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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Linda Smith

I was very sorry to hear about the death of comedian Linda Smith today. Working predominately on radio, she was a breath of fresh air on programmes such as The News Quiz and Just A Minute.

Her own show, A History of Time Wasting didn’t quite hit the mark but remained a cut above many of the shows occupying Radio Four’s sit-com slot after the 6.00 o’ clock news.

Radio, more than television, pulls off that seemingly impossible trick of being intimate whilst at the same being a mass medium. It’s as though these performers are playing some select club to which you and a few mates are invited.

Having been a lifelong fan of radio comedy since growing up the shows like The Navy Lark, The Clitheroe Kid, and all the others, Linda Smith had taken her place in that particular soundtrack to my day, and very welcome she was. She’ll be missed.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Good Night, And Good Luck

Trial by television of "fear itself"...

There’s no denying the timeliness of a film that takes as its main theme the principle that a person should not be judged guilty without evidence being assessed and tested in an open court of law.

When a country is allowed to be railroaded into a course of action in which hearsay, bad intelligence and innuendo form the backbone of its policies, then it has truly lost its spine. Though Good Night, and Good Luck relates to a specific period in America’s political life where this was a very real danger, its contemporary resonance is obvious.

Beautifully realised in stunning black and white, director George Clooney’s staging of journalist Ed Murrow’s stand against the anti-communist Senator, Joe McCarthy, is full of period detail set in the claustrophobic television studio and production offices of CBS's See It Now programme.

Though this may be due to budgetary restrictions, the lack of exterior shots reinforces the subterranean existence of TV producer Fred Friendly (played by Clooney) and the staff that serviced the show to great effect.

On the rare occasions the movie does leave the studio, it is to an early hours bar room where the team anxiously pour over first editions, or the glacial corridors of the senate hearings and the plusher skyscraper rat-runs of corporate America.

Here CBS boss William Paley (superbly played by frank Langella as corpulent fire-breathing dragon with a conscience) frets about ratings and sponsors, but ultimately backs Friendly and Murrow in their work as they go head to head with McCarthy.

The real heart of the movie is in Murrow’s own words and in actor David Strathairn, Clooney has found a perfect medium through which those stirring speeches to camera are channelled.

The lucidity of Murrow’s actual text needs no canny polishing from screenwriters to make it both exciting and eerily current. As civil liberties continue to be eroded in the political fall-out following 9/11, Murrow’s counsel that “we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home” remains as startlingly relevant in 2006 as it did in 1954.

The film is framed by Murrow’s address to the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation in 1958. At a time when the media appear increasingly timid and transfixed by the politician's spinning of the news agenda, Murrow’s plea for television to aspire to be something more than the delivery mechanism of eye and brain candy appears positively revolutionary.

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Stonewall Jackson, who knew something about the use of weapons, is reported to have said, "When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival.”

Though modern day journalists such as John Pilger on the left, and his right-wing counterpart, Peter Hitchens can be just as elequent and passionate in their command of language and arguement, it's impossible to imagine the kind of insight and intellect which Murrow encapsulates being allowed to flourish on prime-time today.

So whilst the movie is a call to intellectual arms, it is also an elegy to integrity, truth and lost potential. Though these characters win the battle, it seems as though we've all but lost the war.

Yet for all the worth and merit articulated throughout the film there were times when the tension inexplicably slackened. Narrative hotspots such as the harrying of newscaster Don Hollenbeck by the right-wing Hearst press (which may or may not have been a contributing factor to his suicide at the time) were side-stepped in favour of a subplot about CBS’s policy of not hiring married couples.

More serious than this though was that whilst Murrow was seen to be a tangible presence (you almost had a sore throat and itching eyes from his continual cigarette smoke) McCarthy seemed relagated to be something of a distant bogeyman, seen and heard only in actual news footage rather than given physicality by an actor equal to Strathairn's remarkable portrayal.

There’s another story going on out there somewhere but we don’t get to see it and at times it feels like a bit of one-sided contest.

Whilst laudably mirroring See It Now’s handling of the original topic (using McCarthy’s own anti-Red rhetoric against him), the tension and heat generated by the cast felt somewhat dissipated by the documentary ambience whenever we switched from actors to real life.

Though Murrow’s camp was brilliantly brought to life, the office of the Senator from Wisconsin remained emotionally distant and out of view, reduced to a flickering bit part on a TV screen in the corner of an office.

