Thursday, 30 April 2009

East Anglian Pageant: Thorpeness

In-between tinkering with all sorts of things, including this blog, Unmann-Wittering are currently working on a tribute to library / private press LP’s we call ‘East Anglian Pageant’, a musical celebration of our home region. Each individual track will focus on providing a soundtrack for a village or town across the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, and demonstrational MP3’s will be posted here as they emerge.

Thorpeness is on the rapidly eroding Suffolk coast, approximately 25 miles from Ipswich. In 1910, the tiny hamlet (and most of the surrounding area) was purchased by a Scottish millionaire and developed into a private fantasy resort for his family and friends to spend their Summers in. Notable features of this strange and slightly unsettling place are a Peter Pan themed shallow artificial lake complex called The Meare, a variety of houses built in mock archaic styles, including Tudor & Jacobean, and a 75ft high water tower converted to residential use called ‘The House in The Clouds’ (pictured).

Extremely busy in the Summer as a day trip and holiday destination, the village is virtually deserted and even more surreal during the rest of the year, so an off-season trip is recommended as the best way to see this extraordinary place. If Anglia TV ever remake ‘The Prisoner’, you can bet that this will be their first thought for a location.

‘Thorpeness Uncooperative Band’ seeks to portray a busy Summer day in this odd little resort. The sun is shining, the ducks are swimming, a brass band is playing, but something is not quite right, and we don’t just mean the drummer’s timing…

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Daphne builds it

Daphne Oram was a true musical pioneer, regardless of her gender, regardless of the genre.

Interested in synthetic music since the early 1940’s, Daphne was determined to bring electronic composition to a wider audience and, using her position as a respected studio manager, she teamed up with colleague Desmond Briscoe to lobby the BBC to recognise the possibilities of the new avant garde sounds and techniques emerging from the musique concrete movement.

In 1958, the powers-that-were relented, and the wonderful BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded to provide unusual sound effects for radio and television shows. In October of that year, BBC bigwigs made the mistake of sending Daphne to the Brussels World Fair, one of the pivotal events in electronic music history, where she heard new works by composers of the calibre of Edgar Varese, Iannis Xenakis, Hank Badings, Pierre Schaefer and Karl-Keinz Stockhausen, and, realising that the full potential of British electronic music was unlikely to be realised under the stewardship of penny pinching, unimaginative and cloth-eared BBC executives, she returned to the UK and promptly handed in her resignation.

Operating out of her own studio, Daphne spent the next 30 years providing new music and sounds for a bewildering array of artistic endeavours: including concert pieces, adverts, jingles, radio plays, theatre productions and film scores (including ‘The Innocents’, continuing this blog’s six degrees of separation to Peter Wyngarde theme), as well as lecturing and providing practical electronic music demonstrations in schools, colleges and universities around the country.

Working at a time when arts council grants were still available for decent stuff, Daphne used the external funding to invent her own ‘Oramics’ machine, an electronic instrument that translated drawings into sound in a way that I don’t fully understand, and can’t hope to explain, and the development and perfection of this fascinating and revolutionary device kept her busy for the rest of her working life.

A mass of archive Daphne material is currently held by the music department of Goldsmith College in London, who are making good use of it with an ongoing programme of events. The original and only Oramics machine is currently in storage in London, awaiting a clean up and a permanent home.

Here are two tracks showing two of the many sides of the estimable Ms. Oram: the experimental ‘Look At Oramics’, and the educational ‘Adwick High School No. 4: The Evil Eye’ recorded at a Doncaster school during one of her electronic music workshops.

Monday, 27 April 2009

I feel the stab of pain returning

Cliff Richard hit his zenith of personal cool in 1958: it’s all been downhill from there, a fifty year descent from surly rocker to national smirking stock. Cliff has frequently claimed to be ‘the most radical rock star there has ever been’ for his strict avoidance of sex and drugs and booze and Godlessness, but this is clearly a load of self-justifying rubbish: Cliff has always been a square, and the fact that he terrified people in the 1950’s for a short time is indicative of how conservative Britain was in those days, rather than how radical he was.

To be even handed, though, it wasn’t all Cliff’s fault. There was simply no mechanism in 1958 that could have been called a rock and roll industry – upcoming music stars had to move almost immediately into show business if they were to stay popular, and show business in the late fifties meant Tin Pan Alley, The London Palladium and Panto. Within a year of arriving, Cliff was already on his way out as a menace to society: his Elvis sneer replaced by a smile, ‘Move It’ replaced by ‘Livin’ Doll’ and moody, provocatively jiggling ‘Oh Boy’ performances replaced by song and dance routines in straw hats on Sunday night telly for all the family.

