Tuesday, 30 August 2011

My Moon Under Water. Part one: the jukebox.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote a short essay for the London Evening Standard called The Moon Under Water which outlined, to his mind, the ten precepts that constituted his eponymous — and sadly fictitious — perfect boozer. You will hardly have failed to notice the preponderance of pubs belonging to the JD Wetherspoon chain that also labour under the name. If you’ve not read The Moon Under Water, do check it out. I won’t go into the details of the essay, except to say that:

A) Many of Orwell’s post-war sensibilities still hold true for a decent pub, even if the chances that you may want to buy Aspirin in the bar, use the house telephone or drink stout from a pewter pint pot are slim these days.
B)  A Wetherspoon pub is as much like Orwell’s idea of a decent drinking hole as the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas is like visiting a medieval castle.

Anyway, it got me thinking about my own favourite boozer. Before I go further, I should point out that Mr Orwell knows a thing or two about weighing a sentence, balancing a paragraph and creating a sense of satisfaction and drama within the confines of a thousand words. Some of his big, long storybooks are fairly corking too. That one about Big Daddy watching you, great stuff. On the other hand, I am a chap who mainly thinks about boozers and barely gets going one thousand words in. I’d also better say up front that I’m not even going to pretend this place exists. It’s a fallacious folly, an impractical ideal, an unworkable, completely bloody brilliant pub. Modesty and decorum prohibit me calling it ‘The Murphy’s Head’ or ‘The Paulie Arms’. Since the jukebox is distinct and different from one day to the next, I am obliged to call it The Solomon Grundy.

Solomon Grundy…

                                                        Pop on Monday.
                                                        Fifties/Sixties on Tuesday.
                                                        Folk Night Wednesday.
                                                        Dancing on Thursday.
                                                        Rock on Friday.
                                                        Punk versus Prog Saturday.
                                                        Classical Sunday.

                                                                                                  …that’s the week in The Solomon Grundy.

Already you know as well as I that this pub cannot exist. I’m probably doing myself out of any regular clientele by varying the jukebox, restricting it to certain genres each day — but it’s my blog, my rules, so there. Besides, I got the idea from a real pub in Canterbury. They had an MP3 jukebox that subdivided into genres such as 80s POP, IRISH PUB and ELVIS FOREVER. Musical monomania, for all: four songs for a quid, ten songs for £2.

I borrowed another idea from a different pub in Canterbury. It’s a hotbed of inspiration down there, pub-wise, I tell you. There is a beautiful establishment, housed in a Fourteenth Century building, that does splendid Sunday lunches. Behind the bar lies an extensive array of local ales and even some intriguing lager choices. The wine selection is excellent. Decent spirits, check. The place had atmosphere in bags; the medieval building, wood-panelled walls, two vast functional fireplaces, unsophisticated, wide wooden tables and chairs. Nothing affected, all fully functional and aesthetically pleasing. The regulars sat in a row upon barrel-stools at the bar, chatting amiably to the staff like they had been there all day — and this was only noon. The thing I remembered most vividly, though, was the choice of music: Classical, played at a discreet volume. It worked, it really worked. It was a sacred, magic moment. Nothing looked or felt out of place. I was reminded of the tale I heard some years back about the manager of an inner city McDonald’s joint playing Classical music to deter bored, troublesome kids from loitering in the shop doorway. Seems there’s no better way to keep out ‘the rowdies’ as Orwell describes them, than to make the place anathema to people who, with the best will in the world, I have to describe as having simplistic tastes in music, befitting their lifestyles. Classical music creates exactly the kind of snobbish sonic forcefield I would encourage on a leisurely Sunday — only I’d extend the definition to incorporate Renaissance and Medieval music, because it works and I can.

The rest of the week is self-explanatory. Tuesday is a night of nostalgia, with classic pop and rock from the Sixties, Fifties and maybe earlier. Again, I’ve based this, somewhat harshly, on a preexisting model: a well-known pub in Highgate whose jukebox boasts nothing on it less than ten years old — letting time bestow worthy honour on the songs and artists with suitable ‘legs’ to become classics.

Wednesday is Folk Night. The brief extends beyond the a cappella stylings of say, The Young Tradition, The Watersons and Anne Briggs to include livelier stuff like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Unthanks. No sense in keeping it sleepy any other day than Sunday.

