Thursday, 24 December 2009

Entente cordial

Contrary to what you may have read in 'Heat', this weblog will return on an at least weekly basis from January 1st 2010. New Year, new rules: we're widening our geographic and cultural scope, pedal binning the potted histories and biographical bullshine and simply concentrating on shining a laser pointer on the music, films, books, actors, places and ephemera we love, and then trying to express just what it is we love about the blooming stuff.

We reserve the right to push our own music and other projects once in a while, and you retain the right to ignore it and carry on wishing we'd do a 5,000 word piece on 'Gonks Go Beat'. We might well do that, actually, that's absolutely our sort of thing.

For now, please enjoy Van Der Graaf Generators wigged out pomp prog version of George Martin's 'Theme One'. Why this track? Why now? Why not and when else?

See you in the Year Of The Tiger, tiger.

Dick & Ray

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Las looked out

So this is Christmas. Yo ho ho and all that.

Trying to do an hour long mix that had a single theme throughout bent my brain this time around, so I've opted for a real toss pot of musical minestrone and broken biscuits that may not look particularly appetising but, I hope, will fill your bellies nicely until tea time. There are a lot of new-ish records on here, and some old ones, and some odd choices that should make sense next time you're as full of cold as I was when I stirred them in. There's even an Unmann-Wittering track, but then Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without at least one crappy present. A full track listing can be found in the comments section.

On a seasonal tip, we call the whole damn thing 'Mixed Nuts', and it is presented with our thanks for your continued interest and support, and our fond hope that we will see you all in the New Year.

God bless us, every one.

Ray & Dick

Sunday, 4 October 2009


Despite their classic status, Gerry Anderson’s hugely popular TV shows of the sixties creak a little in our whizz bang age, now seeming somewhat slow moving and stilted. Forty years on, however, The music of Barry Gray (pictured here with some fans) sounds just as dynamic and exciting as ever, and whether it’s the pounding drums and blaring horns of ‘Stingray’, the strident brass of ‘Thunderbirds’ or the dancefloor filling psych-pop of ‘Joe 90’, Gray’s unforgettable music still hits the proverbial spot.

Born in 1908, Gray had a long and varied career as a writer and arranger before joining Anderson’s fledgling production company AP in 1956. Initially working on charming but unsophisticated shows like ‘Twizzle the Battery Boy’ and ‘Four Feather Falls’, Gray was on hand to help Anderson make the evolutionary journey from puppet shows to Supermarionation, providing progressively ambitious music for Anderson’s increasingly complex shows.

In an era when TV themes were knocked out in ten minutes (and kids’s TV themes knocked out in five), Gray always insisted on using a full orchestra, supplemented with the occasional pop session musician or vocal group, and utilised a variety of unusual instruments seldom heard at mainstream sessions.

Gray’s favourite instrument was the Ondes Martenot, an otherworldly sounding organ / theremin hybrid that he used on his memorable scores for the two unmemorable ‘Dr Who’ spin off films starring Peter Cushing, as well as in the famous leitmotif for the sinister Mysterons in ‘Captain Scarlet’ (incidentally, how downbeat is ‘Captain Scarlet’? The body count is enormous.). Most effectively perhaps, he put its otherworldly sound at the forefront of his score for Anderson’s first all live action series, ‘UFO’ (1970), providing a brilliant mix of the groovy and the eerie, and a fantastically energetic title theme that I have asked to be played at my funeral.

After twenty years of successful collaboration, Gray and Anderson fell out over (of all things) the theme music for ‘Space 1999’, and they never worked together again. Gray died in 1984 at the age of 76.

Some memorable tracks from a long and fruitful career: 'Winged Assassin' from 'Captain Scarlet’ (a sort of Gray 101 in that it features most of the recurring motifs of his style), future raga 'Atonement' from the first series of 'Space 1999', the totally brilliant 'UFO' theme tune and the ethereal closing music from the same series, Ondes Martenot present and correct and creepy.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Adenoid Android

I never liked Gary Numan much. There was something about him that I couldn’t stand. Actually, there were several things about him I couldn’t stand: his nasal voice, his Alien from Hackney persona, his jump suit, his aeroplanes, his hovercraft, his hair transplant, his retirement (and immediate re-emergence), his records with members of Shakatak, his success. But I do have to admit that he made some great sounding records early in his career.

Recorded by and named after his short-lived band Tubeway Army, Numan’s debut recording is essentially a punk rock LP, featuring a real group, real guitars, real drums, and even the occasional acoustic number. There are electronics, but these are used sparingly and came about by chance when Numan started prodding at a Minimoog left in the recording studio. The themes are endearingly adolescent: alienation, loneliness, masturbation, being different. ‘Listen to the Sirens’ sets the scene with a direct crib from Phillip K. Dick in the first line and oblique, angsty lyrics that don’t quite make sense and reek of disconnection.

On ‘Replicas’, the second and last TA album, the synthesisers take centre stage, but are used to grind out relentless riffs, as if Numan has simply swapped his guitar for a keyboard. A sci-fi concept album of sorts, the monolithic ‘Are Friends Electric?’ remains the best track, a million selling number one single that still sounds groundbreaking today, and although the rest of the LP doesn’t quite hit that peak, several tracks come close, especially the ridiculously titled 'Me, I Disconnect From You'.

‘The Pleasure Principle’ was the first album Numan released under his own name and is perhaps the crystallisation of Numan’s signature style, setting the template for the next few years of his career. Completely machine driven, it is an emotionally neutral record, but its massed banks of synthesisers and layer upon layer of electronics proved to be incredibly influential in a good way (Afrika Bambaata) and a bad way (Marilyn Manson). 'Films' and Basement Jaxx favourite ‘M.E’ are presented here: bleak, futuristic, nihilistic. Nasal.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Gently, like thistledown

Jack Hargreaves is a friend of ours. Figuratively, anyway: We never met the man, he’s dead now, and we’ve done bad things in his name and desecrated his memory.

Most famous for his television appearances on kids science show ‘How?’ and his own long-running country life series ‘Out Of Town’, Jack was a hunting, shooting, fishing, pipe smoking, beard stroking, open space loving, tweed wearing machine, an expert on any number of subjects from water divining to thatch roofing to donkey husbandry.

Jack was always relaxed and authoritative: he knew what he was talking about, and knew that you were interested enough to listen. On his series of LP’s (Know Your Fish, Know Your Pony, Know Your Dog & Country Walking) Jack can occasionally be heard sucking on his pipe, or supping from either a mug of tea or a flagon of ale (either interpretation would be right): cool, relaxed and in his element.

Initially undertaken as part of a Very Good Plus covers project that fizzed for a while then fizzled out, ‘Through a Hedge, Backwards’ is our interpretation of ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’, and was intended as a tribute to Jack. Somewhere along the line, that went wrong. Notable as the first ever Unmann-Wittering track to be completed (or abandoned, depending on your point of view), we hope we will be forgiven our trespasses as we forgive those that whatnot against us.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Polarity reversed

Yet another second hand mix, Reversing the Polarity of the Neutron Flow was originally put together for the Very Good Plus forum as my response to the question ‘Dr Who Music: Any Good?’

Focusing on the years 1963-1974, the mix features all of the usual suspects, plus some of the library artists used in the very earliest episodes of the show.

Originally broadcast on The Garden Of Earthly Delights internet radio show, I am very grateful to Shane and all his listeners for their interest, and urge readers of this weblog and lovers of interesting music to check out the programmes for themselves. We (Unmann-Wittering that is) will also be recording a session for the show early next year.

The mix title is derived from the Third Doctor’s all purpose answer to anything technical, a phrase invented by writer Terrance Dicks to save Jon Pertwee from tying himself in knots with techno babble. The phrase itself is almost completely meaningless. Get it here, full tracklisting in comments.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Progress at all costs

It is a particularly British trait, I think, to think that modern life is rubbish and to bemoan the loss of a long gone golden age, an Arcadian past that we have eroded over the years with nasty, dirty things like progress. As I get older, I have inevitably fallen victim to crippling bouts of nostalgia myself, thinking back to the wonderful 1970’s and mourning its never-to-return perfection. Most of the time, of course, I realise that apart from the trousers and Jon Pertwee, the 70’s was a decade on the edge, a decade with problems: societal breakdown, industrial unrest, economic meltdown, war, violence, terrorism, energy crises, Bruce Forsyth…exactly the same problems as we have today, in fact.

