Friday, 30 April 2010

Keep The Noise Down!

I see that the ‘Elf & Safety Brigade are at it again, this time having yet another attempt at getting us to turn the volume down on our ipods. This has been going on for years now in a constant war to save our ears. The usual scientist has been wheeled out to tell us that some of us are subjecting our ears to noise levels greater than those produced by a pneumatic drill. And do you know why we have to turn the volume up so high?  It is so that we can hear the damn thing over the NOISE OF A PNEUMATIC DRILL. Has this scientist walked around London recently? If so, he would realise that the Capital is a vast and un-ending building site where reconstruction and road works are a constant activity involving kango hammers and power tools of all descriptions and the noise is deafening.

Perhaps this scientist is not a commuter? Try listening to an ipod on the Tube and you will soon realise how incredibly noisy the London Underground is. Listening to music with a decent dynamic range is almost impossibility as you rattle and roar your way along dark tunnels between stops. No wonder we are subjecting our ears to in excess of 120Db – it’s because we can’t hear the bloody thing over the noise of the 21st Century!

Clearly, I am being flippant as there is a serious point to be taken on board to do with tinnitus and deafness generally so do be careful, but it would help us all if the world wasn’t so damn noisy in the first place.

In fact, all this makes you realise just how noisy our world has become. If we were to construct a telephone line that could reach back into history, say, 1,000 years and engage in a conversation with someone from that time, one thing would be immediately apparent: the world 1,000 years ago would be virtually silent. There would be virtually no music as this was largely confined to ecclesiastical establishments like churches and monasteries. There would be no radio, television, industrial machines, cars, aircraft, mobile phones, pneumatic drills, lawnmowers, chainsaws or anything that we today take for granted and which makes an almighty racket. All that would be heard would be the sounds of nature and the odd person killing another person with a huge sword.

Compare that with what the person at the other end of the line would hear of our world. What he would be utterly amazed to hear is an absolute cacophony of sound from a multitude of sources. So remember to speak up when addressing the fellow as he won’t hear you over the din.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Requiem For A Hammond Organ

I suppose age has a lot to do with it but as I have droned on about a million times before, when it comes down to brass tacks, I am a guitar man at heart. I’ve also said that I still cannot quite understand why today’s guitarists still carry the late 1970s stigma that soloing is a bad thing. The guitar is still the heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll so for God’s sake just get out there and make a racket. I won’t mind, honest.

But having said all that, why is it that when I hear a certain sound, my senses pick up and transport me to a time when I was just beginning to appreciate what popular music was really all about? Why is it that this particular sound is more evocative than my beloved guitars? The sound I am talking about is the immediately recognisable grinding swell of the Hammond Organ. During its heyday in the late sixties and early seventies it rivalled the guitar for the sound most associated with rock. From Procul Harem’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ through Stevie Winwood and Keith Emerson to Jon Lord and the progressive bands like Genesis and Yes, the Hammond reigned supreme.

Given the plethora of electronics we have today when no two bands have the same kit, it is almost laughable to remember that once upon a time the definitive rock band seemed to sport nothing more than a Fender Stratocaster, a Rickenbacker bass and a Hammond Organ (plus perhaps a Pearl drum kit and a trusty non-wireless Shure mic) – who needed anything else?

I was reminded about all this the last time I played ‘Woodstock’ by Crosby Stills Nash and Young when I was rather taken by surprise by the low level drone of a Hammond cutting through all those duelling Stills and Young guitars. I’d never really thought about CSN&Y being a keyboards band and of course, they’re not but anything recorded around about 1970 is almost bound to have one and there it is.

Since the seventies, the Synthesiser has made obsolete all the early keyboards and possibly the last post for the Hammond appears to have been during the mid-1990s when Brit-poppers, The Charlatans, built their brave new sound around the ancient instrument.  Since then I’ve not really heard its croaking drone too often so perhaps it has finally expired and been replaced by a microchip and some preset on a multi-functional synth.

What a way to go.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Cult Bands - The Violet Hour

The history of rock, it seems, is littered with so-called ‘cult’ albums. In order to qualify for cult status, an album needs to have been made by a little known band which forms, creates and then disbands in a flash after which the album is promptly deleted from the catalogue. This then allows a sort of underground swell of fandom to carry the word so that rare copies are treated like gold dust thereafter.

On this basis, an album that qualifies for cult status is ‘The Fire Sermon’ by Leeds-based band, The Violet Hour, released in 1991 and smartly withdrawn in 1992, soon after their break-up. The Violet Hour began life in 1988 when keyboardist Markus Waite met guitarist Martyn Wilson. Andrew Fox then joined on bass and Sean Holborn became the eventual drummer. But they needed a singer and one soon arrived in the form of Leeds University student, Doris Brendel and thus The Violet Hour was born.

Fast forward to 2010 and my link is formed when an email from Doris arrives in my inbox. It turns out that she is acquainted with my muso brother, Dave who has pointed her in my direction on the basis that I might like her music. To cut to the chase, she has sent me a copy of ‘The Fire Sermon’, which was finally re-released by Sky-Rocket records in September last year, and I am beginning to understand what cults are all about because this is one beautiful album.

Back in 1991, its sound was compared to that of contemporaries, All About Eve and there is definitely a degree of similarity but whereas AAE was Julianne Regan’s velvet claw in the iron glove of a macho band, The Violet Hour is almost the reverse – a sort of iron claw in a velvet glove. Doris’s vocals are much earthier and bluesier than Julianne’s and give an emotional centre around which the band’s complex arrangements swirl and glide. If anything, I would say that this album was released 20 years too late. It belongs to the era of blues and classically influenced progressive rock where bands like Jefferson Airplane, Caravan and early Renaissance stalked the earth. There are reminders of early Genesis in the use of flute and piano as well as injections of Celtic folk via violin and pipes. More importantly, it belongs to an era when bands comprised real musicians who wrote melodic, yet challenging music and then arranged and played it with genuine competence.

