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.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Who needs friends?

David Bowie released his debut LP on the same day that ‘Sergeant Pepper’ came out. Only one of the LP’s was a success. Bowie was 20 years old in 1967 and desperate to be a star. His songs told a story, they were cheerful, catchy, quirky, cute – they had elaborate orchestrated arrangements, part music hall, part toytown, all tubas and teeth and showbiz. He has admitted to being fairly confused at this stage of his career – “I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley” – but he was actually fairly focused in his blatant appropriation of Anthony Newley’s style, down to the exaggerated vocal mannerisms and all round entertainer shtick - a shtick his critics still like to beat him with 40 years after the event.

But 'David Bowie' is not that bad, it’s just not hip or cool in any way whatsoever and although it does little to persuade you that Bowie is a major talent at this stage there are some good songs on here and enough ideas to make you think that maybe he has something, he just needs to decide where he’s going to take it and stop being so bleeding chirpy.

Take ‘We Are Hungry Men’: dig beneath the silly arrangement and daft voices and you’ll find a song about a dystopic future society where infanticide and cannibalism are used to relieve over population; J.G Ballard themes set to music by The New Vaudeville Band. If it had been written three years later and given a different setting it would have sat nicely on ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ alongside the other big, weird rock songs about evil messiahs and societal breakdown.

‘Join The Gang’ is a raver with a frenetic pace and a crazy sitar that simultaneously encapsulates and lampoons the swinging scene. With its clever lyrics and well-drawn stereotypes, it sounds like the depressed narrator from ‘The London Boys’ is now firmly established as part of the in-crowd, but has realised that it’s a fairly hollow achievement.

Finally, ‘The Gospel According To Tony Day’ a contemporary b-side that still sounds like Anthony Newley , but the lesser-known, lugubrious, mordant Newley of ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’ (Bowie’s favourite TV show), and is all the better for not trying too hard to be likeable.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

School for Unclaimed Girls

'The Smashing Bird I Used To Know' promises much in the way of simple exploitative fun: it was made at the seamy end of the swinging sixties, it's partly set in a borstal for teenage girls, and the director was sleaze-meister Robert Hartford-Davis. Despite all these ticked boxes, however, it fails to either shock, titillate or entertain and drifts tamely and aimlessly to a supposedly devastating but actually equally pointless conclusion.

Nikki (Madeleine Hinde) is a teenage girl traumatised by the death of her beloved father in a fairground carousel accident. Reaching over to comfort his young daughter, Nikki's Dad fell off his own carousel horse and under the stomping hooves of Nikki's pretend steed which proceeded to pound his head until he pulled that funny, gormless expression that equates to severe brain trauma in films like this.

Naturally, the tragedy haunts her and we join the teenage Nikki at a pretty low ebb, tossing and turning and having psychedelic polarised flashbacks to the accompaniment of Bobby William’s spaghetti western type score and the sound of her Mum shagging gigolo on the make Harry Spenton (a perfectly cast Patrick Mower).

The only bright spot in her life is her relationship with Peter (Dennis Waterman) a young man with a white sportscar and a keen sense of propriety towards the 15 year old girl (‘ere, love, not outside the school’), but this is not enough to save her when the Mower Machine flares his massive nostrils in her direction and after a vicious struggle where the viewer is on the edge of their seat wishing Mower was wearing something other than a very short dressing gown, seedy Pat ends up with a knife in his belly, triggering more psychedelic polarised flashbacks and a complete mental collapse.

Waking from her fugue, Nikki finds herself in a remand home, surrounded by a variety of equally young and obvious female stereotypes: there’s a mixed up lesbian girl, a mixed up pregnant girl, a mixed up black girl and a lot of other girls that are so mixed up that they spend all of their time in the shower or walking around with their tops off. As remand homes go, it seems pretty relaxed and there’s plenty of opportunity for the girls to frug along to groovy music, and endless chances to shower and walk around with their tops off.

Presumably supposed to seem like a dreadful, dehumanising place, the home seems rather nice, and the various examples of bad behaviour wouldn’t be out of place in a moderately raucous episode of ‘Please Sir!’. After a pillow fight in which some topless girls are nearly hurt, Nikki escapes and makes her way to her beloved Peter only to immediately sit on a handy rocking horse and suffer a final polarised psychedelic flashback that leads to her realise that she has issues and should return to custody and get some help. Now, if only Peter will give her a lift in his very fast sports car on the busy, winding, narrow road back to the home…

The very definition of ‘meandering’, ‘The Smashing Bird I Used To Know’ never really gets anywhere and, after Nikki escapes from the remand home, loses all momentum completely until its hasty and equally pointless conclusion. A nice coda shows the fully recovered Mower working his murky magic on a fresh victim – the only character to emerge unscathed, like a cockroach after a nuclear blast.

