Thursday, 17 March 2011

Decade in music: withstanding the 1980s, or The Gentle Art Of Procrastination, part two.

…in which our hero goes down to WHSmith armed with 45p to buy his first single. Wants more.

If you’ve just come from my previous blog entry, welcome back. Now, where were we?

Oh yes, the 1980s. Gosh, how I despised them at the time. I left Primary School in the summer of 1983. I had been the oldest boy in the school, a positively glowing ball of confident, plump enthusiasm that burned brightly for all to see whether you wanted to or not. Come the autumn: disaster, damnation, separation. My best friends had gone to another school across town. Big School put me right back in Square One. No, worse than that: larger classes, with a greater number of kids my age who didn’t know me and were not impressed by my bluster; six years’ worth of older children intent on lording it over all of us as surely as we would do so on the unfortunate incumbents of our position a year later. I remember feeling deeply resentful; my old school had been a cushy little number. In one stroke I had become a small fish, swimming delusional in a big pond with only raging hormones for reliable company. If that sounds a bit overwrought, well, it didn’t feel like it at the time. Over the first weeks of Secondary Education, my exuberant good humour eroded and warped daily into overt rambunctiousness. Lots of mortal, schoolboy fights ensued — BANG! OOF! YAROO! OW THAT’S MY HEAD! etc. My confidence remained undented as I won most of these petty playground brawls, to be fair, but it only served to force me to keep my own company and counsel more than ever. There’s nothing more stubborn than a sullen, embittered, cocksure adolescent who hasn’t yet fully discovered masturbation.

Almost everything about my Secondary School, I imagined then as now, was a rinky-dink-Mickey-bloody-Mouse operation of the most tedious order compared to the idyllic, efficient quaintness of my old Convent. Music in particular was very badly managed indeed. I had had two years of piano lessons at my old school, taken once a week during lunch hour, to the extent where I could play with correct fingering and sight-read the most basic pieces. This immediately ceased on my transition over to the new place. No piano lessons on offer. The Head of Music there was a tall, lanky, bearded individual called Mr McAuliffe who had the nervy bearing of someone, I’m now guessing, had been invalided out of National Service. To my mind he was a thoroughly useless teacher, unable to impart even the most basic tenets of musical instruction without getting into jerky paroxysms of comically impotent ire. I vowed never to involve myself with any practical music making on behalf of my school or this most contemptible of music masters. I’ll say no more on him.

Never mind teachers — they’re such easy targets for children. My contemporaries were fools, I fumed, for even trying to find anything of musical value to engage with in the benighted outset of the 1980s. How I lambasted them in teenage rage for liking Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet or Frankie Goes To Hollywood. ABC and OMD? NBG, as I think they used to say in the RAF during WWII. Shame on you, Yazoo, Depeche Mode and your poxy synth-raddled kind for even existing, I asserted coldly as only kids can command. Worst of all, how disappointing it was to a twelve-year-old who’d not quite started to ‘get’ the magic and mystery of girls to find my more precocious schoolchums banging on about how ‘horny’ Madonna was. Cah, the old ways were better, I rumbled, with attention-seeking zeal. The delightfully danceable disco pop and the chippy-yet-commercial New Wave singles I had loved passively at the end of the previous decade were receding, becoming something else I decided I did not like. To me, the bright and warm 1960s were more immediate, vibrant and vital to me than any of the pathetic offerings I heard my friends talk about — and in the early 1980s, the Sixties, with their flares, flowers and patchouli, were about as unhip as you could get. How cool, detached and dismissively different I thought I was. I must have been an insufferable little bastard.

Nonetheless, everyone wants to fit in sooner or later, and by the autumn of 1984 I was getting increasingly aware that while I was ready to sneer at other people’s consumer decisions, I was a fan of nothing by way of reply. Not such a cool pose. Wearing thin, in fact. It was time to take a stand. Get partisan. Find something else to spend my pocket money on beyond Star Wars toys or sweets. Shit or get off the pot. I got on a bus to Eltham High St and the branch of WHSmith there: the best place I could think of to buy my first pop single — and after so long telling everyone else what not to buy I knew exactly what I wanted to kick off my record collection. A supercool, proper bloody tune: the theme music to the BBC TV series The Tripods.

I’ll not trouble you with too much detail on The Tripods, suffice to say it was a sci-fi serial made with similar production values to Doctor Who, and shown in the same Saturday teatime slot at times of the year when Who was not. It featured the eponymous three-legged alien war machines, bent on subjugating the human population of the near-future and keeping them in pre-industrial age ignorance. It seemed to go on for ever. It clearly chimed with my love for The War Of The Worlds, even if my knowledge of HG Wells’ novel at this time began and ended with Jeff Wayne’s album adaptation. My interest in The Tripods theme tune was more likely because of, rather than in spite of, this. I was pleased several years later to learn that Ken Freeman, the synthesiser wizard who composed the stark, bleakly sweeping theme, had also supplied much of the amazing keyboard pyrotechnics that made The War Of The Worlds such a gripping listen for me as a child. I’m guessing Freeman was hired for the TV show due to his connection to those other, more iconic, Martian tripod creations. Maybe I heard some inherent connection in the music too; I can’t honestly say.