Whenever I feel particularly negative about contemporary society, i.e. whenever I come into too close contact with it, or see a characterless office block or a Starbucks where there used to be a record shop, a Haberdashers or a wool shop, I think of Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘Inexpensive Progress’, a work that brilliantly articulates the end of an era and the relentless encroachment of all that is bad, ugly, destructive, pointless and vulgar about the modern age...

Encase your legs in nylons,bestride your hills with pylons o age without a soul;

away with gentle willows and all the elmy billows that through your valleys roll.

Let's say goodbye to hedges and roads with grassy edges and winding country lanes;
let all things travel faster where motor car is master till only speed remains.

Destroy the ancient inn-signs but strew the roads with tin signs 'Keep Left,' 'M4,' 'Keep Out!'
Command, instruction, warning, repetitive adorning the rockeried roundabout;

For every raw obscenity must have its small 'amenity,'its patch of shaven green,
and hoardings look a wonder in banks of floribunda with floodlights in between.

Leave no old village standing which could provide a landing for aeroplanes to roar,
but spare such cheap defacements as huts with shattered casements unlived-in since the war.

Let no provincial High Street which might be your or my street look as it used to do
but let the chain stores place here their miles of black glass facia and traffic thunder through.

And if there is some scenery, some unpretentious greenery, surviving anywhere,
it does not need protecting for soon we'll be erecting a Power Station there.

When all our roads are lighted by concrete monsters sited like gallows overhead,
bathed in the yellow vomit, each monster belches from, it we'll know that we are dead.

Betjeman wrote this in 1955. I take great consolation in the fact that fifty four years has passed and we’re still clinging on to life, we still have green spaces and old places. In Britain, where there is grass and history, there’s hope.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Jazz thoughts

I have a great fondness for what I rather childishly call ‘Thinky Jazz’, by which I mean jazz music that is consciously about something, that has an intellectual, conceptual theme or an attitude that provides a framework for the music.

Very generally, US jazz of this type is most often created by African Americans and is underpinned by ethnic, social and political attitudes; the UK equivalent is white, middle class and emotionally cooler, academic, informed by art and literature rather than the personal and political. Both approaches are equally valid, equally rewarding, and far more entertaining than my descriptions might indicate.

Neil Ardley was a mainstay of the UK jazz scene from the early sixties up until his death in 2004. Extremely clever and infuriatingly talented, Ardley was a pianist, saxophonist and band leader as well as a writer and editor of best selling books on science, music, computers and natural history. Skilled at both composition and orchestration and working with the absolute cream of British jazz including Don Carr, Ian Rendell, Harry Beckett, Barbara Thompson and Norma Winstone, Ardley’s best LP’s (he only made nine in 35 years) are always intelligent, brimming with ideas, but have a warmth and emotion that marks them out as far more than a mere intellectual exercise.

‘‘The Harmony Of The Spheres’ is an LP from 1978 based on the idea that each planet in our solar system produces a different musical note and that, as they resonate together, they create perfect harmony. The record attempts to recreate this harmony by the composition of music linked to the size, position and orbit of each planet and it sounds pretty good, though I cannot vouch for its astronomical acoustic authenticity. Made at a time when Ardley was heavily into synthesizers, the album occasionally drifts into jazz fusion / corporate video music, but Ardley always steers it back in time. A haunting, thoughtful LP, ‘Upstarts All’ and 'Glittering Circles’ are representative, and only occasionally marred by spanking synth-bass. Cosmic.

Monday, 14 September 2009

I ain't never comin' back

Brian Maurice Holden was born in Middlesex in 1939. After the war, Brian and his family emigrated to the United States. In 1955, his sister married animation genius Joseph Barbera of Hanna-Barbera fame, and the family re-located from New Jersey to Los Angeles, where the teenage Brian found himself enrolled at Hollywood High. A big fan of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, Brian started performing their songs at parties and would later appropriate elements of their look into his own act. In 1957 he accompanied his famous brother-in-law on a trip to London and, inspired by the emerging rock and roll scene in the coffee bars of Soho, he adopted the name Vince Taylor and decided to become a star.

After releasing two flop singles in Britain and being dropped by his record label, Taylor found himself part a musical package tour to France where, in a career making moment, he was photographed getting off the train in a full black leather outfit, a heavy chain and medallion around his neck, his black hair greased into a massive quiff, a sneer on his face. The publicity made him an instant cause celebre; two wild performances at the Paris D’Olympia consolidated his position as a Gallic superstar.

Taylor’s records were never actually that good: his vocals were fairly weak and his choice of material was usually second hand or formulaic, but his image was incredibly strong and his energetic, barely controlled performances electrified audiences in France and the rest of mainland Western Europe.

As the sixties wore on, the always temperamental Taylor became increasingly erratic in his behaviour and immoderate in his habits: at one major concert, filled with speed, LSD and whisky, he wrapped a towel around his head and stalked the stage telling the audience that he was the prophet Matthew before trashing the equipment and staggering off into the night. Not surprisingly, Taylor’s career stalled and, despite numerous comebacks up until the late eighties, it never really recovered. For a time, Taylor drifted in and out of mental illness and homelessness fuelled by alcohol, narcotics, religious fanaticism and paranoia. In the late sixties, he apparently crossed paths with the young David Bowie, who would later base the character of Ziggy Stardust on the ruined Taylor, the rock star driven mad by his own success.

Eventually achieving some sort of equilibrium in the late 80’s, Taylor ultimately found peace as an aircraft mechanic in Switzerland (he had qualified as a pilot as a teenager) before dying of a heart attack at the early age of 52.

Two tracks from Taylor. The first, ‘Brand New Cadillac’, is his best recording, a genuinely exhilarating slice of early rock and roll that he wrote himself and features bass and drums from future Shadows Brian Locking and Brian Bennett. The second, ‘Jet Black Machine’ is a variation on the theme, but is still pretty good at playing on Taylor’s leather, chains and engine oil image, and is also an old favourite of Unmann’s Mum. This one’s pour vous, Mrs. U.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Easy prey

Norman J, Warren was never the world’s greatest film director, but he certainly was a tryer.

Graduating from sex films like ‘Her Private Hell’ and ‘Loving Feeling’ in the sixties, Warren was a prime mover in the ‘new wave of British horror films’ that began to appear after the demise of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films. Distinguished from the Old Wave by its young and trendy protagonists, contemporary settings and liberal depiction of sex and violence, the new wave was a short lived phenomenon, but it was good while it lasted.

‘Prey’ was released in 1978 and, for what it’s worth, is Warren’s masterpiece. Sometimes compared to Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ (!), the plot concerns an unhappy lesbian couple whose uneasy rural isolation is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious young man who prompts a whirl of heavy drinking, fox hunting, cross dressing and sexual intrigue. Where the film departs from Pasolini, however, is that the young man is actually a dog faced alien scout, sent to Earth by his hungry masters to find a renewable source of protein…

Not a great film by any standards, ‘Prey’ does, however, stand out from Warren’s other work in its relative restraint and its coherent, character based script. Unfortunately, it suffers from obvious economies of production and slightly amateurish performances, but this is hardly surprising when you realise that Warren had only fifty thousand pounds and ten days to make his magnum opus and could only afford a maximum of three takes on everything. Occasionally gory, ‘Prey’ is extremely watchable, and could only have been made in Britain in the mid-seventies.