From there on in, Cliff was Mr. Showbiz, and whether he was driving a bus to Athens with frequent stops for mediocre songs, or releasing yet another big ballad or Granny Clapper with an Oompah Band, he was, in rock and roll terms at least, very old hat, out of touch. Just as Beatlemania was hitting big and British beat stars were tearing the US apart, Cliff found God. By 1967, the most psychedelic year in world history, Cliff was making films with the Billy Graham Organisation.

But people loved him, they’ve always loved him, even if he was only cool for a year, and missed every chance to hit the zeitgeist since and, every now and again, he has his moments: plenty of kitsch favourites, some great pop records and, once in a while, a stone cold classic.

‘Throw Down A Line’ is a Top Ten single from 1969, written by Hank Marvin (In contrast to Cliff, The Shadows always tried to keep up and did so very nicely, thanks) and is probably the closest Cliff ever got to making a psychedelic rock record. A crunching martial beat and a short squeak of feedback lead into one of Cliff’s most impassioned vocal performances, detailing a world where ‘men are tied with chains of silence’ and ‘talons of steel have grown’ before pleading for assistance for a drowning boy ‘hanging in the nowhere tree’ (mixing your metaphors is very psychedelic). That boy, of course, is Cliff himself, and the standard interpretation is that he is singing about being rescued from moral turpitude by Jesus, but don’t let that taint your enjoyment of what may be the best single Cliff ever made (and definitely the only one with an atonal sitar-y guitar solo) during his long, steady slide into irrelevance.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Magic is afoot

Various Magic Noises, Volume One: Concrete Cave (to give its full Kennel Club name) is a mix originally made for and posted on the marvellous Very Good Plus forum, the nearest I’ve ever got to having a Club in town.

It’s a compilation of tracks that have no particular unifying theme, but seem to fit together nicely, and combines film soundtracks, library music, an Unmann-Wittering track and the French. For any followers of this blog that look for recurring motifs, Messers Bowie and Kirchin are present and correct.

Tracklisting in comments.

Magic fact one: Magician Ali Bongo's real name was William Wallace, and he was not Arabian. That's two facts.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

So long, Jack

Film legend Jack Cardiff has died at the age of 94. Astonishingly, Jack worked in the industry for 89 years, from his earliest appearance as a child actor in a 1918 silent, to his last cinematography job two years ago. In his career he did more or less everything there is to do behind the camera, working with directors of the calibre of Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston, as well as filming more or less everybody worth filming including Olivier, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe and, um, Sylvester Stallone. Jack also directed a number of films himself: an eclectic mix of the quite high-brow and the fairly low-down, including ‘Sons & Lovers’, ‘Scent of Mystery’ (the first film made in Smell-o-vision), Vikings vs Moors epic ‘The Long Ships’ (my favourite film as a five year old) and two unusual exploitation pieces, psychedelic saucefest ‘Girl On A Motorcycle’ with Marianne Faithfull and circus freak horror ‘The Mutations’, featuring music from Basil Kirchin’s ‘Worlds Within Worlds’ project.

I had the pleasure of being in the same room as Jack Cardiff about 12 years ago, and as I listened to him talk modestly and intelligently about his long and incredible career, I remember hoping that he would be around forever. He didn’t manage it, unfortunately, but he had a bloody good go!

Flash girls

With her late sister Dolly, Shirley Collins was one of the focal points of the British Folk Revival of the mid-60’s, challenging the conventions of the genre and pushing it beyond the cliché of the acoustic guitar and the finger in the ear. On ‘Folk Roots, New Routes’ she teamed up with Davy Graham to give the world jazz-folk fusion; on ‘Anthems In Eden’, Dolly came to the fore with arrangements for early instruments, ably assisted by the great David Munrow & The Early Music Consort, and created the first British folk concept album: a suite on the terrible impact of The Great War on Merrie England, with the unusual and delicate settings perfectly evoking a land of lost content.

The follow up LP ‘Love, Death & the Lady’ (1970) is my favourite Shirley & Dolly Collins album, even though it is perhaps the bleakest recording they ever made. In fact, Shirley has said "it wasn't easy music to listen to, I'm surprised anybody bought any of it at all", and that it was recorded at a time when both sisters marriages were in trouble, and the album is imbued with uncertainty and unhappiness as a result. Dolly’s arrangements are stark and scored for a handful of mournful sounding instruments (including portative organ – the thing with the pipes in the picture, as identified by Julian, with thanks) and the songs are about death, murder, fear of desertion, capital punishment, lost love and desolation: a comprehensive catalogue of misery and misfortune.

