Toots

Today, horror fiction and groovy ska music combine in a tale about Toots and his missing Maytals…

Toots clattered up to the post office counter, sore perplexed.

“Hello Toots, what can I do for you today?” said the friendly postmaster.

“I am sore perplexed,” said Toots, “I have lost my Maytals.”

The postmaster was hard of hearing, and had been ever since a traumatic childhood incident when he was inadvertently placed in too close proximity to a klaxon for the duration of a lengthy Communist Party rally.

“If you have lost your marbles, Toots, you’ll be wanting a psychiatrist, not the postal service.”

Toots repeated himself, louder, and with exaggeratedly precise movements of his lips.

“Oh I see,” said the postmaster, “But what makes you think I can be of any assistance?”

Toots went on to explain his belief that the postal service, engaged as it was in the great work of sending and delivering sundry items all around the world, was the obvious agency to consult if one wished to track down something lost, in this case his Maytals. The postmaster took his point, with certain reservations which he kept to himself.

“I will keep a lookout for them, Toots,” he said.

Toots, whose sore perplexity was now etched deeper than ever upon his countenance, was dissatisfied with this response.

“Are you not able to do something more than that?” he screeched, alarming, in the queue behind him, several persons among whom was a skivvy from the Big House up on the hill. The postmaster asked, not unreasonably, what Toots would have him do.

“Some kind of tracking,” said Toots, “With post office dogs, bloodhounds, tracking, or tagging, the sending of telegrams or telegraphs, uniformed post office runners, I don’t know, notices slapped up in post offices across the land, vans scouring the countryside, the full weight of the postal service thrown behind the search … “

“Let me stop you there,” said the postmaster, “While I serve this skivvy from the Big House.”

Toots slumped in a corner of the post office, woebegone and weeping. The skivvy bought a single postage stamp, plopped it into a pocket of her apron, and trudged out and along the street past the haberdashery and the butcher’s and the fairy grotto, over the bridge across the canal and along the lane through the spinney up the hill to the gaunt iron gates of the Big House, along the path by the turnip beds and the stone statues of daredevil wartime aeroplane pilots, across the lawn and down the alley along the side of the house, in through a door tucked almost imperceptibly in a porch, down a flight of stairs into a gloomy corridor, until she reached the door of her scullery. She took from a different, deeper pocket of her apron a huge iron key, inserted it into the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open. In the pitch black of the scullery she heard the sudden rattling of chains and fetters. Locking the door behind her, she flicked a switch, and a lightbulb on the ceiling cast a dim glow, revealing a huddle of ska musicians, chained and fettered.

“I have pots and pans to scrub,” she announced, “So, my Maytals, play your ska music to cheer me in my chores!”

And soon enough the scullery was loud with the strains of “Monkey Man”.

Hooting-Book-Cover

By Aerostat to Hooting Yard: A Frank Key Reader is available to buy for Kindle from Amazon now.

Charlie Drake: Hero of Prog Rock

charlie drake

Today would be the 89th birthday of comic actor Charlie Drake. But did you know he once appeared alongside Peter Gabriel, Sandy Denny, Robert Fripp and Phil Collins in one of the weirdest prog rock line-ups ever?…

Born on this day in 1925 was the diminutive comic Charlie Drake, who was, incredibly, a considerable star in the Fifties and Sixties. Even in an era that abounded in deeply unfunny comedians, he stood out as quite singularly tiresome – though he was very popular with children, including, I blush to recall, my boyhood self. I’m pretty sure I even watched (and presumably enjoyed) at least one of his feature films – Sands of the Desert?

Drake’s catchphrase ‘Hello my darlings!’ was originally addressed to the breasts of any of the tall, big-busted starlets with whose poitrine he found himself eye to eye, as it were, in the course of duty. Later, he adapted it to all situations, to unfailingly irksome effect.

Apart from the catchphrase, Drake’s stock in trade was slapstick – and it was nearly the end of him when a live TV sketch went wrong in 1961. The little chap was to be hauled through a bookcase that had been specially set up to fall apart as he emerged – but an over-diligent workman (or friend of British comedy) had mended it, with the result that it put up a considerable resistance. Unaware of what had happened, Drake’s fellow actors proceeded with the rest of the sketch, which involved picking him up and throwing him through a window. Drake was unconscious for three days, with a fractured skull, and didn’t return to the screen for two years.

Like many a comedian in those days, Drake made several records (mostly produced by George Martin, who has had to live with the shame ever since) – but his most startling contribution to music history was a 1975 single titled You Never Know, the first post-Genesis solo project of prog rock / world music legend Peter Gabriel (who had himself recorded the song as a demo).

The performing line-up for Drake’s recording of You Never Know is surely one of the most bizarre ever: lead vocal Charlie Drake, backing vocal Sandy Denny, Robert Fripp on guitar, Percy Jones on bass, Keith Tippett on keyboards and Phil Collins on drums.You can, if you must, listen to it here (though I must warn you, it’s pretty terrifying):

Drake – whose last stage role was as Baron Hardon in Jim Davidson’s ‘adult’ pantomime Sinderella – was a notorious womaniser. However, there is no truth in the rumour that flame-haired Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall was his love child.

To his credit, Drake did put in a fine performance as Smallweed in the BBC’s 1985 Bleak House. This too was pretty terrifying, but in a better way.

For your pleasure – Mahlerman’s Centenary Special

Monica Vitti

To mark his one hundredth Dabble, Mahlerman selects four pieces to provide unexpected pleasure…

Glancing languidly at the post-scorecard the other day, I noticed that this would be my one-hundredth essay for Lazy Sunday*, and armed with that uninteresting fact I determined to give myself a treat and, instead of casting around for a ‘theme’, I would simply choose four subjects that, for various disparate reasons, give me pleasure. And if the Editor sees fit to overlook this ungenerous moment of egocentricity and publish, I hope that Dabblers out there in the ether for the last few years, enjoy this post as much as I have enjoyed blowing the dust off the arcane and often esoteric music that is quite often a discovery for me too. Therein lies the pleasure.

