Sunday, 28 February 2010

Over the hill and far away

10cc were an infuriatingly talented group. Musicians, vocalists, song writers and producers all, the original incarnation of the band burned brightly for a short period of time, but are still fondly remembered by those of us that like a soupcon of smartarse with their music, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

‘Donna’, their first single, was a huge hit, notable for its nostalgic rock and roll pasticherie and Lol Cr√®me’s amazing falsetto vocals, and more singles (hits and misses) and a clever debut LP followed, but it was their second album, ‘Sheet Music’ (1972) that sealed the deal.

Full of invention and great tunes, it’s a superb cocktail of influences that draw from every aspect of the popular music spectrum: rock and roll, calypso, hard rock, soft pop, reggae, beat, tin pan alley…all multi-tracked and beautifully produced and choc-a-block with hooks and hits. On this LP more than any other, they pull off the trick of playing in ten different styles but still sounding like one band, and it’s a fantastic, fun listen from start to finish.

‘The Worst Band In The World’ is perhaps the most ironic song on the LP, and tells the story of a terrible but incredibly popular band and their inexplicable rise to fame and features the classic lines: ‘Up yours, up mine, but up everybody’s? That takes time’. ‘Silly Love’ was released as a single and mixes crunching guitars and teen idol vocals, and a middle eight that sounds like it was recorded live on a cruise ship.

Just in case you thought they were only a novelty band, ‘Old Wild Men’ is a stately meditation on ageing with elements of the baroque and a beautiful instrumental section, and ‘Somewhere In Hollywood’ is simply a great song with its clever arrangement and tap shoe rhythm. I sometimes imagine that The Beach Boys recorded these two songs and released them on ‘Surfs Up’, turning that LP from a hit and miss semi-masterpiece in a work of genius but, sadly, that never happened.

Easy to find, cheap to buy, ‘Sheet Music’ is not a fashionable album, but it’s one that you’ll listen to again and again. My thanks to Ian Townsend for pointing that out in the first place.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Shire Fact Number Four

'Up on the castle ramparts of Herstmonceux may be seen the towering nine-foot-tall figure of a drummer beating out a rhythmical tattoo'.

From 'Discovering Ghosts' by Leon Metcalfe, 1972.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Public service announcement

In even more good news, I am very pleased to announce that our friend Ben aka Lightactivity now has his own weblog called 'Toys and Techniques'.

Ben loves public information films, Radiophonics, library music and soundtracks and is the evil mastermind behind some of our favourite mixes of all time, and you owe it to yourself to check out his site, bask in his unique ambience and listen to everything you can get your ears on.

What are you still gawking at this shitty page for? Get moving!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

We're gonna light up the sky

Four years on from forming Unmann-Wittering we have finally managed to achieve some recognition and publicity from people we don't know.

We are indebted to the Milton Keynes Citizen for their assistance and, of course, to the Head Gardener himself for the clipping which, delightfully, makes us appear to be a group that everybody has heard of, as well as a serious alternative to a worldwide phenomenon used by millions.

Our cockles have never been so warm. Cheers!

Plug them in

There were very few contemporary bands that I listened to in the 1990’s, and even fewer bands from that era that I still listen to now. Of those, all of them is Add n to (x).

Formed in 1994, Add n to (x) spent almost ten years pulverising audiences with their synapse melting brand of electroclash, a peculiarly nineties genre that basically means techno music with a brain and a bad attitude. Relying on a variety of vintage analogue electronic instruments and clattering live drums, dressed in capes and masks, the group were like an evil Stereolab, obsessed with science fiction, anime, pornography and the low, bass frequencies that make you crap yourself.

I saw them live once and the overall effect was of being smacked around the head repeatedly with a Tandy catalogue. It felt pretty good, until the low bass frequencies started.

The band split in 2003 after a gruelling American tour, and the three main members went off to other projects (Barry 7 to produce Spider and the Flies, previously discussed here). They left a legacy of five full length albums which, although not stunningly varied, still sound relevant today. Their overall sound is fairly formulaic, it must be said, but, for a time at least, they owned that formula so it was there to use how they wished. I hear echoes of Add n to (x) in all sorts of places today, not least in the work of Goldfrapp and, gawd help us, Lady Gaga.