In its original form, ‘Salisbury Plain’ tells its tragic tale using the simple expedient of Shirley singing accompanied solely by Dolly at the piano. The ‘Salisbury Plain’ presented here is the Unmann-Wittering remix, retooling or diabolical liberty, depending on your point of view. We had, as always, the best of intentions, providing no improvement on the original, but perhaps a slightly different perspective.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Web of sound

Spider and the Flies are a spin-off group featuring members of The Horrors, the lurching punk goth trash pop whatnot band that wear their influences on their black and white striped sleeves and polarise opinion. Although The Horrors own music is fairly one-dimensional, their real importance may be in the impact they have on turning their large teenage following onto the interesting music (Joe Meek, the Cramps, Krautrock, garage punk) they enthuse about in their interviews. Spider and The Flies may be prove to equally influential, although it’s a potentially very odd (but interesting) world where the kids are all listening to Iannis Xenakis and forming bands that wear white lab coats and build their own oscillators.

Mini LP ‘Something Clockwork This Way Comes’ is part BBC Radiophonic Workshop, part banging techno and part screaming migraine, and could be described as 21st century pop musique concrete. Many of the tracks appear to be just the band (and ex-Add N to X man Barry 7) messing about with noise making machines, recalling the pioneer days of electronics where it took six months of soldering and splicing to achieve sound, without worrying about turning it into a catchy melody.

The best track is probably the first: ‘Million Volt Light’, where formless wibbling grows in volume and intensity before falling into a diminuendo final section that is reminiscent of the sinister electronic atmospheres Tristram Carey created for William Hartnell-era Dr. Who.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Look at those cavemen go

With its jumble of random images, grandiose orchestral arrangement and soaring vocals, ‘Life on Mars’, is one of David Bowie’s most enduring songs; it’s also one of the most covered songs in his repertoire. Traditionally, Bowie songs are not frequently re-interpreted, perhaps because they are so idiosyncratic, but ‘Life On Mars’ has enough of the standard about it to appeal to passers-by in need of quality material.

Betwixt Broadway and the Bee Gees, Barbra Steisand went through a ‘difficult’ period in the mid-70’s and took to recording eclectic and slightly eccentric songs in an attempt to tap into the prevailing freak scene. Her typically bravura interpretation of 'LOM' would grace the stage of any luxury liner, but she clearly has no idea what the lyrics mean (fair enough, neither do I), and also provides us with an interesting pronunciation of ‘Ibiza’.

The Kings Singers, on the other hand, confound their traditional image as annoying TV ponces with an otherworldly version of the song that peaks halfway through the first chorus with a transcendent passage of great beauty that recalls the 22nd century madrigals performed by holographic musicians in ‘The Flipside of Dominick Hyde’. Nice.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Now: Zero

J.G Ballard has died at the age of 78.

I have read more of Ballard's books than of any other author, and like the world less now he is no longer part of it.

In an unhappy coincidence related to my previous post, Ballard and Peter Wyngarde knew each other, having both been interned at the Lunghua Camp in Singapore during the war.

I can recommend more or less every word he ever wrote, but my personal choices are 'High Rise' and 'Concrete Island', both featuring his obsession with how quickly the thin veneer of civilisation peels away under stress, and the savagery of survival.

It's the faith of love he's after

No piece about Peter Wyngarde would be complete without making references to Jason King and the actor’s fall from grace after his 1974 arrest for a public decency offence, so - there you go, my obligation is complete. Before he grew a Zapata moustache and became a short-term seventies superstar, however, Wyngarde gave a number of fine performances in some notable films, particularly in the under-rated ‘Night Of The Eagle’, the closest thing this country ever got to a Mario Bava film. Wyngarde also managed to terrify without saying a word in ‘The Innocents’, as the unquiet ghost of the evil, corrupting gamekeeper Peter Quint: his appearance behind Deborah Kerr in the hide and seek sequence is one of the most frightening and genuinely horrific things I have ever seen in thirty years of watching horror films.

Wyngarde would have no doubt enjoyed a longer and more illustrious film career if it had not been for the advent of the kitchen sink drama, which demanded, for a time at least, that British film stars be regional, proletarian, angry, and able to pass as a factory worker or borstal boy. The impeccable Wyngarde could never convince anyone that he cycled to work, so he stuck with TV (he had already played a bewildering range of small-screen roles, including Sidney Carton and Long John Silver), making notable appearances in ‘The Avengers’ (including the never to be forgotten S&M fest ‘Touch of Brimstone’ episode) and ‘The Prisoner’ (as the only Number Two that wore eyeliner) before landing a supporting role in ‘Department S’ that quickly became a star turn and a massively successful spin-off series.