Thursday — the Head Ballet. This is my most selfish choice in many ways: a selection of dance music from a fairly limited selection of sub-genres: global fusion, world trance — artists like Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground, Natacha Atlas and Dreadzone. It’s consistently groovy and uptempo, but crucially lacks the pilled-up frenzy of techno, the chavviness of garage or the samey mindlessness that mars much (though not all) drum’n’bass. I’ll admit I’m mainly electing to have a night of this on because I reckon it’s great stuff to hear loudly in a pub if you want a laugh, although I suspect there are bars all over Amsterdam that play this sort of thing already. Maybe I’m not so selfish. Thursday is the new Friday — go to any pub in London to see for yourself.

Friday is Sweaty Rock Night. Eddie Cochran, Cream, Free, Zeppelin, Purple, Guns’n’Roses, The Wildhearts, The Darkness, Kasabian, Pendulum etc. No fucking about — if it has electric guitars and a smoking rhythm section, it’s on.

Saturday is another selfish whimsy. Never mind The Beatles versus the Stones — put those two factions in a pub playing nothing else on the jukebox and I suspect both sides will grudgingly admit liking much of the other eventually. Opposing sides unite, joined in their mutual appreciation of the time and culture that spawned both bands. Now, pit the epic, expansive, excessive pomp and bombast of classic 1970s Progressive Rock against the short, sharp, spitting shards of Punk, the very music whose ‘Year Zero’ shock and awe tactics were deployed against the rock of yore. I suspect it will create a varied and delightful blend; the musical equivalent of chilli ice cream or chocolate-coated pretzels. Tasty. Like my Beatles/Stones analogy, may it create equilibrium rather than conflict, even if both sides will admit to nothing more than a mutual love for Hawkwind, Pink Fairies and Van Der Graaf Generator. On a Saturday night, sometimes you have to find your articulate aggression wherever you can.

And Monday?  Traditionally a quiet day for pubbing — I’ve elected it Pop Music Day: the widest selection of things on the jukebox, to keep everyone happy as much of the time as possible. You can select virtually anything on the entire weekly pub playlist — except Classical music. It’s a tiresome joke to derail the jolly atmosphere with a contemplative adagio any other day of the week but Sunday. 

I’ve not even talked about the pub yet. It says a lot about my business focus. By now already you may detect a certain lack of brewing acumen. Rumbled. Somehow, I don’t think I’d like to be Your Host behind the bar. In any event, I’m not suitable. I haven’t worked in a pub, but I’ve done my fair share of public retail — never again. I very firmly believe that certain outlets would run far more efficiently and with a greater atmosphere of fellow-feeling if the public were not allowed in at all. Bah, humbug and harrumph. Well, you know what I mean. The accountancy would bore me rigid, to boot. Be assured my staff are the finest, most attentive, intelligent, sympathetic and glamorous bunch of chaps and chapesses as any you’ve met. I’m just going to drink in the place.

I’ll discuss the boozer itself in greater detail soon. But first, a drink.

Ta-ta for now.


Currently listening:
Alessandro Striggio: Missa ecco sì beato giorno (Mass in 40 parts) (I Fagiolini/Robert Hollingworth, 2011)
Orlando Gibbons: Second Service & Consort Anthems (Magdalen College Choir/Fretwork, 2003)

Currently watching:
Blake’s 7 series 3 (BBC, 1980)
Man About The House series 4, 5 and 6 (Thames Television, 1974-1976)
Steptoe & Son: series 1 (BBC, 1962)
Doctor Who - series 6, part 2 (BBC, 2011) - brand new Doctor Who on telly. Marvellous.

Monday, 22 August 2011

1967, part one: Nothing to get hung about…very strange.

A fragile detente exists inside my head at any given moment. My happy domestic order and my eternal discontent with the universe vie for axial ascendancy. I’m afraid for me a sense that good things are temporary and conditional hums like an ever-constant background radiation level reading. I daresay you feel something similar wherever you are to a greater or lesser extent. Outside in the world right now, it seems similar: the national frenzy of the last few weeks rages on, shifting from actual physical conflict on the streets to more socially acceptable verbal exchanges in Parliament and swift, arbitrary sentencing in Courts up and down the land. Only time and hindsight will tell whether anything satisfactory will arise from this.