Still with me? It gets better. I often used to buy books or stationery in WHSmiths, but music in the Eltham branch was upstairs. Big boys’ territory. It was Fourmatt Video all over again. I found myself ascending the staircase to emerge into the obscure and esoteric world of the record department. Some older singles and albums were deposited in browsing racks, but chart singles and new releases — more likely to sell in quantity — required you to ask for them in person at the counter. How daunting for a chap of my diminutive size then. Still, I sidled timorously up to the counter and asked, on tip-toe, if they stocked the theme tune from The Tripods, the availability of which was promised by the sonorous BBC continuity announcer at the end of the previous week’s instalment.

Well, there you go. They didn’t bloody have it. I stomped about the shop fulminating in a frustrated flap for fifteen full minutes before I decided that I hadn’t brought myself and my 45p this far to be denied the pleasure of purchase. Bollocks. So I bought the next thing I could think of. Returning to the counter, with more confidence and a touch of exasperation this time, I asked for another single I knew was just in the charts: ‘Ghostbusters’ by Ray Parker Jr.

I didn’t know how this song even went, but alone among my friends I had advance information on Ghostbusters, the film. For reasons I’ve never managed to fathom, films in America at this time would be released months ahead of their UK premieres. I understand that this trend didn’t really cease until the late 1990s, when innovations of instant communication such as the Internet rendered press and publicity — and worst of all, the plot spoilers — available simultaneously trans-Atlantically, obviating any advantage to having a film open in one country before all others. Back in 1984, Ghostbusters was about to be a Christmas box office smash in the UK, but it had played out to delighted audiences over the summer Stateside — including my sister. She’d spent the previous six months living in Boston, Massachusetts and had very kindly sent me an amazing parcel for my birthday, full of local ephemera: used bus tickets, town maps, photos of yellow school buses…little fragments of impossibly glamorous Americana to a boy whose knowledge of the States went no further than films and shows I’d seen on TV. Isn’t that how it was for all of us in the UK? The different accent that makes things so cool?

Best of all in this package was a poster of the now iconic ‘No Ghosts’ sign with the enigmatic slogan beneath: ‘Back Off, Man. I’m A Ghostbuster.’ Between this single image, the teasing snippets my sister shared with me in writing and a quite literal sweetener of an additional parcel containing large quantities of American candy (heaven knows how it made it here in one piece), I knew that we Brits were in for a spooky treat over the festive season. For now, I had the single. I went home and played it on my sister’s record player: I didn’t own one myself yet.

“…I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost!”

HAHAHAHAHA!! Totally awesome! You all know it!

It’s reasonably well-known that Ray Parker, Jr has faced legal suits and accusations from songwriters, most famously Huey Lewis And The News, asserting that they originated the catchy riff that bounces through the tune. That’s neither here nor there for me. I’m willing to bet they didn’t write anything as endearingly daft and stupidly danceable as ‘Ghostbusters’; equally enduring as it is throwaway. If I ever meet someone who professes to an extreme dislike of it, I am compelled to view their higher motives with suspicion. Owning the single was like owning an artefact from the film itself. And it was not enough. An acquisitive, rapacious desire for merchandise had set in for me around a film I had not yet even seen. Once my birthday had come around at the end of September, and with the film still several weeks shy of UK release, I determined that I should own the soundtrack album too.

Those of you who may know this album will know that it consists largely of pop music. Some of the tunes were ‘diagetic’ cues; that is, they are played from an identifiable source in the film, say, from out of a radio or by a band depicted in the movie — as opposed to being overlaid on the action. It’s hugely, unavoidably, of its time: transient synth pop rubs shoulders with the softest rock; 1950s pastiche collides with slick overcooked funk. Laura Branigan. The Thompson Twins. Air Supply. It’s a hideous and unsubtle brew, reflecting the dayglo-saturated era from whence it came. You can imagine by now that I had an initial aversion to buying what amounted to a compilation of pop tunes, being more interested in hearing any orchestral music from the film — but this was merchandise and I wanted it. How very slick it looked too, with precious, effects-laden images of the movie blazoned across the back cover. A trip to the short-lived Musictown shop in Sidcup High Street in October 1984 and the deed was done: I had bought my very first LP.

Just for the record, as it turned out I was almost disappointed when I found out that Ghostbusters was ostensibly a comedy. I wanted it to be plain scary. But then again, this is the same boy who watched a pirate video copy of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial expecting a sci-fi horror flick. What a terribly frownsome, overly-serious teen I must have been sometimes. Then, finally, I saw Ghostbusters and like almost everyone of my age, I fell under its intensely likeable, wisecracking, hip, cynical and delightfully silly spell. It is a shame that Elmer Bernstein’s score, a late work for this most assured of film composers, is still not commercially available. It is written with as much wit and profound understanding of subject matter as his earlier, iconic music for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven.

