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’.