One thing I suspect most of us can agree on is that things don’t develop in a vacuum. That the malcontent, social disconnection and boredom that fomented the riots had been fermenting for some time goes almost without saying. As I said last week, a close examination of the past and the passage of social history may provide us with forewarning, possible reassurance and — hopefully — some solutions. Meanwhile, life flows on within you and without you, as George Harrison once said — now there’s a seamless segue for you. Let us discuss the late, venerable Hari’s kick-ass combo: specifically, I shall examine two of the 24 astonishing and varied songs that comprise The Beatles’ output in 1967. Anno Domini ‘67 exerts a constant, powerful fascination for historians of pop culture and the mystique that surrounds it seems to have been recognised even as the year unfolded. For The Beatles, the year started on a promising high, with the release in mid-February of their latest single, the double A-side Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.

Principally John Lennon’s composition, virtually no detail of Strawberry Fields Forever’s intricacies has been left unchronicled — it is easily the most deconstructed piece of music recorded by the Fab Four up to this date. It’s worth reiterating the highlights: the slightly woozy flute setting on the Mellotron breathing out the intro, Lennon’s dry, slightly slowed-down vocal drifting icily over Ringo Starr’s curt, snappy drum fills, the letters J and L tapped out in Morse code and the oddly folksy guitar picking — and all this in the first 20 seconds. One minute in and we hit the most audacious and astonishing piece of editing in the history of recorded music: the song descends from pleasingly hazy acid-folk pastures into a darker, harder and more threatening sonic landscape. Brass blares in brief bursts, echoing the Morse-tapping of earlier, double bass spreads ominously, like the shadow cast by oncoming storm clouds and Starr’s drumming becomes denser with intent: a busy, syncopated rhythm engine rumble underpinning the song. Faced with two separate recordings of the song and Lennon’s keen request that they be joined somehow, producer George Martin managed to bring the two ostensibly different halves together thanks to a serendipitous discovery: that the pitch and tempo disparity could be reconciled by varispeeding the recordings — one faster and the other slower — until they effectively met in the middle. If George Martin hadn’t already impressed Lennon with his mastery of production and fertile, practical inventiveness, then this single day’s work alone clinched it and gave Martin a highly polished anecdote to dine out on into the bargain — and quite rightly so.

Elsewhere in the song, classy, effective tricks abound. The extensive use of backward-recorded cymbal has since become a virtual psychedelic trademark, but its all-enveloping, whoosh-suck quality remains beguiling, alien, unsettling. The false ending fades out and back in again with sly humour and still retains the ability to wrong-foot the unsuspecting listener. Hidden within the dying embers of the song’s groove can be discerned Lennon playing silly buggers, amusing himself with half-heard voices. One detail, the now-famous words ‘cranberry sauce’, rendered with crisp diction but layered under studio slap and played in a million households on  substandard turntables, soon became widely misinterpreted as ‘I buried Paul’ with a speed that is incredible for a pre-internet age. Unfortunately, this harmless fun would retroactively fuel the flames of sinister rumours in 1968 that Paul McCartney had died in a car crash months earlier, having never even seen in ’67. We shall have to return to this in a later article.

Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane share their titles with locations in Liverpool that had vivid childhood significance for Lennon & McCartney — but whereas Lennon’s song created a gauzy, uncertain-yet-epic evocation of childhood, Paul McCartney, as principal writer of Penny Lane, imbues his creation with breezy, brisk confidence. McCartney’s clear ear for melody and  facility for composition also ensures that the recording relies less on studio artifice and more on a deceptively simple band arrangement of drums, guitar, bass, piano, plus a small group of chamber instruments scored with warmth, emotion and a pinch of music hall drama by George Martin.

In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of ev’ry head he’s had the pleasure to know…

From the off, McCartney’s bright, chatty delivery of the lyrics outlines a cast of characters with the matter-of-fact liveliness of easy conversation. But there’s a musical spectre in the crowd.

…and all the people that come and go…

It all goes a little dark in the second line of the song as the melody dips into a descending minor key for several bars — the musical equivalent of a worried narrowing of the eyes — before emerging to major for a smiling final line to each verse.

…stop and say hello.