The music is by Ivor Slaney, a classically trained veteran composer who worked mainly for the De Wolfe library, providing short cues and stings for industry use, but here provides a brilliantly contemporary score of dark, minimal synth,which has recently reissued alongside his score for another Warren film, ‘Terror’. Two extracts from the soundtrack for you, the simple but very effective closing theme and the slinky, folky, souly song ‘Way of the Stranger’, sung by prog rock sessioner Val McKenna.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

You've got the power to drive me insane

Anglo Norwegian songwriting combo Phil Pickett and Georg Kajanus had an idea for a group that would sing martitime themed songs about the pleasures of shore leave and the lure of the open sea so, in 1972, they put on naval outfits, recruited two more deck hands, and formed the group Sailor. Surprisingly, the concept didn’t set the world alight, despite their obvious talent with a melody so, two years later, they ditched the bell-bottoms and decided to write songs that had a more general appeal, especially to fans of Roxy Music.

‘A Glass Of Champagne’ reached number 2 in the UK charts when that meant something, selling millions of copies both home and abroad. It is one of the stupidest and catchiest songs ever written, and is playing in my head as I type this. Starting off with a ‘‘Virginia Plain’ intro, this is supplemented by Roxy-esque vocals and a lyric which is probably supposed to be sophisticated and cosmopolitan, but is actually cheese on a stick. The most distinctive element of the song, however, is the sound of their self-styled ‘Nickolodeon’, a bespoke instrument that was an unholy blend of piano, synth and percussion instruments designed to allow them to easily reproduce their complex arrangements, but which actually sounds like scary fairground music, a drunken Oompah band and migraine.

Relentlessly cheerful, the song itself was given an additional boost by numerous appearances on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and ‘Pebble Mill At One’ where the group, now clad in a variety of ridiculous outfits, were content to push the wacky content of their act well into the red, with only Kajanas (who looked like a well-fed Bryan Ferry) clinging to the original concept in his striped matelot outfit, natty cap and neckerchief. He too looked ridiculous, like the missing Village Person.

Sailor had one more big hit in the UK (the execrable ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’) before setting sail for a 25 year career in the parts of Europe that like a bit of oompah with their pop music. They’re still going today, touring constantly, and, tonight, wherever they are, they will be playing ‘A Glass Of Champagne’, perhaps twice. These are the damned.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Life of Brian

Havergal Brian was an exceptionally prolific composer, but had to wait almost seventy years for the first recording of his music. Working from the late Victorian age onwards into the 1970’s (!), Brian wrote 32 symphonies, as well as numerous operas, concertos, songs and choral works but it was not until the last few years of his long life that he began to receive critical and public acknowledgement, and he died just as his music was being pressed to vinyl for the first time.

One of the few working class British composers, Brian lived most of his life in poverty, a situation not helped by his proclivity for fathering children: he had five with his first wife, then ran off with their maid and had another five children with her. Rather shy (not in all regards, obviously), he was ill at ease with promoting himself and his work and, as a result, his music was more or less ignored for many years, and many of his best compositions were never performed before an audience. Often derided as an amateur by contemporary critics (not the only thing he had in common with that other ‘great unknown’ William Blake), Brian had a penchant for strident brass instrumentation, offbeat rhythms and unusual instruments and his music is characterised by its sheer brio, jumping from place to place at a dizzying pace, full of ideas and enthusiasm, as well as reflective passages of great beauty.

The loosening up of the Establishment and a growing interest in more challenging musical forms in the late fifties and sixties led to a gradual emergence of Brian’s music, and it began to be programmed and performed on a more regular basis. In 1966, Adrian Boult conducted Brian’s long and slightly bonkers ‘Gothic’ symphony and the performance was broadcast live on the BBC. In 1972, at the age of 96, Brian was finally honoured with a first recording of two of his more accessible symphonies, ironically this was performed by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, most of whom were at least 80 years younger than the composer.

Still writing until the end (he wrote 8 symphonies in the last five years of his life) Brian died peacefully before the Schools Symphony Orchestra LP was released but now, 37 years after his death, relatively few of his numerous compositions remain unrecorded. Like the aforementioned William Blake, Havergal Brian is a classic example of a very British artist: modest, dogged, idiosyncratic, ambitious, impervious to indifference, brilliant, nutty as a fruitcake.

Two short extracts from his massive catalogue of work. The first is the lovely opening Adagio from his 11th Symphony, the second an extract from his slightly odd 3rd Symphony in C Sharp minor.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The album what I wrote

Terry Durham was born in the West Yorkshire village of East Ardsley in 1936. As a child he felt repressed by the drabness of his surroundings and began to paint as a way of bringing colour into his life. At the age of 12 he painted a portrait of the then prime minister Clement Atlee, and got back a letter of thanks and his picture in the local paper. A soon as he was old enough he left Yorkshire and drifted around the country, living the beatnik dream, painting when he could, no ties, no plans, taking it as it came. Finding himself in London just before it started swinging, Terry started studying painting in earnest, but also began writing lyrics and poems and performing the same at various happenings across the capitol. In 1969, he recorded his only album as a solo artist, ‘The Crystal Telephone’.

With music by John Colman and accompaniment by avant gardist for hire Evan Parker and a thirty piece orchestra, ‘The Crystal Telephone’ is a wonderful album that provides a variety of musical settings for Terry’s poetry as recited by him in his gentle, earnest voice (it has been remarked that Terry sounds like Ernie Wise: not surprising as Wise was brought up in East Ardsley too). The arrangements run the gamut: bossa nova, blues, brass band, free jazz, and Terry’s poems are equally varied, taking in the North, love, life, and occasionally surreal imagery that is indebted to Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. A hipper version of the records that Sir John Betjeman would later make with Jim Parker, ‘The Crystal Telephone’ is very much a period piece, but no less entertaining and charming because of it.

The album was not a success, but Terry didn’t really care about that anyway. He later turned up as part of the group Storyteller who released a couple of pleasant folk albums in the early 1970’s, but his main focus was always on painting and he returned to it full time once his interest in music waned. Still active today, Terry has travelled the world and settled in Spain. His masterpiece album is pretty hard to find these days (unless you’re Ben Hatton), but was reissued on CD a few years ago.

Two tracks from the LP: the keening title track, where Terry actually croons rather than recites and ‘Stills From A Late Night Movie’ where he chucks in an avalanche of disconnected imagery to a driving jazz accompaniment.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

That something rare

The 1990’s were not a particularly happy time for Kevin Rowland. His extremely successful band Dexy’s Midnight Runners had split up acrimoniously in 1988, and his first solo album had been a flop. Without a record contract for the first time since 1976, and with all his personal bridges effectively burned, he slipped into a long depression, made worse by mounting debt and drug dependency.

In 1999, Alan McGee threw Rowland a lifeline by signing him to Creation Records. The deal was for one solo album, then a follow up from the reformed Dexy’s Midnight Runners. McGee was awash with Oasis money at the time and could afford to be generous, but behind the largesse but there was also some business logic: Rowland had sold millions of records in his career, perhaps he could do it again.

He couldn’t. The resulting album ‘My Beauty’ was an abject failure, a disaster. Consisting of cover versions of familiar songs like ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ and ‘Daydream Believer’ the LP was an odd mix of karaoke and motivational speaking, with prosaic musical settings contrasted with Rowland’s plaintive vocals and liberal interpretation of lyrics. Many of the songs feature what sound like pep talks, internal monologues externalised and pressed to vinyl. Rowlands was always faintly embarrassing in his intensity but here the effect is even more unsettling, like finding yourself eavesdropping on a therapy session or a self-help group. The icing on this very odd cake was the cover: Rowland in full make up and a pearl necklace, wearing a blue velvet dress hoiked up to reveal suspenders and his tight black drawers.

The record sold less than 500 copies and Rowlands was bottled off stage during his appearance at that year’s Reading festival; the Creation contract was cancelled and Rowlands has not made an album since.

I have a lot of time for the flawed work, the noble failure, but ‘My Beauty’ goes beyond that: it is fundamentally wrong, and desperately odd. I’ve grown very fond of it over the years, and even find parts of it quite moving, but then perhaps that’s indicative of my own fundamental wrong-ness.

To illustrate how unusual it gets, please find below the promotional video for the single from the album, a cover of the 1965 Unit 4 + 2 hit ‘Concrete & Clay’. Everything about it raises a question, but the three overarching concerns are ‘what are you thinking?’, ‘what are you wearing?’ and, most importantly, 'what are you wearing?'