Wit, charm and humour are rarely combined in any man, and in a woman I can think of just one, the comedienne, monologist and all-round good egg Joyce Grenfell. Born, as she was just before the Great War, she became a debutante (whatever happened to those?) in the 1920’s and grew up around money and privilege, at least until her childless 50 year marriage to Reggie. She was perhaps the first female ‘national treasure’ (she certainly was in our house), and the humorous gifts she possessed were neatly described by her great friend Virginia Graham as being ‘funny without being malicious’, something we could do with a little more of today, with the coarsening shift of English humour’s ongoing ‘race to the bottom’.  Her musical talents were legion, and are hinted-at in this wonderful monologue from the BBC, Life Story, showing warmth, pathos and, in the last few lines, a heartbreaking poignancy.

You will find better explanations of modal concepts in music elsewhere but, as a general rule of thumb the harmonies do not ‘shift’ and therefore the music does not progress in the way of ‘telling a story’, as does key-based music with conventional harmonic progression. The iconoclastic trumpeter Miles Davis was constantly pushing at the conventions of jazz and, in the late 1950’s, he began experimenting with the so-called ‘non-functional harmony’ of modal music – the creation of a single ‘mood’, by the use of ostinato (repeated notes, or phrases) and/or the use of one chord throughout, with added layers of dissonance, perhaps: nothing is ‘resolved’. In this search, this pushing forward, he was aided by the considerable talents of the classically trained pianist Bill Evans. Late in 1958 Evans recorded his album Everybody Digs Bill Evans, and although the sentiments expressed in the title are far removed from the reality, the album does contain two related and imperishable masterpieces: Some Other Time, from Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town, and Evans’ own meditation on the same chord grouping, Peace Piece. In much the same way as the work of PG Wodehouse gains nothing (and loses a lot) by being ‘acted out’ – better just read – the same could be said in reverse of this wonderful improvisation. Reading and talking about it adds nothing (and hundreds have had their two penn’orth): better just listen.

I first saw Michelangelo Antonioni‘s strange and wonderful film L’Eclisse as a teenager in a grubby cinema, The Continental, in Coventry. I was there, among the dirty-macs and CND supporters, naturally enough, to see Monica Vitti. Drifting out into the damp streets a couple of hours later, I was puzzled how Alain Delon, with all his charm and good looks, could spend most of the film engrossed in making money, and showing concern for the damage to his Alfa Romeo, when this vision of loveliness obviously craved his full attention. The trademark themes that were the currency of the great Italian director (who, I learned later, enjoyed a ten year relationship with Vitti, the dog!) had, of course, completely passed me by in my sweaty passion – the isolation of the individual in modern society, the inability to communicate with other people and, more than any other thread, the disenchantment and boredom with contemporary life – of these, including post-religious marxism and atheism, I knew nothing, nor cared. After I started shaving, and having viewed the film many more times (along with the two others from the trilogy), the fog, of course, began to lift. But I still puzzle over how any man could dump (it was ‘chuck’ in those days) Monica Vitti as apparently the director did. The music alongside this clip from the last few minutes of the film, unusually, seems to fit it like a second skin.

It is the otherworldly second movement andante caloroso from the B flat major Sonata No 7 by Sergei Prokofiev, and it proves, if proof were needed, what a great tunesmith Prokofiev was – as well as an enfant terrible - a fact we explored in these pages back in February. The sonata is, like L’Eclisse, part of a trilogy known today as the War Sonatas, and it is played here by the pianist most closely identified with the work, Sviatoslav Richter. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece on the conductor Carlos Kleiber, and to try and explain his greatness I used the word ‘ignition': I need the word again now. When I listen to the current pianistic flavour-of-the-month, the Chinese Lang Lang, I hear amazing dexterity, and an almost unreal sense, in somebody so young, of how a composition should sound, with light and shade aplenty, and a complete absence of ‘wrong notes’. What I don’t hear is ‘ignition’ and a nagging sense that it might all fall apart. For this ‘edge of the seat’ feeling, I have to turn to Richter The Enigma, a pianist in a class of one.

In my very first post on these pages I included a marvellous madrigal by Monteverdi, Zefiro Torna, performed in the 1930’s by a now-famous ensemble led by the French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. The idiomatic twin-tenors were Paul Derenne and Huges Cuenod, a singer of modest natural gifts, who could be said to have made the most of his talents. Swiss by birth, gay by orientation, he had a varied and tumultuous career both as a singer and teacher. Amazing to consider that when he was born in 1902, Mahler had only written five of his symphonies. Cuenod lived for 108 years, and is survived by his partner Alfred Augustin. There is no better illustration of his versatility than the three ‘voices’ he adopts (counter-tenor, baritone and tenor) quite comfortably, in this marvellous version of the probably -18th Century African-American spiritual My Lord, What A Morning. Will we see his like again? I think not.

*For pedants and Dabbler statisticians, the 100 score does include one repeat.

Sinatra After Fifty

SheShotMeDown

Contrary to popular opinion, Frank Sinatra made some of his most interesting records well into his ‘September years’, argues Seamus Sweeney…

The conventional wisdom holds that Sinatra was, musically, most interesting in the mid-1950s; his collaborations with arranger Nelson Riddle and, to a slightly lesser extent, Billy May produced the classic albums which have become the key Sinatra repertoire. The conventional wisdom would have Sinatra, and the whole musical and cultural ethos he embodied, become suddenly irrelevant in the Sixties; I would like to write “some time between the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ First LP” but it would plug straight into the lazy generalisations I am trying desperately to avoid.