How strange the change, as they say, from major to minor — a tonal pivot of happy/sad encoded in the music that is matched equally, perfectly, in the lyric. Ian MacDonald, in his superb book Revolution In The Head: The Beatles’ Records And The Sixties, neatly outlines some of the wonderful ‘kaleidoscopic‘ contradictions in the lyrics — describing as they do a scene which is both raining and sunny, summer and winter. Again, George Martin brings considerable taste and expressive genius to bear on his score and seals the deal with a beautifully eloquent series of counter melodies, lyrical punctuation and the greatest trumpet solo ever heard in pop music. The final coup-de-grace administered is a leap in key change for one more refrain and a joyous, sudden psychedelic question mark of an ending; blurring, hazing and fuzzing away.

Another marvellous thing about both songs is how little either one is couched in conventional rock syntax. Neither piece is guitar-driven, relying more on piano, keyboards and chamber instruments.  Neither are they wrought from any obvious, potentially predictable Blues-inspired structuring, as so much that had gone before. What you bought on that day in February 1967 was a pair of songs so cohesive and uniformly brilliant that they simply had to be made a double-A side release. This could be interpreted as a way of mollifying two immense, but fragile egos each insisting their song is the leading track, but I prefer to imagine, given the quality of these songs, that a genuine decision of superiority could not — should not — be reached. From an era when B-sides were starting to become more than filler, this double A-side arguably represents the most solid individual example of the complimentary, complementary compositional collusion of McCartney and Lennon — a veritable embarrassment of riches piled onto two sides and seven inches of vinyl. Dark-yet-light, esoteric-yet-accessible, totally full-on psychedelia as weird and obscure as anything found at the time, yet paradoxically performed by the most popular band in the world. And we’re only into February. As we shall see, this is going to become the way of things across the year.

Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane was kept off the Number One slot in the UK singles charts by Englebert Humperdinck’s Release Me — in Beatle terms, a stunning body blow for a group that had grown accustomed to instant peak success. It goes to show if nothing else that the record buying public’s propensity for sentimental crap and mindless pap in vast quantities is not a new phenomenon. Like I said, there are many things great and small that we can learn from history.


Currently watching:
Blake’s 7: series 3 (BBC, 1980)
Man About The House: series 1 and 2 (Thames, 1973-74)
The Hour (BBC, 2011)

Currently listening:
The Medieval Sound (David Munrow, 1969) 

Monday, 15 August 2011

The sinister Summer of Love.

I was going to write an article on The Beatles collected output in 1967 and the curious darkness that I think runs, like a sluggish underground river throughout it, using the title above. Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Maybe even a bit sexy? Certainly sibilant at any rate. I will do so very soon, but sadly, I feel obliged to myself and to you, dear reader, to pass some comment on recent events first. Who am I to waste your valuable time and countless kilobytes of webspace if I only spoke about music, films, drinking and whimsical personal pomposity, while blithely ignoring the world existing and unfolding around me? Unimaginative at best; callous at worst, maybe. 

I find the title of this article still woefully apposite. Wherever you may be reading this in the world, I’m sure you greeted the news about the wildfire rioting and resulting devastation across England in the past few days with despair and a degree of depression. I was very tempted, believe me, to sit down and type out a rabid piece of vitriolic invective aimed at…

Ah, but there’s my problem: who to aim at? The rioters themselves? The parents? The Government? The Big Society?

That anyone could ever think that their own hardship, lack of encouragement and sense of disenfranchisement would be best addressed by smashing up other people’s properties, homes and livelihoods is so self-defeating as to obviate further debate. Furthermore, any belief that going on such rampages might cause other people to sit up, pay attention and consider their plight with a sympathetic disposition, quite frankly, beggars mine.

As for the parents: well, when were they ever not to blame? Many parents have indeed been instrumental in fucking up their kids, having been fucked up in their time, but Philip Larkin’s famous, succinctly profane pertinence on the matter of one’s upbringing overshadow the poem’s final lines, which are curiously more accurate in their generality: Man hands on misery to man; it deepens like a coastal shelf. I’m sure a good child psychologist could explain to me in words of one syllable exactly how formative the first five years in a child’s existence can be, but surely it’s more accurate to determine one’s reality from what was done about it in the last five years, five hours or even five minutes? I could go further and quote Aristotle or even Qui-Gon Jinn on the subject, but really, there’s no need.