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A force for good

Dave Tyack only lived for 24 years, but he made a lot of interesting music in a short time, and looked set to achieve a good deal more until his untimely and tragic death seven years ago.

A multi-instrumentalist, arranger, maths graduate and artist, Dave seemed permanently full to the brim with music, so much so that he needed several bands and projects to spread himself across, and many of his Twisted Nerve label mates benefited from his boundless energy and desire to help, whether it was in writing, recording or simply playing loud drums with a carefree intensity.

My favourite Dave Tyack record is an LP recorded under his ‘Dakota Oak’ nom-de-plume, 2001’s ‘AM Deister’. A brilliantly ragged, lo-fi, charming record, it has 26 tracks, many of which only stick around for a few seconds, but sparkle like diamonds in coal dust. Inspired by his childhood living on the edge of the massive Deister Forest in Germany, the album mixes skewiff oompah music and waltzes and pretty, occasionally wonky acoustic guitar pieces. The tone is often dark, but the feel is more of early morning than dead of night. Packed with ideas, it’s the sound of an idiosyncratic artist having fun and stretching out a bit.

In 2002, Dave disappeared whilst on holiday in Corsica. Two years later, his remains were recovered from a ravine where he had apparently fallen to his death whilst out walking.

are presenting three ‘Am Deister’ tracks here: 'Buses & Girls (Part One)', 'How Heavy A Heart Is Mine!' and 'Sing', featuring a multi-tracked Dave Tyack on charming, wavering vocals.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

He cracked

By the mid-seventies, David Bowie found himself comfortably in the firmament of the fucked up famous, a parallel universe where every thing you say with a smile is hilariously funny, every serious statement incredibly profound, every petulant request perfectly reasonable, every outrageous excess an excellent idea: marvellous for the ego, disastrous for the soul.

'Cracked Actor' is a classic BBC documentary that follows a skeletal and spaced out Bowie as he travels across America on his 1974 Diamond Dogs tour. Knowing that Mr. Bowie lives, a prosperous and happy gentleman, is sufficient reason to find his rambling, incredibly pretentious interview segments amusing, but if we do laugh it's uneasily, scared slightly by the sight of a pale stick figure man staggering uncontrollably at the edge of a great drop.

There are many indelible moments: the waxworks in the desert, the fly in the carton of milk, his protracted explanation of the cut up method he employs to write his lyrics, his bizarre and inconsistent accent, his trousers.

Most incredibly, the concerts he performs in the midst of this obvious mental and physical low ebb look amazing, with Bowie in great form, owning the stage and climbing scaffolding with an alacrity that completely belies his fragile condition.

Unfortunately, the ensuing concert album 'David Live' sounds anemic and flat when deprived of Bowie's visual presence and charisma, which is another reason to be grateful for 'Cracked Actor', that and a glimpse into the mobile hell of a rock star at their height of their fame, the top of their game, and in the depths of despair.

A nice, grainy extract for you here courtesy of someone with a better grasp of technology than me. An eight minute trip into coked paranoia punctuated by really great music from one of rock's great geniuses.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Daft Cow

As a fervent fan of the psychedelic Pink Floyd, for a long while I viewed the band’s post-Barrett recordings as worthless, the work of a group where all the talent had been removed and all that was left was the desire not to get a real job. Over time, however, I have come to appreciate their struggle to remain afloat, and have developed a sneaking interest in the series of uneven LP’s they made between Barrett’s departure and their eventual transformation into the rock monolith they would become after the release of ‘Dark Side of The Moon' .

‘Atom Heart Mother’, their fifth LP, was released in 1970. Completely representative of the group’s issues at the time, half of the record is dull and directionless, featuring a second division solo work from each member rather than a unified band approach. The other half, however, is a very different matter. A twenty three minute suite for group, orchestra and chorus, the title track is strident, pompous, experimental, wildly ambitious and a great listen.

Masterminded by wayward composer, arranger, performance artist and Floyd associate Ron Geesin, the suite had its roots in a noodling guitar part that David Gilmour couldn’t crowbar into a song. Geesin, who already had several unusual, experimental and often very amusing albums to his credit, was brought in with a brief to turn the oddment into something the material starved group could record. Given the run of Abbey Road, Geesin responded with an elaborate score for a cast of hundreds split into six ‘movements’ and recorded as one long, fluid piece that was far beyond the capabilities of the group at that time: part classical, part prog, part overblown rock opera, a fascinating piece that sounds like a David Axelrod production of the best bits of the postwar British classical scene. Gilmour, Waters, Mason and Wright shuffle about in the background, providing a prosaic blues jam and a wonky rhythm track, but any doubt that Geesin is in charge is finally removed when the track moves into a four minute section for electronics and sound effects that is pure Geesin and could have sat quite happily on any of his interesting solo LP’s.

More than happy to tour the piece with a full orchestra on a money losing tour in the early seventies, Gilmour and the ever charming Roger Waters now regularly deride ‘Atom Heart Mother’ as ‘crap'
, although their sneering dismissal may well be due to the fact that they actually had very little to do with one of the better moments in their dreary back catalogue. Anyway, what do they know? They’re the tosspots that sacked Syd Barrett.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Funky Phantom

A few months ago I made an hour long mix of cosmic jazz music for the VG+ site: a selection of beeps, bleeps and brass plucked from the ether and entitled ‘Phantom Signals’ after the former British Army Regiment and the electrical phenomenon of the same name.

As a keen recycler, and ardent believer in the importance of music that just sort of ‘floats about’, I present it for your aural approval here. Let me know what you think. Track listing in comments.

The gentleman to your left is Vladimir Gavreau, the French Russian scientist who made himself and his team of researchers very ill indeed by experimenting with extreme frequencies in order to create sonic weapons. To his right is an infrasound device that would probably make you shit yourself.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


We’ve looked at the oeuvre of director Robert Hartford-Davis before (here) when I called him, amongst other things, a sleaze meister. ‘Corruption’ (1968) is the film in which Hartford-Davis falls into the muck and mire again but, this time, as he stumbles, clutches at the sleeve of Peter Cushing and dumps him in the shit as well.

Cushing plays Sir John Rowan, a brilliant and eminent surgeon: dedicated, hard-working, precise, correct at all times. Well, not quite all the time, as crafty Sir John has a dolly bird girlfriend and a wardrobe full of natty neckerchiefs to show that’s he’s not quite the cube we thought he was. It’s actually quite shocking to see the fifty five year old Peter Cushing ardently pressing his dessicated lips against his much younger love interest Lyn (Sue Lloyd) and pestering her for car sex, but it gets a lot worse and doesn’t get any better.

Lyn is fond of Sir John but sees him as a safe bet: he’ll provide security and status whilst she continues her groovy model lifestyle. Unfortunately, Sir John gets into a jealous rage at a swinging party and, during a violent tussle with Anthony Booth (who wouldn’t want to smack him?) a halogen lamp falls onto Lyn and before you can say ‘does anyone smell bacon?’ her pretty face and fabulous career are ruined.

Sir John isn’t the sort of man to let a little setback like a sizzled face put him off, however, and spurred on by an increasingly unhinged Lyn he packs in his job and takes to experimenting with pituitary glands to effect tissue regeneration. At first he is successful with the glands from dead women but the rejuvenating effects are temporary and it is with horror that he realises he must kill to get the living tissue required for a long term solution…

And kill he does. In a prostitute’s parlour, in a train carriage, on a beach as the tide comes in. In fact, he can’t stop killing and we are presented with the dismal spectacle of the usually immaculate Cushing, his eyes darting guiltily from side to side, sweating and slashing and descending into hell. It’s actually pretty unpleasant.

The film ends almost on a non-sequiter as a sinister group of hippies (including a gurning David Lodge with stick on sideburns) break into Sir John and Lyn’s holiday home and proceed to terrorise them in scenes that seem taken from another film entirely but, deus ex machina like, swiftly navigate the narrative to a violent end as, yes, there’s a laser scalpel in the spare room that goes out of control and everybody, yes, everybody, is sliced, diced and left a smouldering corpse. The End.

