Saturday, 29 December 2012

Ivor Novello’s piano — a slim tale from the Green Room.

In the summer of 1997 I landed a job running the Classical Record department of my local Virgin Megastore. Whisper it quietly, but according to my line manager I was the first person in the history of that now sadly defunct chain to be hired specifically for my Classical music knowledge. Previous incumbents in the Classical Departments of Virgin stores nationwide presumably landed the job as a short straw duty option, or only made their knowledge of Classical music manifest after working in other departments — but I really don’t know. I still find it rather hard to believe, but anyway, that is what I was told.  The following eighteen months saw me increase sales of Classical music in the local area by an alleged 25% but much more importantly, forge some lasting friendships. A full account of our rousing antics is worth an entire blog entry all to itself. But not today, as the late, great Bob Holness would no doubt have said.

All of this is largely irrelevant detail but I include it because when I was eventually sacked from my position in the spring of 1999 (Yes, sacked. Yes, yes, another time, I promise), I spent the following months in abject freefall. I never knew I had a work ethic until the framework upon which to apply one was suddenly taken from me. My parents greeted the news of my sudden ‘career’ halt entirely not as I’d anticipated, meeting it less with anger or argument, but mostly with a sense of puzzlement and denial. Then again, they were both of over pensionable age and had probably not expected their youngest son to be of any more trouble to them. They could have done without my woes.

My girlfriend of six years had left me several months earlier, although as often with these things, the relationship had, retrospectively, wound down to a grind rather than reach a decisive crunch point. At this stage in proceedings I still felt I could keep in touch. I remember her precise words to me, over my friend Rich’s brand-new mobile phone that he’d kindly lent me for the purpose: “You lost your job? What’s that got to do with me?” To be fair to her, she could also have done without my woes for some time, too. 

I can’t quite describe the stomach-dropping and deeply depressing sensation that followed me around like a pestilential storm cloud for the following five months. Depression is a far-too-casually bandied-about word in conversation and I am wary of using the term on myself. During this period, I sought help from my doctor who told me that I wasn’t ‘painting a picture’ of clinical depression. I believed him, but it was of small comfort. Besides, the depth of my despair had started to run to the pathological, as over the course of the coming months, I visibly lost weight; a considerable amount of weight — about four to five stone — which on a chap my height was severely noticeable and a source of concern among my long-term friends who had known me as an amiably rotund person at the best of times. I don’t recall deliberately not eating, as such, but then again, nor do I remember eating all that often either. No, my days were spent skulking sulkily about the family home, smoking the ever-appetite-suppressing cigarettes and the odd joint in my bedroom, only venturing out to draw my dole, buy more ciggies and make occasional forays to the pub, where my friend Rich would buy me scotch and cokes and try to keep me laughing. He was particularly worried for me. One time I borrowed a three-quarter-length jacket from him and I remember the evident shock on his face as I buttoned it up as neatly as he could do on his own, notably slender frame. 

As my waking hours had become miserable, so my sleeping ones, perhaps through a slightly stoned, subconscious instinct for self-preservation, became wondrous. Sleep became my favourite activity — easily achieved, and oddly, of as high a quality and duration as any I’ve ever enjoyed in my life. Indeed, waking every morning brought the grudging realisation that my perceived nightmare was facing reality. I never quite wanted to die — but I remember reasoning to myself, with baleful calmness, that nor did I particularly enjoy being alive. 

Now of course, you must not trouble yourself with thoughts of compassion, or at least not for too long. In truth I was idle and wasteful with the hours to myself I had suddenly acquired and my job-seeking lacked, shall we say, not as much rigor or consistency as my smoking and drinking at the time. Nonetheless, the summer of 1999 saw me sorely vexed, rattled to my very foundations as events in my life thus far had failed to do quite so perniciously. I was unemployed and worse, I felt unemployable. In the weeks to come I started to have panic attacks, episodes of shooting pains across my chest and down my arms, breathlessness — indeed everything, it seemed to me, symptomatic of incipient heart failure. I ended up in hospital after one specially harrowing sensation alone at home. A trip in the ambulance to Casualty, while getting high on pure oxygen, culminated in having my disturbingly scrawny chest wired up to the ECG and subsequently X-rayed. The doctor gave me a gentle smile, a flimsy copy of the image of my immaculate-looking ribcage, a bottle of glycerin tablets and the rather un-medical (I thought) advice to “just calm down.” I was left sat alone on the gurney in the X-ray suite, semi-naked and sobbing profoundly with a mixture of relief, and extreme guilt at all the kind, serious attention I had clearly wanted — and got. I never opened the glycerin bottle. I learned to recognise my (admittedly real-feeling) symptoms as mere panic, nothing more. The hospital could also have done without my woes, that was for sure. 

Fortunately, I had two friends in particular who spent the next several months ‘looking after’ me. I use this term quite precisely as there were times when I was of the distinct impression that I had been placed under some kind of low-level ‘suicide watch,’ and who’s to say my self-destructive behaviour didn’t suggest otherwise, outwardly, even if I really didn’t feel quite so fatal, so final, myself. The redoubtable Rich you already know. The other was my ex-Virgin colleague Sarah, who had been so outraged by my sacking that she sent me a card expressing her sorrow and anger — and offered to buy me some drinks. Sarah wore her hatred for her job like a big, bright badge with a snarling face on it, but outside of work hours or in briefly snatched staff room conversations she was convivial, witty, and of similar outlook. She lived in a house in South London that she shared with several people, nearly all of whom I can’t recall with much clarity, save for Sara (don’t get confused), who was a delightful — and delightfully shapely — Northern lass who dispensed cheerful informalities along with an endless supply of cigarettes from one of those self-rolling devices. Sara was great fun just to talk and drink with: chatty, sympathetic, complimentary, unflappable, with an endless line in salty stories, filthy jokes and encouragement. She was probably about only half-a-dozen or so years older than me, a woman in her mid-thirties but she seemed untouchable and magnificent to me, which is a real shame now, looking back. 