Only an intermittent presence on our screens since the mid-70’s, Wyngarde maintains a dignified silence as to whether he sought to withdraw from the limelight, or had the limelight taken from him, but, either way, it seems a terrible shame that this fine actor and unique screen presence didn’t take (or get) more opportunities to entertain us over the last 35 years.

‘The Way I Cry Over You’ is an uncontroversial track from the great man’s controversial (& quickly withdrawn) 1970 LP ‘When Sex Leers It’s Inquisitive Head’, released as he approached the height of his fame. Wyngarde’s delivery is perfectly judged: fruity but never hammy, and, ultimately, rather moving…but then I am famously soft of the heart and head in these matters.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Lost in the stars

I read today that legendary guitarist Brian May's PhD was on 'Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud'. Not content with getting his Dad to make his guitar out of the fireplace and popularising the poodle perm and white clogs look, it now seems he may also invented Stereolab.

Brian is often criticised for playing the same solo on every Queen track but that's extremely unfair. I love that solo, and I never get tired of hearing it.

Queen used to be Unmann's favourite band, but he liked Roger ('drums and leopard skin trousers') Taylor the best.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Bent Mind

At some point in the early sixties, Dirk Bogarde (‘the matinee idol of the Odeon’, and the UK's biggest box office draw of the 50's) decided that he was going to start making serious films that were commensurate with his great talent. He started well with ‘Victim’, a daring portrayal of homosexuality at a time when it was still illegal, but found it difficult to immediately break the mould.

His nadir was probably ‘The Singer Not The Song’, in which he played a cat stroking leather clad Mexican bandido, a role he found humiliating, but incredibly arousing (Dirk was nothing if not narcissistic), and it would take him another couple of years (and another ‘Doctor’ film) before he really took control. ‘The Mindbenders’ (1962) was a conscious attempt by the star to take the reins, teaming him up again with ‘Victim’ director Basil Dearden.

When a respected Oxford University Professor throws himself from a train prior to being revealed as a Russian spy, Dr. Longman (Bogarde) argues that his colleagues uncharacteristic behaviour was the result of radical experiments in sensory deprivation. In order to prove his theory, Longman undergoes the same treatment - not only threatening his happy marriage, but his sanity.

‘The Mindbenders’ is often described as a precursor to Ken Russell’s typically bombastic ‘Altered States’, but whereas Russell’s film is infused with the hippy ideal of discovering your inner self, Dearden’s film is about the destruction of the inner self, and the unscrupulous filling of the hole with hatred and treachery and suspicion.

An interesting attempt at fusing cold war paranoia with a domestic melodrama, the film’s best sequence shows Longman undergoing the deprivation treatment, floating in a giant metal tank of warm water and running the gamut between amusement, annoyance, arousal, hysterical, screaming terror and, finally, an empty fugue state.

Bogarde is very watchable (he does the classic trick of making it seem that he’s making it up as he goes along) and is perfectly convincing as the arrogant and complacent academic (a role he always played to perfection), and Mary Ure is equally good as his devoted, and very sexy, wife, but, in hindsight, the casting of Wendy Craig as a vampish and nihilistic beatnik should perhaps have been avoided.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Carey, Carey, Carey

Carey Blyton described himself as a Miniaturist, a composer that specialised in short orchestral scores and incidental music. Working primarily from the early sixties up until the early nineties, Carey wrote prolifically for film documentaries (like ‘Aerosols: What? Why? How?’), television (including commercials) and music libraries, and composed a number of mini-operas and chamber pieces for performance in schools.

In a move indicative of more enlightened and adventurous times, the BBC hired Carey to write the music for three Dr. Who serials, ‘Dr. Who & The Silurians’ (1970), ‘Death To The Daleks’ (1974) and ‘Revenge of The Cybermen’ (1975). In a contrast to the electronic Radiophonic music most associated with the show at this time (although the Workshop did electronically treat some of his recordings), Carey scored his music for woodwind, brass and a variety of archaic and unusual instruments, allowing the unique experience of a Silurian entering a scene to the strains of a crumhorn, and a Dalek attack accompanied by a saxophone quintet.

Carey died in 2002, leaving behind a legacy of work that is yet to be sympathetically compiled. He is probably best known to younger readers as the composer of the ‘Bananas In Pyjamas’ theme to the terrifying TV show of the same name.

