Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Shire Fact Number Ten

'At Allendale in Northumberland the New Year is welcomed in spectacular fashion by men in fancy dress who process through the streets carrying containers of burning tar on their heads'.

From 'Discovering English Customs and traditions' by Margaret Gascoigne, 1969.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The opposite of ear ache

There are some very interesting things going on at 'A Sound Awareness', a seemingly mothballed blog that has sparked into sudden and exciting life in the last week or so.

Expect lots of articles about graphic design, left field music and film clips, as well as some brilliant original art work from head man Martin Young.

If blogs were people, we'd be planning dinner, maybe a city break. Anyone know what the weather is like in Helsinki at the moment?

Sunday, 28 March 2010

A total waste of mime

As we all know, there are many moods of David Bowie, the absolute worst of which is Mime.

‘The Looking Glass Murders’ (or ‘Pierrot In Turquoise’) was made for Scottish television and shown on New Years Day 1970. Happy Hogmanay! Written by the dream team of Bowie and his theatrical mentor Lindsay Kemp, it tells the story of poor old Pantomime Pierrot who seeks revenge when Harlequin pinches his best girl, Columbine. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? It is.

The production takes place on a single set, with Bowie, as befits a character called ‘Cloud’, sitting on a step ladder and surveying the action, his hair back combed and puffed out, giving him the appearance of a pampered and pissed off pedigree cat umpiring at a bizarre tennis match. The rest of the cast barely achieve the dramatic standard of a junior school nativity play and Jack Birkett, playing Harlequin in an unforgivably revealing costume, is absolutely excruciating.

Two Bowie songs feature on the soundtrack, the old favourite ‘When I Live My Dream’ and the otherwise unreleased ‘The Mirror’. Over a sparse acoustic backing, Bowie makes abstract pronouncements like 'the mirror is hung up on you' and ‘fey troubadour, you're on a downer' as Birkett tiptoes around miming surprise and flashing his arse cheeks. It’s nobody’s finest moment, and STV didn’t choose to make it an annual event.

Anyway, why take my word for it when you can see the evidence with your own poor eyes? Please remember to have some Optrex to hand.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Shire Fact Number Nine

'Saffron Walden owes its significance to the Normans'.

From 'Discovering Essex' by S.M Jarvis, 1971.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Hurrah for Herr Thomas

I’m a big fan of wacky sixties and seventies pseudo-science, and Erich von Danniken’s ‘Chariots Of The Gods’ is a seminal text in the genre.

For those of you not amongst the millions that bought the book, E.v.D theorised that thousands of years ago, aliens visited the primitive world and our hairy knuckled ancestors to give knowledge and tools and inspire The Bible and all that which may or may not be true but is pretty cool.

Inevitably, the best seller was made into a film and, happily, the music for that film was provided by the brilliant German composer Peter Thomas.

Thomas started as an in-demand cocktail pianist in post-war Berlin. He played in bars and clubs in all four of the occupied zones of the city, performing for Americans, British, French and Russian audiences, all with their own favourite songs and styles and concepts of entertainment (a drunken Soviet officer once held a gun to Thomas’ head and said that he would shoot him if he couldn’t play Chopin’s ‘Minute Waltz’ exactly to time. Luckily, Thomas could).

After working as a jack of all trades for live music and drama station RIAS, Thomas began to write the scores for the Edgar Wallace crime thrillers and western b-movies that were the most popular products of the resurgent German film industry, and gained a hard-earned reputation as a talented, versatile, reliable and cost effective resource for all things musical: he could compose, arrange, conduct, record, perform – and he could do it in an interesting (and cheap) way.

Thomas never really had a big break, or a stab at a prestige film or TV project, but he was kept very busy and, ironically, by making music for productions that were neither mainstream or particularly 'credible' (thrillers, horror films, sci fi, soft porn, pseudo science documentaries) he found the freedom to experiment (he loved electronics, even inventing his own proto-synth, the Tho-Wi-Phon), earning him a cult status that has served his long-term reputation far better than simple respectability.

Thomas is still with us, but now spends most of his time overseeing his portfolio of exclusive resort properties, emerging most recently to provide music for the reopening of the Brandenburg Gate and for a Portugese musical called ‘Lady Di - Diana, Queen of Hearts’. No, I haven’t heard it. He's currently working on a musical of 'Hansel & Gretel' - and long may he do so.

Anyway, back to 'Chariots Of The Gods?' (the question mark is classic pseudo-science shorthand for 'yes, it's probably all bullshit'). 'Valley Of The Gods' is a typically eclectic Thomas piece, part exotica, part muzak, part odd and slightly unsettling noises. 'Popular Myth and Destruction of Sodom' has a wonderful title and a cheesy beginning that soon segues into something approximating a clockwork nervous breakdown. Finally, 'Easter Island' is a soothing and brilliantly simple sound picture with some nice jazz flute.