Sara worked in London theatres, although I’m afraid I don’t remember the precise details. I think she was someone in Stage Management, but her work ran all the way from basic admin to dealing with the ‘talent’ and even painting the odd background flat. She knew of plenty of short-term work going, so it was that in the June/July of 1999 I found myself helping out backstage at the Peacock Theatre in Holborn. It was part of the Sadlers Wells group and so I felt I was in the environs of a genuine theatrical institution, even if the Peacock was nowhere near as famous as its parent venue. 

My job involved repainting the dressing room and there seemed to be endless cups of tea on the go at any given moment. So far, so straightforward. Sadly, my previously dormant asthma, coupled with my receding, but still ongoing panic attacks, rendered me useless at the job within an hour or two of arrival. Sara was briskly attentive, spiriting me out of the building and down Holborn way to get me something a little stronger along with a ciggie (yeah, like that’ll soothe the chest pains...) and a sit down. I was subsequently given some other tasks involving handling the lights onstage for the rest of my stint, which also afforded me the opportunity when quiet to stand up front, gaze out at the vast expanse of seating in the auditorium, imagine a full house and ‘have a moment’...

Thanks to Sara, the Peacock Theatre provided me with gainful part-time employment for several weeks, enough to stand a round or two for the pair of us in the pub after work. It was a splendidly sunny and warm summer, the kind worth staying out in, until late. One evening, after several drinks in Theatreland and with the pubs close to chucking-out time, Sara suggested we continue the frolics to a members club she knew. Sounded good to me. 

Good Lord, The Green Room. I didn’t know it then, but of course I’ve since learned of its preeminent status as one of the most prestigious clubs for anyone in the theatrical profession in London, with a highly illustrious roll-call of members over the decades, both renowned onstage and backstage (for all the right reasons). It has since closed (and reopened) several times in several places since I entered the door of the Georgian town house of its most famous location, on Adam Street, off the Strand and ventured into the basement with Sara. At the time, I merely thought it was somewhere open into the wee small hours and that was fine enough with me.

The small bar room was famously described by Sir Peter Ustinov as a place where giving an after-dinner speech to a capacity crowd was “like addressing sailors in a submarine,” but was empty enough at 1.30am on a weeknight as we found it. Here and there were several expensively dressed individuals, sat at small round tables as if waiting for a cabaret act, clearly soaked to the eyeballs and enjoying the calm tolerant atmosphere in which to be so. Sara knew the barman and as they chatted she introduced me as someone who was musical and could play a bit of the piano. I found this odd as I don’t think Sara had ever seen me address the ivories. I should point out, if I’ve not done so in a previous blog, that my piano playing technique is dubious, more of a fight between me and the keys, and one I only occasionally win. Nonetheless, the barman was a genial and accommodating chap and offered me a free pint of Guinness if I were to give the assembled patrons a tune. I sipped my current, paid-for pint of the Black Stuff and said, “Maybe later!” He added, as if by way of incentive, that the piano belonged to Ivor Novello, the legendary actor, singer and composer — and the invitation was not bandied about willy-nilly. I brightly promised to knock out a ditty for them all before I left, thinking the incident would be forgotten and I’d be able to drink in peace. 

However, after a pint of two more of the Sauce, and with the conversation flowing, I felt magically encouraged and emboldened, until eventually I indicated to our host that I was ready to have a bash. I was hustled over to the piano, which was a marvellously battered old upright on a dais. After a short announcement to the rare few in the room at such a long hour, the bartender let me have it. I announced apologetically that my repertoire was slender and unconventional and that the best thing I had on me was a rather frantic and tricksily percussive piece I had composed myself. This won me some polite, smattered applause. 

I then forget the next three minutes. Entirely. The only part I remember was some slightly more enthusiastic applause at the end and a pint of Guinness appearing magically beside me. I’d done all right. As I returned to the table and Sara, one of the elderly, floridly-sozzled chaps sat adjacently continued to applaud a little longer, but I noticed that his was the sarcastic, slow handclap of derision, of disapproval. He continued until his rheumy eye caught mine. He smiled joylessly. 

“You play like Béla Bartók,” he offered.

A stunning, disproportionate comparison. I suspect I gasped. “Why, thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so!”

“I loathe Bartók.” he concluded with coddled conviction, continuing to smile thinly.

“I’m sorry,” I said, all too delighted, “but that’s a compliment. I’m having that!”

Never was I insulted so fulsomely!

Due to an administrative cock-up at the Peacock, I didn’t get paid for the majority of my employment there for a couple of months afterwards, by which time I had secured a decent full-time job and glad to do so. The money I earned was barely more than my dole, but acquired more agreeably. In the middle of all the craziness I experienced in the summer of 1999, I never expected that I would ever end up in The Green Room, playing Ivor Novello’s piano, for beer — and it was in tune. 

Sara — if you ever happen to read this, thank you ever so much, you were awesome. 

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and I wish you happiness in the New Year. 


Currently listening:
Lots of medieval and Renaissance Christmas music — too many to mention individually. 

