Saturday, 26 September 2009

Gently, like thistledown

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

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

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

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

Monday, 21 September 2009

Polarity reversed

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

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

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

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

Friday, 18 September 2009

Progress at all costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Jazz thoughts

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 September 2009

I ain't never comin' back

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 September 2009

Easy prey

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

You've got the power to drive me insane

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 September 2009

Life of Brian

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The album what I wrote

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 September 2009

That something rare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

A force for good

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

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

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

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

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