One last thing on The Tripods single: I’m now rather glad I didn’t get it, as it turned out that the rest of the tune, freed from its impressively punchy 30-second restriction in the title sequence, proved to be a little naff extended over three minutes. I know this because I bought a CD copy of it online off Ken Freeman himself some 15 years later. Please do not assume I mean any slight on Mr Freeman: his work on Jeff Wayne’s album alone earns him the keys to the kingdom in my opinion — and more power to his elbow, I say. But I’ve since learned that a TV theme tune outstays its welcome after 60 seconds — even the best ones. Actually, especially the best ones, if they’re any good. How different things might have been had I emerged from WHSmith’s that autumn afternoon with The Tripods in stock.

I was on my way now. Soundtracks became my preferred musical form to listen to and collect. The little chap who spent his time deriding the pop charts, felt disenfranchised by the very decade he lived in, had found something to get behind and feel excited about. My best friend Chris was of similar opinion, so we had  potential for exchange. Going to the cinema was like attending a gig: equally as important for musical content as for any visual aspect or story. Thank goodness a slew of great films awaited us across the 1980s. In this aspect of pop culture, at least, I could command equal respect among my peers.

Film music constituted a vast chunk of my listening pleasure, but it was not the only place where music could be found. Before too long, me and my friends would find another curiously addictive, strangely groovesome — and oddly kind of related — source of musical inspiration. One that informs not only the things I listen to to this day, but also how I compose my own music: computer games. That’ll be a blog entry for another time. The Gentle Art Of Procrastination again!

Soon, my friends, soon...

A Happy St Patrick's Day to any of you who celebrate it.


Currently listening to:
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)
Vaya (At The Drive In, 1999)
Deloused In The Comatorium (The Mars Volta, 2003)
In On The Killtaker (Fugazi, 1994)
Thank Christ For The Bomb (Groundhogs, 1970)
Split (Groundhogs, 1971)

Currently reading:
Still nothing, I’m afraid.

Currently watching:
Doctor Who gets into the visually colourful, spiritually dark days of Colin Baker’s era: Attack Of The Cybermen, Vengeance On Varos, The Mark Of The Rani, The Two Doctors (BBC, 1985)

Monday, 14 March 2011

Decayed without music: sitting out the 1980s, or The Gentle Art Of Procrastination, part one.

Before another word, thank you. I have had several instances of positive feedback on my blog, both online and in person, over the last couple of weeks and your words really are very much appreciated, not to say a little humbling. I shall endeavour to keep up the pace.

It’s been a pleasant and stimulating week. So much so that the options for blog subjectification are many. I could even write about the subjects I considered for this week but then decided against: The Gentle Art Of Procrastination. I appreciate that, like the famous article Stephen Fry once wrote for his weekly column in a national newspaper about having ‘Nothing At All To Say,’ one can only get away with assembling an essay of this self-regarding nature no more than once or twice in a career, so I shall keep it brief for now.

Primarily, this week has been one where musical discussion has been to the fore, with some of my favourite people. This has ranged from delightful email exchanges on Elgar and the ever-amazing Cardiacs, terrific tête à têtes on Spirit and the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and further fleeting Facebook postings on Primal Scream, Massive Attack and er, those ever-amazing Cardiacs again. Even Phil Collins has worked his way into the proceedings, as ever he must.

Any one of these chaps could be spun off into a blog all its own. For example, I fully intend one day to post up a loving account of Cardiacs and their leader, Tim Smith, a gentleman of singular, rarified musical vision. Tim Smith, who numbers among the very few people in the world of music I would class as a certified genius of the top order. Tim Smith, who currently lies stricken in hospital after suffering a stroke in 2008 and is largely powerless to compose any more of his utterly original, stunning pieces. His story deserves to be written about with detail and respect: qualities I will have to master fully before I attempt to do so.

Someone out there needs to do a blog on that most obscure and restricted of subjects: the quality of Phil Collins’ drumming. It may be hard to square the idea, so long maintained, that the bland, balding, tiresomely cheeky chap latterly beloved of superannuated Yuppies, the Patron Saint of Twats incarnate, was anything else. But Seriously…(sorry, I’m so sorry), the younger, more hirsute Collins was a bona fide frontrunner for the title of Greatest Rock Drummer on the planet round about 1973, he really was. Again, time and indulgence forbid me from vouchsafing these arcane, unpopular opinions until a later date. Now there’s a threat wrapped up in a promise for you.

It’s not been all pleasures of the head variety this week. One of the highlights was a trip to the London Drinker Beer Festival with my very good friend Brother JCC, the better to sink some halves and discuss 1970s Rock music and girls, as befits two gentlemen on the town. The Drinker is held in a small community building in the shadow of St Pancras station. The interior space is essentially a large dancehall overlooked by a striking Art Deco lampshade that hovers over all like a wondrous Flash Gordon-style UFO; I wonder how many of the quaffers crowding below have taken time out from their brews to peruse skywards and take in this pleasing detail? The list of beers on offer is considerable given the relatively small scale of the event and range from bitters, stouts, barley wines, ciders and perrys from all corners of the UK. We like to think of it as a warm-up to the Great British Beer Festival held annually in the summer at Earls Court, which is vast by comparison. Most of you will not be surprised to know that both Mrs M and I (not to mention JCC) are card-carrying members of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). I keep meaning to write a blog on the magnificence of Real Ale and the ever-pressing need to keep its production, distribution — and consumption — thriving. It’s a constantly endangered industry and even if you’re teetotal, it takes no imagination to appreciate how the problems they face can affect all of us; we who cherish the small-but-joyous things in life and lament the passing of social niceties, cottage industries and quality products made by small businesses who employ individuals who set high standards. Pride and principles. That said, it’s hard to think of a truly original angle on the subject that hasn’t already been covered by the self-evident work of groups like CAMRA and independent microbreweries, so I’ll cease writing about it for the time being. All you need to know is that a good pint of ale, well-kept and lovingly savoured, is a transcendent thing of majesty and sensory perfection. The buzz you get on it is marvellous too, and the hangover the following day is most forgiving and disperses exactly on schedule. Happy days.