In any case, the live 50th birthday album, “Sinatra At The Sands”, recorded in 1966 with Quincy Jones arranging and Count Basie and His Orchestra accompanying, is in this narrative the high water mark of Sinatra’s art. From then on, popular entertainment would never be the same again, as a million earnest documentaries urge us with a montage of Beatlemania, Vietnam protests, Woodstock and so forth.

Of course, the Sinatra songs that could be described as Karaoke Frank, the biggest hits which, rather unfortunately, define his art for all too many – “New York, New York”, “My Way” and “Strangers in the Night” (Sinatra would come to despise all three, and all are far more bombastic than the heights of his oeuvre) came from 1966 and after. Indeed, Sinatra released “Strangers in the Night” in April 1966. Yet conventional wisdom holds it that artistically, there was nothing really going on for Frank after two score and ten.

Sinatra’s September years actually present a fascinating, uneven, often thrilling soundscape. After 50, Sinatra’s music is often all too clearly casting around for a new identity, now that the pop cultural landscape has indeed changed. Sometimes, the results are indeed embarrassing: as well as a toe-curling version of Mrs Robinson, witness his version of Winchester Cathedral. But more often, we hear an artist searching for a new path, not only in art but in life. Many of the post 1966 albums feature variations on the theme of ageing.

These three albums are not necessarily the best of Sinatra after fifty, but three works which help to define his later career:

Francis A and Edward K (1968)
Francis A is of course Francis Albert Sinatra; Edward K is Edward Kennedy Ellington, AKA Duke. The arrangements are by Billy May, one of the stalwarts of Golden Age Sinatra. The album cover features childhood photos of the two main attractions, and the music therein has something of the warm glow of nostalgia. Cuts like “Come Back To Me” and “Sunny” have a swinging vibe and screaming brass the recalls nothing so much as New Orleans jazz. The album overall, however, has a reflective, meditative quality. The lyrical themes are on the passing of time and of the inevitability of change.

“All I Need Is The Girl”, “Indian Summer” and “Yellow Days” all have running times just under five minutes, much longer than standard pop duration.

“Sunny” would later be record by Boney M, and was written by Bobby Hebb in the two days after November 22nd 1963 – not only the day of JFK’s assassination but also his own brother’s murder. This is one of Sinatra’s more successful covers of a pop hit, and one in which (unlike Mrs Robinson or Both Sides Now) he makes the song his own, rather than a novelty.

Watertown (1970)
“Interesting” can be a damning word applied to any art. In pop culture, it can signify a kiss of death; the moment when something is no longer appreciated or enjoyed for its own sake but for some ulterior motive. I mean no disrespect to describe “Watertown” and one of the most interesting albums in Sinatra’s career, as well as the most mixed.

A song cycle written with members of the Four Seasons, along with the much more consistently successful Antonio Carlos Jobim collaborations, it marks probably the biggest departure from the Tin Pan Alley/Broadway songwriters mostly performed by Sinatra. 400,000 copies were pressed at the time of release; only 35,000 sold. The songs follow a man in the eponymous New Jersey town who has been abandoned by his wife to look after their children.

Watertown’s lyrics contain their share of embarrassing couplets: “Sitting in a coffee shop with cheesecake and some apple pie/She reaches out across the table looks at me and quietly says good-bye”, for instance, from “Goodbye (She Softly Says)”. Cole Porter this ain’t. Yet, there’s an emotional punch to many of the songs, and the pathos of Frank’s persona here (so at odds with the popular image of the ring-a-ding-ding swinger) is perhaps the most likely successor to lovelorn crooner of “In the Wee Small Hours.” Sometimes the sentiment teeters on the edge of treacle, but somehow stays on the right side, and on “What’s Now is Now” and “Michael and Peter” achieves a solemn dignity.

Those familiar with Scott Walker’s late 60s albums may find it easiest to think of Watertown as not dissimilar to Scott 4 – containing some sublime moments, but much more dated than, say Scott 3. Like many attempts to be up-to-the-minute, the result doesn’t date as well as when the singer just sings their songs.

She Shot Me Down (1981)
By this time, notwithstanding his stadium success and the three megahits, in terms of album sales Sinatra had fallen off the charts; this didn’t make the British charts at all, and missed the Top 50 in the US. Sinatraologist (Sinatraician? Sinatraian?) Will Friedwald, in his magnum opus Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art, describes this as “the album that got away”, a hat tip to the majestic closing medley of “The Gal That Got Away” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” This is the Frank of “In The Wee Small Hours”, facing up to mortality and the passing time. This not just a medley, but a reprise, and an almost unbearably poignant one.

The title track is perhaps now better known in daughter Nancy’s version, which is on the Kill Bill soundtrack. This version is less stark, less stylised, and more emotionally true. Sinatra’s late works are, amongst other things, testament to the virtue of growing old gracefully; not for him the lame attempts by various rockers to present themselves as essentially unchanged over half-a-century. The pleasures of Sinatra after fifty differ from those of his golden years, but they are in their own way as rich, as rewarding, as evocative of a life lived in the full.

Seamus Sweeney is a doctor and writer from Dublin who lives in County Tipperary. His writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The Lancet, The Guardian, The Spectator and other publications. He won the 2010 Molly Keane Writing Prize.