Currently watching:
The eight Harry Potter films. The winsome, racy and charming magic of the early years gives way to something grittier, greyer and possibly taking itself far too seriously. But that’s enough about me, the films are pretty good.

Red Dwarf X (Dave, 2012) resurrected series, back by popular demand and almost back to basics too, with less emphasis on effects-driven high concepts and more of the snippy dialogue and hilariously embarrassing situations that endeared it to millions originally. It’s like they never left. Not the dizziest heights of Dwarf yore, perhaps, but still excellent post-pub viewing.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Retcon artists.

When I first created this blog, like many people undertaking this sort of caper, my primary desire was simply to entertain, write regularly and enthusiastically on things in my life that I enjoy and things I hate — essentially, the spectrum of my ongoing involvement with Planet Earth, its denizens and what we share therein. It still is my raison d’écrire, and I can’t think of any worthier raisons.

Those who know me would also believe that a detailed Star Wars article would inevitably rear its multiple heads. However, I never thought that my first article on the subject would consist of an exposé on the provenance of a single, specific sound effect heard in one of the films (my last article) — I mean, that’s pretty nerdy. Nor did I think I’d follow it so hot-footedly with this one — which is going to be a bit of a moan about the franchise. I thought I’d at least start by writing something a trifle breathless on why I like it all so much — but I guess criticism is a more prolific mother of literary invention than mere praise. How negative of me.

I’ve never quite got to the bottom of my precise fascination with George Lucas’ epic space-fantasy, although the simplest explanation is that, like most chaps of my generation, it gave me lots of exciting Boy’s Stuff to look at and listen to at the exact age I needed it most, and as such its effect on me was formative. That’ll do for now. Unlike Doctor Who, the other great piece of ‘genre’ I love, Star Wars has already achieved a global appeal that has made the characters of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, R2-D2 et al into iconic images and individuals, introductions unnecessary, familiar to people who may not have seen the films for decades — if even at all. However, there are conditions, limits to my love for Star Wars and these are subtle and far-ranging, but I can pin most of them down to a single, sweeping statement: I dislike other Star Wars fans.

Now, before I go any further, I want to clear something up. Contrary to popular belief, I generally detest getting into detailed discussion of Star Wars. Writing about it, fine — because here I can quantify, evaluate and crystallise my thoughts on the matter without getting into a tiresome exchange. A Star Wars conversation with another fan only really ever goes one way: how well do you know Star Wars? How boring. There’s a terrier-like tenacity about their need, on learning you are also a fan, to blether on about the films, to offer up their knowledge of all aspects of the toys, the endless spin-off novelisations and the smallest snippet of news on the on-off TV series — as high marks of social distinction. As a reasonably intelligent and hopefully sophisticated individual, whose tastes can run from subtle all the way to gross, I would dearly wish not to be defined solely as ‘the Star Wars guy.’ To that end, I prefer not to bring up the films in casual conversation until I’m asked directly. Really — ask yourself the last time I mentioned them unsolicited. There are many more inclusive conversational gambits.

I can say with confidence that my interest in Star Wars runs to slightly more than casual. My degree thesis contained a great deal of recourse to the original trilogy of films, though it’s not something I’m particularly proud of — especially when you consider the fact that my dissertation claimed me the lowest mark of all work I undertook for my BA. Trust me, I can sing the first three Star Wars films like they’re opera but I have no desire to impress you by proving this. I know it isn’t impressive. Merely obsessive. And that rhymes, you know. Star Wars is the ne plus ultra of geek topics if you ask me — although for the most part, I’m as glad as you that you don’t. Better to keep the faith inwards, contemplative, loving, tranquil — and on a strictly need-to-know basis. Believe me, a Star Wars convention, rather than being a place to enjoy chewing the filmic fat with other like-minded Lucas freaks, is in actuality quite my idea of hell.

Speaking of conventions, my friend Brother JCC recently attended a Film and Comic convention and related gleefully his chance encounter with an actress guesting at the event: she had played a regular and memorably shapely character in a well-known and widely syndicated sci-fi TV series some years back. Additionally he asked me if I'd heard of a Star Wars actor who also attended. I hadn't, so suitably intrigued by this possible lacuna, I looked him up. It turned out he played an uncredited member of the entourage of the galactic slug-gangster Jabba the Hutt in Return Of The Jedi. 

For those of you who haven’t seen Return Of The Jedi, the final instalment of the Star Wars Saga, I’ll say this much with wagging finger aloft: seriously, if you’ve not seen it, I recommend you do so — it ill behoves anyone intelligent to affect lofty, studied ignorance of a phenomenon that’s impossible to neglect in any reasonable discourse on popular culture. People will just think you square, stubborn and possibly even smelly. The Star Wars Saga — particularly the three released between 1977 and 1983 — contain many stylistic, literary and visual tropes that are essential vocabulary in any conversation about the cinematic arts. Grab an opportunity to add the original trilogy of films to your discursive repertoire. Besides, Return Of The Jedi is, as I believe the Mods used to say in the early Sixties, a right flashkick of a flick, mostly — and it’s not even the best of the Saga.

I have a point to make coming up, don’t worry, but please allow me to digress briefly and precis the first half hour or so of Return Of The Jedi as crisply as I can. It concerns the heroic, wisecracking hotshot pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) — last seen in the previous film in dire peril, frozen in suspended animation and delivered as a macabre prize to the villainous, oleaginous and aforementioned Jabba the Hutt — and the stealthy, measured plan by Solo’s friends to rescue  him. To this end, they infiltrate the gangster’s compound and inveigle their way by any means available into the complacency of his entourage. This done, they unfreeze and retrieve the hapless Han Solo and proceed to unleash hell upon the slimy crime-lord and his cronies at the precise moment our heroes appear to be in greatest danger — being dangled above the doom-laden jaws of a giant monster mouth, no less. They then get the hell outta Dodge sans ado, destroying everyone and everything around them in the process with considerable panache, just to be certain. Jabba the who? We’ll say no more about him. They really do pack in a lot in under thirty-five minutes.