Director Robert Hartford-Davis specialised in X-certificate films (the bizarre ‘Gonks Go Beat’ excluded) and went on to direct the awful ‘Incense for the Damned’ (also starring Hinde and Mower - which the BBC show once a year, presumably as some sort of in-joke) as well as the rather better ‘The Fiend’, before turning up in Hollywood to direct a couple of barrel scraping blaxploitation movies (‘Black Gunn’, ‘The Take’) and dropping dead from a heart attack in 1977.

An example of a psychedelic polarised flashback accompanied by Bobby William’s spaghetti western type score and the sound of Mower on the job can be heard here if you’re still interested.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Don't go out into the forest

In the good old days when vinyl ruled the world, everybody used to record an LP and the quicker you achieved a thimble full of public recognition, the quicker you got asked. Most celebrity LP’s are forgettable, many are unforgivable, but a select few stand up to be counted in musical terms, not just as ephemeral artefacts of the fleeting nature of fame.

Unlike many celebrity recording artists, actor David Hemmings at least had a track record in music having been a boy soprano in his youth (most notably playing creepy Miles in his mentor Benjamin Britten’s opera of Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’) and knew how to hold a tune, even if the actual holding of it sometimes eluded him. In 1967, fairly famous after his turn in Antonioni’s extremely trendy (but pretty boring) ‘Blow Up’, Hemmings was in Hollywood for an appearance in big budget musical ‘Camelot’ when it was suggested to him that he might want to record an LP. Hemmings liked the idea and, within days, found himself in an MGM studio in downtown L.A with Byrds Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman and a few hours recording time to bash out a few songs that could be packaged to cash in on his current profile and hip counter-cultural image.

Recorded in a rush, the magnificently titled 'David Hemmings Happens' (Hemmings’ favourite saying was ‘if nothing is happening, make something happen’) is a carefree and careless record, part-improvised, part-karaoke, part jumble sale, all fascinating. Several of the tracks were more or less made up on the spot, with Hemmings speaking / singing / rapping improvised stream of consciousness lyrics, and he also turns in a decent if occasionally wayward version of ‘Reason to Believe’.

Byrds and psychedelic pomp pop enthusiasts will probably say that stately Gene Clark era Byrds leftover ‘Back Street Mirror’ is the best song, but the best performance is on ‘Anathea’, an apparently ancient folk song that had been recently revived by Julie Felix. The track has an amazing energy, a mix of droning sitars and cosmic Roger McGuinn guitar, all topped off with a dramatic and eloquent vocal from Hemmings as he recounts the timeless, tragic and deeply odd story of a girl, her brother and the evil judge who destroys them both. Marvellously doomy stuff, and a marvellous lyric which deserves printing in full (see comments).

Sadly, after a promising start Hemmings never recorded again as a solo artist, although he did later narrate Rick Wakeman’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’. Remember him this way.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Colossus in a velvet cape

As someone obsessed with music, film, TV and literature, I am in the business of admiring people that I have never met, and never will meet. For some, I feel affection, sometimes even something like a crush, but there is only one stranger I have ever loved and that is Mr. Jo(h)n Devon Roland Pertwee.

I was very young when he became the third Doctor Who, but I remember the impact he had on my life vividly. Whereas many people say they watched the show behind the sofa, I watched it sat on the edge of my seat, crisp sandwich in hand, absolutely gripped by what I was watching. At this stage in the series, Doctor Who was exiled to Earth, so everything that happened, no matter how fantastic, took place in the familiar brown and mustard settings of the world I knew, opening up my imagination to the infinite possibilities of living on a planet where mankind was constantly under threat from the most evil minds in the galaxy, with only one man (well, Timelord) able to stand in their way.

Pertwee played the Doctor as an intergalactic cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes: suave, sardonic, snappy, resourceful, indestructible, deadly. Although to the adult eye the fight scenes now have a comedic value (Pertwee was essentially a comic actor) as a child I found them very exciting: not only was the Doctor a genius, he could also boot arse and do (Venusian) Kung Fu! Chuck in the gadgets Pertwee was so fond of (the Whomobile, a space age hovercraft, was a favourite) and his flamboyant Victorian gentleman look (all velvet and ruffles and capes and cloaks, topped off with a thick head of immaculate white hair) and its not surprising that I held him in such high regard. Actually, ‘high regard’ is putting it too mildly: I loved him, I was obsessed with him, he was my hero, the 50 year old actor that had been expelled from RADA for writing graffiti in the toilets.