Just as Murrow believed his position was correct, McCarthy must also have felt himself to be acting in the best interests of his country. Yet nothing of his motives are explored or discussed through the kind of exemplary characterisation afforded to Murrow. When McCarthy’s fall from grace comes, the personal crisis brought about as a result of having played fast and loose with the truth is unseen.

Perhaps Clooney wanted to avoid being too triumphant about the bad guy getting his comeuppance but he ends up robbing the movie of a dramatic payoff, short changing what could have been a truly great film. Notwithstanding these points, Clooney deserves our praise for bringing this episode to the screen.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Duran Duran In "Horrible Music" Shock!

It’s a lovely morning in Whitley Bay although it’s cold with a strong wind blowing in off the North Sea. On Friday night we had several neighbours around to share a few nibbles and a glass or two of wine. The music playing in the background was a selection of sixties compilations – motown, beatles, pop etc.

During the course of the evening discussion turned to Dave and Julie’s forthcoming 80s party. So I put on a compilation of 80s pop tunes, opening with Girls On Film by Duran Duran. One of our guests, Thomas, looked aghast. “This is horrible music” he declared after a few bars of Le Bon giving it mean and moody.

Of course I had to ask that if he didn’t like Duran Duran (and here Thomas has my sympathies), then what did he like? It turns out that in addition to lots of Bach he was especially fond of Deep Purple.

I baulked at the prospect of nipping upstairs to grab In Rock or Machine Head out of their shelves and into the player downstairs figuring that the rest of our company (Dave, Julie, Jude and John), being at least ten years younger than Thomas, Debbie and myself, wouldn’t appreciate it.

The discussion veered back towards the 80s and speculation about Dave and Julie’s fancy dress party.

The idea is to dress up as an iconic figure or moment from that decade. It doesn’t have to be a person – it be a representation of the era. Debbie suggested I could go as Simon Le Bon’s yacht. That's the one you will recall went belly up a few years ago. Ouch!

Tomorrow Debbie and I are intending to head off to the cinema. She’s going to see Brokeback Mountain whilst I’m more inclined to watch Good Night And Good Luck. This parting of the ways isn’t due to the sizeist comments from Friday but due to the fact that Debbie saw the Clooney movie last week when she was in Birmingham. The plan is that we’ll travel in together, see our movies and then meet up for a cuppa afterwards and compare notes.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Listen Carefully - I Will Play This Only Once

This morning Jakko and I recorded the first instalment for a podcast that details the writing and recording of his forthcoming double album, The Bruised Romantic Glee Club. We’ve agreed to do some more so that there’s commentary about every track on the album.

I’ve been playing tracks from disc one in lots of different running orders. It’s interesting how the feel and impression of the album are dramatically altered and affected by the proximity of one track next to another.

I suppose it’s not unlike the first ten minutes of movie in which the director is expected to deliver the premise and inciting incident from which everything else proceeds.

Take any album and change around the opening ten minutes. What if Floyd’s Wish You Were Here started with the title track? What would the initial impression of John Martyn’s Solid Air album be if the opening sequence was Go Down Easy / I’d Rather Be The Devil / Dreams By The Sea?

How about Crimso’s first album kicking off with Moonchild? Would this have created the same kind of the impact had it began with Moonchild? First impressions count so much and those opening ten minutes are critical in drawing the listener into the world of the album.

I guess now we are part of the iPod generation, people disregard the original sequence as soon as they download or rip the tracks from the CD. Given that people will programme the finished artefact the way they want to hear it perhaps it’s a waste of time spending so many hours listening and grading alternative running orders especially when the demands on one's listening time is beginning to mount up on the desk here in the Yellow Room.

Listening to these

and these

and these as well

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Pauline Murray & Penetration

Debbie and I took a walk along the seafront today. A bit of rain spotting here and there but fairly refreshing. Back home, Tom was out in the street playing football, Joe was out with his mate helping him deliver leaflets and Debbie sat on the sofa in the yellow room catching up on her reading.

I drifted through a few of the Sunday newspapers and was pleased to see Pauline Murray from the punk rock band Penetration in a feature about what some of the names big and small in 1977 were doing nowadays. When I was working on the Northstars book in 2004 I had to write a chapter on Pauline and her work which meant listening to a bunch of their stuff courtesy of my chums at EMI. I really liked Penetration; raw but with some interesting musical ideas that got churned around in the melting pot of punk.