So it transpired that the actor Brother JCC saw was a background extra in the closing minutes of this first act. He had no speaking part and his face and body were hidden under piles of latex, foam rubber and fake hair. Furthermore he has done no other film work of note to date and thus you would pass him in the street and never know. I’m certainly not begrudging this gentleman’s right to be at the convention, nor the pleasure his presence must have given to many people — for there’s no denying his involvement in the film — but I'm willing to bet his character wouldn't be remembered by anyone but for two facts:

a) the majority of his scene was cut from the film, but the stills survived to generate fannish speculation and lend mystique.
b) the action figure made of his character is highly collectable and commands huge sums of money due to it being made in smaller quantities than its counterparts.

Fan fiction and spin-off novelisation has often retroactively imbued such characters with character, furnishing them with a name and an impressive backstory. It’s called retroactive continuity, or ‘retconning‘ — the act of lending some detail or person in a series a degree of significance it never had at the time of production, usually due to subsequent plotlines increasing fan interest in the character or event for some reason.

In the case of Return Of The Jedi, a short story anthology was published several years later called Tales From Jabba’s Palace, and featured the fictional accounts of numerous alien persons seen in the films as background extras. I’ll spare you the need to read this risible publication — all the stories end pretty much the same way: that nondescript green-skinned critter onscreen for five seconds turns out to be some master criminal who absconds with some money/important documents/etc when Jabba’s little enterprise goes bye-bye 35 minutes into Return Of The Jedi. It’s all crap. Every scar has to tell a rousing story. Every character has to have amazing lineage — or grew up witnessing all sorts of key moments in the narrative history, like a veritable army of George Lucas’ very own Zeligs. It all really annoys me. It seems that no-one in the Star Wars universe could ever simply be called Colin and work in a garage or something. No-one is allowed the right to be unremarkable, to be prosaic. Remember that mission: get inside the lair, rescue the good guy, serve the bad guys with a writ of pure whup-ass and get the melonfarming flip out of there. Job done. So did anyone really die in the huge explosion in the closing seconds? It seemed pretty fatal, fiery and final to me — but apparently no — they all live out their deeply interesting and interconnected lives according to Tales From Jabba's Palace. Did Luke's plan fail? Cheapened in fact, just so someone could write up a poor story about that kewl-looking critter in one shot who wibbles about in the middle background? To quote the villain in The Incredibles again: when everyone’s super…no-one will be.

The trouble with all of this, I find, is that while it can be trivial and playful on the surface, it betrays a deeper, sad and somewhat pathetic aspect of the human condition: that some people simply can’t accept sometimes the stark truth that when certain things go, they’re gone. Gone forever. No coming back. When did we start assuming we always have a say in the matter? Sometimes, thats just the way the real world works. It’s tough, it’s harsh, sure, but sometimes…that can also be all right.

Anyway, speaking sidewards, there I was the other day, discussing forthcoming films and such with Mr Hickey — he who writes the marvellous blog Hickey’s House Of Horrors, which you must visit — and he mentioned several proposed TV series, spinning off from well-known feature films. The Bates Motel was one such mooted title — I’m imagining a kind of creepy, sadistic, ultra-violent Fawlty Towers week in, week out — obviously set long before Janet Leigh checked in with a suitcase full of hot cash and a pressing need to freshen up. Also, Mr Hickey spoke of a show concerning the earlier career of FBI Agent Clarice Starling, the plucky and dogged heroine of Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal fame, and still another featuring the younger, saner, less anthropophagous days of Dr Hannibal Lecter himself — working alongside his future nemesis, Will Graham.

I have no doubt all of these ventures will work a reductive spell on the original source material, retconning them into something so much less than the promise it had before it was forced into existence. Again, undisciplined fanboy over-thinking is what causes everything to have a prequel or a sequel now. Whatever happened to ‘happily ever after’ — or better still:  ‘never to be seen again’? 

I quote my friend Mr Hickey again: “It's probably especially true when it comes to horror. Horror is scary because you don’t really know everything. Fear of the unknown is the most potent. So telling us where Freddy [Krueger] bought the knives for his glove and what grade he got in metalwork just diminishes his air of menace.”

Don’t you wish I could have put it that succinctly?


Currently listening:
100% (Ginger Wildheart, 2012)
Everything by the Neil Cowley Trio. 

Currently watching:
The Alien ‘Quadrilogy’ — hideous branding neologism hides an entertaining — albeit variable in quality — collection of films.
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982) — accept no substitute.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Rain and revelations. But mostly rain.

Good day to you.

“Oh, is it? Is it?” I hear you reply wearily — possibly over-theatrically, but with feeling, I get you. Is it, indeed. If you’re reading this in the UK, I feel I can speak for all when I say — albeit with varying degrees of understatement depending on where exactly — that we’ve had quite enough of this summer’s weather. Since my last posting, typed ruefully from a rain-lashed caravan on a wild and windswept stretch of East Anglian coastline during the washed-out Jubilee week, I have seen approximately two days of splendid, sun-blest skies. The Scots have a word to describe depressingly wet, cold, endless and pitiless days: ‘dreich’ — such a pungent, original word, instinctively conveying to me all the dour, sodden meaning of ‘dreary’, ‘drab’ and ‘drench distilled into one crisp, poetic-yet-monosyllabic word — and it even contains ‘reich’ if we’re talking about unrelenting oppression.