That the Government are venal, transparently inept, socially disconnected and internally divided to such unproductive measure that they may drive people to destruction as well as distraction is blatantly obvious and grossly understated. That they got in because the previous lot were identically and openly as ineffectual and corrupt also needs no more explanation — MPs handing on misery to MPs.

As for Society, ‘Big’ or otherwise, well it’s a constant, eternal mystery to me and unlikely to be solved in my lifetime. Society ebbs and flows and creates fearful, momentary eddies in its passage. Frank Zappa spoke of ‘The Great Society’ in disdainful terms on his first album back in 1966, referring to the unwanted war waged on foreign shores and the lack of education for ‘the minds that won’t be reached’, ‘those left behind’. My my, how things have changed, eh? It’s evident David Cameron isn’t a fan of Frank. He probably thinks Zappa is some kind of taser.

It is both an unfortunate byproduct and the beauty of humanity that people have a genetic predisposition to make things complicated in all manner of ways. The ‘interesting times’ of that alleged Chinese curse is the compromise we tread on and trade off every day. People are complicated the world over — never let anyone tell you otherwise. They always have agendas, for good or ill and none of us can read minds. We often crave simplicity in life, but that isn’t the same thing as being simple oneself. Me, I would simply like everything to be nice in the world and I wish for no-one to be marginalised, subjugated or discriminated in the process of making it so. I hope no one has to feel that way on my watch. All I ask is that everyone is the best they can be — as I’m sure you do too.

Anyway, that’s me herding the principal scapegoats onto the field — now I’m going to weigh in with my controversial opinion. It’s one that I haven’t heard many people on the news or in the papers come out and forth with. I’ve weighed the sides as best I can and come to a dynamic, reasoned conclusion that I Really Don’t Know — or if you prefer a more intellectual response, I shall be that wise man who keeps his own counsel until I have fathomed the myriad conventions and contradictions of the species. How can I offer a specific opinion on the matter if I find I cannot apportion blame equally as precisely? Nor should I. I’d be foolish to try. 

What I do know is that none of us appear to be sufficiently close students of History. I’ve have read enough bullshit in the last few days, conjured up by people with all the authority of someone imparting fatuous facts they learned on Wikipedia in the last thirty seconds. I have neither the time, patience nor articulacy to outline specific historical precedents for our current behaviour on the planet but one thing, the most ire-inducing of all things I heard, was the suggestion that social networking media, Blackberrys and the like act as some kind of super-misconduct-conductor, marshalling the berserker hordes from one location to another with crack precision and law-defying speed. Well, hogwash to that. The largest scaled, most well-orchestrated riots in history date largely from a time before Tim Berners-Lee — or even Alexander Graham Bell. It is the supereminent feature of the human condition to communicate and associate, whether it be organising a Parish Jumble Sale or municipal mass mayhem. We’ll be blaming horses for Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt next. Well, they help you get around, horses, don’t they?

In my experience, stupidity can be a choice. At my Secondary School, you spoke with a London accent or you were ridiculed for being ‘clever’, for maintaining the Home Counties diction I had learned up till then. I watched and listened in despair as my colleagues rapidly mounted a painfully obvious, conscious campaign to drop their tees and aitches, the better to ‘fit in’. It is a sad thing how anyone could find one’s intelligence a quality to be feared or suppressed. It was and remains puzzling that no-one ever reversed the trend and aspire to hang out with the so-called brainy people. Even if you view yourself as stupid, don’t the clever-clogses have something you can use by association? As for the smart ones, well, you try being deliberately stupid for any time and see where it gets you — on Big Brother, maybe, but the odds make it rather unlikely. As I’ve mentioned before on several occasions, I left my Secondary School with no A-Levels — it took me a year in a miserable job to realise that my life would improve considerably with further education — and I retook them a year later. Like I said, stupidity can be a choice.

Right this minute, literally as these words sally forth rapidly from behind the cursor, I find I have become annoyed. Annoyed at how angry things like this make me feel. Angry that I am compelled to make comment on it at all. Hatred, selfishness, prejudice, conflict, destruction, fear, murder: this is not my world. I have not come here to sermonise — certainly not on any subjects of pressing importance at any rate. My grasp of world events, politics and the internecine machinations of government — any government — is tenuous at the best of times. My political views tend to be rather half-formed, but I hope I am wise enough not to burden you with them. Be assured they are neither controversial, nor particularly offensive. This blog exists primarily to entertain and on this score I apologise, for this week, I am clearly letting you all down. I’ll be back soon with something fun for you to read, but for now, I’ll stop here. It’s all become so very boring.