One final digression before I get to the nub of my gist for this week. You may recall my definition of what I like to call 'Emerson Lake & Palmer Syndrome' from the other week, which could be expressed succinctly as: once you’ve heard of something, you seem to hear about it everywhere. I offer you a similar, related sensation which happens frequently to me, and I suspect may do for you too. I’ve decided to call it, following the spirit of my previous foray into this phenomenon, ‘Spacemen 3 Syndrome’ and it runs like this: you’ve heard of Spacemen 3, but never done any research on them. Then a friend whose opinion you value on numerous matters mentions Spacemen 3. Then another friend, on an unconnected occasion less than a week later, refers to Spacemen 3. And still yet another friend some time after that, so now you’ve heard talk of Spacemen 3 three times over ten days. After that, I’d have to be a fool to ignore this manifestly persistent prod by the finger of fate: it’s clearly time to check out Spacemen 3.

The practical upshot of all this speculative phenomenising is that I have had a nostalgic session browsing online for albums by Primal Scream, Massive Attack, U.N.K.L.E., Asian Dub Foundation, Spiritualized and the like: bands I was peripherally aware of in the last twenty years, and maybe would have dug at the time were it not for other bands’ prevailing plays for my attention. Oh, and Spacemen 3 too. I’ll have to let you know how I get on with the goodies I’ve ordered at such agreeable prices. I could write a quite lengthy list of bands I have been put onto with reliable success by this method over the years, but I won’t for the time being. It rightly belongs in a detailed blog on my reminiscences of Nineties music, but — you guessed it — the prospect of writing one right now quite frankly seems a massive and awesome undertaking. Perforce, I’ll confine myself to covering a formative — but for me more musically barren — decade: the 1980s.

We start, not too surprisingly, with the dwindling days of the 1970s. I was eight years old at the end of 1979 but I recall certain things — especially musical things — with eidetic clarity. The breakfast show on Radio 1 was hosted in those days by Dave Lee Travis, the ‘Hairy Cornflake.’ Like many Radio 1 DJs of then, he’s now regarded as terminally unhip, possibly a bit reactionary and the possessor of a crap beard, but I daresay his blend of charting singles, terrible music quizzes (the ‘Monday Cringe’ being one that leaps to mind: a series of clues that would provide a tortuous phrase that punningly suggested a song title to the listener — with predictably ‘hilarious consequences’), spoof songs based on popular tunes and generally amiable banter — specifically devised to cover the intros and outros of tunes you were hoping to home-tape — wouldn’t come as a complete shock to people raised on the likes of Mark & Lard or Chris Evans in that last great era for popular music radio, the Nineties. Anyway, he was pretty much all I had back then; John Peel was beyond my ken and my bedtime.

Every school morning, from my seated position at the dining table awaiting Ready Brek porridge with a blob of jam in, or sausages and bacon lovingly prepared by my mum, I’d hear what was out there as selected by the British record-buying public. This is the interesting part about my memory of things back then: some people will recall the late 1970s as a time of Disco mania; others will cite the abrasiveness of Punk and its more intellectual, but still nervy New Wave offspring as the driving soundtrack of their lives. I’m pleased to be able to confirm that both are true. It is said children are often the harshest critics; I suspect I was actually quite unprejudiced in my views at the time. To me the Bee Gees could sing of ‘Tragedy’ in falsetto quite readily alongside Lene Lovich, adorable in pigtails, as she AH-oo-EE-ooh-ed her way through her ‘Lucky Number.’ Jeff Wayne orchestrated a Disco apocalypse from Mars to London with his version of The War Of The Worlds, Boney M cheerfully offered a ‘Night Flight To Venus’ by way of alternative and The Jam, true to their urban roots, preferred ‘Going Underground,’ possibly taking the Tube to ‘Funkytown’ with Lipps Inc. Such fun and games.

I had yet to become a confirmed consumer of music at this point. My pocket money, if I ever asked for any at all, was most likely spent on Star Wars action figures, or sweets. No need to buy comics; my eldest brother supplied them to us all by generously buying the entire sweep of IPC and Fleetway titles available each week. He would read them all and pass them down to my elder brother and sister, then me. Again, I feel another blog subject coming on. I would read these without discriminating between the intended demographics. Consequently, I would notice that Ron Smith’s signature drawing style for Judge Dredd in that week’s 2000AD could also be seen delicately outlining the teen angst of ‘I’ll Make Up For Mary’ in Jinty. I’d find myself equally at home with Buster comic's ‘Faceache’, the schoolboy who could scrunge his features to look like someone else as I did with the gritty realism of the footie dramas of ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ in er, Roy Of The Rovers. One week I vividly remember our eponymous hero request, finger pointing at us all from the page, that any hooligans reading the comic stop doing so. Imagine, getting a rocket from the Rovers’ Roy Race.