It couldn’t last, of course. Pertwee left the role in 1974, and the Doctor changed into the infinitely less loveable Tom Baker. There was the odd repeat (no videos or DVD’s in this primitive age) and I had my collection of Dr Who annuals, Target books, a few puzzles and some badges from Sugar Smacks cereals, but that was that, the bubble had burst – he was gone and he wasn’t coming back (actually he did come back, briefly, but in later years, long after I’d given up on the show). But I loved him, regardless of ‘Whodunit’ or ‘Worzel Gummidge’ or anything else he did where he wasn’t reversing the polarity of something or karate chopping a Sea Devil - and I still love him, even after all this time.

Jon Pertwee died on the 20th of May, 1996. On the 13th anniversary of his death, I’m posting the first Pertwee era Dr. Who title sequence, a simple tribute but something that still fills me with a frisson of childish excitement thirty five years after the event.


Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Check Your Style

Matt Berry is probably best known as a comic actor familiar from appearances in ‘Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place’, ‘The I.T Crowd’ and his own occasionally brilliant series ‘Snuff Box’, as well as lending his fruity, self-consciously dramatic voice to a raft of TV adverts. He is lesser known, however, as an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, music producer, writer and performer with three interesting LP’s to his name.

His latest, ‘Witchazel’ (2009) is a blend of 80’s pop, quirky folk, pastoral prog and gentle psychedelia, and is unlike any other new record I’ve heard this year. There’s some very good stuff on here, often without revealing any particular point of reference or fitting into any recognisable genre. Whereas many contemporary artists reveal their influences on a song by song, verse by verse, note by note basis, Berry has his own sound, an amalgam of different styles filtered through an idiosyncratic mind and pieced together in seclusion for his own amusement.

He plays more or less all of the instruments on the album himself, including forgotten favourites the glockenspiel, the accordion and the melotron, and provides excellent (though higher than expected given his dulcet speaking voice) vocals. He also has a nice sense of melody and, as you may expect given his day job, has an amusing way with an offbeat lyric, although none of the songs are overtly comic in nature. Far from being a vanity project (despite the appearance of guest star for hire Paul McCartney in a sleepy but quite funny cameo), ‘Witchazel’ is a fine album that deserves a wider audience. ‘Take My Hand’ is probably the most immediate track on the album, and ‘Rain Came Down’ is the track with a fleeting appearance by Sir Macca.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

I feel cheated and small

1978 was a big musical year for me, the year I started to notice music rather than just let it float around me. Up until then I had just gone with the flow. I’d liked ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and realised it made me want to jump up and down more than Mrs. Chandler’s piano playing at assembly, but I still hadn’t grasped that there was an intelligence, an industry, an agency behind music, and that the records I liked didn’t just appear from nowhere and then disappear back into the ether like a burst of rain or a playground craze. 1978 was the first time I realised that there were people behind music, that they had a purpose, a modus operandi, and that some of them were much better at it than others.

It first occurred to me on a family holiday in Wales when we’d basically driven around all week listening to the radio in the breaks between castles and slate mines. Hearing the same records over and over clarified that there were major differences between them, and I started to think a lot about what those differences were and what they meant, as well as to ponder long and hard about why I preferred one record over another and what they said about me. I haven’t really stopped pondering since.

So, what was on the radio in 1978 that so caught my interest? Well, it wasn’t The Clash, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk or whatever supposedly seminal stuff I could retrospectively boost my cool with. No, I liked the poppy stuff, but the clever, crafted poppy stuff: Blondie, E.L.O, 10cc, Wings. & City Boy. I liked City Boy.

‘’ has all the hallmarks of great pop: it straddles genres (heavy rock and bubblegum pop); it is about relatable subjects (an unobtainable loved one; the frustration of phone boxes); it combines a strong melody, an insistent beat and harmonised vocals, and it is totally brilliant and utterly ridiculous in equal measure.