Metal Umlauts

motorhead_lemmy_1

The first Wikiworm of 2014 gets the year started with a wikipedia article about some hard-rockin’ crimes against language…

A metal umlaut (also known as röck döts) is a gratuitously or decoratively used accent over letters in the names of hard rock or heavy metal bands. Among English speakers, the use of umlaut marks and other diacritics with a blackletter style typeface is intended to give a band’s logo a Teutonic quality—denoting stereotypes of boldness and strength commonly attributed to ancient northern European peoples, such as the Vikings and Goths. The metal umlaut is not generally intended to affect the pronunciation of the band’s name.

In standard usage (outside heavy metal) the umlaut version of a vowel is pronounced differently from the normal vowel. Ironically, these sounds tend to be perceived as “weaker” or “lighter” than the vowels represented by un-umlauted u, o, and a, and thus in languages like German which use it normally, the umlaut does not evoke the impression of strength and darkness which its sensational use in English is intended to convey. Therefore, the foreign branding effect of the metal umlaut is dependent on the beholder’s background. Speakers of such languages may understand the intended effect but perceive the result differently from speakers of languages in which umlauts are rarely used. When the band Mötley Crüe visited Germany, they were surprised to find the audience chanting their name using an umlauted vowel.

The first (gratuitous) use in a metal band’s name appears to have been either by Blue Öyster Cult or by Black Sabbath, both in 1970. In that year, Black Sabbath’s record label, on a rare picture-sleeve 7″ single version of “Paranoid” (with the b-side “Rat Salad”), for no apparent reason, retitled the song “Paranoïd” with a diaeresis above the “i” (as is correct in French).

Motörhead followed in 1975. The idea for the umlaut came from Lemmy, the group’s lead singer/bassist (and former Hawkwind member), who said, “I only put it in there to look mean.” (The German pronunciation of Motör, a word that does not exist in German, would be similar to French equivalent, moteur. “Motor”, the correct German spelling, is pronounced similarly to “motor” in English.)

The band Hüsker Dü debuted in January 1979, though they were based in punk and not heavy metal. Hüsker Dü’s name is derived from the board game “Hūsker Dū?” which translates to “Do you remember?” (the bars above the u’s are macrons, not umlauts), although these diacritics are not present in original Danish.

Motley Crue

Mötley Crüe formed in 1980; according to Vince Neil in the band’s Behind the Music edition, the inspiration came from a Löwenbräu bottle. They subsequently decided to name their record label “Leathür Records”.

Queensrÿche, who took on that name in 1981, went further by putting the umlaut over the Y in their name (ÿ corresponds to the digraph ij in the Dutch language). Queensrÿche frontman Geoff Tate stated, “The umlaut over the ‘y’ has haunted us for years. We spent eleven years trying to explain how to pronounce it.” In contrast to other examples, the spelling of Queensrÿche was chosen to soften the band’s image, as it was feared that the original spelling, Queensreich, might be misconstrued as having neo-nazi connotations.

this-is-spinal-tap

The spoof band Spın̈al Tap raised the stakes to unassailable heights in 1984 by using an umlaut over the letter n; (i.e., over a consonant.) In the mockumentary film This Is Spın̈al Tap, fictional rocker David St. Hubbins says, “It’s like a pair of eyes. You’re looking at the umlaut, and it’s looking at you.”

 

 

Beginning to See the Light

lou-reed

Douglas muses on life, death and the meaning of Lou Reed …

You might have mistaken the cars out the window for lumps of sugar. A series of winter storms had come down from the Gulf of Alaska and dropped enough snow on Seattle to enforce a five-day hibernation. Queen Anne Hill, where I lived, was cut off like an iceberg, its steep slopes sheathed in ice. No one went to work. Public buses were stopped. Truck deliveries were impossible. Soon the local grocer began to run out of food. My roommates and I listened to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and drank Jim Beam and marveled at the transformation of the world outside. It was like a little holiday with a faint specter of starvation. That night I dreamed that Bowie circa 1973 was cooking a meal for us. The cupboards bare, he dropped armloads of colored felt puppets into a vat of boiling water. We would dine, he said, on puppet stew.

That must have been in 1996 or ’97, I’m not sure which. I was a few years out of college, poor and single and working at the bookshop. Back then I lived almost entirely on spaghetti and bagels, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Seattle was still vaguely famous for its “grunge” music, but I was more interested in the music of my parents’ generation. Not that my parents ever listened to David Bowie or Lou Reed. In the sixties and seventies they had been more interested in The Beatles, Donovan, Simon and Garunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. But my roommates and I kept The Velvets’ entire discography, and Bowie’s from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs, on near-constant rotation. When working the front counter at the bookshop I listened to the same.

The obsession – though not the enjoyment – began to wear off. I started exploring jazz from the fifties and sixties (Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck) and modern Eastern Bloc composers (Gorecki, Schnittke, Ligeti, Arvo Part, and Peteris Vasks). Most of the latter I can’t bear anymore, having retreated to the more gratifying Baroque period – the music of which, along with a broader sampling of jazz artists, makes up most of what we play at home these days. This past Sunday, however, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death, I listened with deep satisfaction to an old Velvet Underground disc while washing the dishes. The leaves were piling up outside and things suddenly felt melancholy. I don’t know why we should be affected by the deaths of artists, most of whom are strangers to us and haven’t produced memorable work in years, but sometimes we are affected, a little.

Lou Reed was one of a handful of aging popular musicians whose passing might mark something for me. The others include David Bowie, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Like any good parents, my wife and I have tried to raise our kids to appreciate rock and roll of the sort they made. So far we’ve failed. Our son, age ten, is a rather good violin player. He’s been taking lessons for four years now and practices an hour each day. Mondays he plays with a local youth chamber orchestra. My daughter, eight years old, is showing some promise with the piano. I can’t even read music, so their achievements are, to me, miraculous. But they absolutely hate – detest – rock and roll. I expected to raise music snobs, but not this kind. I’m Beginning to See the Light came on while I was finishing up the silverware. You can imagine my dismay when both son and daughter covered their ears and stomped off to the bedroom to blast Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major.