Anyway, back to the music. I could write up a list of songs I remember vividly from those far-flung days, but the data is easily obtained elsewhere. A sweep on Google will yield quite readily which songs were in the Top 20 in any given week — and it was mostly Top 20 radio that provided the Soundtrack To My Life. Such an oft-used expression ‘The Soundtrack Of Your Life‘ — I used it elsewhere, didn’t I? — but in my case, as we’ll see, it was going to become particularly appropriate. If there was one specific album that I enjoyed the most, it was probably the scratched copy of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds that I had shamefully pilfered from my brother’s record collection and played, for want of anything else, on my mother’s teal-blue 1960s Garrard turntable. Mono, of course, but no matter then. To my ears it had — still has — all the quality of watching a fantastic effects-laden sci-fi movie without having to pay attention to the visuals, although the album cover and inner booklet provided enough scary brain-food to match Jeff Wayne’s disco dance music of doom. Crucially, I was grappling with the idea of the son being an essential accompaniment to the lumiere.

By the time I edged into my teens I had started to know what I really liked: Star Wars. Not just the film, my love of which is disproportionately great, worthy of a blog all to itself and paradoxically something I prefer not to discuss with anyone for any length, but John William’s rightly lauded orchestral score. A couple of years earlier, when I was 11, the film had been shown, amid public fanfare, on British television — and my sterling mate Chris had it taped on his home VHS recorder. I envied him his VCR and would badger my father as to when we were getting our own (several years too late, as it turned out). You really had to be there, those early 1980s, to appreciate just how exciting it was to be able to watch something on video again and again. More immediately thrilling, for me anyway, was that Chris had recorded the film’s entire soundtrack — sound effects, dialogue and all — onto cassette tape using a combined mini TV/tape recorder device. It is both a measure of how old I am and how amazing is the modern world we live in now when I recall, wincingly, that not only was it a black-and-white screen — colour telly not a given even then — but also the size, thickness and weight of a small briefcase holding two house bricks. Please accept my assurance that it was a very cool piece of kit at the time.

Across the road from my Primary School opened two stores around this, the same time. Both traded in burgeoning entertainment technology and both were enormously influential on our fragile li’l adolescent minds. Youth of 1980s Sidcup, remember their names with pride: Silica Shop and Fourmatt Video. More on Silica Shop later. Fourmatt was tiny, cramped and seemed — since you had to climb a narrow staircase to get there — like a deeply seedy place to visit, especially for hormonal schoolboys seeking a fleeting glimpse of boob on the cover of an Electric Blue release in the Adult Entertainment corner. In those days, porn and what the government were already gleefully dubbing ‘video nasties’ were things we’d discuss, but almost never actually see. But this bright new video age was about to spring yet another surprise on us: pirates ahoy!

Well, nowadays of course, we’re all fully aware of how video piracy is a pernicious evil that funds international terrorism, makes small children take bad drugs and could even jeopardise future film production, it really could. You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. You wouldn’t rob a bank. So why would you consider committing the victimless crime of downloading a film you wouldn’t pay money to see off a hooky website? Brr, shame on you! Piracy’s bad, mm’kay?

We had no such scruples as children, especially as the majority of films we could get off a mate’s older brother’s mate who knows a guy who’s a bit of a geezer, etc were movies that hadn’t made it to the commercial video market — and sometimes before even that. How amazing it was to see E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as me and Chris did, fully two months before it came out in UK cinemas: we saw it round at a friend of my mother’s, who wasn’t entirely sure what it was she’d picked up. We thought it was going to be a horror film! Happy memories. It wasn’t too long, then, before Chris had acquired The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi through other, excitingly illicit, channels. A swift run through the old two-brick briefcase telly-tape-recorder, and BANG! I had something to listen to on cassette. And oh, how I listened, again, again and still yet again. My teenage brain, never better geared any other time in my life short of my most tender years to absorb information, soaked up this sonic extravaganza like nothing I ever learned in class. To this day I can still recite the dialogue, with sound effect interjections and pointed musical cues, along with the original Star Wars films to within 90% accuracy. I am not ashamed. Why should I be? The original Star Wars trilogy are cinematic masterpieces, and at this point in the decade, I was still yet to become a record buyer: this was all I needed for now. Maestro John Williams needs no further elevation from me in this blog. To mention him any more, but only in passing, through this essay would be to do him a disservice. Better I devote, I say in what is becoming a leitmotif of mine, an entry specifically all to himself in the future.