Starting off with the sound of the future, a recording of a pushpad telephone dialling the titular number (no dialling code, so presumably a local call, why not just pop ‘round?), the record starts well with some strident harmony singing giving way to a loping but confident instrumental introduction that I think Cliff Richard would later nick for ‘Carrie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ (another classic unobtainable loved one / frustration of phone boxes track). The anguished singer here has got himself ‘just one more dime’ (I think may have identified the problem) and is pleading for the operator to hold the line as there’s no reply. A common enough scenario, you think, just call back later, but you are overlooking the sheer anguish of communicating across distance in the days before the mobile phone. You can bet that our narrator is in a piss-filled box miles from nowhere with a string of disgruntled people queuing outside pulling faces and tapping at the glass with their two pees. To make things worse, his girlfriend’s not answering because she’s not really his girlfriend she’s a strumpet with a penchant for casual sex and mental torture and the pips are going and the coin slot keeps spitting out that last dime like a sick child spits out Penicillin.

City Boy do this heavy situation absolute justice with a very serious record that runs the gamut from everyday annoyance to paranoid psychodrama to, ultimately, the abject humiliation of our hapless narrator ‘all over town’. It’s big and daft and catchy and made by men in aviator shades and satin jackets with the sleeves pushed up and I absolutely fucking love it.

‘’ was City Boy’s only hit. It got to number 27.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Whipped cream

In a world where ‘larger than life’ has become a euphemism for a fat celebrity, I find it comforting that the human race once produced a man as remarkable and complex and contrary as Percy Grainger. Born in Australia in 1882, Grainger is primarily known today as a classical composer, but he also managed to fit in being a child prodigy, a vegetarian campaigner, an electronic music pioneer, a concert pianist, a folk song expert and a colossal pervert.

Most famous for his setting of the folk song ‘English Country Garden’ (the ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ of the first thirty years of the 20th century), Grainger collected this and many other half-forgotten British folk songs by trekking around the country making recordings on a wax cylinder. A massive hit, ‘English Country Garden’ soon became something of an albatross for him, overshadowing his more serious work, where he had a tendency to push the barriers of modern music towards the avant garde.

Obsessed with the idea of a ‘free music’ that was not bound by tempo or chromatic scale, Grainger’s music eventually became so free that it was unplayable by conventional means, and he had to build his own machines to help him realise the noises in his head. The first machine worked in a not dissimilar way to a player piano, with amplified valve oscillators reading holes on a roll of paper; a second, more sophisticated, transistorised machine used a strip of indented plastic and a photo-sensitive trigger system. These fascinating experiments were conducted in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, and predate both Stockhausen and John Cage’s work, but Grainger is very rarely given the credit for his pioneering role in the electronic music scene, perhaps because of his compartmentalisation as a ‘popular’ composer. Grainger also wrote several pieces for the Theremin, the musical instrument which, with its sweeping glissando and eerie, other worldly sound, Grainger thought closest to his conception of what ‘free music’ would sound like. An example, 'Free Music Number One (for Four Theremins)' can be found here.

A fascinating if sometimes troubling personality, I don’t have enough words left to give you any more than some additional bullet points about his life and character, but I hope this might be enough to give you a further flavour of the man:

· He was so full of energy that he would run to concerts and, when on long, boring sea voyages, would go down to the boiler room and help the stokers shovel coal.

· His Mother committed suicide because of (unfounded) accusations that she and he had an incestuous relationship.

· He was a committed vegetarian, but he didn’t like vegetables.

· He had his own clothing line.

· He was a keen sadomasochist, and supplied the Percy Grainger Museum in Melbourne with a dossier to be opened 10 years after his death that contained hundreds of pages of notes on the subject, and a selection of photographs of himself in compromising (and uncompromising) positions. He also donated several whips and some blood-stained pants.

All in all, he was a pretty interesting fellow.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Was and When

What do aristocratic, buxom folk and blues singer Dana Gillespie and petite, working class soul and pop singer Lulu have in common? Too slow - the answer is Mr. David Bowie, who provided both songs and snogs for both during his long and varied songwriting and snogging history.