Douglas Dalrymple lives near San Francisco and blogs about books and life at The New Psalmanazar.

Bagism

bagism

This was one of John Lennon’s pranks that had passed me by; sounds like the sort of thing that Russell Brand would like. Today’s Wikiworm uncovers an early example of studenty idealism…

Bagism is a term which was created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono as part of their peace campaign of the late 1960s. The intent of bagism was to satirize prejudice and stereotyping. John and Yoko introduced the idea during a well-received press conference in Vienna on March 31, 1969, and explained it more thoroughly in a June 14, 1969 interview with David Frost. Bagism involved literally wearing a bag over one’s entire body. According to John and Yoko, by living in a bag, a person could not be judged by others on the basis of skin color, gender, hair length, attire, age, or any other such attributes. It was presented as a form of total communication. Instead of focusing on outward appearance, the listener would hear only the bagist’s message.

By catching the attention of the masses with its outlandish premise, bagism presented a powerful social and political message to the world. As Lennon stated, “Yoko and I are quite willing to be the world’s clowns; if by doing it we do some good.”

The couple had earlier appeared in a bag, at The Alchemical Wedding, an underground artists’ gathering, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in late 1968, which sought to challenge audiences to be participants rather than passive consumers. John and Yoko climbed into a large, black velvet bag on stage, sat cross-legged, knee-to-knee, hunkered down and closed the bag. They moved only twice in 45 minutes, hunkering further down.

johnandyokobagLennon and Oko attending a screening of their films at the ICA, whilst both inside a bag

Yoko said that bagism was inspired by the theme of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which was “One sees rightly only with the heart, the essential is invisible to the eyes.” She hoped that the bag, by hiding her and John’s physical appearance, would make their essence or the essence of their message visible.

Bagism is mentioned three times in the songs of John Lennon. The first time is in “The Ballad of John and Yoko” where John refers to “eating chocolate cake in a bag”, (which occurred at the Vienna press conference), and the second is in the song “Come Together” where he sings “He bag production”. This is referring to Bag Productions Ltd, Lennon’s public relations company, which derived its name from Bagism. The third reference is in “Give Peace a Chance”, with the line, “Everybody’s talkin’ about Bagism, Shagism, dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, That-ism, ism, ism, ism.”

In 1996, a john Lennon fansite called Bagism.com was sent a cease and desist request from the representatives of John Lennon’s estate over the use of copyrighted John Lennon content. After an unsuccessful appeal to Ono and the John Lennon Estate and the Dear Yoko petition campaign, the web site owner capitulated and instead focused his efforts on less legally-volatile content.

 

 

Dabbler Diary – The Son of a Superman

What is the worst opening line to a song ever written? I’ll submit this from Suede’s Savoir Faire (1999):

She live in a house, she stupid as a mouse.

That epigram was penned by the band’s frontman Brett Anderson, and it pains me to mention it because, aside from Mervyn Peake and Paul Simon (I’d love to say Shakespeare and, oooh, Yeats here, but it just wouldn’t be true) nobody has contributed more to my literary sensibility, to my love of ring-a-ding-dong linguistic nonsense, than Brett Anderson. Suede’s eponymous debut is a record to which I listened so frequently and intently as a repulsive youth that it is embedded in my DNA. Two decades on the line We shake shake shake to the trumpet, and through the slippery city we ride will pop into my head at all sorts of unlikely moments, as will this fine couplet from an early B-side: On the high-wire, dressed in a leotard, There wobbles one hell of a retard. That ‘wobbles’ still never fails to make me chuckle, and the next line is On the escalator, you shit paracetamol.

Brett Anderson: hero to the sixth-form centre’s fringe element; icon of the arts faculty. One of my university contemporaries – now a moderately successful comic and radio presenter – modelled his look so closely on Anderson’s anaemic floppiness that he was essentially a walking tribute act. Suede were like the Smiths but louder, less bloody northern and much sleazier (Morrissey couldn’t get laid; Anderson could and didn’t much discriminate, was the suggestion). We’ll never never play the harp, and we’ll stick like sick on the stars. Brilliant, and as Enderby always said, don’t worry too much about meaning, the words are what matter. I was conned by a circus hand, Tragic as the son of a superman. How good is that? What could, in fact, be more tragic than the son of a superman?

Alas, Anderson’s spark of linguistic genius sputtered out too soon and within a few years he completely ran out of poetry. She live in a house, she stupid as a mouse. But anyway, I enjoyed the Johnny Marr gig so much that when I saw on posters that the reformed Suede were playing the Bristol O2 Academy the following week, I thought what the hell and bought a ticket.

***

Russell Brand spouted some twaddle on the telly and in the New Statesman, for which he has been roundly taken to task, and he even gets the full Nick Cohen treatment here, which seems a bit de trop, like George Orwell taking on George Formby.

If I were Paxman I would have taken a different line and quoted, as I often do to nearly everyone’s irritation, the most underrated stat in political discourse, which is that the top 5% of earners in the UK contribute 48.3% of the income tax (up nearly 3% from last year), despite only earning 25% of the total income. This is used to pay for our schools, hospitals and welfare. Therefore we already have a system of ‘massive redistribution of wealth’ (the bottom 50% of earners bring in a quarter of the total income but contribute only 9% of the tax).

For some while now Chancellors have seen it as their role to operate as close to the peak of the Laffer Curve as practicality and political expediency will allow. The rest is tinkering and this, I’m afraid, is as close as we are ever going to get to a socialist Utopia. So here we are, socialists, look around you. This is what Utopia looks like: disappointing.