Now, far be it from me to revert to that Greatest of British clichés and discuss the inclement climate in further detail (although clearly I’m not above using hoary and hackneyed phrases like ‘far be it from me’, so don’t quote me on that. Oh, look, there’s another one!) but it truly is amazing how far an unrelenting and lengthy bout of dismal, dreich days can go towards wearing away the old humour, as surely as sea water on sandstone. I’m warning you now that I have an article prepared on the Olympics in the dank recesses of my mind to post up in the coming weeks and it’s going to be a bit of a ranter. I’m saving my best nature for brighter days in the autumn at this rate.

Perversely, I have plenty to be happy about right now. I would not consider myself to be unreliable, but there is a certain waywardness to my nature that would preclude absolute, guaranteed consistency in most of my dealings with the world. However, I’ve been keeping myself busy and of happy use to others in the past weeks with that most honourable of endeavours: making music. The results of my work(s), and my fruitful collaboration with other quite brilliant and creative conspirators, will make itself known and heard before too long. But for now, I’m going to let you in on something I think may, in certain (admittedly rareifed) circles, rival the twin discoveries of the Higgs Boson and dark matter in its sheer sublimity of revelation. I won’t waste your time any longer in building this up: it’s a piece of Star Wars trivia. I await whatever passes in cyberspace for the clatter of shifted chairs that accompanies the mass exodus of a dissident faction from the lecture hall.

OK, if the rest of you would like to close up the circle and move a little nearer to me… I have something marvellous to impart unto the pair of you. In fact, let’s have a new title and a bit of a drumroll...

The voice of the Imperial Probe Droid - solved.

Those who know what I'm on about love it — the weird chattering language of the Imperial Probe Droid, or ‘Probot’ — the first ‘character’ seen in the original Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. It makes a literal impression upon first arrival. A meteorite slices through the atmosphere and into the electric blue skies of a cold, ice world. It strikes ground, sending up a tall flurry of snow — and from within the steaming, blackened heart of the impact crater, the Probot emerges: a mechanical spider-squid device, floating like an ironclad Art Deco jellyfish over the frozen wastes. Later in the film we hear it speak. Here's a sample of it for those that need reminding (please ignore the idiot who starts chipping in!)

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this voice has fascinated and puzzled me for over thirty years. That it is a human voice, processed in several different ways I hope is clear to you — as it was to me aged nine upon first hearing it. When I was old enough to gain more of an interest and appreciation into how sound is designed and realised for film, I always thought it was a sample from another film — possibly a resonant line of dialogue best known to the sound engineer. In this case, like all the sounds in the Star Wars saga, the Probot voice was a product of sound designer Ben Burtt. Mr Burtt has won several Academy Awards — among other well-deserved plaudits — for his outstanding, resounding and astounding work on the Star Wars saga. He brings considerable musicality and organic rhythm to his soundscapes, often creating sonic ‘events’ to visual set-pieces that are tantamout to an alternative, musique concrete movie score.

Oddly, Ben Burtt has been cagey on the source of the voice sample (and by ‘sample’ may I make myself quite clear when I mean something that has been lifted (and in this case looped) from elsewhere, as opposed to the more modern idea of ‘digital sampling’ which did not exist for Burtt to use in 1980 — his work was largely confined to analogue recording and manipulation). The 2010 book The Sounds Of Star Wars comes complete with a sound card of over 250 effects created by Burtt for George Lucas’ franchise, from which the actual ‘voice’ of the beastie is conspicuously and curiously absent. Burtt claims it comes from a recording his grandfather, a radio ham enthusiast, made of a transmission. I don’t doubt this — but what transmission?

I’ll come to that, but may I digress for a moment? Charles Manson famously cited The Beatles 1968 album (the ‘White Album’) as a source of hidden messages that instructed him and his ‘Family’ to embark on their bloody, notorious killing spree at the close of the Sixties. Like the rest of the right-minded world, I can detect no correlation between Manson’s claims of darkness, insurrection and destruction, and the delightfully varied splendour, the musical joy, that I find upon hearing the White Album. However, I once   experienced a nightmare in which a friend and I decided to try playing the White Album backwards to see if we could hear the sonic sedition Manson heard in it in 1969 — and we did. I awoke feeling I’d never feel truly happy again. Thank goodness it really was only a bad dream.

I mention this because the other day I was listening to a piece of music and…something happened. An inner moment of immense portent, gravid with significance. All right, all right, I may falute most highly, but you know that passing, chill realisation that hits you momentarily when you learn that someone famous who you like has died? Not dissimilar to that it was, it really was. The music in question was ‘The Motorcade Sped On’, by Steinski & The Mass Media‚ a cut-and-paste classic of urban dance music from the mid/late-Eighties. The closer students of 20th Century history will recognise the subject matter from the song title, culled — as are the rest of the quotes laid in voiceover on the track — from newsreel footage on the 1963 Kennedy assassination.

Yes, I think the Imperial Probe Droid's voice is in reality that of Ike Pappas, the reporter who was live on-the-spot when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot — and taken from that moment. Pappas entered US broadcasting history when his outside broadcast account of Oswald’s transfer from the holding pen became the second recorded assassination event in as many days. Regard the famous picture of Oswald’s intense, pained reaction to Jack Ruby’s point-blank bullet: see there, the figure on the right with the Brylcreemed hair and dark suit, left hand raised to his mouth, right hand outstretched, holding a mic obscured by Jack Ruby himself — that’s Ike Pappas.