Gillespie has had an eclectic career, flitting between song, stage and screen with the haphazard elan of someone that doesn’t have to try too hard. Her eclectic CV includes a couple of decent folk pop LP’s, a lesser-known Hammer film (‘The Lost Continent’), an Amicus Bank Holiday TV favourite (‘The People That Time Forgot’) and playing Mary Magdalene in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Bowie and Dana had been childhood sweethearts (if you can imagine the young, ambitious, shark-like Bowie having time for such a thing), and had later performed together on the folk circuit. When Bowie shot to superstardom in 1972 , both parties were happy to promote the connection, which culminated in Dana’s cover of 'Andy Warhol' on her ‘Weren’t Born A Man’ LP (which pushed it’s point home with a cover picture of Gillespie in full Amsterdam shop window attire). I’m not massively fond of the original, but here she dispenses with the ‘weird’ introduction and awful false laugh of Bowie’s version and presents an unsensational, but pleasant reading of this unsensational but pleasant song. Dana continues to sing and act when she feels like it, cropping up in Actor’s Graveyard ‘The Bill’ once in a while.

Lulu met Bowie at a pivotal time in her career, just as she was about to stop being a singer that also acted and did TV and become a celebrity catalogue model that sang a bit. By 1973, she hadn’t had a Top 5 hit in five years and, although she would shortly perform the theme song for ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’, her cover of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ would be her last major solo hit for another two decades.

Bowie produced, played and sang on the record, and the non-Lulu musical results are pretty good. The light bossa nova feel of the original is tweaked into lurching glam rock by the addition of Bowie’s honking sax, an insistent guitar part and some excellent bongo work. Dave pops up in the background as well, crooning in a low register, his plain but expressive vocal battling against squeaky weak-link Lulu, a pony who does her one trick, sucking the drama out of the lyric in a miasma of melisma.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

What's that pounding in my head?

There is an episode of ‘Hammer House of Mystery & Suspense’ where an investigative journalist tries to track down Ray & Ron Verne, a saturnine pop duo from the 60’s that disappeared suddenly and under circumstances shrouded in mystery and rumour. He eventually tracks down the brothers to a rundown rural mansion filled with jukeboxes: one of the brothers is completely insane, the other a skeleton with a black wig on. I don’t know why, but I always associated them with Paul and Barry Ryan.

Identical twins, the Ryan’s came from a showbiz family and were recording from the age of 15. Never major stars, they had a handful of Top 20 hits and a lot of magazine covers, but never seemed likely to break into the big league, although Paul Ryan had developed into quite an interesting songwriter. Despite their decidedly second division place in the music world, Paul struggled to cope with the pressures of stardom, and found himself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To alleviate Paul’s fragile mental condition, it was decided that he would back out of the spotlight and concentrate on writing songs for the more ambitious Barry to perform, a fair solution, but one that doesn’t take into account that you can’t really have one recognisable identical twin.

The LP ‘Barry Ryan Sings Paul Ryan’ was the first release under the new arrangement, and contained the monster hit ‘Eloise’. The arrangements are huge on this LP, and very typical of 1968: grandiose to the point of being over-blown, puffed up with pomposity as pop became rock and self-consciously Important. A good example of this is the opening track ‘Theme to Eutopia’, an ultimately rather daft anthem for an imaginary country that sounds like Jim MacLaine’s preposterous ‘Oratorio for Womankind’ in the film ‘Stardust’. ‘What’s That Sleeping In My Bed?’ is lighter in atomic weight and almost whimsical, but proof that Paul could write a good little song as well as a great big one.

Despite a few more hits (and superstardom in Germany and the low countries) Barry Ryan disappeared himself in the early 1970’s: no decline and fall, no slow fade - he just stopped, and didn’t come back for twenty years. Altough there were rumours that Barry had been horribly disfigured in an accident, it now seems that he simply stopped performing and recording when Paul became too ill to write any more material for him. It is telling of the influence that Paul must have had on Barry in that Barry only returned to the stage (on the Golden Oldies circuit) after Paul died in 1994, and can still be found belting out ‘Eloise’ in various provincial theatres to this day.

Monday, 11 May 2009

In a fix

Billed as a
‘phantasmagoria of fright’,
‘Fragment of Fear’ (1970)
never quite lives up to the hyperbole of that statement but is, nonetheless, a solid and intriguing thriller with an interesting premise, a great cast, and a fantastic soundtrack.

Tim Brett (David Hemmings) is a reformed heroin addict turned best selling confessional author who is pitched into danger when his newly discovered Aunt Lucy (Flora Robson), a kindly old woman known for her selfless work in reforming criminals is found murdered in the ruins of Pompeii. Eager to make some sense of the seemingly random killing (and with one eye to his next book) Tim sets out to find the truth, but soon finds himself the victim of those who want their secrets kept secret, and are prepared to use any means necessary to effect his silence.