Look out for more Peter Thomas stuff in the future. We love him.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Swiss hit

Whilst we’re telling you about things worth breaking into your piggy bank for, we feel compelled to direct you to Tree Records , home of Swiss Pop-Psych-Prog group Man and Birdman and their limited edition debut single, ‘Stardust’.

It’s got a lot going for it: the fluid bass, groovy organ, and hang loose drums make it swing, and the disembodied vocals, superb guitar and spooky woo woo noises make it rock. The b side is bloody good, too.

Marvellous stuff.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Take Cary

Trunk Records are without doubt my favourite functioning record label. Everything they release, re-release or find in a skip, clean up and unleash on the world is always of the highest calibre and I love them very much.

Case in point, a new Tristram Cary compilation, 'It's time for Tristram Cary' which, for obvious reasons, I heartily endorse.

The compilation collects unjustly obscure works for 'film, television, exhibition and sculpture' and is available on either CD or LP (be quick with the vinyl, it's limited) or, if you're like me, on CD and LP. You can't be too careful with artefacts like this.

You can get it direct from Trunk here now, or from the usual online and real world outlets at the end of the month. Don't let the grass grow.

Shire Fact Number Eight

'Absolutely nothing is known of the history of the Long Man of Wilmington (which has been known in the past as the Lone Man, the Lanky Man or, when overgrown, the Green Man)'.

From 'Discovering Hill Figures' by Kate Bergamar, 1968.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nice Dirk if you can get it

Perhaps appropriately for a film that is about the confusion that ensues when a cool intellect experiences hot emotion, 'Sebastian' (1968) is a haphazard and meandering film that staggers about, reaches no particular conclusion and takes a hundred diversions en route. But it’s full of memorable bits, packed with good performances and is set to a marvellous soundtrack.

Archduke Dirk Bogarde is Sebastian, a brittle and emotionally congested academic who heads up a code breaking unit in London firmly at the forefront of Britain’s cold war defences. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is surrounded by young women (their minds are best at cryptography) he lives a solitary life in a bedsit with horrible wallpaper, obsessively working and compulsively making notes, occasionally hooking up with an alcoholic pop star with whom he is conducting a half-hearted affair.

Enter swinging Susannah York, a free wheeling model / it girl with a dangerously non-comformist attitude (she drives a jeep and wears a furry waistcoast) who is fascinated by Dirky’s snooty attitude and sets her trendy beret at snagging him, taking a job at the unit to get near him. & get near him she does, pitching him into an unfamiliar world where, for once, his head doesn’t have all the answers.

Throw in an evil foreign power, a secret code transmitting satellite, LSD, CND, Dirk frugging (sort of) to The Foundations and you have a very diverting one hour and forty minutes kept chugging along by under-rated director David Greene (follow the tags to see previous Greene entries). The performances are pretty good and the cast is great – as well as Bogarde and York, we get Sir John Gielgud, Lilli Palmer, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sutherland and Ronald Fraser – and the music is excellent.

The main score is by the marvellous Jerry Goldsmith, with electronic effects by our old friend Tristram Cary. ‘First Day At Work’ is a good précis of the whole score, incorporating all the main musical motifs in an interesting and inventive arrangement. ‘The Trip’ is all dissonance and ominous twanging, as seen in the accompanying video footage below.

‘Sputnik Code’ is an electronic creation by Mr. Cary designed to evoke the Russian codes transmitted from space that Sebastian, with his head and loins in turmoil, struggles to crack until an unplanned encounter with a baby called Jason

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Shire Fact Number Seven

'A monk's day was divided up, not by meal-times like our day is, but by the services of the church'.

From 'Discovering Abbeys & Priories' by Geoffrey N. Wright, 1969.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

It's all wrong

Despite spending most of the sixties in search of a hit, Paul Nicholas had to wait until he was a well established star of stage and screen before he got anywhere near the charts.

Hugely successful in 1976, I hope the damage to his mortal soul was worth it as, frankly, his oeuvre was fucking awful: tinny, clappy crappy tales about attending an old ladies party or having a disco on a cruise ship or, indeed, reggae like it used to be.

'Reggae Like It Used To Be' is an unforgivable song, but the accompanying clip goes beyond that to a place where everything is wrong and time has no meaning and you wish you were deaf then dead and that the world would burn and then explode just to make 'Reggae Like It Used To Be' stop.

I have pinpointed seven areas of wrongness, please feel free to append your own in the comments section.

1. At the beginning, Noel Edmonds seems to know everything about Paul Nicholas apart from his name;

2. Nicholas starts off dancing at too fast a tempo and can't keep it up without prancing around like a camp show pony;

3. He is laughably over-accessorised but has forgotten to wear a shirt;

3. Despite the subject matter, the music has no reggae elements whatsoever;

4. No matter how bad the NHS might be, would any GP seriously prescribe 'reggae like it used to be' as a cure for pneumonia, rockin' or otherwise?