Wherever you are, I hope you are safe, well and are being good to people around you. I shall do my best too.

But first, a drink.


Currently watching:
Blake's 7 series 2 and 3 (BBC, 1979-80)
The Hour (BBC, 2011)

Currently listening:
Mostly my own album, work in progress.

Currently reading:
Lots of things that are annoying me!

Monday, 8 August 2011

That Difficult Third Side.

Sadly, it seems more than ever that Famine, War, Pestilence and Death gallop across our world without sparing their horses. Come to think of it, the demarcation of the Apocalypse itself is rather unfairly weighted, considering how Famine, War and Pestilence all must have their distinct and individual work given a swift once-over by Death on every occasion — who in signing off, cops all the glory. A terrible micromanager is the Grim Reaper. Those boys should have taken a tip from the Three Fates: Clotho spins the yarn of human life, Lachesis draws it out to length and Atropos cuts it off. Does it really take three Fates, I wonder? I can see that job done by two people — at most. That Lachesis must have really good Union connections. Talk about middle management. OK, let’s not.

The world is going crazy, but some of it is in a good way. We live in the most interesting times right now — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We genuflect in temples to Mammon, knee-deep in recession with rising debts. Nations wage war unto nation, cultures and convictions for good or ill. Random people increasingly go crazy and have neither the imagination nor the decency to keep it to themselves and not kill other people into the bargain. We watch daily as our governments, law enforcers and media moguls ascend in Logan’s Run style, careering crazily on a coruscating carousel of corruption like so many faeces flurrying up towards the cosmic fan. It’s all we can do to draw our heads in and not get hit by the shit-shrapnel — and yet the thing uppermost in my mind, the problem that dominates my waking hours and a majority of my sleeping ones…is completing that difficult Third Side of My Double Album. Really, it’s virtually all-consuming. I’m only writing these articles as a way of having some downtime from the blasted thing. No need to explain the irony here, believe me.

To be fair, I feel justified in allowing such feverish mental activity to take me over, as cresting the hill of Side Three means the home stretch is in sight — and if you consider that I am in the process of completing the kind of album I’ve dreamed of making since 1979 or thereabouts, when I first started composing, you may have an inkling of my excitement. Oh, I’ve recorded hours of music previously, and some of it I have deemed worthy enough to compile into several fixed collections of songs you could call albums — I certainly have — but this one I intend to sell online. Yes, for cash. It’s really good, if I say so myself — but never mind that just now. Those sensitive to the finer points of presentation in pop music culture of the past 50 years or so would have instantly detected this week’s theme, like a warning shot across the bows of my fervent scribble earlier. Yeah, you read me right first time: I said Double Album.

The list of double albums in pop music history is visibly finite, sufficiently short for someone to compile a neat little book on the better-known ones and elicit some heated discussion in the process. That’s the instant thing about double albums — they divide opinion. For some, many musical crimes have been perpetrated repeatedly across the vast vinyl wasteland that four whole sides can afford the prolific, but overweening, musician. For others, the double album has been the apogee of creative achievement, a monument to artistic fecundity and a desire to take the listener — forgive the cliché — on an epic musical journey.

The history of the beast itself is shrouded in some ambiguity, with numerous claimants for the distinction of first issue. That Benny Goodman’s Live At Carnegie Hall was released in 1950 as a double vinyl set makes perfect sense, being in effect a near-complete record of an entire live performance. In the studio, however, it’s another matter. It’s open to debate who exactly hit upon the idea first to conceive and produce a double album in of itself. The first studio-recorded double album ever released seems to be Bob Dylan’s impressive 1966 Blonde On Blonde, but its primacy of provenance is uncertain; an obscure composer called Frank Zappa had spent several concurrent months in the creation of The Mothers Of Invention’s debut album Freak Out! — which then emerged mere weeks after Dylan’s album and caused a considerable stir for more than just the number of sides. In any case, it’s obvious now that whatever else was wafting in the air in 1966 sought to expand your attention span, your patience threshold and your record collection as much as your mind.