“Now the prisoner…wearing a…black sweater — he’s changed from his t-shirt — is being moved out toward an armored car… Being led out by… Captain Fritz [HORN BEEP]… Here is the prisoner... Do you have anything to say in your defence? [BANG - someone howls as if winded]…there was a shot… Oswald has been shot! Oswald has been shot!”

Listen again to the Probot sample. The first part is Pappas remarking “Here is the prisoner…” as Oswald is brought out and the second part is his next line, delivered directly to Oswald: “Do you have anything to say...” right up to just before the shot is heard (at 47-51secs on the link above) . It’s a little sped up (it is a sampled loop on a tape reel after all), but the rhythm works: “Here is the have anything to say… Here is the have anything to say…”

Now, you can appreciate that Ben Burtt wouldn't consider this a trivia point to throw casually into conversation! Nonetheless, I'm certain this is where it's from. As far as I can tell, there's nothing about it on the Internet anywhere. Seriously, I've not seen anyone else mention this.

Mr Burtt, if you're reading this — love your work — could you elucidate, please?


Currently listening:
Captain Swing 1, 2 & 3 - spooky spoken word fiction by the writer Cathi Unsworth, with music by yours truly, available as free downloads on Cathi’s website.
Everything by the Neil Cowley Trio.
Everything by Morphine.
Alt (Van der Graaf Generator, 2012)
Symphonies 2, 7, & 12 by Henk Badings.

Currently watching:
Ealing comedies! Lots of Ealing comedies! Alec Guinness! Joan Greenwood! Stanley Holloway!

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

“Paul Murphy Is On Holiday”

May I say up front that I think you’ve got off lightly and don’t you forget it. It’s the time of year again when I find myself in the dilemmic (it's now a word) position of being both on holiday and feeling the need to provide you, gentle downloader, with something to read in my absence. To that end I was — was — going to present you with another fugitive from my by-now customary annual clearout of my literary lumber-room: a piece that I originally had no intention of posting online. Mind you, you're never really absent when you travel with a laptop and have Wi-Fi, are you? OK, let's call it laziness, then. In any event, I decided to shelve my half-baked and only semi-digested prose and cook up something a little fresher for you. So there you are and here it is. You know that crap you could be reading right now but aren’t? Yeah, I bet you do. What do you mean, you can’t comment on the crapness of something you’ve not read? Am I not merciful?
(It was crap, in any case, you can trust me on that)
Instead, for your reading pleasure, I offer you:
The condition of muzak: how pop nearly died in the Seventies — and how Punk nearly shot itself in the foot. 

There. A groovy Hawkind-y, Moorcock-ian literary pop culture ref, and two snappy, controversial assertions, all in one literally bold heading. Not a bad way to start, especially considering that I’m typing this from the seclusion of a caravan stationed on the Suffolk coastline, it’s a quarter to four in the morning and it’s lashing down outside. 
Recently I was involved in a lively email discussion with my friend Richard, an erstwhile writer for the now long-defunct Sounds magazine, which if you are not aware was, to keep it brief, certainly more cutting-edge and breaking fresher territory than its rival, the New Musical Express could claim to be doing in the Seventies and throughout the Eighties. Just a look at the Wikipedia article on the magazine should tell you everything you need to know about the high calibre of people penning passionate pop prose under the Sounds banner. Richard remains at the age of fifty a diehard — and enviably ageless — Punk of the absolute first water. His first out-and-out Punk gig was seeing X-Ray Spex at The Roundhouse and with typical relish and attention to detail, recounted to me the debate he had with his Rush T-shirt-wearing, gig-going chums afterwards over whether it was time to get their shoulder-length hair cut and throw in with the Punk lot wholeheartedly (he did, needless to say).  
So there it was that we were having a cheerful spot of e-banter about BBC4’s recent re-showing of old Top Of The Pops episodes (God Bless BBC4) — principally ones from 1976-78, those most watershedding years in Seventies pop — and arguably, of pop history itself. During this exchange, Richard popped a pertinent question. It was this: why did pop nearly DIE in the mid-1970s? I'm blaming Rod Stewart. Your own theories would be most welcome! 