***

Standing around drinking German lager in the lull between the support acts, waiting for Suede, I got chatting to a lady and her friends about various gigs we’d attended. She mentioned a curious one-off charity show a couple of years ago featuring Pete Doherty and Roger Daltry. “It was at a place very like this, sort of smallish and dark” said the lady, peering around her. I looked for a signal that is was a little joke, but couldn’t detect one. “Yes, I was at that gig too,” I said truthfully. “And yes, it was definitely here: at the Academy.”

“Oh it was here, was it? Yes I did wonder,” she said. At that moment I realised that I was speaking to one of those interesting people with absolutely no sense of geography whatsoever; without any ability to internally map space or retain information about place. My grandma was the same: she lived the best part of a century on these isles without gaining any clear notion of where anything was in relation to anything else. If she travelled a reasonable distance – as, for example, when I drove her from Devon to a family wedding in Nottinghamshire – she would have no idea about the direction or distance of travel. Rather, she would climb into a car at one place, remain in it until it stopped, and then emerge at her destination. It must have all seemed quite magical.

The second support act, a band called Teleman, came on. They were pretty decent, though it’s a standard trick to give support bands an enfeebled, tinny PA system and a titchy drum kit, so that when the main act strides on the combination of dramatically increased volume and familiar music has a thrilling, visceral effect.

***

Having Kindled up at last I have read Bryan Appleyard’s Bedford Park and must say that I fully concur with Nige’s assessment. I was trepidatious about reading the Yard’s fiction after all his non-fiction – the idea seemed obscurely embarrassing, like when a sportsman has a go at acting. But I rattled through the novel with much enjoyment. Like all Bryan’s stuff it’s crammed to bursting – with ideas or in this case with character sketches delivered with the concise insight honed by years of celeb interviews and journalism. It’s also very good on London (“a maze without a centre”) and very witty about people. Oscar Wilde “exuded an air of massive bonelessness.”  A matriarch wears “an ancient black ball gown trimmed with torn fragments of black lace that projected in all directions like dark sparks. The effect was that of a bomb caught in the act of exploding.”  Definitely recommended.

***

Suede came onstage and went straight into Pantomime Horse, one of my repulsive youthful self’s favourite songs, and it was very loud and the effect was thrilling and visceral. I was astonished at Brett Anderson’s frontmanning, he gave it some welly all right, the full Mercury. In recent years we’ve had to drastically rethink our ideas about rock stars and age, thanks to the Jagger, Weller, Springsteen etc. Johnny Marr is a skinny leaping mod and knocking on fifty, which must now be considered relatively young for a rock musician. Anderson is a mere 46. When Suede first appeared he was a scrawny indie-pop racing-snake and so was I. Now I’m a bulky father of two who drives a Vauxhall Zafira but he’s still a scrawny indie-pop racing-snake. I realised I had nothing whatsoever in common with this man and his lifestyle.

But only much later, because about five songs in Animal Nitrate started and I was carried to the edge of the stage in the surge of two and half thousand fellow 30 and 40-somethings who’d also left their wives or husbands at home with the kids to come and crush their thickened bodies together in that rare communal spirit that comes from being a bit drunk on a schoolnight and knowing all the words to all the same pop songs, and just as I reached the edge of the stage Brett Anderson leapt from it onto us, screaming words long embedded in my DNA and stripping away the many layered skins of cynicism that have grown over me in two decades of life. I sang. I moshed. I drank good quality lagers. I waved. I clapped. I high-fived strangers. I sweated profusely. I experienced euphoria. I went home in a deafened daze. I took some headache pills and drank a pint of water. I got into bed next to my wife. I fell asleep. I was woken a few hours later by the violent collision of my daughter’s knee with my skull as she jumped onto our bed. I got up unsteadily and went to the bathroom to shit paracetamol. I looked in the mirror at puffy red eyes swaddled in black rings. I showered and got dressed. I felt deeply and profoundly happy. I drove to work.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

Chanson – That’ll be five yesses then

Yves_Montand

This week Mahlerman celebrates the great Gallic songwriters…

Words;  whatever happened to them in popular music?  And why was I shocked a few moments ago, hearing the ‘song’ that is currently topping the charts?  Talk Dirty by Jason Derulo has sold 160,000 copies in the last seven days.  The second verse goes something like this:

Been around the world, don’t speak the language
But your booty don’t need explaining
All I really need to understand is
When you talk dirty to me
Talk dirty to me
Talk dirty to me
Talk dirty to me
Get jazzy on it

A little later Jason is joined by his partner in crime 2 Chainz (formerly Tity Boi) and the objectivization of women becomes a little more specific – too specific for these ears and this journal.  And this is no isolated example; these people are reproducing faster than a field of rabbits, and the wealth of the most successful – P Diddy, Jay-Z, Dr Dre – is measured not in millions, but billions, and the market for solid gold window boxes and diamond-encrusted trowels grows daily.

To get back to a time when the words of a song actually meant something worthwhile, where the text actually predominates, we have to set the clock back more than 50 years, and slip across the channel to France – actually to Paris.

Mistinguett, Frehel, Damia…..these women who once bestrode the Parisian demi-monde are now virtually unknown outside their native land, and little mentioned inside it, but in the early part of the last century they gave collective birth to a ‘chanson realiste’ that painted in words the harsh life that they had all experienced, in a voice of often tender expression.  Here is Damia in 1936, not quite erasing memories of the Billy Holiday version of Gloomy Sunday, with Sombre Dimanche.  Listen out for the marvellous, sonorous bass in the chorus.