Directed by Richard C. Sarafin (his next film would be ‘Vanishing Point’), ‘Fragment of Fear’ is actually a very cool little film, with appearances from British acting institutions like Mona Washbourne, Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte and Dave from ‘Minder’. The screenplay (by Paul Dehn, writer of the four ‘Planet of the Apes’ sequels and, therefore, some sort of God in my eyes) is clever and literate, methodically setting out the steps by which the already edgy Tim is pushed to his very limits, and creating a paranoid world where appearances can not only be deceptive, but deadly.

David Hemmings was an interesting actor at his peak, in possession of a gravitas that belied his boyish face and small, slight frame, and with a calm, sonorous voice that veered between Received Pronunciation and Estuary English. He plays the brittle Tim to perfection here, making him insecure and naïve, but with more than a touch of petulance and arrogance, and a tendency towards the withering putdown and sudden burst of anger. He is particularly good when trawling the Late Night Chemists and dirty alleys where he served his junkie time, his expression a mix of disgust and longing as he joins a crowd gawking at a hapless junkie shooting up. Ironically, it is the character’s most defining characteristic: his addiction, recovery and subsequent success as a writer, that proves to be his downfall: he is too well-known as an ex-junkie to be taken seriously, and his reports of the intimidation he is subjected to are written off as the hallucinatory ravings of a drug fiend.

The music is by Johnny Harris, and is ridiculously good. The gently sinister title track can be found here, and the exhilarating and action packed flute freakout ‘Stepping Stones’ here. Primarily an arranger and conductor, working with Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Lulu (amongst many others), Harris should have become one of the great cinema soundtrack composers of the 1970’s but, sadly, seemed content to disappear into steady but unspectacular work as a Hollywood based TV composer, writing for ‘Wonder Woman’, ‘Buck Rogers’ and a long list of made for TV movies, but rarely displaying the musical gift evidenced by these two superlative tracks.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Magic sponge

Various Magic Noises 3: Flotsam, Jetsam, Lagan is the third and (to date) last in a series of mixes that I originally made for the Very Good Plus Forum. Big on ambience, low on cohesion and purpose, I hope that you enjoy it and use your psychic aerials to send Unmann and I some good vibrations. Track listing in comments.

Magic fact 3: British magician Alan Alan nearly died in 1949 when he buried himself alive and failed to escape as promised. His middle name is also Alan. Probably.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Gone forever, sad but true

My Mum was in love with Billy Fury. My Dad didn’t seem to mind this but, from an early age, my brothers and I knew that if a gaunt looking man with a blond quiff and a gold lame jacket came to the door we should let Mum know immediately to give her time to pack. Funnily enough, despite the constant threat Billy posed our happy home, I always felt sympathetic towards him, liked him, felt a bit sorry for him, as for all his outward glamour he always seemed a tragic, seemingly unfulfilled figure that perhaps needed our Mum just as much as we did.

Born in Liverpool as Ronald Wycherley, he contracted rheumatic fever as a child which weakened his heart and left him with serious health issues that culminated in his death at the pitifully early age of 42. His instant rise to fame was the stuff of fairy tales (or publicity agent hype) – attending a Marty Wilde show to try and sell some songs that he had written, good looking Ronnie was spotted in the crowd by legendary impresario Larry Parnes who pushed him onto the stage to perform a couple of songs before changing his name and signing him to his stable of pretty rockers with dramatic pseudonyms like Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Lance Fortune and Duffy Power.

Initially committed to writing and performing his own hard edged rock and roll material, Billy soon found himself recording ballad after ballad in search of a hit, and his own style and own songs were relegated to b-sides and LP’s (not a particularly popular medium at the time). His live LP ‘We Want Billy!’ and 10” ‘The Sound Of Fury’ (great title) still sound exciting today, pulsating with a raw energy sadly missing from his single releases. For those, Billy seemed to choose (or have chosen for him) songs that emphasised his brooding, melancholic qualities, building a catalogue of material that is, at best, filled with desperate longing and, at worst, downright bloody depressing.

Loved by the girls, admired by the boys, hair teased high, Billy was a constant chart fixture in the early sixties, and although he never had a number one single he was famous enough to star in two films: ‘Play It Cool’ (1962) and ‘I Gotta Horse’ (1963), both of which concentrated on Billy the happy go lucky all-round entertainer rather than Billy the edgy rocker and miserablist sex symbol.