Soon after these seminal recordings came what is arguably the double album archetype: The Beatles’ White Album (official title: The Beatles), released in 1968. I would certainly consider it to be the pop paradigm of the genre: it’s probably the most-discussed double album ever and presents to the listener the pleasures and pitfalls of such an undertaking as well as any. Producer George Martin has gone on record — on numerous occasions — stating that he would have preferred the Fab Four in this instance to hive their work down to one “really super little album” consisting of the strongest songs. McCartney’s opinion is that the chocolate-box diversity of the album is its greatest strength. Well, we all know who was given his head on the matter. Elsewhere, Lennon and Harrison voiced their enthusiasm for the variation of music available there, on their most epic release, although Starr has some reservations about having “a lot of information on a double album”. There is a certain visual irony about an album with the most minimalistic cover ever containing some of the most fascinating and all-encompassing music of the Sixties, let alone The Beatles. Apart from the number stamped on early copies, even the sole words on the cover (The BEATLES) are embossed, not printed. It’s as if only the play of light and shadow is permitted to sully the blank and expansive icy waste that contains and conceals music that is anything but Arctic. What is it Our Kid Paul says on The Beatles Anthology documentary? “It’s the bloody Beatles White Album — shut up!” I’m inclined to agree.

Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti of 1975 was something of a Chimera, being cooked up from a combination of earlier album outtakes and new material — and yet it works, not least because Zeppelin’s quality control in the studio was generally sure and sound; even the songs rejected from previous LPs had enough of the Zep magick to sit alongside their newly recorded brethren. It also contains some of the longest and strongest songs of Zeppelin’s ten year flight, making double the usual vinyl requirement seem like a logical, sensible expedient rather than tumescent decadence. It’s noteworthy that 1975 probably marked the high watershed — or the lowest point, depending on where you stand on the twinned subjects of groupies and drugs — for Messrs Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones on the road; how Physical Graffiti’s considerable taste and variety fail to reflect that excess is a small miracle.

Other bands have not enjoyed such unilateral approval within their ranks concerning their output. Rick Wakeman once said — only very slightly harshly — that Yes’ 1973 four-sider Tales From Topographic Oceans was “three sides too long. I used my copy as an ashtray…and I don’t even smoke.” Furthermore, the extended, keyboard-less longeurs within these sidelong pieces gave Wakeman precious little to do onstage during the subsequent tour. Legend has it that he even found enough time on his devilishly idle hands to phone for a curry during one interminable gig — and eat it with pointed disgruntlement behind his considerable bank of organs and synths. In any event, Rick Wakeman left the band not long after, felled by an album so ponderous, so pretentious that he, one of Progressive Rock’s most formidable proponents, capitulated under its weight. Weird, actually: as an absolute and entirely reflective product of its time it should have worked, it really should.

By 1977 Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s best days were behind them: those giddy, abundant days of the early Seventies, when the album held sway over the single as a more credible artefact of any hip rock group, when songs could take up a whole side of an album and lyrical subject matter took in everything from the Middle Ages to dystopian, far-flung futures, via the Wild West; anything, it seemed, except the present day. Prog Rock’s stock had dwindled by 1977, that most seismic and schismatic of years for popular music. ELP’s position in their chosen firmament had itself diminished; they had not released a studio album of new material for nearly four years. Then Works Volume 1 came out. The band name and album title were set in a sober font on a classy, minimal black sleeve with the band’s logo — designed back in wilder, exciting times by no less than HR Giger — embossed, White Album style, into the sombre darkness of the cover. Unfortunately, the sleeve deceives: inside, we get three sides, one by Emerson, Lake and Palmer each apiece, plus a side by ELP, the band. Superfluity disguised as diplomacy: the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could learn a thing or two about demarcation from these chaps if nothing else.