Damia was almost 90 when she died in 1978.  The Belgian Jacques Brel, an 80-a-day smoker, hadn’t even reached the half-century when the reaper called in that same year.  Considered by many to be the greatest popular singing actor in the French language, the wheezing, anxiety-soaked voice has, in the years since his death, become almost a lingering cliche for French male sprechgesang.  But this flawed genius was a poet of no small note, and a magnetic performer, able to spin gold in the turn of a phrase ‘My death waits like a bible truth / At the funeral of my youth.  His ambitiously poetic texts owed nothing to America, and this unique quality, linked to an intensity of performance that usually left him bathed in his own sweat, created the legend that lives on to this day.  Here he is singing perhaps his best known song, the devastating Ne Me Quitte Pas.  The man lived inside his songs.

The Monegasque poet and anarchist Leo Ferre wrote the lyrics to most of the wonderful songs he composed, but will probably be best remembered for the song-settings of the French poets Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine, and although he came from a highly respectable bourgeois family in Monaco, he had an instinctive feeling for these outcast writers.  Here he is singing L’invitation au voyage to words by Charles Baudelaire.

The striped cafe awning, beret, baguette, mustache, the waft of Gauloises (and Gaul)…..add a poodle or two, and a handful of intellectuals and ooh la la, what a country.  To this list we must add the incomparable Louis Charles Auguste Claude Trenet.  Writing more songs than Schubert, and recording only his own compositions, this son of a Narbonne Notary became the biggest star in France, with hardly a moment passing when one of his songs might be broadcast on the radio, during the war and thereafter.  His drooping felt hat, set at a jaunty angle, gave him a slightly comical appearance, and led to his early audiences calling him ‘The Singing Madman’  –  but mad he certainly was not possessing, as he did, a clear grasp of his worth as well as his limitations.  A man who never married, the aroma of sexual impropriety followed him relentlessly in middle-age, but did nothing to dent his popularity.  And if he had written just one song instead of the almost one thousand he did write, and if that song were La Mer (written in ten minutes on a piece of toilet paper during a train journey), Trenet’s immortality would be assured.  But he also managed to squeeze-out this marvel of madness, Boum.

The late Jean Ferrat before his death in 2010, clearly had the same reservations about the future of his chanteur engage as I do when he said ‘I wonder what will happen to a civilization that can put a man on the moon, but has forgotten how to make soup’.  He felt that in a virtual world we would yearn for reality even more, and that the music and poetry he engaged with would again be in vogue.  That the dramatic delivery would again find an audience, and that the powerful evocation of melancholy, where the listeners can experience ‘longing and consolation’, often simultaneously, would slide into place when the masses eventually tire of X-Factor and Rap.  I’m not holding my breath.

Here to end are the modern extension of this genre in the shape of the very special band Tetes Raides, with a Tom Waits-like insouciance, aided on Emma by the languorous presence of the great Jeanne Moreau.

Dabbler Diary – The Boy in the Bubble

Speak, memory! It is a late afternoon in late summer in Southsea, and a ten-year old boy is in the hallway on hands and knees refereeing a tight football match between two teams of miscellaneous action figurines. An easy sunlight flows through the window in the kitchen where his father is fiddling with the cassette player. Boba Fett kicks a marble past Evel Knievel to make it 7-6 to England. Then comes a sound.

Jjjarr-je-jjjarrr-jjjjarrr–je jaaarrrrr jjjje jjjjjjaarrrrrrr-jarrrrr-jjjjeee jjjjjaaaaarr.

The sound is of a swirling accordion. (In fact it is a piano accordion played by Forere Motlohelo of Sotho, though of course the boy knows nothing of this.) Round and round it goes. The boy frowns. Ddum! There is a sudden single drum beat atop its own echo, like a gunshot in a well. Then another, Dddum!, then two more, then a tumbling mass of beats and twanging bass guitar and the rhythm is a wagon full of swarthy grinning bandits in bandanas rollicking through a rocky desert, and the boy’s shoulderblades begin to twitch and his head begins to bob. Bow-ba-dow-ba-ba, de-bow de-ba ba-ba, be dow be da daa dee-daa dee-daa. Looking up, he sees his father is likewise twitching and bobbing.

Then sliding in casually on top of this alien exotic groove comes a pale voice which states that ‘it was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road’ in a perfectly relaxed sort of way and in doing so commences a forty-five minute surrealist poem which kicks down some hitherto unknown linguistic door in the boy’s mind, opening up a great new space where words can make not only the whole world but endless weirder worlds beyond, just by the way the words sound when put next to one another. Medicine is magical and magical is art, the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart. And it’s very, very groovy.

***

Did the scene described above really occur? It feels like it did but memory is tricksy. Chances are it was gradually rather than epiphanically that Paul Simon’s album Graceland came to influence me more than any other cultural item save perhaps Rhymes without Reason by Mervyn Peake.  And while in this self-indulgent self-analytical mode I think too of early blissful reading experiences, when I first experienced true contentment in books: The Wind in the Willows in Lower Remove 1, read aloud in a circle of four so-called ‘advanced’ readers while intermittently gazing out the window at the towering chestnut waving in the wind from outside the school gate; Just William and Professor Branestawm all ploughed through in ‘Library’ lesson, my slender frame wedged into a favourite spot betwixt the legs of a metallic bookshelf; the Susan Cooper series Over Sea, Under Stone which I read, terrified, during a lengthy confinement to the sick bed. But did any of them contain such zip-crack-pop word combos to worm into my unconscious like staccato signals of constant information, a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires and baby... Did any of them provoke such puzzling visions as She is physically forgotten but then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys? To this day I cannot survey in suitable awe one of England’s cathedrals with seeing angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity and thinking Amen, allelujah!

