Sunday, 21 December 2008

Kate Rusby and a Christmas Tale.

It never ceases to amaze me how music seems to play such an active part in some of the big decisions in my life. Take the folk singer Kate Rusby, for example. I’ll bet she never realised that she was instrumental in my last major life choice.

To cut a very long and tedious story short, during the latter part of the 1990s my life was spiralling downwards into uncertainty and boredom. For various reasons, things just weren’t right and it was beginning to bug me big time.

By Christmas 1998, I had become extremely weary of all the monotony and tedium and there was no getting away from it - my life was in a rut. This all came to a head when, in order to meet a work deadline, I had left my family visiting relatives and found myself home alone on Boxing Day afternoon working on some client reports. In the decorated tinsel-land of the silent house, I felt depressed and irritated so to sooth my temper I played a newly purchased CD, ‘Sleepless’ by Kate Rusby.

At the time I was rediscovering my love of traditional English folk and had discovered Kate through some glowing reviews in the music press. ‘Sleepless’ is her second album and at the time of its release she was just beginning to make a name for herself as a unique talent in the folk community. Her mix of traditional and self-penned songs delivered in her trademark Barnsley accent seemed a breath of fresh air in the often-stultifying atmosphere of the music industry.

However by track 4, the haunting and melancholic ‘Unquiet Grave’, Kate’s beautiful northern vowels and understated piano were too much for me in my then state of mind and I slumped on the sofa with tears in my eyes. Something had to change. With so many beautiful things in the world, and Kate’s voice was one of them, why was I inflicted such misery on myself? It was the kick up the ass that I needed. Who’d have thought a struggling folk singer and her music could wield such power?

But actually they can. Folk music can be incredibly powerful as it carries with it centuries of human achievement and struggle. There is a certain gravitas that accompanies songs that are so old as to impart a sort of world-weary wisdom and I needed some just then.

A year later, I had found a new position at work, sorted out some other issues and felt much better. For Christmas 1999 I took a long holiday and it was bliss. Life’s too short. Thanks Kate.

I’m going to take a short break over this Christmas holiday as well, so Christmas greetings to all my readers and best wishes for the New Year. I’ll be back sometime after New Year’s Day with yet more musical musings. See you then but in the meantime enjoy Kate's 'The Wild Goose'. Oh, and if you want to read more about my theories about pop music don't forget my book!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Cool, Mann!

Reviewers eh? Don’t you just love ‘em? But seeing as I pontificate about all sorts of stuff here in this blog, I suppose I shouldn’t complain (as per the stones and glass houses principle). The person who reviewed my book for a local newspaper concluded that ‘ short, it is more like a decent Manfred Mann album than a Sgt Pepper’. At the time I resented this appraisal but on reflection, it is rather a back-handed compliment.

OK, so Sgt Pepper is an historically crucial album which is musically inventive, blah blah blah. But how many people actually listen to it a lot? I don’t...but I have just purchased ‘A World of Mann – the best of Manfred Mann’ and what an interesting listen it has turned out to be.

It comprises a double CD collection which gathers together the 1960s Manfred Mann (the Paul Jones era) singles on disc one and the later 1970s Earthband configuration selections on disc two. Listening to disc one in all its blues/pop glory it is difficult not to get carried away by that peculiar 60s naivety as represented by ‘Do Wah Diddy’, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and ‘Mighty Quinn’. On moving to disc two, however it is amazing how Mann reinvented himself as a hairy earnest progrocker (well, hairier than normal) once the decade of innocence had ended.

Whilst the Earthband were undoubtedly a progrock band of their time, they were perhaps unique in that they wrote very little of their own songs but rather tended to reinterpret others’ material in their own style. Two regular providers of material for them were Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen whose American vignettes were given a very English progrock treatment. Unexpectedly, this seemed to work very well. It was the stuff they did write that let them down and remains the reason why they were never really fully integrated into the accepted progrockers club with Yes, Genesis, ELP and the rest.

Yet tunes such as Springsteen’s ‘Blinded by the Light’ and Dylan’s ‘Father of Day, Father of Night’ are classics of the genre, the former even giving them a respectable chart hit. My favourite, though, is Springsteen’s ‘Spirits in the Night’ from their ‘Nightingales and Bombers’ album where the incongruity of Bruce’s all-American tale of teen lust and debauchery set against the early 1970s Englishness of the arrangement just doesn’t seem to matter a jot. It’s powerful stuff.

I remember that copies of their 1974 album ‘The Good Earth’ came packaged with title deeds to a square foot of some Welsh hillside. I wonder how many people are still proud owners of a tiny plot of Welsh grass?

All things considered, I’m quite proud to be a Manfred Mann album!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Dance Mission: Impossible!

Imagine the scene. You are a DJ at the office Christmas Party where, let’s be frank, your punters are not exactly talented dancers. What’s the worst thing you can possibly do? Apart from snog the boss’s secretary. Top of the list will probably be to play one (or all if you’re really wanting to visit the job centre the next morning) of the following:
‘Living in the Past’ – Jethro Tull
‘Money’ – Pink Floyd
’15 Step’ – Radiohead
‘Four Sticks’ – Led Zeppelin
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

Leaving aside the various artistic merits of the songs and artists, the real reason why these songs should never grace a social occasion where amateurs stalk the dance floor like primeval beasts (after a few stiff gins) is that they are virtually impossible to dance to - unless you happen to have trained with the Bolshoi Ballet during that summer season in Europe. And the reason why George from accounts will have difficulty with them is that they do not have simple time signatures, or to put it another way, a consistent, danceable beat.