Here’s a brief extract from the chapter on Pauline.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Pauline’s voice wasn’t a snarling unsophisticated howl of protest but something rather more refined. Murray saw her voice as another instrumental line, adding to the layers of sound rather shout over the top; probably about as far removed as it’s possible to be from the band that provided Pauline with the impetus and inspiration to get up on stage.

l -r Pauline with original guitarist Gary Chaplin.

picture Rik Walton

For many people stuck out in the provinces punk was a faint reverberation felt on the jungle telegraph of youth culture. Pauline wasn’t out on the margins. She was right in the thick of it, spending time in London when punk was just coming to boiling point and threatening to spill out.

“I remember being on the tube train in London with a boyfriend. I saw this guy on the tube and I said that’s Johnny Rotten! We followed him along the Kings
to a shop called Sex. I was very scared because it was just so different. We sort of hung about in there for a bit, Peter Lloyd, (Pauline’s soon to be husband and future Penetration road manager) spoke to Malcolm McLaren who owned the shop. Not long after that Malcolm rang him to see if there were any venues up here in the north east that they could play. We didn’t sort anything out but we found out they were playing in Northallerton and went to see them.

There was a row of garages, the end one was a night club. That was the first time that we saw them and it was absolutely fantastic, the people were just totally normal people, you know the normal Friday night cliental and the Pistols came on stage; they were just so funny, it was absolutely hilarious. They just blasted out of these small speakers. It was great. After that we went back down to London and went to the Screen on the Green in Islington where we saw them with the Clash and the Buzzcocks. So we saw them before the media latched on to them.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hannah And Her Friends

Hurrah! Debbie got back from Birmingham today and what a long day it’s been. I had originally gone to bed around 10.00ish on Tuesday and had drifted off fairly quickly thereafter. Then sometime a little after midnight Alys and four of her chums came in from a wild night out. Clearly the plan was to now have a wild night in.

Interestingly, Alys would never have brought her mates home at that time in the night/morning had her mother been here. Clearly she thought that while the cat’s away the mice would play. She’d forgotten that the big fat bastard upstairs isn’t at all keen on mice and has far less manners than Debra. However, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the joys of being a teenager so I figured I’d give them a while to calm things down of their own accord.

Fully awake I lay in bed reading a book about British gangs and extreme violence used against innocent people. I’m reading this as part of some ongoing research for a writing project I’m doing but I figured I might get some tips about handling noisy 19 year olds who’ve had too much to drink and are frankly, making a right pain of themselves.

Eventually I got dressed, feeling that confronting people whilst wearing a dressing gown might work in the movies but lacks the gravitas the situation demands in real life, and went down to the red room from where much of the noise was emanating. Two lads who I don’t know where sitting on the sofas knocking back some booze and talking about movies as it turns out. I informed them politely but firmly that the party was over.

Then it was to the kitchen to find that Alys had her head down the toilet trying to induce the technicolour yawn whilst her mate, Hannah, glass of our gin in her mit, looked aghast at my sudden appearance.

Hannah and her friends quickly made their farewells as Alys staggered up to do a bit of “Who the hell do you think you are telling my friends to leave”. Sadly she confused me for someone who cared what opinion she might have on the subject. Realising it wasn’t going anywhere she gave up whilst I picked up the discarded bottles and got the place looking reasonably ship-shape.

Alys in the meantime had gone to bed at my suggestion with a bucket. All done and dusted it was now 2.00 a.m. and I was wide awake.

There was nothing to do but go online, process some DGMLive guestbook comments and fire off a couple of emails. One e-correspondent and I caught each in real time and had an e-conversation about Skype. Sam, Debbie’s son who was now also up and about, told me that we are all ready to Skype. In the next couple of days I’m going to buy a headset and begin a new adventure. At 2.30 a.m. I decided to go back to bed and start again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Apprentice

My hands are cold and ache today which has made typing somewhat painful. Arthritis? Hypothermia? Hypochondria?

I heard from Debbie who is going to see Goodnight and Good Luck with Beige Peter in Birmingham tonight. The last film we saw was the vastly over-rated Hidden, which is so obtuse that it merited its own Dummies Guide To...column in Sunday’s edition of The Observer. Actually it’s not at all obtuse. It’s just not very good.

After a great start the movie simply drifts and looses the tension. It’s one thing to be enigmatic, enigmatic I can relate to. Oblique is fine as well but you must deliver the goods and this movie doesn’t. Rather it gets the curtains of suspicion twitching but little else.

Films, even bad ones, are something of a passion for me. Television, as long term readers of this diary will know is also something Debbie and I enjoy in small doses. Tonight, I'll be smirking at Shameless - not so much kitchen sink as sink estate drama. I chanced upon it by accident and became a confirmed fan very quickly thereafter. It has some impressive, full-blooded and truthful performances from an ensemble cast and exceptionally strong writing. Sometimes people will do extraordinary things to survive the reality of their situation.