Cushing tries his best here but, ultimately, just like Sir John, all his huffing, puffing and utter degradation just leads to a humiliating loss of face. Hartford-Davis didn’t know any better, of course, and watching this and the films he made later in his career, it becomes apparent that he didn’t want to know any better. Billed as a film to which women would not be admitted unless accompanied by a man, even the promotional campaign is vintage Hartford-Davis: it’s crass, sensational, misogynistic and it doesn’t make any sense…anyway, for those of you that want to see Peter Cushing demonstrating why British Rail abolished closed train carriages, here’s the trailer...

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


When gawky 18 year old Marion Elliot saw The Sex Pistols play in 1976 she was immediately inspired by their example to make some music of her own. Whereas many people seemingly got into Punk simply to spike up their hair and stick up two fingers, young Marion had a message, a mission: a crusade against consumerism and materialism that would ultimately lead her to renounce all her worldly goods and leave the music world behind.

As newly christened Poly Styrene, Marion and her band X Ray Spex exploded onto the punk scene in an extraordinary burst of kinetic energy. Whereas most punk bands were laddish and aggressive, X Ray Spex were led by a smiling teenage girl, with an even younger girl (16 year old Lora Logic) on the squawking saxophone that further marked them out from their contemporaries.

Their songs were not, perhaps, thoughtful and considered (they were too fast and loud for that), but were often deceptively subtle with a feminist or political aspect that went way beyond smashing the system. In actual fact, the band were almost unique in the first wave of punk in that they were not averse to dressing up, surprisingly proficient and occasionally ambitious in their playing and seemed to be the sum of a jumble of non-contemporary influences, encompassing pop art, science fiction, b-movies, advertising jingles and bubblegum pop.

Somewhat slow to get into the studio, X Ray Spex didn’t release their debut LP until 1978, but it was well worth the wait. ‘Germ Free Adolescents’ is an amazing mix of punk, pop and art rock that places the listener on the sticky surface of a dayglo world where genetic engineering is rife, exploitative relationships the norm, and bored teenagers find hypnotic solace from detergent clogged swimming pools and plastic burger buns by brushing their teeth the SR way. A sort of ‘Brave New World’ as rewritten by J.G Ballard and painted by Max Ernst, the album is quite brilliant and possesses a depth of imagination and uniform vision that outstrips all other first wave UK punk LP’s, including the ones that everyone wets their slacks over and regularly appear at the top of lists.

Sadly, Poly left the band after a punishing tour to promote the album, later shaving her head, joining the Hare Krishnas and leaving capitalism and consumerism behind.

The band subsequently reformed several times in the last thirty years (with and without Poly) and have even recorded new material, but the best examples of their work remain the tracks on their great debut. Please find attached the cool, blank title track (one of the first singles I ever bought), sinister nursery rhyme ‘I Live Off You’ and storming pop art blast ‘The Day The World Turned Day Glo’ with its vivid imagery and grinding guitar riff.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pioneer Corps

Tristram Cary first started to think about the possibilities of combining musical composition and electronics during long shifts as a Royal Navy radar operator in the Second World War. On his demobilisation in 1946, Cary spent his demob stipend on a disc cutting lathe and all his other spare time and money in buying, begging, borrowing and scavenging valves and oscillators to create a device that would help him fulfill his ambition to create electronic music. Completely hand-built, ‘the machine’ (it was never given a formal name) was a wonder of Heath Robinson technology, and was the first of its type in Britain, and one of the first in the world (France and Germany had similar machines, but each country genuinely thought their machine unique).

Cary’s experiments soon attracted the attention of the BBC, and he began working for them in the late fifties. Never purely avant garde, Cary was equally adept at more conventional orchestral and choral works, and this was demonstrated by the sheer volume of variety of his work over fifty years. While at the BBC he worked with the nascent Radiophonic Workshop, scoring the earliest episodes of ‘Dr. Who’, including providing eerie musique concrete for the first Dalek story in 1963.

In 1967, Cary provided an experimental tape loop sound environment for use in the Worlds Fair / Expo (these events were extremely important in the development and promotion of electronic music throughout the sixties and seventies) as well as providing electronic buzzes and bleeps for psych-lite spy thriller ‘Sebastian’ and an intense score for my favourite Hammer film, the superb ‘Quatermass & The Pit’.

After working to create the seminal EMS Synthesiser and Synthi (a portable version), Cary relocated to Australia in 1974 to teach at the University of Adelaide, and was still teaching and composing right up until his death in 2005 at the age of 82.

From the Tristram Cary archives we present 'The Swamp' from 'Dr Who & The Daleks' circa 1963, an edited, but still powerful 'Apocalypse' from 'Quatermass & The Pit', and the wittily titled 'Cue 38' from ‘Dr Who & The Mutants’ in 1972. Smashing stuff.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

You know that love survive

Hiatus or not, some things require a brief trip to the office.

Michael Jackson
left me incrementally cold and creeped out in recent years, but I'm not glad he's dead, nor do I have any unpleasant jokes to pass on. This isn't much of a tribute, but 'Little Michael' is a tribute: the setting may seem ambiguous, ambivalent, but there's a little bit of love there for someone we used to know and admire.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

You've heard enough of the blues and stuff

I have always had a very keen sense of the ridiculous, and am most often attracted to things that are, essentially, pretty daft, which may explain why I am so inordinately fond of Roxy Music.

Has there ever been a sillier band than Roxy in their pomp? When they burst onto Top Of The Pops with ‘Virginia Plain’, Bryan Ferry’s eyes reduced to slits by heavy make up, his head immobile under the weight of pomade and Cossack hairspray, they looked ridiculous, they sounded ridiculous, they were ridiculous, with their ridiculous, brilliant music that sounded like pop falling down the stairs, the pet wet afternoon project of a hyperactive 11 year old and his Nan who liked ‘the old songs’ and never got over the death of Valentino.

But they had songs, great songs, and they carried it off with a massive amount of brio. When feather festooned egghead Brian Eno left the group in 1973 to go and be esoteric on his own, Roxy took a step back from the outer edges of the solar system and started down the slow path to the smooth, second phase Roxy sound that would come to effortlessly rule the airwaves on their reformation in 1977. ‘Country Life’ was their fourth album, caught between the preposterous Cole Porter in Space sound of their first two LP’s and their later Lounge Lizard loose in a European Disco sound, where the songs are becoming more structured, more melodic, less prone to bursts of piercing electronics.

Opening track ‘The Thrill Of It All’ is fairly typical Roxy fare, but with a big production and a six minute running time. Written at a time when Bryan Ferry had completed his transition from Geordie gas fitter’s son to upper class cad, the lyrics ironically sums up the faux glamour and actual ennui of his parties, planes, affairs and cocktails persona.

‘A Really Good Time’ is my favourite Roxy song (a preference I share with Adam Ant, apparently) and tells the story of a typically vacuous ‘it girl’ and her empty life of Riley. The words are both clever (‘she’s well educated with no common sense’) and clunky (‘she’s got no money - well, maybe a dime’) and Ferry’s voice (always an acquired taste) often teeters and then totters into the ridiculous, but I love it very much.

I once listened to this song about ten times in a row before going to bed, then had a vivid dream where, in full evening dress, I sang it whilst strapped into the passenger seat of a crashed car, the dead body of a woman half through the windscreen, sprawled across the bonnet in a bloody cocktail dress, the party well and truly over.

Friday, 19 June 2009

For I was an earthly knight

'Tam Lin’ is an old Scottish song the story of a girl and her lover: a half-elfin man enslaved by the Faerie Queen, and the ordeal they must undertake to save his life and secure his freedom.

‘The Ballad Of Tam Lin’ (1969) is an attempt at updating the themes of the song for a contemporary cinema going audience.