At this point I should say that some praise of Rod Stewart — at least to a certain degree — is going to ensue, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. That said, I’m going to concur with Richard and assert that Rod Stewart’s career is as neat a thumbnail of how the Seventies nearly derailed, indeed. 
The sharply dressed and coiffed ex-Mod Rod Stewart had played in a number of promising, but strictly third division bands in the mid-Sixties. Go to 1969 and look, there he is — a promising, talented, charismatic, hungry young vocalist, still learning his chops but fast finding his balls (to mix my metaphors for a moment there) in amongst the Marshall amps onstage with the high-profile Jeff Beck Group. Having been bumped up to sing with the big boys, he found his stage fright obliged him to sing hidden between Beck’s immense speaker setups — at least to begin with. Ex-Yardbird Jeff Beck already had immense pedigree — witness his guitar-smashing star turn alongside a young Jimmy Page in the 1966 David Hemmings film Blow-Up. Elsewhere, his solo alone on ‘Shapes Of Things’ by his former band earns him the keys to the kingdom — and his talent as planksman, combined with decent enough moody looks, had him marked down by his management as perfect solo pop idol material. After reluctantly recording ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ — which almost demands him to hand the keys back again — Beck had made his point: a good-looking guitarist of modest singing ability needs to subsume himself into a band where his true calling can shine. Thus the band that bore his name was assembled from a crack unit of musicians so talented that Ronnie Wood was the bass player — and brilliantly so — on a bass he’d ‘liberated’ of necessity, from a music shop, so sudden was his appointment. The same crow-headed Wood whose guitar playing ability has been of sufficient skill to make him Keith Richards’ right-hand man in The Rolling Stones for over 35 years. 
Bespectacled drummer Mick Waller may have looked like a mild-mannered chap but he was a hard hitter and the Beck Group played loud. They did ‘heavy,’ as the burgeoning parlance of the late Sixties had it. Volume was paramount. The bands who did it best — Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for example — learned to temper the overly simplistic noise level issue with a studied intensity and structure, and in doing so created a whole new genre of Rock music whose boundaries have still, in the Twenty-first Century, yet to be established.
By the time Rod left Jeff Beck’s group, he had taken Ronnie Wood with him and before long they had landed themselves prime jobs as lead vocalist and guitarist respectively, in The Small Faces. Mark them with pride: Ronnie Lane, ace Face of bass; Ian McLagen, fiery keyboards; Kenney Jones, snappy drummer. They had enjoyed a slew of hit singles and well-regarded albums as first a Mod band and then as a Mod-ish soul-chedelic pop group before suffering the loss of their brilliant, but increasingly wayward lead singer and guitarist, Mr Steve Marriott. Yes, it took two guys to fill the void Marriott created — but Stewart’s leathery blues rasp and Wood’s pleasingly mucky riffing did admirably — and effected a change in both the name and the direction of the ‘new’ band, shortening themselves down to ‘The Faces’ and shrugging off their lysergic late Sixties psych-pop trappings to retool themselves as a bluesy booze-fuelled rocking hot rod (pun only partly intended). I have nothing bad to say about The Faces and neither should you.
For Rod, it was only half the story. The former kid shuffling in the speaker-stack shadows had emerged, duded-up in a kind of more streetwise sartorial cousin of Marc Bolan’s fey satin and tat (another ex-Mod who really knew what good threads and hair could do for a chap) and sporting the feather-cut spiky-fronted mullet that said ‘business’ for many of the more hard-rock-minded Glamsters in the early Seventies — from David Bowie and his lieutenant Mick Ronson to Brian Connolly of The Sweet, who always insisted his outfit were tougher than all that. With Stewart’s easygoing, good-time guy stage persona and deft mic-stand-swinging swagger, it wasn’t long before the band increasingly became known as ‘Rod and The Faces’ — a solo career beckoned, but Rod didn’t intend to jump ship. No, Rod remembered who his friends were, it seemed. Between 1969 and 1974 Rod Stewart released four kick-ass solo albums for the Mercury label, concurrent to his Faces output. 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down (with the definitive reading of ‘Handbags And Gladrags’), 1970’s Gasoline Alley, 1971’s classic Every Picture Tells A Story (standout track: ‘Maggie May’), 1972’s Never A Dull Moment (with ‘You Wear It Well’) and Smiler, from 1974. Consistent happy-go-lucky rock’n’roll rubbed pleasingly with folksy tales of lost love and soulfully salty stories (or a mixture of all three), told almost with an arm round your shoulder and more often than not backed in whole or in part by The Faces. Some of the songs were assimilated into the Faces’ live set, with minimal complaint from anyone. Micky Waller, his former Beck Group bandmate, played drums on most of the other songs and many of the session boys were consistent from album to album, tour to tour.
Again, I have nothing bad to say about these years in Rod’s career. The inevitable perks of the job — the booze, the big houses and the blondes (who seem to come in that most remarkable of plural form: ‘strings’) — may all have been questionable, but who are we to pass judgement on Rod’s taste? All joyfully acquired, earned and consumed on his own merit and quite frankly that’s his own lookout.
Skip to 1975 and the release of Rod’s Atlantic Crossing and, whoa, we’ve hit coke-fuelled Götterdämmerung! Everything about that album flags up the sea change (pun fully intended considering the mega-smash ‘Sailing’ is on it), the axis whereupon everything changed. Start with the title: word-playing on his move to LA and a lucrative deal with Atlantic Records, a bigger, more expensive label (usually the death knell for any lean and hungry artist, eh?) but also commenting on the album’s drift away from the British rock stylings of yore. Check out that naff, airbrushed cover of a shining neon Rod, bottle in hand, cockily bestriding the bright lights of New York (with the Houses of Parliament glinting, distant and forlornly, on the back cover, the Scottish (!!) flag blowing above the towers)   – a super–slick image, but doomed to date within months of release, a transient world apart from the more hangdog, grittily assembled earlier album covers. Rod’s image always suggested a booze-loving lifestyle, his music never really selling as the ideal toking material for those of you who like to roll a fat one on a gatefold record sleeve, but by here in 1975 we have forsaken the sauce to have ourselves an album cover you can chop lines of Charlie on. 