5. Why drag Beethoven into it?

6. Oh, what's the point?

7. Noel has been told the artist's name at the end, so makes a big point of letting you know he knows it and always did.

Welcome to 1976, people, just take a seat and wait for punk to jog up.

Oh, and just in case anyone says 'well, actually, the b side of that Reggae single is a pretty cool track that is highly sought after and gets played in clubs and that' can I just say, yes, I know, but a. 'Lamplighter' isn't that good and b. get your own weblog

Monday, 8 March 2010

Fire crackle mountain

Tadanori Yokoo was born in 1936 and is one of Japan’s most famous living artists.

Active since the early sixties, he began as a stage designer for avant garde theatre productions before moving into commercial graphic art where his brash and iconic imagery closely aligned him with the worldwide pop art movement.

In the late sixties he travelled to India and expanded his mind, both spiritually and chemically, and his work became decidedly psychedelic. Since 1981, he has been working as a fine artist, and has achieved international renown.

As well as all this, Yokoo also made a handful of great animated films, the very greatest of which is ‘Kachi Kachi Yama’ (1965). In less than ten minutes, and in full, vibrant colour, Yokoo gives us the thrilling tale in which Liz Taylor is brutally murdered by sex-obsessed lovers Alain Delon and Brigitte Bardot, and a grief-stricken Richard Burton and The Beatles relentlessly track the killers to exact deadly revenge.

It’s probably the greatest film synopsis of all time, and I wish somebody had been brave enough to give
Yokoo a go at directing ‘Yellow Submarine’...

I'm very grateful to El Sporto for hipping me to this mini filmic masterwork in the first place. Cheers, Martin!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Shire Fact Number Six

'Swimming is a favourite pastime in Rotherham and several people from the town have swum the English Channel while others have swum Lake Windermere, some both ways'.

From 'Discovering South Yorkshire', sponsored by South Yorkshire County Council, 1975

Friday, 5 March 2010

If you skate upon thin ice

'Schoolhouse Rock' is a wonderful long-running and often repeated series of educational short films that originally appeared between the regular kid's show programming on US Saturday morning TV.

In its first incarnation the show ran from 1973 to 1980, with 37 animations produced in four different blocks: 'Multiplication Rock', 'Grammar Rock', 'Science Rock' and 'America Rock' and I'll be posting more clips at various points in the future.

'Figure Eight' (from 'Multiplication Rock', funnily enough) as written by Bob Dorough and sung by the brilliant Blossom Dearie in her sad little girl voice, is my favourite individual track from the show: a beautiful, simple melody and a typically informative but straightforward lyric that finally achieves a level of haunting and rather touching profundity.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Fast film

As part of my film studies A level, I had to watch ‘Thelma & Louise’ five times. ‘Thelma & Louise’ is not a bad film, of course, it’s actually rather good, but I had imagined I’d be watching Ingmar Bergman and film noir and Bunuel and the Nouvelle Vague and all that, not watching two Hollywood stars drive off a cliff. Five times. Coursework marked and final exam sat and passed, however, I went to University. As I filed into the film theatre for my first lecture, they were projecting a Jeff Keen film. I sat and watched, mouth slightly open in amazement: this, I thought, is more like it.

Keen’s films remind you of why Edison called his early film projection device the Kinetoscope – they are full of motion and energy, crazed, febrile things that burst onto the screen in a barrage of crashing planes, mushroom clouds, plastic soldiers, fires, floods, sexy girls, super heroes and super villains, often starring his friends and family and set to intriguing and ear popping soundtracks. The young Keen had fought in World War Two (he called it ‘the best time of my life’) and the violence and anarchy of that experience was a major and indelible influence on him. After demobilisation, Keen spent a single term at Art College, but was working as a gardener with Brighton Council’s Parks Department when he made his first short film in 1959. A cineaste and organiser of a local film club, it suddenly occurred to him that he could make a film himself, so he borrowed an 8mm camera and set out on a fifty year career (to date) as the UK’s most prominent avant garde film maker.

Keen’s work is undeniably experimental, but it often seems like the product of a parallel universe film industry: Hollywood with the boring bits taken out, a gleeful disordering of narrative that goes wherever it likes, however it likes, at 250 miles an hour: comic books, high art, popular cliché and the avant garde, all delivered in one super fast short burst of energy, like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.

It is my pleasure to say that Jeff Keen is still alive, and, at 87 years old, is finally enjoying the recognition that his remarkable work and life deserves. For the full Keen experience, please buy the amazing BFI box set ‘GAZWRK’: it’s cheaper than you think, and essential at twice the price. From that very box set, here is 'Instant Cinema', a film he made in 1962 (although the soundtrack is from 2007). Prepare to be stimulated!


Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Shire Fact Number Five

'All churches have seating, but this has not always been so'.

From 'Discovering Church Furniture' by Christopher Howkins, 1969.