Some sample tracks from the group. ‘Buckminster Fuller’ and ‘Revenge Of The Black Regent’ are from their third and most realised LP, ‘Avant Hard’ and showcases the classic Add n to (x) sound: a relentless radiophonic maelstrom of dance music for psychopaths. ‘B.P Perino’ Is from their fourth album, ‘Add Insult To Injury’, and shows a gentler side, a sort of love duet between lonely robots which, like so many Add n to (x) tracks goes on about two minutes longer than it should. Lastly, ‘Take Me To Your Leader’ comes from their final LP, ‘Loud Like Nature’ where, as a swan song, they revealed a previously under utilised glam rock element to their music.

Please remember, the tracks presented here are mere aperitifs. If you like what you hear and want more, please buy the originals. All of Add n to (x)’s stuff is available, very reasonably, from the usual outlets, so you’ve no excuse not to.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Garden waste

We were asked by our good friend Shane over at 'The Garden Of Earthly Delights' to knock up a mix for the show, so knock up we did and sent it over to await his pleasure. Happily, he deemed it broadcastable (if that's even a word) and it will be on air Friday, February 19th 2010, from 10pm. It's a moody mix of Debussy, library music, Unmann-Wittering originals and poorly recorded transmissions from the recesses of deep space.

We call it 'Elasticated Waste', but are not really sure why. Anyway, you can download it here and try and work out what it all means. A full tracklisting can be found in comments.

The man in the picture is Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma who, in 1984, as part of a joint venture with the Sovet Union, became the first Indian in space. There's a guy we don't hear enough about. There is not currently an agreed term in India for their national space program's Astro/Cosmo/Taikonaut, with Ramanaut, Gaganaut and Vyomanaut all in the running to be adopted. They should make their minds up, really: they plan to be on the Moon by 2020.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Shire Fact Number Three

'A Petraria is a stone throwing engine that could be a mangonel, ballista or a trebuchet'.

From 'Discovering Castles in Eastern England' by John Kinross, 1968.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Ye olde space music

Because the BBC Radiophonic workshop are so indelibly linked with 'Dr. Who' it is often forgotten that a great deal of the music for the early years of the series came directly from the shelves of music libraries like Chappell and De Wolfe.

One of the most memorable of these ready made tracks is ‘Space Adventure’ by Martin Slavin, a composition that, in classic library fashion, is available in three different lengths and arrangements.

Most often featured in the Patrick Troughton era (1966-1969), ‘Space Adventure’ is a brilliant mix of eerie first wave electronics, orchestral bombast and downright odd-ness, and was memorably used to soundtrack the nefarious antics of the evil Cybermen, as evidenced below in this clip from 'The Tomb Of the Cybermen', first broadcast in 1967.

These early Dr Who episodes have such charm and atmosphere and, forty years on, extracts look, appropriately, like lost transmissions from another world and another time.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Shire Fact Number Two

'To pick a pansy with the dew on it will cause the death of a loved one and to pick them on a fine day will cause rain to fall'.

From 'The Folklore Of Plants' by Margaret Baker, 1969.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Shire Fact Number One

'During the sixteenth century brass-engraving in Britain reached it's lowest ebb'.

From 'Discovering Brasses and Brass Rubbing' by Malcolm Cook, 1967.

The genius of Shire

Shire Publications was launched in 1962.

Since then, their pocket sized 'Discovering..' books have been sold in museums, stately homes, coach stations, train stations, craft shops and tourist information offices all over Britain.

Running to hundreds of titles and selling literally hundreds of thousands of their most popular titles, the books range from the conventional ('Discovering Essex'...'South Yorkshire'...'Warwickshire', etc.) to the obscure ('Discovering Dummy Boards', 'Edged Weapons', 'Smoking Antiques') via the esoteric ('Discovering the Folklore of Birds & Beasts', 'Playing Cards & Tarot', 'Wayside Graves'): an astounding library of things you didn't know you needed to know about.

With virtually every book still in print and available direct from the publisher, often in their original covers, Shire are an unheralded and unsung British institution that you need to seriously look into. Always readable, totally fascinating, you should start a Shire collection NOW.

As part of my Shire promotional drive, I will now be offering a weekly (at least) fact gained from reading one of their brilliant little books.

I'll educate you idiots if it's the last thing I do.

Marvel at the Shire catalogue here.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Street fighter

I used to love The Wrestling, and so did my Nan, and a million other Nan’s. A staple of ITV’s Saturday afternoon sport broadcasting from 1955 onwards, the spectacle of overweight men pretending to beat each other up was massively popular and remained so until it was unfairly pulled from the schedule in 1985 in an act of high handed snobbery by incoming TV executives.