The majority of pop/rock songs march along in 4/4 time (4 beats in every bar) and a lesser number waltz around in 3/4 time (3 beats in the bar) and these are relatively easy rhythms to understand and thus dance to. The songs in the list above have complex time signatures with either 5 or 7 beats to every bar for at least 50 % of their playing time and this makes them very difficult to decipher on a dance floor. Believe me, as a non-dancer myself I am particularly sensitive to this sort of thing and sympathise entirely with the hapless George.

Nevertheless, whilst not great for the disco, songs or music with complex time signatures can be thrillingly different. The progressive bands of the early 70s experimented with odd time signatures endlessly with greater or lesser success, but my favourite by some distance is the theme to Mission: Impossible, the 60s TV spy thriller series featuring self-destructing tapes and lots of false walls. Written by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, it rampages along in 5/4 time giving it a slightly ‘lumpy’ and syncopated feel which really suits the inventiveness of the programme itself. Over the years, this piece of music has rather taken on a life of its own and is now used constantly as background accompaniment to any daring deed (unsurprisingly, Shrek 2 used it in a rescue scene) and is probably recognised by most people even if they are unaware of the original TV programme that spawned it.

All in all, a truly iconic piece of music. Just don’t try and dance to it.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Boy From U.N.C.L.E.

It is a little known fact that for a short period in the mid-1960s, I was secretly a member of U.N.C.L.E - and I have papers to prove it.

In a fit of childish glee, I had applied through a magazine article to join the organisation and was duly rewarded with a small parcel containing a membership document, ID card and a coveted triangular badge. Although this was quite exciting as it went, I admit I was a tad disappointed to have been assigned to Section 5 (Communications) rather than Section 1 (Operations and Enforcement) like Napoleon and Illya but I suppose you can’t be choosy in such a high powered set-up.

I also collected the full set of 55 bubble gum cards Рthe only time I have collected the full set of anything in my life Рand joy of joys, on one particular Christmas morning unwrapped an U.N.C.L.E attach̩ case complete with pistol (plus attachable shoulder stock, telescopic sight and silencer), cigarette packet radio (but disappointingly not the famous radio pen), a(nother) badge, a pen with invisible ink and set of handcuffs (no sniggering at the back).

Could life ever be any better? Actually, no, but that’s another story. Every week I was glued to the TV to see the next episode which was then devoured and regurgitated in the school playground the next day. It was a golden time and no mistake.

But since those far off days of childhood bliss, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has been a notable absentee on the shelves of well-known DVD sellers. The spin-off films have been available for yonks and whilst every other two-bit production has been released either on video or DVD or both, the original TV show has remained unavailable and forever buried in my memory – until now. I see at last that you can now buy the complete series on 41 discs in a spy-proof attaché case for the princely sum of £145 – on an all-or-nothing basis imported in region 1 coding only. Hmm.

This is so disappointing; anybody would think THRUSH was behind it. Why a region 1 release only? Why the whole lot in one go? All I want is to be able to buy say, a season at a time, on region 2 discs so that I can wallow in a bit of nostalgia for an hour or two. ‘Mission: Impossible’ has managed it, so has ‘Moonlighting’ and ‘Star Trek’ and so have countless others so why not U.N.C.L.E?

I must complain to someone at the highest level...err...'Open channel D...’

Monday, 1 December 2008

The (Un)Original Artists

A recent post on Jeff’s Imagine Echoes got me thinking. He describes buying a Donovan LP only to find on playing it that his favourite song was not the one he expected but an alternative version. Things like this can ruin your whole day.

For example, in 1968, the budget label, Pickwick, started to release a series of ‘Top of the Pops’ LPs through their Hallmark subsidiary. One of these records was released every 6 weeks throughout the late 60s and 70s and was the forerunner to the ‘Now’ CD series now currently up to volume 77 or thereabouts.

At about this time I was accompanying my mother to Tesco in St Albans. In those days Tesco was not the mega-supermarket chain that it is now, but a small ground floor grocery with clothes, home equipment and other bits and bobs on the first floor. Also to be found on the first floor was a box containing scruffy ex-jukebox singles and a rack of budget label LPs and it was here that I discovered ‘Top of the Pops Vol 12’ boasting hits of the day all wrapped up in a sleeve with a slightly surly looking young women on the cover in model pose. Not only that, it retailed at about 14 shillings - considerably less than the normal cost of an LP record. I was suckered in and bought a copy.

Of course, it was only when I’d got it home and played it that I began to realise that something wasn’t quite right. All the songs sounded a bit different and in order to placate my growing anxiety I persuaded myself that they were demo or unreleased versions of the songs that I knew so well from the radio. But the feeling of disappointment wouldn’t go away so I can sympathise with Jeff on this point. It was only later that I discovered the truth of the matter and it was that all the songs were imitations done by session musicians, not the original artists and this was why it was so cheap.

I no longer have TOTP Vol 12 in my possession, which is a shame because discs from this series are now something of collectors’ items. Some of the session musicians used in the replicas are now well known names. On my copy of volume 12 was the Stevie Wonder hit, ‘Signed Sealed Delivered, I’m Yours’ which was actually sung by an unknown Elton John so it would’ve been worth keeping for his passable Wonder impersonation alone. Also the rather chaste cover girls look incredibly kitsch by today’s standards but have a period feel that proclaims the times.

You can still buy them on eBay for £10+ a shot but I don’t think I’ll be bidding...unless it’s volume 12.