***

Allelujah! San Miguel el Gove enters the lions’ den with a piece in The Guardian lauding the success of free schools and posing the question: why does Ed Miliband (or anyone else) oppose them? In the adjoining comments the moronic inferno predictably rages; masochistically, I have been sifting through it looking for an answer to Gove’s question. What are the arguments against free schools? Filtering out the two default Guardian-reader complaints (these being (1) Gove shouldn’t be allowed to write in Comment is Free, which should be Free only to those whose Comments I agree with; and (2) Tories are literally evil and their actions are motivated by a desire to harm children) I find the central objection is that free schools (and, by extension, academies) are likely to be too good and parents will want to send their children to them. To understand why this is an objection, you must accept this premise: it is better for two children to both attain a base level of mediocrity than for one of them to attain it and the other exceed it. Along with this comes a view of parenting in which mothers and fathers who want to do the best for their children (read books to them, teach them how to count, take them to museums etc), are not ‘good parents’ but ‘the parents with the sharpest elbows.’ And that’s it.

I know a man who even into his forties was a genuine, Soviet-supporting Marxist. He once in all seriousness expressed to me the view that ideally all children should be taken from their parents in infancy and raised by the state. I used to think he was madder even than the average forty-year old Marxist with that one, but on reflection that policy is indeed probably the only practical way you could sustain a society in which nobody was ever allowed to exceed mediocrity; otherwise you’d be forever beating down sharp-elbowed parents like a game of whack-a-mole at the funfair.

***

Talking of boys in bubbles, the birth of the Princeling George forced people paid to comment on such things to take one of two paths: wild speculation/extrapolation, or conversely, ‘I-really-can’t-understand-what-the-fuss-is-about-is-it-just-me?’-ism. Private Eye’s cover epitomised the latter line with its usual savage satirical wit (ahem): “Woman Has Baby.” But it’s hardly strange that there has been a fuss. This woman’s baby establishes a clear line of succession in the British monarchy for the rest of the century. The issue of royal succession, particularly in periods where there has not been such a clear line, has been somewhat important in shaping British history.

***

What a curious bird the musical Les Miserables is. A disjointed tale of undeveloped characters sung through in four or five emotionally-manipulative melodies. The film of the musical is stranger still because it contains one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.  Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream is the real deal, like Sinead O’Connor’s video of Nothing Compares 2 U, only more so. After this incongruous dramatic brilliance she promptly pops her clogs (not really a spoiler as it happens stupidly early) and the film quite collapses, somehow being both too rushed and too slow. But that Anne Hathaway is something else…

***

Test Match Special fans know that a major part of the cricket commentary’s appeal is the amount of talk that’s not about cricket at all. The BBC’s online text over-by-over coverage isn’t in the same class, but there’s still some good stuff in there. This from yesterday, after bad light stopped play:

Anthony Ainley, the actor who played arch villain The Master in Doctor Who in the 1980s, had the honour of an obituary in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack after he died in 2004. An opening batsman for The Stage and London Theatres CC, he “usually took his cricket teas alone in his car – possibly because, according to one report, he ‘despised cheeses of all kinds’.”

***

Do you ever worry about the scale of chicken slaughter in the world? Sometimes at Asda, contemplating a pack of six chicken thighs, for example, I think, well that’s three chickens that have laid down their meagre little lives right there… And there are so many packs on the shelves. And so many Asdas in the country. Not to mention Tescos and the rest. Then think of all the KFCs across the globe, dishing out bucketfuls of legs and wings 24/7. And of course we cannot exclude my beloved Nando’s’ role in this unimaginable daily massacre.

Best not to think about it really. I do love chicken thighs. All of which queasy musing gives me an excuse to trot out the anecdote about the best compliment I have ever been paid in my life (feel free to skip if you’ve heard this one before).

It occurred on the island of Crete, in a tiny family-run Taverna close to the grim disco strip of Malia. Its keeper spoke good if eccentric English and he used it to complain at length about my compatriots and their behaviour on holiday. “Why you need get so drunk?” he asked as he brought out our bottle of enjoyably vile retsina. “Why you want get nakt? Why you want take clothes off in street and get nakt?”

I couldn’t honestly answer, and nor could Mrs Brit. We were both fully clothed and had no intention of getting ‘nakt’ in his street. While our starters were preparing he pulled up a chair to continue the theme. “Why you want shout? I not come to your house and SHOOOOOOUT in your street. Why you want do that?” He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and demonstrated, literally, the business of “SHOOOOOOUTing”.

I couldn’t help but agree with his gist, though I did make the observation that his own compatriots were more than happy to take money from mine in return for drunk-making liquors. He conceded the point with good grace.

I ordered up the special, which the Taverna-keeper kindly translated to me as “Chicken chops.” It was a platter of chicken thighs, wings and things cooked in some sort of oregano seasoning and was sublimely delicious. I attacked the plate with carnivorous greed, using fingers and teeth to pick off every last morsel til there was nothing but a heap of gleaming, decimated bones. The keeper took our plates back into the kitchen and then a few minutes later hurried back to deliver it, the greatest compliment I have ever been paid in my life:

“Sir! My wife, the cook… she ask me to tell you…She say, You really know how to eat chicken!

***

My daughter C (who turns four this Wednesday – tempus fuggedaboudit!) is a natural dancer. With the Brennan pumping out tunes at random she will stop mid-sentence and, finding a rhythm to her liking, launch into an often wild improvised routine. The other day I Know what I Know from Graceland came on and she instantly got the groove. Her shoulderblades begin to twitch and her head began to bob in a way I recognised. She said don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party? I said who am I to blow against the wind . As the rest of the family joined her on the dancefloor I could not help but wonder whether these bonkers bouncy words would worm into her subconscious as they did mine. I imagine so: these are, after all, the roots of rhythm. And the
Roots
of rhythm

Remain.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.