should add that I have gamely done my part to perpetuate this impetuous heartache over the years. The trail of girls who remained at best understanding-but-uninterested and downright hostile at worst, is depressingly long. Ingrates, all! Did I not sign off my cards with witty riddles relating to things I knew they’d associate with only the two of us? Was there not the time I tried to impress a shapely Classics scholar with my declaration that she was a clever, sexy and beautiful woman — in Latin? Latin! Handmade, some of these cards and all. Dammit, I’d fume, they deserve a passionate and creative soul like me, admittedly in the microscopic mental interstices when I wasn’t simply thinking about boobs.
Now, don’t get me wrong; since those dark days, I have been married for nearly seven years, and spent most of the previous decade in a committed relationship, but I still want to believe that I am interesting enough — certainly vain enough at any rate — for someone to hold a secret, trembling passion. Even as I type this I realise this is a specious desire: there are plenty of people in the world who view V-Day as the absolute worst one to betray one’s ardent, amorous side, and besides I should really be happy with my lot. See how this one day of the year throws up such conflicting emotions of anticipation, disappointment, guilt and nauseating double standards. A pox on it and its proponents!
That said, as any man in a relationship will tell you, it doesn’t do to ignore the day entirely if you value your ball-sack. Mrs M outdid herself this year and stunned me into humble, shamed blobs of widdly-diddly, pookie-wookie-baby-love putty by giving me a card she made patiently — and with great skill — from embroidery. Fortunately, I had set aside one of my culinary signature Big Guns in readiness: a magnificent veggie lasagne. It pays to be prepared.
I may post up my recipe for this seduction in pasta, but not today. Such a tease.
Those of you who celebrate Valentine’s Day in loving partnership, or in pursuit of one, remember: it’s only one day.
Those of you who can’t stand the bloody nonsense of it, the hyped commercialism, the dull rejection and crushing unrequitedness, remember: it’s only one day.
All of you, keep it together and take care.
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
La Vallée (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)
lots of Doctor Who: The Ark, The War Machines, The Mind Robber, The Claws Of Axos, The Curse Of Peladon, The Time Monster, Frontier In Space, Planet Of The Daleks, The Green Death, The Monster Of Peladon, Robot, The Robots Of Death (BBC, variously between 1966 and 1977)