Like many teen idols, Billy’s career slowed down after the arrival of The Beatles (ironically, they had unsuccessfully auditioned to be his backing band a few years earlier) and, by the late sixties, tired, ill and washed up, he more or less retired, with the seventies bringing only a few flop singles, a telling cameo as a washed-up rock star in seminal British Rock & Roll film ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (1973) and several operations on his ailing heart. Bankruptcy in 1980 forced an attempted comeback but this was thwarted first by his inability to tour and secondly (and finally) by his untimely but not unexpected death in 1983. My mum was devastated. An album ‘The One & Only’ was released posthumously, but was not a great success, a suitably downbeat coda to the short, downbeat life of Billy Fury.

Three examples of Fury’s work: ‘Last Night Was Made For Love’ a big hit from 1962, 'In Thoughts Of You', a single from 1965 that turned out to be his last Top 10 hit and, finally, 'Suzanne In The Mirror', a 1967 attempt at psychedelic pop which failed to chart at all.

There is a great statue of Billy Fury on Albert dock in Liverpool. Do go and see it if you’re in the area, if only as an antidote to the city’s all-pervading Beatles industry.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Insect improv

Spontaneous Music Ensemble played improvised avant-garde music for almost thirty years, and never once played the same track twice. Formed by John Stevens and Trevor Watts in the mid-60’s, the SME were initially inspired by free jazz but had a great interest in other art forms at the outer edges of the artistic spectrum, and this showed in their gleefully unconventional, occasionally chaotic approach to performing and recording.

Operating as a collective, the SME boasted some serious musicians in its membership, with UK jazz names like Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Norma Winstone all passing through the ranks, attracted by the concept and, presumably, the lack of rehearsal required.

John Stevens (the mainspring of the project: the SME ceased on his death in 1994) had, apparently, only two rules: don’t play too loud, and make sure you come back to what the rest of the group are doing once in a while. Sometimes scoffed at as being ‘scrape and squeak' music, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble take a typically British approach to freaking out, with the classic SME sound characterised by its space, i.e. passages of wild solo and collective music playing punctuated by quietude; breathing room for the musicians to regroup, shuffle about, sip tea and decide what to do next.

The SME recorded several LP’s, thereby providing the listener with the interesting experience of being able to listen to a live, improvised, unique and never to be repeated performance over and over again. The track ‘Oliv I’ (presented here in an edited form), with its trio of ethereal sounding female vocalists, has a strong folk element and, although the term ‘creepy Wickerman vibe’ has become a bit of an catch all alt-cliché, it seems, for once, appropriate to use in this context.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Down in your alleys seems that anything goes

Was there ever a seamier, seedier, more decadent and degenerate chart topping group than Soft Cell?

Not content with disgusting the moral majority with their uncompromising campness and sexualisation of dwarves, these two Northern sleazehounds had the gall to be extremely popular, albeit for a relatively short period of time. Certainly, I liked them probably more than any other band in 1981, albeit in a quiet, confused, slightly sheepish way, wary of some of their themes and of being kicked to death by my schoolmates.

Their debut LP ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ is a masterpiece of squalor and fantastic pop tunes. Its themes are sex, smut, suburbia, depression, frustration, rage, drugs, aging, blackmail, ennui, broken hearts and dirty secrets. In fact, everything has a patina of dirt, but it is the dirt of perversion, poppers and porn, not the society approved dirty of bums, boobs and Benny Hill. It’s a fantastic listen, and should be played loudly after hours in every sleazy club, bar and clip joint around the world for eternity: it’s music to do wretched things to – to drink too much, to take too many drugs, to hustle and be hustled, to end up in an back alley in a fight, a fuck or a coma, or all three.

The follow up ‘Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing’ was a mini LP released to capitalise on the enormous (number one in 17 countries) success of ‘Tainted Love’, but is a remarkable mix of knowing uber pop, futuristic electronic soul covers and pulsing New York mutant disco, created in a climate of Ecstasy and excess, and about five years ahead of its time.

Subsequent LP’s (they only made another two in their original incarnation) failed to recapture the odd exhilaration of their early dark pop, and they settled into a knowing mix of high camp and low rent electronic melodrama. At their peak, however, they were one of the most interesting and most unsavoury pop groups this country has ever produced, as evidenced here on ‘Seedy Films’ and 'Secret Life' from the ‘Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret’ LP.

Monday, 4 May 2009

No digging

East Anglia is an area of great beauty, but it is not a beauty of rolling hills and lush vegetation – it is a stark, washed-out and lonely beauty, where the dividing lines between land, sea and sky are sometimes blurred and the past is ever present in a landscape that has not significantly changed for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.