The one concession I make towards reality TV shows is The Apprentice which starts a new series on BBC2 tomorrow.

I got really hooked by this last year and moved heaven and earth to be at television set by the appointed hour.

In common with every reality TV programme, The Apprentice panders to our inability to stop gawping at someone else’s misfortune whilst pinning your colours to another and urging them on.

On the plus side at least we don’t have to sit through people singing dreadful cover versions of equally dreadful songs or flirting with each other.

The drama depends on the extent to which the ambition of the participants blinds them as to their suitability for the job they aspire to. Some, completely out of their depth, sank without a trace whilst others revealed their true grit – not always a pretty sight.

In this battle for survival, cooperation and team work are replaced with grudges and petty recriminations, which of course is part of the fun for the viewers.

The real star of the show is Sir Alan Sugar, whose no-nonsense, grizzled visage exudes the air of someone who knows what they’re looking for and doesn’t have too much time for the niceties of what goes on between knowing it and getting it.

Somehow he comes over as being a likeable, if somewhat curmudgeonly, kind of bloke disguising the fact that he’d rip you to shreds if he had to. Though clearly powerful he appears to be relatively unaffected by the trappings of his considerable wealth, and with his aides Margaret Mountford and the steely-eyed Nick Hewer, shows he’s where he is by listening carefully to what people, and his customers are telling him.

After the series finished last year such was my addiction to programme, I sought solace in the original American edition of the format and was amazed at Donald Trump’s performance.

Far more stagey than the UK counterpart, I wondered if it was a contractual obligation on the part of the contestants to keep their eyes averted from the furry creature Trump kept perched on his head.

Throughout the show my interest in the various tasks and challenges waned as I found myself wanting to know its origins of this hairy beast; what did it feed on, did Trump take it for walks or did he have staff to do that for him. Perhaps that’s what his eventual apprentice would have to do?

Surely the hardest task they had to face when sitting in the boardroom opposite Trump was not blurting out “What the fuck is wrong with your hair!?”

Listening To…

Floating World Live by Soft Machine

Live In Zaandam by Soft Machine Legacy

Camera Obscura by Camera Obscura

Bandages by The Edgar Broughton Band

Over The Hill / The Bastich by Saint Steven

Monday, February 20, 2006

David Irving - Dumb & Dumber

What kind of malicious idiot describes concentration camp survivors as “psychiatric cases”? Step forward right-wing revisionist and historian, David Irving.

Tonight he was imprisoned in Austria for three years because of a speech he made there in 1989 in which he asserted that the holocaust did not happen.

He had pleaded guilty to the charge, recanting the views expressed in the 80s only after discovering papers by Adolf Eichmann in 1991 that confirmed the existence of the chambers in the camps. How come it took Irving all the time following the defeat of the Nazi’s to figure out that a central tenant of Hitler’s policy was the systematic eradication of a race?

I mean how dumb do you have to be?

Clearly by saying he accepted he was now wrong, Irving – no stranger to the courtroom - was hoping he’d get a lenient sentence. Well he was wrong about denying the holocaust and he was wrong about the gullibility of the Austrian judiciary.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Texting Turn Off

Debbie left yesterday for a few days in Birmingham with Neil and Halina as well as some other Brummie chums. Today she’s in Wellingborough visiting her sister Dude. She texted me to say all was well with the journey.

I’m not one of life’s natural texting types and frankly never do it until I absolutely, positively have to. In such circumstances, I keep it short and sweet, and if not exactly sweet, well, short.

There are those who feel that texting inculcates a dumbing down of the language especially amongst young people whilst others argue the point of a living language is that it evolves and changes with the times.

As someone who has barely a grasp of the language and its subtleties whatever its state may be, I find myself to be a text-sceptic though accept this is based on my complete inability to get the hang of the damn thing.

I have a friend, a good ten years older than me and he loves predictive texting, a feature I absolutely loath and have only recently figured out how to turn off. Mind you, the same the friend also likes Blur and Gorillaz who I loath only slightly less than predictive texting although I did manage to turn them off a long time ago.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

All Part Of Growing Up

Well we’ve done the round of parent’s evening at Tom and Joe’s respective schools. I confess to always being a little nervous ahead of these things, a throwback I’m sure to my own miserable performance whilst at school.

I pushed Tom into sitting with me as I talked to the various teachers as a way of helping him hear direct what they were telling him. He found the compliments very hard to take and though he squirmed his way through the brief encounters he was mighty pleased with himself as the pair of us walked back home.