The results are interesting, but not entirely successful, but I like the fact that they tried, even though it was always going to be a punt (’What shall we go and see at the drive in, Bobby?’ ‘Well, how about ‘Tam Lin’? It’s a groovy take on an old Scotch folk tune that not many people are familiar with.’ ‘Sounds swell! I love you, Bobby’).

Ava Gardner (pushing 50 and absolutely gorgeous) plays Michaela Cazaret, an ‘immensely rich’ widow who maintains a coterie of bright (and not so bright) young things: sharp suited swingers and swingeritas who drive fast cars in convoy, take endless photographs of each other and are always on the hunt for the next party, the next kick, the next kink. Mickey’s current favourite is young Tom Lynn (played by swarthy Ian McShane), and she keeps him in her thrall with a combination of sex, drink, drugs, bribery, enchanted sunglasses (you heard) and good old fashioned charisma (‘It’s like breathing pure oxygen: you learn not to care, you don’t care’).

All is well with until they all relocate to a large country house in the Highlands, where the groovy group spend their time lounging around, bouncing on spacehoppers and reading the tarot (and ‘all that gypsy trash’) whilst a man with an afro plays the vibes on the verandah. Into this decadence steps Vicar’s daughter Janet (a young Stephanie Beacham): she catches Tom’s frisbee, and they fall instantly in love. Michaela takes young Tom’s swing in affections very well, considering: “I give you one week’s truce, then I hunt you down and kill you” (we’ve all had break ups like that), setting the scene for an unusual and slightly bewildering climax where Tom is pursued in slow motion by an angry mob of hysterical trendies through a lysergically lit swamp, all the while fighting off a massive snake, turning into a bear and catching fire as he tries to break the enchantment, with only the faithful Janet to help him.

‘Tam Lin’ is pretty slow moving, but it has some great moments and some interesting ideas and images, although I could have done without seeing Ian McShane’s arse. Actor and ape impersonator Roddy McDowall directed, and does well, but he never chose to repeat the experience. Redolent of a time when films were made that wouldn’t even get through the studio gates today, ‘Tam Lin’ is, ultimately, a fascinating failure, but is well worth watching if you get the opportunity and have ninety minutes at your disposal.

The folk songs for the film were provided by The Pentangle, with orchestral themes by Stanley Myers and a cameo from Salena Jones. I don’t have a copy of the soundtrack, unfortunately (I don’t think there is one), but I hope this amazing version of ‘Tam Lin’ as recorded by the mighty Fairport Convention will suffice: it does for me very nicely.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

You said this, you said that

Madness were pretty high on my agenda in 1980, marginally above two tone tonic trousers and slightly below Seona MacGregor.

Their second LP ‘Absolutely’ was the first LP that I ever purchased with my own money rather than inherited or had bought for me (it was £3.49, from Phase One Records, Colchester) and, for a period of several months, it was one of only four or five LP's I owned, so I got to know it pretty well (I bought Madness records backwards to start with – my second purchase was their first LP.).

The thing I liked most about Madness was that they were real people: they didn’t live in castles or wear capes, and they weren’t extravagantly musical or poetical: they looked like plasterers and they spoke like me, and that’s very appealing to a twelve year old with vague ambitions of being in the music business (I still have those vague ambitions, but I split the two tone tonic trousers).

‘Absolutely’ is probably Madness’ best LP. Primarily a singles band, they often struggled to be consistent over half an hour, and on the longer format everybody in the seven piece band had a go at writing, with mixed results, especially as they matured and became more stylistically diverse (but sadly less interesting). Although ‘Absolutely’ has some duff moments (I could do without the rock and roll pastiche ‘Solid Gone’, for example) it has a number of memorable tracks, a couple of great singles, some fantastic playing (particularly from guitarist Chris Foreman) and showcases the archetypal Madness sound: a balance between jaunty, fairground music and gritty, downbeat lyrical content, shot through with humour, irony and a great pop sensibility.

‘In The Rain’ has a ska-lite arrangement and features a nice, cheapo organ sound from Mike Barson, as well as some very British swearing in the chorus. ‘You Said’ is a cool song by any standards, with a strong melody, an interesting arrangement and some typically straightforward words. Recently making a strong comeback, Madness are often dismissed as a novelty band but, then and now, I’ve always felt that unfair: great pop is great pop, regardless of how silly the accompanying dance might be.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Wanted: Time Machine

Unit Delta Plus was formed in 1966 by British electronic music pioneers Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff. A company rather than a group, Unit Delta Plus sought to promote electronic media to the widest possible audience, and actively sought out film, TV and advertising commissions as a means of getting the message across. This didn’t go down too well with Delia and Brian’s employers at the BBC (very little did), but Delia and Brian saw it as a necessary outlet for the sort of musical experimentation that the Corporation hated (Delia routinely had music rejected as ‘too sophisticated’) and continued undismayed (in fact, they would both stay with the BBC until the 1970’s when budget cuts and excessive bureaucracy drove them out.

The first Unit Delta Plus event was in September, 1966: an electronic music festival in Berkshire where music (all on tape) was combined with innovative lighting and a hip audience to create one of the first British ‘happenings’. Sadly, no documentary evidence of the event exists outside of a typewritten programme, but we know what was played and that Sir John Betjeman fell asleep during the performance.

In 1967, Unit Delta Plus presided over the tapes once more at the ‘Million Volt Light & Sound Rave’, a considerably more high-profile affair at the Roundhouse in London that boasted the presence of two Beatles (George & Paul: John was in Berkshire, Ringo was answering some fan mail) as well as the world premiere of The Beatles foray into sound collage, ‘Carnival Of Light’, a tape of some random Fab Four studio hi-jinks that remains unreleased to this day. Tragically, no film or tape recording of the ‘Million Volt’ event exists either, but I’m assuming that it was pretty mind-blowing.

Although it is possible to recreate the set list of these events from various sources (if you don’t mind muffled sound quality), it is, of course, impossible to even approximate the atmosphere of the three performances (‘Million Volt’ was over two non-consecutive nights): the sheer exhilaration of being on the spot as trends were being made, where music, art, theatre and the future were being seamlessly blended into a swinging shape of things to come, and that’s an incredible shame, especially as, in reality, the integration of electronic music into the mainstream never did fully materialise and, in many ways, this was the high water mark of British electronic music until The Human League started having hits 15 years later.

So, if you don’t mind muffled sound quality, here are two tracks that would have formed part of these events: the first is ‘Dreams 2’, a soundscape that Delia originally composed and performed for the BBC as an ‘Invention for Radio’ that was later edited down into a Delta Unit Plus track for performance called ‘Amor Dei’. The second is a quirky, dirty raincoat pop song called ‘Moogie Bloogies’ that never progressed beyond the demo stage as, after recording it, star Anthony Newley rushed off to Hollywood and, despite his enthusiasm for the track, never came back to Maida Vale to finish it off

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Like a Rolling Stone

‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ is a 1964 novel by Dave Wallis that portrays a world where adults have become so bored with modern life that they begin to kill themselves en masse, ultimately leading to a new society where all institutions and establishments have broken down, the ‘grown up’ population is all dead and the ruling class are violent teenage street gangs battling for supremacy and survival.

Despite its sometimes lurid content, the book is written in a very spare, matter of fact way, presenting itself as reportage rather than pulp fiction. Naturally, the main selling point is the sensationalist idea of kids running a disintegrating world, shagging and killing each other with abandon and taking over places like Windsor Castle and turning them into anarchic crash pads, but the narrative is actually well done, detailing the travails of the Seeley Street gang as they struggle to stay alive, foraging for food, for fuel, for shelter, always on the move and under constant threat of sickness, starvation or rival gangs.

In May 1966, Rolling Stones svengali Andrew Loog Oldham announced that he had bought the rights to the book, and that it would form the basis of The Stones first film, with the group (plus Marianne Faithfull) playing the various members of the central gang, as well as providing the soundtrack, although, ultimately, the film never actually progressed much farther than the press release.

