Monthly Archives: June 2016

Happy Bobby Goldsboro day!

It’s not 110 in the shade in London, the sun is most assuredly not a demon, but it is the last day of June.

I thought this was so deep and meaningful when I was a kid. Now it just seems creepy. Nice little piano lick though.

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NYCNY – Daryl Hall

We’ve talked about Daryl Hall before, and even relatively recently. But there was only room in February’s entry on She’s Gone, which you’ll remember I put forward as one of my absolute favourite records, to touch in the briefest possible fashion on Sacred Songs, Hall’s first solo album, recorded in 1977 and eventually released by RCA in 1980.

Hall was not the only prescient musician who appears to have felt the tides turning against them around 1976 and 1977 and responded by reinventing themselves (Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and to some extent David Bowie did likewise), but when listening to Sacred Songs, Lindsey Buckingham always comes to mind.

But Sacred Songs is stranger even than Fleetwood Mac’s endlessly rewarding Tusk. Despite the note on the sleeve that said “Special thanks from the band to Lindsey Buckingham”, Tusk is not an auteur work. Buckingham may have wanted Fleetwood Mac to become the Clash, but that was never even close to possible. The band contained two other singer-songwriters, neither of whom had any real wish to follow him down that road. And so when producing Stevie Nicks’s and Christine McVie’s songs, Buckingham dutifully gave them relatively straightforward treatments, only occasionally lacing them with the off-kilter touches that characterised his own material on Tusk. So Buckingham pulls in one direction with his songs, Nicks and McVie pull in another with theirs, but the mediator between the two factions is, strangely, Buckingham himself. One moment he was cackling his way maniacally through the bizarre What Makes You Thing You’re the One, the next he was empathetically layering endless delicate guitar and vocal overdubs on to Nicks’s oceanic Sara, possibly her masterpiece.

Sacred Songs covers similarly broad territory. Hall allows himself to be everything he can be on the record. A ballad like Why Was it So Easy could have fit happily on any Hall & Oates album, but NYCNY is genuinely startling in its aggression. This song would certainly not have fit on Abandoned Luncheonette.

The standard critical line on Sacred Songs is that it’s the result of exposure to art rock, punk and new wave while living in New York and hanging out with Robert Fripp. And that seems almost certainly true. But, as with Buckingham’s Tusk-era material, NYCNY is fascinating in the ways it fails to be punk rock; after all, an imperfect copy of an original idea tells us as much, maybe more, about the copier than the copied. NYCNY is mixed dry and close, the musicians’ playing is clipped and precise, Hall hits too many notes over too many octaves to ever be confused with Johnny Rotten, and he can’t sneer like Tom Verlaine. Above all, he’s exuberant in a way that few punk rockers would have allowed themselves to be.

Sacred Songs isn’t a classic. Ultimately Daryl Hall was a soul man, and anyone with working ears would rather hear him sing She’s Gone than holler and squeal his way through NYCNY, however much fun it is. But Sacred Songs is an noble attempt by a substantial artist to push themselves beyond anything they’d done before, and it remains completely fascinating.

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A few thoughts on the British leave vote

What happened here last night hurts like hell, and I haven’t even begun to process it and absorb it. Here are what thoughts I’ve managed to make coherent so far. Apologies for this not being a music post. I don’t have it in me today, I’m afraid.

When I was a boy, many of best friends were the sons of Italian immigrants. I grew up and went to university in London, where the people I remain closest to were the sons of Japanese and Iranian immigrants. I go to work every day in an office in the centre of London, where I work alongside people from France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Ireland, the US, South Africa and Australia, and that list is not exhaustive; it’s just what comes to mind immediately without taking a mental inventory. The last band I was in comprised an Irishman, an Italian, a Spaniard with Russian parents and me, the sole Brit. It didn’t even occur to me at the time.

That’s the world I live in. A world where every day I get to work and live alongside people from all over, not just Europe, but the whole world, with a huge variety of experiences, perspectives and knowledge. We come together, we teach each other and we enrich each other’s lives. It’s a real blessing.

Yesterday a majority of British voters rejected that vision. They don’t want to be part of a united Europe, they don’t want freedom of movement, they don’t see the benefit of it.

I understand why so many of my friends feel personally insulted by the leave vote. And there’s nothing I can do for them except lamely apologise and try to reassure them that we’re not all like that. The anger, the sense of betrayal, is pretty raw right now. And I share it, because I love the world I’ve found myself living in and wouldn’t have changed it. And I don’t know what’s going to happen to it now.