It's either real or it's a dream

In recent years, the concept of the musical ‘guilty pleasure’ has gained some currency, although the misanthrope in me feels compelled to point out that it is now generally used by people that have appalling musical taste to refer to slightly offbeat records they like that fall outside of their usual sphere of tone deafness. The original idea, however, is valid, so, in those terms, I’m here to confess to my deep and abiding love of the Electric Light Orchestra. That said, I’m not always sure what I should be guilty about – at their peak, E.L.O were a great pop band, full of invention, and with a unique sound and finely crafted songs – it’s just that they have just never been cool, even in 1978-1980, when they bestrode the pop world like bearded, shaggy-permed Brummy colossi.

Often dismissed as mere Beatles copyists, the pomp pop classical crossover sound of much of their material is an acquired taste, but hits like ‘Living Thing’ & ‘Shine A Light’ appear to be perennial judging by the tinny dance cover versions that blare out of the aerobics class opposite the bingo hall where I sometimes use the cash machine. ‘Telephone Line’ is a classic, even though it seems a close cousin to the Rah Band’s cheesy cosmic fable ‘Clouds Across The Moon’: to me, it sounds as if the call is crossing time and space, although I may be over-egging that particular pudding; ‘Twilight’ conjures up images of unicorns drinking at a crystal lake in an airbrushed Roger Dean rip-off seventies painting. That’s a good thing, by the way, and although the track is constantly under threat of derailing itself with its own silliness, it’s a lot of fun.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Basil Kirchin is our friend

Of all the fantastic music that Trunk Records has introduced us to over the last ten years, I am most thankful for their series of amazing Basil Kirchin releases which, according to latest reports, isn’t quite finished yet. I find it difficult to summarise how I feel about Basil’s music as it's an emotive subject for me: it isn’t always an easy listen but, no matter how far out it gets, you can always sense the care taken, the intelligence behind the experimentation, the burning desire to say something new, and that makes it, for me, some of the most joyful, most exhilarating music made in the 20th century.

Basil died in 2005, but did so in the knowledge that his music was being appreciated by its widest ever audience, something that Jonny Trunk can be inordinately proud of.

In a poorly timed but no less sincere tribute to Basil, I’d like to share two tracks with you, both presented in ‘demo’ form. ‘Sketch 2’ is from the Trunk release ‘Charcoal Sketches / State of Mind’, and is a beautiful jazz tinged and wildlife laden (Exotic birds? Noisy monkeys?) melody that does the incredible thing of making me feel glad to be alive as I listen to it on my daily traipse to work. The second track is the first Unmann-Wittering song to be posted here, ‘Threnody for Basil Kirchin’: an inadequate tribute to a great man and musical visionary much missed by us and a great many other right thinking persons. It's not
much, but it is heartfelt.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Twins and triplets

'Brothers of the Head' is a novella by Brian Aldiss that tells the story of Tom & Barry Howe, conjoined twins living on a remote island nature reserve in Norfolk in an indeterminate future. Along for the ride is a third brother, an undeveloped, ostensibly non-living head nestling on Barry’s shoulder. Eager to exploit their commercial possibilities in a world desperate for novelty, a pop music svengali buys the brothers from their apathetic father and sets out to promote them as The Bang-Bang – the first group in history to have Siamese Twin vocalists. They are phenomenally successful, until all three brothers begin to crave independence…

This short, effective tale is structured as a series of interviews or articles by those caught up in the lives (and love lives) of the weird brothers. Tellingly, the brothers themselves don’t get the chance to speak, they only exist as a third, fourth & fifth party: left to their own devices, despite being stuck together for life, they seem unable to agree on a direction, a story, a point of view, and end up pulling against each other, figuratively and literally.

Published in 1977, a contemporary reading would suggest it to be Aldiss’ reaction to the occasional freak show of Punk but, thirty years on, it appears remarkably prescient in a world where the inmates of a modern day Bethlehem Hospital regularly humiliate themselves for our amusement, with Simon Cowell and Amanda bloody Holden and Piers fucking Morgan sitting in judgement on the performance.

After years in development hell, a ‘Brothers Of The Head’ film came out in 2005. It’s not bad, but doesn’t capture the full, unsettling eeriness of Aldiss’ book in its pseudo-documentary format, although the Norfolk accents are nicely done. The music is surprisingly okay, but tends to be straightforwardly punky, rather than the eerie songs of alienation and interplanetary longing described (and transcribed) in the book, although an acoustic version of ‘Sink Or Swim’ comes closest.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Kicking Off

If you judge a band by when it first got its act together and recorded something decent, then we are a young group, less than six months old; if, however, you judge a group by when it was first conceptualised, then you're going to think badly of us. Tectonic plates move faster.

It will get clearer. The next published post will have all that David Copperfield / Holden Caulfield crap in it.

In the meantime, welcome to our blog. Our true intent is all for your delight.