But what of pure, unadorned music itself? We like to define pop music, as I have done happily so far, as ‘1960s music’, ‘1980s music’ and so on. In reality of course, music — like all creative and cultural arts — does not recognise clear-cut borderlines of time, space or sensibility. Things do not move at the same speed. Certain places retain a dated charm and other places lead the way in architecture or style. That’s why parts of France always seem delightfully stuck in the 1970s, or why Dubai looks like ‘London, 2071’ in some futuristic fantasy film. The music of the early 1960s sounded like the fag-end of the 1950s and as David Crosby once said in so many words, the 1970s were like the better version of the 1960s. Well, I’m sure it was for the first five years or so, Dave. Ian McDonald, in his excellent book Revolution In The Head, cites 1973 as the year in which the 1960s ‘ended’ for the UK: the Yom Kippur War and the resultant economic downturn bringing an end to the prosperity and optimism that had defined the previous colourful years, starting with the white heat of Wilson’s technological revolution in 1963, through to sexual intercourse, the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP. By the same token, for some the 1960s ended in ’68: 'Paint It, Black', revolution, Hell’s Angels at Altamont and no more Summer Of Love. 

So it was for me and the 1970s. As the 1980s moved further in and further away from the sensibilities fostered in the previous decade, it moved away from whatever it was I liked in music — and at this point in my feckless adolescent opinion, I couldn’t quantify what exactly that was. I do recall having a stunningly precocious chat on a bus with Chris in 1983 about the prospect of 1984 and wondering whether it would turn out to be anything like Orwell’s novel — which neither of us had read at that time, naturally — and coming to the alarmingly early conclusion that this new decade we were living in was not shaping up to be ‘as good’ as its predecessor. I blame the creeping emergence of synthesisers — specifically their pernicious, carcinogenic hegemony over real instruments, especially brass — and the damn-foolish pursuit of most record producers to try and make a real drummer sound like a machine, which even at an early age, I knew was fundamentally missing the point. I’m afraid a poor troubled adolescent like myself found it all too easy to affect an air of Olympian arrogance for the kind of pop I now identified very firmly as ‘1980s music’. Friends would be ridiculed for their tastes when in fact they were simply doing what came naturally and listened to the radio. The scorn I poured on Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC and the like. Me, who thought Gary Numan was scary and cool, deriding what reads back to me now like a perfectly serviceable shopping list of great, fun, smart, friendly 1980s pop. But by the summer of 1984, I still had not bought so much as a single single, never mind an album, but I was ready: the time had come.

It was time to put my pocket money where my big, fat, mocking mouth was.

Re: The Gentle Art Of Procrastination: I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave the story right here, but stay tuned — it will be up before this week is out.

What was that? Oh, come on! You love cliff-hangers…


Currently listening to:
Mounqaliba (Natacha Atlas, 2010)
Drums And Wires (XTC, 1979)
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)

Currently reading:
Nothing, I’m afraid - save rereading my copy, which doesn’t count!

Currently watching:
The Doctor Who fest, still blazing away as ever: Earthshock, Time-Flight, Arc Of Infinity, Snakedance, The King’s Demons, Warriors Of The Deep, The Caves Of Androzani, The Twin Dilemma (BBC, variously between 1982 and 1984)

Monday, 7 March 2011

This week in music reviews: Guillaume de Machaut, hangovers and cheating.

Ouch. Apologies from the outset: Harry Hangover is banging on the inside of my head with each keystroke as I type this. He’s a right bastard, is Harry. Trepanation is a distinct option right now. Have no sympathy, gentle reader: let’s just say that I earned it fairly and squarely.

It’d be lovely to impart some arcane recipe or procedure that blows away the cobwebs that seem to have been placed with such deliberate care and precision — but not my permission — in my mind the night after the evening before. Ouch. I have none, unfortunately, save what distraction several cups of black filter coffee and a few rousing episodes of 1970s Doctor Who can offer. Come to think of it, this is a typical routine of a perfectly sober Sunday morning too. Some routines are just so good.

So this week, finding concentration a daunting prospect, never mind anything as physically strenuous as blogging, I’m going to have to cheat. Normally this blog is freshly minted; words virginally assembled with by-now customary giddiness into combinations of high-falutin’ verbiage, phrasal archaism and a signature overuse of long dashes — all with one express purpose: to entertain. Well, hopefully. I write these things for no one and nowhere else if not for you and here. Or in other words, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to write about until the moment I write it. But this week, in the finest tradition of Blue Peter, here’s some words I prepared earlier. Reviews I’ve written over the years, lovingly cut and pasted, with minimal effort on my part, for your reading pleasure. Ouch. This time, I have selected all my Classical and Early Music reviews. I’ll save the Rock/Pop album reviews for another time, another hangover.

Some of these reviews date back roughly to around 2001. They were all written for and are aimed at the average casual CD purchaser, so they are not overly detailed: I don’t assume someone shopping online would wish to wade through paragraphs of critical opinion. No negativity either, as I reviewed items that I liked. Too often have I read online reviews that are less about the product and more about someone’s petty desire to rant about the artist, in thoroughly unproductive, impotent manner. Ouch. It’s nicer to be happily enthusiastic about things, don’t you think?