I’m already reconciled to the break-up of the UK (and as someone with a Scottish mother and who self-identifies as British rather than English, that’s no small thing); arguably that would have happened anyway in time, for who could blame left-leaning Scots for resenting the imposition of an English right-wing government? Hopefully some kind of amicable settlement will be reached that allows the EU to survive, the terms of our exit won’t destroy the British economy, those who still want to stay here in Britain will stay and something like life as we knew it before will go on.

All I can say to those who don’t want to be part of the world I live in, and who voted against it, is I feel sorry for you.

 

Twice the strings, twice the fun

I’ve had my Seagull S12 since 2001. No guitar I own has put in more hard yards for me. It was my main acoustic guitar in both the bands I was in between 2006 and 2011, so it went to every rehearsal and every gig, it got tuned and retuned endlessly, it got dropped, dinged, scratched and beaten up, and I went through more high Gs than you can count. It’s a pretty great-sounding instrument and, by the standard of 12 strings, pretty easy to play too. The neck is wide enough that you can actually use it for fingerpicking, but not so wide that barre chords are problematic, and the action is reasonable too. You can’t really ask much more from an acoustic guitar

I should play it more really – these days I pretty much only get it out for recording. I’m still, years after I started doing it with my old band (the Fourth Wall, god rest them), really into the tonal effects you can get by overdubbing acoustic guitars, especially 12 strings against 6 strings.

All the reasons that you might double electric guitar parts apply equally to acoustic guitars parts: you can do it to provide width, to blend different voicings of the same chords, or to blend the tones of two different instruments to create a sound that wouldn’t be obtainable any other way, and so on. The practice of mass acoustic overdubbing is somewhat rarer than it is with electric guitar parts, though, which might be for no other reason than the fact that it’s more difficult to do well.

Acoustic guitar is an extremely percussive instrument. When you record two of them (whether you personally record two parts or the two guitarists in your band record one track each), it becomes very important that the two parts are in time with each other and in time with the snare drum. The further out the strums are from each other or – worse – the snare drum, the more the ear is likely to hear them as flams. This can get distracting for the listener pretty quickly.

If you’re undeterred, though, here’s a couple of tips. Blending a standard-tuned part with an open-tuned part can be super fun. Imagine using a C-based tuning like CGCFGC on a 12-string guitar in the context of a song where the main progression is something like C/dminor/aminor/G: you can create a rich, resonant blend that wouldn’t be possible from two standard-tuned parts, really taking advantage of the drone strings and the low C bass. And of course, the effect of this will be even greater if the open-tuned part happened to be played on a twelve-string.

Another tip, particularly if you don’t want to get involved in open tunings, is to use a capo to track a second part using different chord shapes to the first part. Take the progression from the previous paragraph. How about putting a capo on the third fret and playing A / bminor / f#minor / E? Yeah, that’s right: it’s the same sequence as the guitar is sounding a minor third higher than concert pitch because of the capo. Once again, this can be used to create a tone, a richness of sound, that simply can’t be drawn out of one instrument. Again, if one of these parts is played on a twelve-string, the effect is amplified still further.

Coolest of all, but oh so difficult to do even vaguely well, is blending 12- and 6-string fingerpicking parts. I think that’s what Lindsey Buckingham’s up to on Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide (from 1975’s Fleetwood Mac, the first album the band made with Buckingham and Stevie Nicks). The part on the right sounds like it’s got octave notes in it, but it might be some clever psychoacoustic trick. However he did it, it’s super-cool, and it definitely sounds like a 12 string is in there.

 

Threads

Today we’re going to discuss a 1984 BBC movie called Threads, about nuclear war. It’s strong stuff, so please do take that as a warning. Spoilers follow.

Threads never leaves you. No film has ever affected me as deeply, or for anything like as long. I remember vividly the first time I watched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days later, I still felt depressed by what I’d seen. This was about six or seven years ago, two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and an event like this stopped seeming inevitable.

I’m 34, so I can remember the last years of the Cold War, but I was only two when Threads was made, and it’s only been seen on British TV rarely since. I saw it first on YouTube or Vimeo (I forget), its impact dulled only slightly by the grainy image. And frankly, there were times in the firestorm scenes where I was grateful for not being able to see the images of charred corpses in total clarity.

Let’s back up. Threads was written by Barry Hinds, who also wrote A Kestrel for a Knave (which Ken Loach made into Kes), and was co-produced by the BBC, Australia’s Channel Nine and Western-World TV. Its director was Mick Jackson, who’d go on to make, of all things, The Bodyguard.

It’s essentially a docudrama, showing the effects of a nuclear exchange on the UK city of Sheffield, a target for its steel and mining industries, as well as for having a nearby US air base. It’s a small miracle of film-making. It was produced on a budget of about a quarter of a million pounds (far less than its US counterpart, The Day After), yet tells an ambitious story over a roughly 10-year period. It shows an entirely city being destroyed, and the pathetic attempts of civilisation to reassert itself during the resultant nuclear winter. By the time it’s finished, every character we see at the beginning of the film is dead.