It is easy to see why the Velvet Hour was compared with their forebears from the 60s and 70s but they were also a band of their own time. In the late 80s and early 90s the music world was split between Grunge and Pop, yet there was a third genre underlying the main battle and it was the so-called ‘shoegazers’. My own favourites, Lush, were amongst their number which also included The Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Ride. These bands were the aural architects, the dream-poppers and The Violet Hour has real overtones of this type of music. Personally, I liked this period in musical history and that is probably why I like this album, but then I Iike music that is well written and performed with soul – who doesn’t?

If you’d like to know more about The Velvet Hour and Doris Brendel, visit her site at where you can hear excerpts of this album and all her solo work to date. Well worth a visit.  She also has a page at where you can find more details about her solo stuff and up-coming album, 'The Last Adventure'.

Also, don’t forget that my brother’s band, The Yarmouth Honeys, are still operational and you can learn about them and hear tracks at Dave Warminger’s MySpace site.

Oh yeah, and if you'd like to read more about my views on music don't forget my book, 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Enjoy The Silence

What makes a song one which everyone and his dog wants to cover? Why are some songs covered to death and others not? Presumably the quality of the song writer has something to do with it so that the covering artist can attempt some form of vicarious notoriety otherwise nobody would put out Beatles’ covers. I dare say that a universally successful song generates its own inertia and thus virtually puts itself up for adoption but these are not always the right choice. Comparisons with the original version can send most covers to the ‘seemed like a good idea’ graveyard unless it’s right on the money.

But there are other songs that generate a life of their own and artists fall over themselves to do a cover. One such song is ‘Enjoy The Silence’ written by Martin Gore and performed originally by Depeche Mode on their masterpiece ‘Violator’. It is one of those songs that people who like Depeche Mode know about as it was a reasonable hit, but is not a generally recognised song in the same league as ‘Yesterday’. However, it has a certain cache amongst artists in the industry and is more of a musicians’ favourite rather than a public choice.

The general consensus amongst those who comment on YouTube is that the best version is by Italian goth-rockers, Lacuna Coil and I would go along with this to a large degree. The style of the song lends itself to their rather noir performance and the interaction of male and female vocals works very well. But, it is pretty much a re-run of the original that has been put together well with great vocals.

Others who have attempted ‘Silence’ include Kim Wilde (as part of her live set only) and Keane and each has its merits but they are, again, largely recreations of the Depeche Mode style but with different instruments. In my book a good cover is one that makes you think about a song in a different way.

So I’m going to champion a version created by that ace song re-interpreter Tori Amos. Amos excels at this sort of thing as anyone who has her covers album ‘Strange Little Girls’ will know. By carefully re-phrasing the vocal lines and subtly changing the musical harmony, she has moved this song into a different sphere. It has real passion and strangeness about it that even the original version lacks. Check out the video and see if you agree.

Friday, 2 April 2010

The Avengers

It seems to me that the older a photograph becomes, the more it is the background that interests rather than the subject. I have an album of old photos of me as a child and it is the settings and the objects lurking in the background that are so fascinating. Room interiors of houses long forgotten and gardens with small trees and vegetable patches (unheard of these days) tug the memory banks like nothing on earth. Common place things like wallpaper and furniture, long since thrown away toys and once living pets suddenly take on monumental importance.

And so it seems to be with old TV programmes as well. Watching some old clips of Dusty Springfield, you can’t help noticing the weird and wonderful sets she was given to sing amongst. There are what look like stacks of toilet roll tubes, giant spotty boxes and all manner of strange pieces of furniture but nothing can beat the set where she is singing ‘I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten’. This one comprises a mesmerising geometric floor pattern interspersed with towering Grandfather Clocks all stopped at Ten o’Clock (Geddit?).

The whole effect reminded me strongly of the sort of sets used in the 1960s spy spoof series, ‘The Avengers’. I am a huge fan of the original Avengers series from the early Cathy Gale days right up to the Linda Thorsen exploits but, of course, nothing beats the two seasons which starred Diana Rigg as the incomparable Emma Peel, especially season 4 produced in black and white in 1965. There is something about this monochrome season that emphasises the tongue-in-cheek, yet slightly dark eccentricity of it all which didn’t quite recover when the following season 5 was made in colour for the first time.

It goes without saying that the plots are ridiculous, the characters bizarre and the list of guest stars reads like a catalogue of British character actors from that era, John Le Mesurier, Terence Alexander, Gordon Jackson, Patrick Cargill, Patrick Mower, John Barron, Nigel Davenport, Patrick Wyngarde, Liz Fraser, Bernard Cribbins, Peter Bowles, Warren Mitchell, Geoffrey Palmer, Penelope Keith, Bill Fraser…the list goes on and virtually every episode has a familiar (and very fresh) face.

The trick to a conceit such as The Avengers is to never let it touch reality. Steed and Mrs Peel live in a parallel world populated entirely by potty scientists, ex-army majors, power-mad politicians and upper class twits who live in landed estates and isolated villages or who work in futuristic office blocks. You never see a policeman, a normal member of the public or a terrace house at any time. None of your kitchen sink grittiness here - but for sheer escapism, it has never really been bettered.