Let’s start with two reviews of the same work by different performers: La Messe de Notre Dame, by Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377). I once heard of a chap who has made it his lifelong mission to collect every recording made of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Mine is a more modest ambition, merely to acquire every recording of this landmark four-part choral work from the Middle Ages. I think I have somewhere upwards of sixteen albums on CD and two on vinyl — and every version is different. The vagaries of medieval musical notation leave Machaut’s Messe open to endless interpretations of performance. Not just the sung key and the tempo to be taken, but even whether certain notes are flat or sharp, major or minor. Some versions feature instruments, which is arguably inauthentic, but musically interesting. I even have a purely instrumental version performed by a freeform jazz combo and one arranged for string quartet.

Machaut was in interesting character. At the time of the Messe’s composition, he was the Abbot of Rheims cathedral and in earlier times had allegedly spied for the King of Bohemia. He proved shrewd and smart enough to gain the confidence of numerous other aristocratic patrons in his career. He also wrote poetry and managed to out-sit the Black Death over the course of his relatively long life. One of his other major works, Le Voir Dit, a passionate ‘love letter’ set to music, was addressed to a girl called Péronne whom at nineteen was some forty years his junior. There’s no evidence if the passion was requited, sadly. Guillaume got about!

Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame (Ensemble Organum, dir. Marcel Peres. Harmonia Mundi HMC-901590 )
Unique among interpretations
Purists may throw their hand up at Peres’s apparently free hand in the phrasing and tempo of Machaut’s — and arguably the Medieval world’s — most famous work, but the gentle pace and Arab-styled melismas on the choral sections make for compelling listening. By dint of the age of the piece, there could never be a version of the Messe de Notre Dame one could describe as ‘definitive’ and this one squats like a toad of a distinctly different colour among the dozen or so recordings available, but it is beautifully performed — and recorded — by the Ensemble Organum. Recommended simply as an example of just how unusual and sumptuous medieval polyphony can be.

Guillaume de Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame/Le Voir Dit (Oxford Camerata, dir. Jeremy Summerly. Naxos  8.553833)
Masterful (and cheap!)
Jeremy Summerly’s Camerata give a sturdy, controlled, yet vigorous rendering of Machaut’s greatest achievement, the Messe de Notre Dame, possibly the most famous, certainly one of the most eminent pieces of the Medieval age. The rest of the tracks are not mere trifles simply to lard out the CD, though: the secular pieces from Le Voir Dit are not only splendid, but insightful too, revealing a great deal about the (not altogether pure!) mind of one of Medieval music’s most interesting figures, and treated with similar verve by Summerly and his accomplished colleagues. For scholars of music, enthusiasts of history or simply those who have an ear for something that is very beautiful please do buy this — there’s really no excuse at the budget price!

Next up, two reviews of Renaissance dance music. They’re linked by more than just the time they were composed. The musical director of the first, Philip Pickett, was a student of the second, David Munrow. Munrow was a whirlwind of creativity in the early/mid-70s in the world of Early Music, recording dozens of albums of music with his group, ranging from the 11th Century up to the Early Baroque. He was also a recorder player of singular genius and skill, plus a proponent of folk music, notably lending his talent to several recordings by Shirley Collins. Tragically, he also suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1976. His legacy lies mostly in his records, which are uniformly excellent in their intelligent arrangement, energetic execution and sheer excitement.

Tielman Susato: Danserye, 1551 (The New London Consort, dir. Philip Pickett. L’Oiseau-Lyre 436-131-2)
Perhaps the most dazzling early music CD ever
Philip Pickett first worked with that eminent force of early 70s Early Music revival, David Munrow — and the energy and panache that Munrow imbued his recordings has positively bled into Pickett’s astonishing releases. Beautifully recorded and exquisitely arranged, Pickett creates a thematic dance suite, bristling with buzzy, cheeky sounds of early wind instruments and ever-luscious string sections. Susato had a knack for collecting and composing feverishly catchy dance melodies that are at once stately, yet personable — and doesn’t Pickett and his group of musicians just capture it! Speaking as a layperson when discussing musical technique or merit, this is an enchanting CD, by turns grand, pompous, informal, scary, jolly and quite frankly nothing ever short of spellbinding. As far as Renaissance dance music discs go, between this CD and Munrow’s own CD of Renaissance dance music, there’s nothing to touch them. This music — simultaneously weird and yet comforting — really can change your life.

Michael Praetorius: Dances From Terpsichore (The Early Music Consort of London, dir. David Munrow. Virgin Veritas 7243-5-61289-2-7)
Happy, beautiful, intricate, frightening, sad, accomplished
Praetorius’s pieces from Terpsichore have some of the most well known 16th Century dances among their number. His prescribed instrumentation was left generally to the discretion and expediency of the performers, and this is where the tragically short-lived, gifted Munrow brings his taste and sensibility to bear on this music. Approaching this from a strictly non-technical, non-historical standpoint this album simply staggers me with its invention. Renaissance music seems to have a familiar-yet-alien quality, due in no small part to the bristling textural array of the instruments, and none more so on this recording: Munrow’s astonishing collective of musicians give virtuoso performances on reedy racketts, buzzing crumhorns and bright lutes, creating a lush and extremely special sound. Elsewhere, on Praetorius’s lesser-known choral pieces, Munrow brings out an energy and passion in the music without ever forsaking its devotional intent. Despite Praetorius’s carte blanche given to the arrangements, this recording can be regarded (along with Munrow’s recent successor Philip Pickett’s Terpsichore CD) as definitive.