The bombs don’t start falling until 45 minutes in, yet the early scenes are full of foreboding. Ruth and Jimmy are a young couple. She’s pregnant, and the pair decide to get married and move in together. Scenes of their families meeting, and of Ruth and Jimmy working on their new house, play out as TVs and radios in the background give updates on an escalating crisis situation in the Middle East, with Russia refusing to acknowledge US ultimatums. Eventually missiles are exchanged over the North Sea, and Sheffield is destroyed.

The film is unsparing in its depiction of what happens next. Jimmy is at work when it happens and he never sees Ruth again. We last see him running through the streets to try to get to her, 51 minutes into the 2-hour film. His fate is left unknown to us. (As a viewer in 2016, this is even more surprising as Reece Dinsdale, the actor who played Jimmy, is the only familiar face on screen – he’d go on to star in ITV sitcom Home to Roost with John Thaw, and was in Coronation Street for a couple of years too.)

Ruth, meanwhile, survives the blast, in the cellar of her parents’ house. But days after the attack, she leaves the house to look for Jimmy. Later she returns, and her parents are dead in the cellar. We don’t see them, merely hearing the flies and scuttling of rats as she opens the door down to the cellar. Threads is, as I say, unsparing.

Ruth survives 10 years of nuclear winter, long enough to have her daughter, Jane, and to grow blind (cataracts) and prematurely aged from radiation poisoning. Jane grows up near mute (there is no system of education so language decays to a bare minimum of words needed to facilitate survival; order is maintained by the essentially totalitarian government witholding food from those unwilling to work) and the film ends with Jane screaming at the sight of her own stillborn baby.

This rough outline of the plot doesn’t come close to capturing the full horror. It’s the sheer relentlessness of Threads that’s so harrowing. Throughout the film, we frequently cut away to title cards giving updates on plot elements that happen off-screen or that give some indication of the nationwide picture. One such particularly brutal cut comes during the firestorm scene. After seeing several shots of buildings (shops, offices and terraced houses) destroyed by the blast wave, a title card tells us that two-thirds of houses in Britain are in the possible fire zone. We cut back to a shot of a whole city on fire, with everything that wasn’t already flattened burning.

That’s what remains so shocking about Threads. It’s not one individual thing. It’s not the burning bodies, the corpses in the wreckage, the scenes of survivors eating rats, or radioactive sheep; it’s not the soldiers gunning down looters, the council’s disaster response team all dying of suffocation in their shelter before they can be dug out, or the stillborn babies. It’s everything. It’s the total lack of pretense from Hinds and Jackson that an event like this could be survivable and anything like life as we know it could continue after. Some on the right have decried the film as propaganda, but Jackson was hired because he’d worked on the BBC’s QED programme A Guide to Armageddon, and Hinds and Jackson spent a week in a Home Office training centre for “official” survivors who’d need to help with the reconstruction effort.Hinds used sources such as Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions, an article that Carl Sagan and James Pollack wrote for Scientist to determine realistic scenarios. From the vantage point of 2016, it’s amazing that it was ever broadcast. Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour party, sent a letter of congratulations to Hinds. Ronald Reagan reportedly requested a screening of it.

I’m not ashamed to say Threads changed my stance on nuclear disarmament, pushing me far further towards unilateral disarmament that I’d been before. The idea that we’d spend another penny on weapons that can do this rather than education and welfare makes me boilingly angry. I honestly couldn’t recommend you watch Threads – it really is tremendously  disturbing, it’s in no way enjoyable, and if you do watch it, I doubt you’ll ever be able to forget what you see. But I’m glad that I have seen it, however uncomfortable it was to watch.

Fotheringay – Fairport Convention

For Fairport Convention, convincing Sandy Denny to join the band was akin to a decent mid-table football team somehow landing the most prolific goalscorer in the league. Fairport’s self-titled first album, on which vocals were handled by Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, is so wet it beggars belief. The players, particularly Richard Thompson, show flashes of their later brilliance, but it was a record made of undistinguished original material and white-bread covers, sung by two of the folk revivals less impressive vocal talents

In a field not short of remarkable singers, Denny remains the unchallengeable queen of English folk rock. That’s how good she was. And it was all there – the singing and the songwriting – in Fotheringay, the first song on Fairport’s second album, What We Did on Our Holidays. Hearing it must have stunned those who’d suffered through If (Stomp) or their reading of Jack o’ Diamonds on Fairport Convention.