Many years on, a number of illustrious names still resonate down the ages: Mick McManus, with his perennially jet black hair and his fear of having his ears rubbed; Kendo Nagasaki, a Japanese Samurai Warrior who never removed his mask; Johnny Kwango, a headbutting African Prince with Leopard skin trunks and, perhaps the most flamboyant of all, the self styled ‘Exotic’ Adrian Street.

His peroxide blond hair in pig tails, face smeared in make up, this glam rock wrestler would prance, preen and pirouette around the ring, camping it up and planting kisses on his opponents at every available opportunity. Part panto dame, part sex pest, Street was too bizarre to be as well-loved or well-hated as the really big names, but he received a massive amount of publicity, appeared in a Pasolini film and, of course, had a recording contract.

‘Imagine What I Could Do To You’ is a classic celebsploitation record: it milks a currently famous persona in direct but essentially light hearted terms; it is musically basic but insistently catchy; it has a low energy performance from a star who clearly doesn't see the point, and, of course, it wasn’t a hit. It also does exactly what the title suggests as, confronted by Street's menacing montone, the listener becomes only too aware of exactly the sort of uncomfortable and involuntary ordeal this ruthless man could subject you to if he felt like it.

I can’t remember what my Nan felt about Adrian Street and, sadly, she’s not around to ask but whether she liked him or threw her knitting at the telly when he was on, this post is dedicated to her.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Dragonfly trumpeter

Freddie Mercury always struck me as the archetypal 1970’s rock superstar: arrogant, self-indulgent, out of touch, excessively hairy. I scoffed at him and his fans (our very own Unmann included) because I liked new working class groups like The Specials and Madness and ‘middle aged’, University educated Queen seemed like posh dinosaurs, punk dodgers, old top hat.

Now, thirty years on, I’m wearing that old hat and loving it, listening obsessively to their early albums and marvelling at their preposterous blend of pomp, speed metal and dungeons and dragons.

Released in 1974, 'Queen II' has a white side and a black side (not literally, it’s an artistic notion rather than a novelty pressing). The white side is okay, but the black side is (literally) fantastic. Written entirely by Freddie Mercury, we are caught in a landslide of multi-tracked vocals, mantelpiece guitar, piano, harpsichord and big drums, all linked together by clever production and lyrics that reflect the 28 year old Mercury’s obsession with fairytales and mythology, and set in his very own imaginary world of Rhye.

‘Ogre Battle’ is a rip-roaring tale that tells of every wizard’s idea of a great night out: a ringside seat at a big old scrap between club wielding giants. One can only hope that elf and safety rules were followed. This segues into the centrepiece of the album, the epic (in scope, not timing) ‘The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke’.

Based on the painting of the same name by Richard Dadd, this remarkably overblown song tells the story of the titular faery, his associated band of dilly dally-o’s, dirty laddios and quaere fellows, and the mighty axe he uses to crack Queen Mab’s walnut. Yes, I know. But it’s as brilliant and as unhinged as the artist Dadd himself, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, killed his father and continued a long career from the confines of various asylums.

The bombast and driving harpsichord of ‘Feller’ gives way to a ballad, ‘Nevermore’ that sounds like its being performed on a crystal grand piano at the top of a very tall tower and could have been done by The Beach Boys if they came from Narnia rather than California.

All three are presented in a magical, almost seamless megamix here.

Listening to the black side of this album has led me to revaluate my feelings about Freddie, banishing my image of him as a strutting, moustachioed rock knob and instead revealing a far more sympathetic figure: a somewhat lonely and out of place person who retreated into a fantasy world to find somewhere his difference didn’t matter. & Freddie was different: born in Zanzibar, brought up in India, Parsi, Zoroastrian, buck toothed, gay (or bisexual, he had a long term girlfriend at this point). If the record hadn’t been so perfectly realised, or he didn’t have the rest of the group behind him, he could have been the archetypal outsider artist.

I’m not apologising about the elf and safety joke.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Monkey magic

The BBC made a big thing recently about screening a film made by chimpanzees and how wonderful it was but, of course, it wasn't wonderful at all, it was rubbish, all over the place.

Showing them how it's done, here's those lovable, frightened P.G Tips chimps in an advert from 1965, filmed at Abbey Road of all places. They may not have directed it, but the performances are sublime, especially from the producer/tea boy and dear old Buddy Rich on the drums.