Coming in a definite third, Greg Lake serves up what by now would have been his expected fare: sensitive, acoustic guitar-based ballads, similar to the ones that had contrasted with and leavened the older ELP LPs — although sadly not as good. Emerson went the whole hog and presented the world with his Piano Concerto No.1 (I love the ‘No.1’ in the title — like the Volume 1 suffix of the album, it carries a degree of ominous portent, the implied threat that there’s gonna be more coming) — which I am pleased to report is tuneful and concise, indulging Emerson’s obvious love for American, Copland-style string arrangements and Hollywood film scores. It’s more than competent and certainly entertaining — but I wonder how the average ELP fan of the time dug it — or would have done so had it been issued separately. Carl Palmer provides the surprise element of — whisper it quietly — fun, with a varied bunch of believably rocked-up classical interpretations and some genuinely delightful bits of big band instrumental funk. The final side of the album is the band: two epic songs that spread across the length in perfectly enjoyable — and entirely typical — fashion. The funny thing is, it’s not a bad album, musically speaking, taken on the individual merits of its subdivisions, but we’ve definitely moved from the pungent, rich, meandering madness of Yes and instead have descended further — it’s possible — to an even worse kind of double album: one whose length is determined by the need to satisfy each band members’ egos individually and collectively. It was a move screamingly symptomatic of a decaying working relationship. So it proved. ELP released a second Works Volume 2 later in ’77, as threatened, consisting of obvious barrel scraping B-sides and evidently substandard studio tinkering. That the egregious Love Beach album of 1978, their final studio effort for 15 years, should feature a cover that depicts our heroes dressed like the Bee Gees says all that you need to know about the parlous state of Progressive Rock by the late Seventies — and that one wasn’t even a double album.

Of course, even the best of these albums, by dint of their length, must contain some flab, a bit of sag in the middle or even an outstanding clunker or two. While I love Pink Floyd’s The Wall, I tend to side with Dave Gilmour when he said it could have done with less of that stuff about Roger Waters’ obsession with World War II, Vera Lynn and Bringing The Boys Back Home — and Dave bloody played on it. On All Things Must Pass, George Harrison went one better, managing to take a good double album and make it worse by adding an unnecessary third disc of alternate versions and jam sessions that must have been fun for the participants, possibly amusing for the listener once, but eventually not at all. The overlong jam sessions and funky Sixties space-age electronic freak-outs on Electric Ladyland serve to demonstrate what a stunning album it could have been had George Martin brought the editorial authority to The Jimi Hendrix Experience that he wished to bear on The Beatles. Don’t get me started on Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion — I have spent more time than is necessary working out a superior single disc version of those. Genesis’ 1974 double The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway succeeds because Peter Gabriel has finally learned to curb his desire to slather vocals on any spare bit of instrumental music he can find — just don’t spend too long reading the lyrics; they hurt after a while.

Herein lies the rub, the thing that has distracted me so much of late. It’s not just a question of making sure all the songs are good. After all, a Black Forest Gâteau all to oneself, as wondrous as it could be, swiftly becomes a bloated, immoderate and unnecessary thing. It’s not enough for the songs themselves to have variety and dynamic range — juxtaposition is paramount. In other words, one could create a procession of brilliant songs that would nevertheless demonstrate a reductive quality when listened to in one relentless whole — the wrong whole. So if you’re going to have a double album at all, could it possibly be — gulp — a good idea to have some substandard songs thrown in there, just to add to the flavour? Is that really how it works? Is ‘Vera’ really an integral brick in The Wall? Is your White Album experience incomplete without ‘Wild Honey Pie’?

Of course, all of this is magnificently irrelevant in a world where a CD can often carry as much information as four album sides, or where one can download individual tracks willy-nilly off epic albums, to enjoy in isolation from their parental home — but we can still find room for these disciplines of time and running order occasionally, surely? I rather like expressing things in vinyl terms; as a length goes, I think the 45 minutes or so of a single album, 23 mins a side here and there, is an elegant sufficiency. Whether the old technology has dictated this threshold for my attentiveness isn’t too relevant — I think it’s as good a place to start as any where quantity is concerned and no medium of more recent origin has supplanted this for me.

As for my own album, you may bridle all you like at my expansive folly. I make no apologies for a shameful, almost slavish adherence to the more excessive aspects of the Seventies rock music I so adore and you can sling all the rotten tomatoes you like in my direction. Such a shame that as a double album, it’s more than likely going to end up merely spread across two CDs or scattered about as so many MP3s. The world is going crazy, but some of it is not in a good way.


Currently listening:
I A Moon (North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2011)

Currently watching:
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles season two (20th Century Fox, 2009)
Blake’s 7: first series (BBC, 1978)