The song – a meditation on the final hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle in Northamptonshire and awaiting her execution – is lavishly beautiful and melancholy, with a gorgeous, unwinding melody. The chord sequence is rather more grandly Baroque in places than is strictly period correct, but, accompanied as it is by wordless backing vocals from the band, it has a mournful dignity that feels entirely appropriate to the song’s lyric.

Clive James – Australian critic, poet, broadcaster, lyricist, all-round renaissance man – had some insightful things to say about Denny’s lyric writing in a 1974 article for Let it Rock:

Somebody who can sing so beautifully has little need to be adventurous in her writing as well. It is wise, then, to be grateful for the adventurousness she did show in her early songs. […] On What We Did On Our Holidays, her song “Fotheringay” gave concrete evidence of the potential for innovation in the mind behind the voice:

The evening hour is fading
Within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment
Those embers will be gone
And the last
Of all the young birds flown.

Words like “dwindling” and “moment” are partly chosen for the way their grouped consonants resist her tendency to flow unimpeded from vowel to vowel — her temptation to sing English the way Joan Sutherland sings Italian. At this stage Denny is still intent on keeping some Germanic roughage in the text, thereby providing her melodic sweetness with something to bite against.

Equally interesting is her ability to use a literary tense — “And the last/Of all the young birds flown” — without slipping into archaism. This is modern grammar and syntax: complex, but contemporary.

And he was less impressed with her later work. On her first solo album, he says:

…the linguistic mannerisms are out of control. “The wine, it was drunk/The ship, it was sunk,” she sings in “Late November”, and in (guess what) “The Sea Captain” we hear her declare: “From the shore I did fly/… the wind, it did gently blow/For the night, it was calm” etc. After a few tracks of such relentless syntactical fidgets, the listener’s patience, it is exhausted.

I share James’s lack of patience with pseudo-archaism. It’s lazy writing, and Fotheringay is the very opposite of lazy. It’s exemplary – a startling piece of writing with a vocal performance full of wisdom, empathy and compassion. It is a little strange listening to Denny’s early masterpieces – Fotheringay, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Autopsy – and knowing she never quite hit those heights again, but the thing is that she hit them in the first place. Countless writers who you’d have to, in a clear-headed unsentimental judgement, call greater or more significant artists than Denny never wrote individual songs as stunning as Fotheringay. That’s why she’s still rightly revered by fans of British folk music.

Denny
Sandy Denny, Tele in hand, ready to rock

Montague Terrace (In Blue) & Such a Small Love – Scott Walker

The Walker Brothers’ first three albums had included occasional compositions by band members Scott (born Noel Scott Engel) and John (born John Maus), but those were largely lost in the midst of the covers picked out for them by Maus and producer Johnny Franz, some chosen well, others less so. For a true head-scratching moment, search YouTube for the Walkers performing Land of 1000 Dances live: Scott was not born to sing “Mashed potato, alligator, do the snake, do the hippie shake” for a crowd of teenie-boppers, and even as a young man he was self-aware enough to know it. His body language bespeaks a soul-deep wish to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

And so he only really starts to figure as a songwriter on his first solo album, Scott, although even here his own work represents just one of the album’s interweaving strands; he also tackles contemporary pieces by Tim Hardin and Mann/Weill, a couple of Hollywood movie songs, and English translations of Jacques Brel chansons. The trick is how seamlessly they blend together, how of a piece with each other Walker and Franz make these songs sound.

Such a Small Love and Montague Terrace (In Blue) are the album’s standout Scott originals, and taken together, they say a lot about where Walker was at in 1967. Such a Small Love is most notable for the disquieting cloud of dissonant strings that hang over it throughout. They’re uncannily predictive of Walker’s great masterwork, The Electrician (from the Walker Brothers’ 1979 reunion album Nite Flights), which was over 10 years in the future. The song is a minor work, but here is the sound of Walker ambitiously attempting to create a style for himself whole cloth, and damn near achieving it at the first attempt.

Montague Terrace (In Blue) is a rather different animal. Its arrangement is on an even grander scale than that of Such a Small Love, with swirling strings, crashing cymbals and booming tympani, but the sources for it are more obvious: it’s a cross between Broadway, Hollywood and Gene Pitney-style melodrama. Its lyric, meanwhile, shows a heavy, but gauche, Brel influence: the verses are laden with metaphors and similes (“her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone”, etc), while lines like “his bloated, belching figure stomps” are best left unremarked upon.  Walker would later would absorb and assimilate Brel’s influence, but at this point he could still fall into pastiching.

Yet despite its lyrical clumsiness, the song is more than sturdy enough to bear the weight of its magnificent, enormous arrangement. And that chorus is the most glorious he ever wrote. In the long, strange career of Scott Walker, Montague Terace is a big moment, in every sense of the word.

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