There is a temptation to describe the concept as a ‘great lost film’, but the evidence is not particularly compelling. Although it could be argued that The Stones were never stereotypical pop stars (the were stereotypical anti-pop stars), it’s hard to imagine that they would have been able to carry off a film of this ambition: Mick Jagger, for example, who presumably would have starred, is actually one of the worst actors in the world or, at least, the worst actor in the world to get regular acting work: he makes David Bowie look like Laurence Olivier.

In the end, The Rolling Stones never actually made any feature films, falling at the first hurdle whilst lesser groups (Hermans Hermits; The Dave Clark Five; Gerry & The Pacemakers) completed the course, albeit without breaking any records or winning any laurels. The nearest The Stones got was ‘Rock & Roll Circus’, a sort of psychedelic variety show that is notable for a good performance from The Stones, but a great one by The Who. Recognising this disparity The Stones shelved the film for 25 years like a petulant kid who spoils their own party because someone else is briefly the centre of attention. In-between the musical performances, however, there are a number of scenes where The Stones are called upon to act or, at least, speak scripted lines: they are amongst the most unconvincing and embarrassing moments in pop history, so perhaps we all had a lucky escape.

But when you consider Stones tracks from 1966 that may have found themselves on the ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ soundtrack if they’d ever got that far, the nagging doubt remains that maybe, with the right direction, they might just have got away with it. Either way, triumph or disaster, the film would have had a bloody great soundtrack. ‘Mothers Little Helper' could have been very easily tweaked lyrically to fit the 'Only Lovers Left Alive' premise, and 'It's Not Easy' would fit into any number of scenes, perhaps most appropriately a montage of the gang foraging and looting in the semi-deserted streets of London.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Like a pube on a pipe

'“Something was pouring from his mouth. He examined his sleeve. Blood!? Blood. Crimson copper-smelling blood, his blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. And bits of sick”.

Garth Marenghi is probably the UK’s greatest living writer. Often described as a ‘horror author’, Marenghi’s oeuvre actually defies categorisation, tearing up the rules of genre as it simultaneously nudges the parameters of literature, of art, of humanity itself.

Marenghi is a fabulist, a dream weaver, an artist worthy to rub leather clad shoulders with the genii of world history: Poe, M.R James, H.P Lovecraft, James Herbert. Look in the farthest reaches of the human mind, in the dark and cobwebbed recesses where no-one goes, and you will find him - contemplating the unknown and the other, pondering the out there and the off the chart, and typing, the rat tat of the keys the blaze of a cerebral machine gun loaded with ballistic bullets of truth.

Unbelievably prolific, Marenghi has cultivated our barren minds with the seeds of wonder for over twenty five years, turning ‘what if’ into ‘what the hell?’ and then ‘what now?’ and, always, ‘WHY?’. For his critics, and there are many (even Henry Miller had his fair share of knockers) he is a hack, a scribbler: these people are wrong and stupid. Yes, Marenghi serves up more than his (un)fair share of chills, thrills and prostitutes in peril but these are but horrific hors d'oeuvre, sweet meats for the masses, a trail of cake crumbs that lead even the most one-dimensionally minded slash hound into the gilded grotto of Marenghi’s limitless imagination. Here there be answers.

In classic works like ‘Slicer’, ‘The Ooze’, ‘Eye Sore’ and ‘Slicer IV: The Blade Is Back’, Marenghi takes a blow torch to the human psyche, conjuring a fantastic, nightmarish world where a man sized crab can threaten a seaside town, a big eyeball can kill, or a bus driving rat can dissolve Parliament.

Enjoying a criminally overdue renaissance in recent years with the airing (or should that be ‘scaring’?) of his ground breaking TV show ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place' (a show so challenging that it was shelved for twenty years in order for mankind to evolve) and the re-publication of all the books in his enormous canon, Marenghi is still pushing the bloody boundaries of his art and is currently working on confounding, confusing and bemusing expectation again with his 437th publication, a cook book entitled ‘Dead Meat: A Grimoire for Gastronomes’.


Friday, 5 June 2009

Where have you put my shoes and anorak?

Most people that were alive in the UK at the time (and are still alive now, of course) will probably remember Jilted John, and those that don’t remember the name will almost certainly remember the ‘Gordon is a moron’ chant that took his self-titled single into the Top 5 in 1978 and is still in the popular consciousness today, most usually with reference to our beloved Prime Minister.

Brainchild of drama student Graham Fellows, the pseudo-punk ‘Jilted John’ single was quickly followed by the ‘True Love Stories’ album, which tells the story of the hapless teenager John and his journey through adolescence into semi-manhood. Essentially ‘The Odyssey’ set in Northern England (well, sort of), his perilous journey takes in death, sheds, paper rounds, pet mice and on-off relationships with Sharon, Karen, Belinda, Julie, Wendy and Shirley that all end in either betrayal, rejection, desertion or kidnapping.

The LP packs quite a punch for a ‘novelty’ record: not only is it very funny, it’s also rather poignant, and a brilliant evocation of what it’s like to be a teenager and a bit of a nob, as all teenagers are, perfectly encapsulating the adolescent experience from the shrill saturnalia of a teenage party to the fickle yearning of first, second and third loves as experienced by a hormonal and gormless youth in an anorak.

My copy of the LP also came with a Jilted John Snakes & Ladders board game, neatly summing up John’s two steps forward, three steps back progress through life, and I still play the game as I play the LP, but that may just be a personal development issue.

The first selection from the album is ‘True Love’, a moving tale of emerging romance over the pick ‘n’ mix with a great tune and some suitably awkward moments. ‘Shirley’ is from later in the story, when John has inadvertently hitched a lift with a nutter and is being kept against his will in her sinister love lair.

If Cameron Macintosh is reading this (and I’m assuming he is), can I just point out that ‘Jilted John: The Musical’ is long overdue. Put your hand in your massive pocket, cheapskate, and dig deep, it’s just what the West End needs.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Fine whine

The Cure were formed in Crawley, Sussex in 1976, releasing their debut LP ‘Three Imaginary Boys’ in 1979. Often dismissed by permanently dishevelled front man Robert Smith as ‘lightweight’, it is not just the only Cure LP I have in the house, it also the only Cure LP I would let in the house, ‘lightweight’ or not.

I can see Smith’s point of view: for over thirty years he has mined a rich, dark, repetitive seam of doom, gloom and childish self-indulgence and sold nearly thirty million records, and this feisty, sparky LP is a colourful blot on the otherwise desolate grey landscape of his career. To me, however, it’s a snapshot of life in post-punk 1979 that perfectly captures how it must have felt to be different and stuck in the suburbs and looking for a way out: energised with big ideas, but bogged down by crap in a world of boredom, after pub violence, rubbishy love affairs, existential angst and catalogue consumerism. And what makes it work so well? The band are young, they sound young – and that is their most endearing quality, bestowing them with the God given right to be edgy, arsey, sulky, selfish and slightly ridiculous in their songs based on the classics of French Existential Literature.

So, yes, it’s lightweight, especially in comparison to the increasingly monolithic and monothematic LP’s The Cure released in its wake. It’s lightweight, scrappy, scattershot and fun. No wonder the fifty something Smith, with his one look (copyright 1980), his one sound, his one mood, his one song (admittedly available at different speeds) dislikes this LP and wishes it gone, like a Goth Grinch stealing Christmas or Dorian Gray in reverse where the eternally youthful portrait is shoved in the attic, leaving the decaying, puffy, lipstick smeared reality to play sold out stadium shows in Belgium for all eternity.

Anyway, for your enjoyment: the angsty kiss off song ‘Its Not You’ and the magnificently ramshackle ‘So What’ from ‘Three Imaginary Boys’, as well as ‘I Dig You’, the b-side of a spoof single Smith released as ‘Cult Hero’ in 1979 that features his postman on lead vocals and is the last recorded evidence of Smith enjoying himself EVER.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

It's not far away, love

‘Percy’ is a dreadful film. Smutty and prurient but without actually ever getting down to business and just being dirty, it tells the heart-warming story of the world’s first penis transplant, and the recipients search to track down the identity of the original owner by rutting his way around Britain. In an ironic twist (for readers of this web-log), the knob in question turns out to have been the very personal property of a deceased ladies man played by Patrick Mower (see ‘The Smashing Bird I Used To Know’), obviously typecast around this time as a bit of a shagger despite the obvious drawback of looking like an anteater.