There is a myth that the eastern coast of England is protected from invasion by three crowns, buried a thousand years ago. The story runs that whilst at least one of them remains under the ground, East Anglia, and Britain, will be safe. ‘A Warning To The Curious’, one of the excellent BBC ‘A Ghost Story For Christmas’ series that originally ran from 1971 to 1978 (and has recently been revived), starts with the premise that only one crown remains, and that its safety is guarded by tradition and superstition so strong that it can extend beyond the grave.

Paxton (the sharp faced Peter Vaughan) is an unemployed clerk and an amateur archaeologist who is both obsessed with the ancient myth and increasingly desperate for money. Spurred on by information he has found in an ancient book, he makes his way to the quiet coastal village of Seaburg to begin the search for the remaining crown. Unhappily for him, he finds it…

Filmed on videotape, and with a minimal soundtrack of the sea, seagulls, crows, the wind and some muted electronics and strings, this short (50 minutes) film is a masterful example of clever people (Lawrence Gordon Clark adapted, produced and directed) making clever television for a sophisticated audience. Yes, it is a ghost story, but there are no white-sheeted spooks here or creaking floorboards: most of the supernatural activity takes place outside, during the day, in the bleak, flat East Anglian countryside, and is all the more disturbing for it.

‘A Warning to the Curious’ is an unsettling tale of unnerving simplicity. It moves slowly and matter-of-factly and despite a few genuinely shocking moments, prefers to create its effect by presenting a disquieting atmosphere that evokes a sort of low-grade fear in the viewer that grows into an oppressive feeling of quiet panic as the story slowly unfolds. I, of course, love that feeling, and actively seek it out, and I thoroughly recommend this film to anyone else that likes to feel scared and uneasy in their own home.

You can start to get the fear by listening to some low-quality audio snippets I have compiled here.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Nice one, Ron

Ron Grainer is the writer of some of the best and most famous television theme tunes since the medium was invented. Three of them, ‘Steptoe & Son’, ‘Tales of The Unexpected’ and ‘Dr. Who’ will be instantly identifiable to almost everybody in the country even though, ironically, Ron himself did not recognise his own work when Delia Derbyshire played him the Radiophonic version of the Dr. Who theme for the first time: “Did I really write that?” he asked in amazement. He wanted to give Derbyshire a composer credit and royalty, but this was denied by the good old BBC, who liked their employees to remain anonymous and poor.

Australian by birth, Ron came to England in the fifties, just in time for the TV boom. His first notable theme was for ‘Maigret’, the ‘Inspector Morse’ of its day, with Ron bringing out the sinister side of an accordion to memorable effect, before providing those all-time classic BBC themes and a raft of music for ITC action serials, most notably ‘Danger Man’ (cues and incidentals), ‘Man In A Suitcase’ (the theme later reused by ‘TFI Friday) and the amazing opening music to ‘The Prisoner’, a clear cut demonstration of Ron’s genius in that it absolutely complements the action onscreen, creates an anticipatory mood in the viewer AND stands alone as a memorable tune that you can hum on the bus.

Although his career was relatively short and his CV select (he died at only 59), his name on the credits always indicates something worth listening to, whether it be his gentle tunes for ‘A Kind Of Loving’ or the records he wrote and produced for guitar instrumental group The Eagles (including a new version of the ‘Maigret’ theme that might just be the twangiest recording of all time). When he got the chance to write for the big screen he made the absolute most of it, scoring the confidence trickster caper ‘Only When I Larf’ for marching band and Whistling Jack Smith, and providing dystopian sci-fi vampire classic ‘The Omega Man’ with a brilliant blend of elegant flute, lush strings and burbling electronics.

But why take my word for it, when you can hear an alternate, beefier version of ‘The Prisoner’, put your lips together and blow along to ‘Only When I Larf’, and pretend you’re the last man on Earth with ‘On The Tumbril’ from the wonderful Omega Man soundtrack.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Magic Circle

Various Magic Noises, Volume Two: Mounds & Circles. The second in a series of mixes I made for the Very Good Plus forum, this one featuring the very best in library, sci-fi folk, analogue electronics and Jesus music.

No Unmann-Wittering on this one, but you can't have everything, and I occasionally like to post something that isn't shamelessly self-promoting. Tracklisting in comments.

Magic fact two: Magician David Nixon was a great supporter of and major investor in the Mellotron synthesizer company.