It should have been amazing, in theory: Atlantic’s legendary producer Tom Dowd backed Stewart with three-quarters of the mighty Booker T and The MGs (including the T man himself) plus The Memphis Horns and Lennon’s favourite axe-wielding sideman, Jesse Ed Davis — but the virtuosic playing couldn’t disguise that Stewart effectively did away with Messrs Jones, McLagen and the two Ronnies in a cutting volte-Face. No room for stalwart Stewart sticksman Micky Waller either. It’s a narcotic hit of an album, assembled by said seasoned session guns of thoroughbred quality, no question, but assembled to order, and most likely lacking the intuitively close camaraderie with Stewart that he had enjoyed with close mates of his own age and background performing in previous years. Result? Immense hits, instant impact and insane commercial success beyond the wildest dreams of Ronnies Wood and Lane! But nothing lasting, nothing with any real soul. Thus it was that Rod the Mod passed and became Rod the God — untouchable, aloof and away from the matey reality that endeared him to so many fans. He compounded the error over the following years by releasing trendspotting, unimaginative, unsubtle and tiresomely sexist songs such as ‘Hot Legs’ and ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ — the last of which he claimed to be ironic, but the general public, sadly, tended not to pick up on the subtleties. By the time Kenny Everett is lampooning you on TV, pouting, waving an arse the size of Ayers Rock at the camera, with leopardskin spandex stretched improbably across its expanse, it’s safe to say your cred has dropped significantly.
But let’s not be too down on Rod alone! Didn’t David Crosby say in passing that the Seventies were like the ‘better version of the Sixties’? Coming from a chap with Crosby’s, ahem, ‘intake’, I take that statement to mean a surfeit of sex and drugs – at the increasing expense of rock’n’roll. To be fair, I think the Seventies hit anyone who had been anyone in the Sixties still capable of sustaining some album sales. Dylan had arguably copped out a couple of years short of 1970 and only regained partial form by 1975. Marc Bolan had risen and fallen in the first half of the decade and tragically met his maker just as he was starting to gain ground after several years treading water, recycling his old glories. Stephen Stills went from solo songwriting genius in 1970 to the doldrums of dated disco flirtation in just over five short years. And speaking of five years, David Bowie, while managing to avoid any significant loss of quality in his music and songwriting during his own Atlantic crossing to LA in the mid-Seventies, prefers to forget this time in his life, written off as a period when his marriage, health and mental state were fraying. I wrote a blog on The Man Who Fell To Earth, which inevitably touches on this dark part of Bowie's life, if you're interested.
Remember also at this time that vinyl was a bit of a commodity and as any record collector over the age of 45 will tell you, one simply couldn’t afford to buy records willy-nilly. No, the act of purchasing a record was one of investment, buying something you knew — or suspected — would be your cup of tea. Record playing was a social activity in which friends could gather, hear the latest ELP, Van der Graaf Generator or Jethro Tull etc and swap records for a time, the better to dig each other’s scene. By the mid-Seventies, the big-hitting rock bands of your actual 1970 had mostly eschewed the single format to concentrate on the heavier trip of the album (and sometimes double album, with frequently frightening consequences) as their primary musical text. The Album had become an expensive and often daunting entity to casual record buyers – the heavy expanses and excesses of the early Seventies had seen to that. As it became more isolated, Rock’n’roll went wretched, and pop had long become pap — by the mid-Seventies the public sought easy, mindless solace in the likes of Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’, novelty singles like ‘No Charge’ and everything by Kiki Dee or Tina Charles, safe in the knowledge (or blissfully unaware, take your pick) that there was no emotional, artistic, creative angst between the lines of those kind of singles.

So you see, I believe the real enemies Punk kicked against weren’t — or rather shouldn’t have been — the so-called ‘dinosaur’ rock bands like Pink Floyd or King Crimson (most of whom couldn't get on Top Of The Pops themselves by 1977), but in fact the steady accretion of dreadfully banal MOR and novelty crap that the British public seemed to buy in their complacent, lotus-eating droves and made Top Of The Pops precisely the kind of bland arse-drivel that any self-respecting Seventies kid would want to rail against — and this incidentally, ladies and gentlemen, is possibly the longest sentence I’ve ever written. It made for better copy and controversy if Johnny Rotten wore an “I HATE PINK FLOYD” T-Shirt rather than, say, Linda Lewis or The Jacksons or anyone else on that night’s episode of Top Of The Pops, because Floyd and their ilk were more substantial targets. Remember this is the same Mr Rotten who was subsequently ‘outed’ as a fan of Hawkwind, Peter Hammill and the French prog-jazz band Magma — but even ‘outed’ is too strong a word: I doubt if Johnny ever denied his love for these guys when confronted head-on with it back then. Slightly more recently, I remember Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes wearing (brandishing in fact) a “NEW KIDS SUCK” T-shirt on the cover of Q magazine in the early 1990s and thinking, ‘oh, come on, Chris! Choose a harder target’ — it'd be like picking on a 12-year-old, or wearing a T-shirt saying “I HATE TINA CHARLES” back in 1977.
I think it's a little sad that history has written the Rock music of the early Seventies as villain of the piece in the late Seventies Punk equation, when it's clearly not the main problem. No, in fact I’d like to think I could build, with minimal change of allegiance, something of a bridge between the worlds of early Seventies Rock and late Seventies Punk, showing them to have certain things in common not immediately apparent until a perniciously mediocre third faction makes enemies of them both! After all, I know Richard’s Rush and Deep Purple albums sit happily on his record shelf alongside X-Ray Spex, The Sex Pistols and The Clash in a joyous coalition where, as Ginger from The Wildhearts put it ‘the Beatles and the Stones get to hang out with Ramones.’ I know mine do too.

PM (thanks to Mr Richard Newson for his inspiration and assistance in compiling the narrative of this one)

Currently reading: 
The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The Seventies (Peter Doggett, 2011)
Currently listening:
Captain Swing Part 1 — a musical/spoken word collaboration between the writer Cathi Unsworth, Pete Woodhead, Michael Meekin and myself. Available HERE
Currently watching:
Pink Floyd: The Making Of Wish You Were Here (BBC, 2012)