The only redeeming feature of the whole sorry undertaking is the soundtrack, written by Ray Davies and performed by his group The Kinks. 1971 saw The Kinks in the doldrums commercially, caught between their massive popularity in the mid sixties and their later renaissance in the US as the British rock touring band. Davies songs were as good as ever, but they were delicate, personal things now with less of the immediate appeal of some of their bigger and brasher hits and chart places were no longer guaranteed.

Davies had been working up to this first full soundtrack, having already spent the Summer of 1969 writing satirical songs for TV shows ‘Where Was Spring’ and ‘The Eleventh Hour’, as well as a theme song for the film of popular and controversial sitcom ‘Til Death Us Do Part’. Davies had been disenchanted with the constraints of the pop scene for a long while, preferring to think of himself as a writer for hire, a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who could be equally at home at MGM studios as on ‘Top of the Pops’, so ‘Percy’ must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Although some of the LP is made up of short, pleasant but slightly ineffectual instrumental pieces that make perfect contextual sense, there are several songs that rank up there with Davies’ best work, including the quietly profound ‘Gods Children’ and the reflective, nostalgic (Ray was always nostalgic, even as a young man) ‘The Way Love Used To Be’, two gentle, thoughtful songs that have absolutely no place in a film about a cock operation. I’ve also included an instrumental version of previous hit ‘Lola’ from the LP for no other reason that it ROCKS and I do occasionally wonder if this web-log can be a bit wet sometimes.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Clarity is bliss

The Beach Boys are my favourite band. Although I like the let’s go surfing, let’s get married and let’s get psychedelic songs, my favourite Beach Boys records are from the post-‘Smile’ period when, thrown off-balance by the mental breakdown of their resident genius writer and producer Brian Wilson, the less prodigiously talented members of the group stepped up to help their damaged leader, releasing a series of fragile, uncertain group albums that are beautiful and moving in their simplicity and cracked vulnerability.

Simian quite clearly share my enthusiasm for this era, as their debut LP ‘Chemistry Is What We Are’ (2001) is full of the quiet harmonics, delicate harmonies and occasionally haphazard musical settings characteristic of Beach Boys LP’s like ‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Friends’ and ’20-20’. More than mere copyists, however, Simian add to the mix with some idiosyncratic songs, a pleasingly retro arsenal of electronic effects and hints of the intelligent dance music that would become their stock in trade on their next LP (‘We Are Your Friends’) and subsequent projects (Simian Mobile Disco).

Creating a half-remembered dream world of menacing scarecrows, strange lights in the sky, cawing crows and creaking fences, ‘Chemistry Is What We Are’ prefigures many of the reference points of the whole Hauntology genre with its atmospheric, strangely nostalgic settings, but does so with wistful pop melodies and abundant vocal harmonies as well as bleeps, blips and other assorted radiophonics. It’s also well designed, featuring a gallery of strange, chimeric hybrid creatures like the sheep dog featured on the cover. Pretty much ignored on its release, and still under the radar today, the LP is highly recommended to anyone unusual interested in the interesting and unusual.

Two tracks: broken psychedelic ballad ‘You Set Off My Brain’ and stomping futuristic singalong ‘One Dimension’.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

What's there to smile about?

I first saw ‘O Lucky Man!’ in the mid-80’s in the days when television channels would show strange and interesting films on Friday and Saturday nights after the pubs closed in order to confuse and disturb returning drunks. I was confused and disturbed by it.

Now I am sober, I have come to the conclusion that ‘O Lucky Man!’ is probably the best British film of the 1970’s (if that isn’t damning it with faint praise) and is also one of the richest, most enigmatic films that I have ever seen - or an empty, meaningless confidence trick that has taken me in completely.

Building on the success of surreal Palm d’Or winning public school / student revolution film ‘If….’ (1968), director Lindsay Anderson, writer David Sherwin and star Malcolm McDowell reunited to make a film that is not so much a sequel as a story from a parallel universe where characters from the first film interact with barely an acknowledgement of their shared past. Heavily allegorical (I usually reach for the Anadin on hearing this term), the film started as a screenplay about McDowell’s early career as a coffee salesman in the North of England, but Sherwin and Anderson fleshed out the basic material to epic proportions, making it a warts and all snapshot of Britain in the early 70’s as well as a commentary on how Capitalism and the big business machine are fuelled by the innocence and optimism of the young and ambitious.

Not in the least realistic, the film has a great cast of British character actors (Arthur Lowe; Mona Washbourne; Warren Clarke; Graham Crowden; Peter Jeffries) all of whom play several roles (Captain Mainwaring blacks up to play the dictator of the African state of Zingara) and the story unfolds over nearly three hours, following McDowell’s Mick Travis character from his first day on the job (literally, he is seduced by the personnel officer) through a strange but logical chain of events that propel him to the top then plunge him to the very bottom, only to bounce back when he auditions for a role in the film ‘If….’

A quick and not exhaustive list of scenes that stick in the mind and stay stuck: Travis in a gold suit walking away from a fatal car accident with a big cheese; chocolate sandwich; suicide presented as a silent melodrama; the pig man (the reason my wife won’t watch the film again) and the escape from the research lab; the film audition where the battered, homeless Mick is asked to smile and asks ‘whats there to smile about?’ only relenting when he is hit around the head, hard, by director Lindsay Anderson.

McDowell is excellent in the central role: confident, greedy (he wants to be ‘where the money is’), but actually desperately naive and an easy target for exploitation for malign and corrupting influences. In many ways, ‘O Lucky Man!’ has parallels to McDowell’s other great film of the period, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, but whereas ultra-violent droog Alex is a knowing sociopath who bends the world around him to his will, Mick Travis is an innocent at the mercy of an evil world, although, like Alex, all his trials and tribulations ultimately leave him more or less unchanged.

The music is by Alan Price and is more than integral to the film, it’s actually integrated into the film in both a diegetic and non-diegetic way (Price and his band appear in the film as a Greek Chorus, but also as characters in the narrative). The songs, which were written before the actual film was made, provide a perfect commentary on the dramatic action, and are easily the best thing that Alan Price has ever done.

As I love this film so much I’m going to pull out all the stops, so please find three tracks from the film soundtrack: the gentle instrumental ‘Pastoral’, the poignant ‘My Hometown’ and the reprised version of ‘O Lucky Man’ that soundtracks the climactic party scene, then, if you haven't seen the film, go and get the DVD immediately.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009


Vernon Elliot was a bassoonist, a teacher, a writer, conductor, composer, beekeeper. He spent his life in classical music, although he is now probably best known for his scores and cues for the Small Films productions of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, including ‘Pogles Wood’, ‘Noggin the Nog’, ‘Ivor the Engine’ and my childhood favourite ‘The Clangers’ (I had Clangers wallpaper in my room; when a clip from the show appeared on ‘Dr. Who’, I thought my life was complete).

Vernon’s music for ‘The Clangers’ is some of the best written for any TV programme ever, kids show or not. Recorded live on a summer day in a village hall with all of the windows open, ‘The Clangers’ music is beautiful in its simplicity, eccentricity and poignancy – it’s ethereal and other-worldly, but couldn’t have been recorded anywhere here else but England, on a summer day in a Village Hall with all of the windows open. It’s wonderful music, folky, classical, pastoral, beautiful.

‘Introduction’ blends Vernon’s score with the mellifluous voice of Oliver Postgate, and always reminds me of the superlative opening sequence of Powell & Pressburger’s ‘A Matter Of Life & Death’: a slow drift through space, a patrician narrator, a sense of the universe unfolding before you. ‘Glowhoney’ is a pretty little tune that every interesting instrument in the orchestra to create a sound picture that recalls the best of Debussy or Vaughan Williams. Marvellous.

Please contact me immediately if you have any information on where I can get ten rolls of ‘Clangers’ wallpaper, or any advice on how to get my wife to agree to my redecoration scheme.