Finally, three reviews of 20th Century composers. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) needs practically no introduction and I suspect many people who believe not to possess any prior knowledge of his music will  prove to be familiar with at least one piece unawares. Philip Heseltine, under his nom-de-plume Peter Warlock (1894-1930), is not so well-known although he enjoys a certain amount of notoriety among the classical cognoscenti and one day I will be delighted to write up a blog entry on his spectacular, non-musical, exploits. Of Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) I am afraid I know very little about beyond his marvellous Carol Symphony, although his quality is assured on the strength of this one piece: guaranteed to make tears fall, whether they be of warm nostalgic reminiscence or half-remembered childhood unease, from the eyes of anyone who watched the BBC’s adaptation of The Box Of Delights in the mid-Eighties.

The World of Britten (Decca compilation. B000027BWI)
Splendid introduction to Britten’s work
Nearly all the pieces contained on this disc feature Britten himself, either conducting or in some other performing/supervisory capacity. In addition, Decca producer John Culshaw’s far-sightedness in recording works in stereo back in the early 1950s means the label possesses a formidable array of gorgeously preserved and authoritative readings of Britten pieces, many of which have been cherry-picked to form this delightful entry into his world. Two popular orchestral pieces, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and Simple Symphony, are included in their entirety (in what can for once be described in that oft-misused term, as ‘definitive’ recordings) and there are good, representative excerpts from several Britten operas, folksong arrangements and — of course — choral pieces. If you are interested in a good, inexpensive and credible sample of Britten, then you need look no further than this.

Peter Warlock: Orchestral Works (cond. Ross Pople. Arte Nova 7-4321-37868-2)
Mr Heseltine’s Fancy
Anyone familiar with the name Warlock will be aware of the inevitable baggage that comes with it in conversation: the usual derogatory charges of his drunkenness, irresponsibility and the wrong kind of confrontationalism in his dealings with the musical establishment are frequently levelled. None of this of course is present on this beautiful CD that compiles a good portion of the scant amounts of purely orchestral music that Warlock wrote in his tragically short (but incandescent) life. Capriol, the best-known Warlock piece is played with gusto and panache by Pople and his orchestra — even if the tempi tend to waver here and there, the overall performances are crisply rendered and recorded still yet crispier. Martyn Hill, that supremely competent English tenor invests The Curlew (the most famous Warlock song piece, which rounds out this collection) with conviction and the orchestra play in suitably creepy fashion throughout. But for me, it’s the tiny dance pieces that make this CD special: Warlock has managed to capture the quality of Renaissance dance music with his own Edwardian warmth and efficiency and produces magical miniatures as he goes. Drunk, maybe. Iconoclastic, frequently — if he was any good! — but this contradiction between Warlock the man and Warlock the composer is half the fascination. This is a budget price CD, too — Warlock completists will find it agreeable, then, as well as initiates into his work who need to hear him at his best. Between this and EMI’s A Warlock Centenary CD, a good place to start.

Victor Hely-Hutchinson: A Carol Symphony and other Christmas Orchestral favourites (cond. Gavin Sutherland, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.557099)
When Slade, Wizzard and Bing simply won't do anymore...
If you’re seeking a quieter, more restful and — dare I say — traditional form of Christmas Spirit than you’re getting from Slade, Wizzard and Phil Spector, then here’s something very beautiful: a collection of classical, orchestral pieces all themed around the Yuletide season.
Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s splendid Carol Symphony (the third movement of which achieved greater fame in the 1980s as the creepy-but-festive theme to the BBC series The Box Of Delights) appears here in one of perhaps only two recent (and available) recordings and is beautifully played/ recorded. This alone justifies Naxos’ bargain price!
But let’s not ignore the remaining tracks. Each one is a miniature gem that manages to capture something of a festive feel, whether it be the happy, cheeky crispness of Bryan Kelly’s Carol Improvisations and Philip Lane’s Wassail Dances (the modest Lane also writes the sleevenotes) or the solemn, gentle, melancholic flipside represented by a most alarmingly beautiful arrangement of Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down (originally for voices, here played by strings) or Patrick Standford’s jubilant Christmas Carol Symphony. Whatever it is about Christmas music that makes it ‘Christmassy’ is represented in spades on this unassumingly priced CD. A word of warning though: it makes for odd listening any time outside of the Festive Season – exercise caution playing it in June!

Normal blogging duty to be resumed soon. As Flanders & Swann once set to music — 'the public may leave at the end of each performance by all the exit doors'. Still ouch, you know.


Currently listening to:
Hat Trick: The Collection (Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, 2007)
Next… (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 1973)
The Impossible Dream (The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, 1974)
Indiscreet (Sparks, 1976)

Currently reading:
Apathy For The Devil: A 1970s Memoir (Nick Kent, 2010)

Currently watching:
The Doctor Who fest makes its way into the Eighties: Destiny Of The Daleks, City Of Death, The Creature From The Pit, The Horns Of Nimon, The Leisure Hive, Full Circle, State Of Decay, Logopolis, Castrovalva, Four To Doomsday, Kinda (BBC, variously between 1979 and 1982)