It wasn’t too cold and beyond the glare of the streetlamps a rumour of star-studded blackness gathered on the periphery of our light-blighted gaze. Talking to your kids is something most parents do on a daily basis but usually it is on our terms. Listening to your kids is less common. Based on what Tom said over that hour as we walked and talked, and what he’s said subsequently, I’d conclude he was about as happy as 14 year old lad can be in this neck of the woods.

Joe refused to sit in on his session which was marred by the introduction of a new recording system that requires the teacher to marshal a ream of paper, notating and ticking boxes as we talked.

He asked if I had any comments I’d like to make. I did and at length. I finished by saying that I thought Joe was settling in well. He paused. His pen darted over boxes and blanks, scribbling hither and yon. Then, catching his breath, he asked if I thought Joseph was settling in well. He clearly hadn’t been able to tick all his boxes and listen to what I’d been saying at the same time. I don’t blame the teacher concerned but rather the system which swamps them in another layer of paper work and indicators. It may satisfy the bureaucrats but I found it did little for me.

Joe looked sullen when I emerged, somehow expecting the worst, or whatever passes for the worst in the brain of a twelve year-old boy these days. “He said some very good things about your work” I told him and then went into some of the detail. The tension visibly left him and he relaxed into smiles and cracking jokes like his old self.

Whatever it was that Joe didn’t want me to find out had remained unsaid in the fifteen minutes spent with his form tutor. Later as we talked, it emerged that he’d intervened in a fight and had pushed over another boy who was, in Joe’s opinion, unfairly picking on a smaller kid.

“Try fighting on someone your own size” Joe had told him, quite forgetting that he himself is a good head and shoulders above the burgeoning bully. The kid, understanding he was outgunned had legged it but not before issuing the threat that his mother would be phoning the school to complain. All of which explains something of Joe’s apprehension at the start of the night.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Question Of Sport

If it’s one thing I can’t stand it’s those martial arts movies where the bare-chested hero is encircled by bad guys. Instead of all rushing at once each assassin politely waits his turn to tackle the hero one at a time. This enables the hero to swiftly whirl around, cracking the overly optimistic ninja over the back of the head and into the dust without even breaking into a sweat.

So it is with prime minister’s questions. Today Blair faced William Hague, ex-Tory leader who lead his party to defeat way back when. Something of a comeback kid, Hague has abandoned the lucrative after-dinner speaker circuit for a return to the frontbench. There’s a general sense of goodwill toward Hague even from some of his political opponents as evidenced by the roar of approval as he took to the floor

Standing in for David Cameron, who is on paternity leave, Hague began well with an excellent joke and even landed a good soundbite or two. This exemplary start perhaps prompted disgruntled right-wingers on the Tory benches to wonder if they hadn’t got it wrong by putting the boy David against Blair’s Goliath. Perhaps Hague might have been the better choice after all?

Such musings were dispatched quicker than a Bruce Lee dropkick. Like him or loath him, Blair is an effective Commons performer and it didn’t take long before Hague was soaked in, what Malcolm Tucker would no doubt call, a hurricane of piss.

Then it was the turn of Sir Menzies Campbell whose chance of winning the Libdem leadership contest every time he stands up in the House. After making a so-so joke about Labour’s recent defeat in the Dunfermline by-election he waited for the laugh. Only it never quite came. Actually that’s not quite true. It came and went so quickly that Campbell corpsed with stage fright.

As he tried to get back into his stride his quivering voice betrayed the nerves. Blair effortlessly threw him aside as he did with the increasingly unlikely Libdem leadership contender, Simon Hughes.

The other challenger, Chris Huhne, wisely kept his powder dry nodding his head in all the right places. Much the way Gordon Brown does when sitting beside the PM. The knock-about stuff of Prime Minister’s Questions can’t really be considered as real politics but it is good sport and provides Labour backbenchers with the increasingly rare opportunity of getting behind Blair at least a once a week.

Watch the whole shooting match here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


A Valentine's Day Painting From The Red Room

A selection of songs that induce a romantic rush here in the Yellow Room

The Way You Look Tonight by Fred Astaire from The Cream of Fred Astaire
Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills & Nash from Crosby Stills & Nash)
Folk Song by Jack Bruce from Harmony Row
Ah! Barbara by Georges Delerue from the soundtrack to Vimente Dimanche!

The nipples of Venus were consumed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Angel Liquor by Centrozoon

Music with wings...

Like the world-weary angel of Wim Wenders classic movie, Wings Of Desire, the cover artwork depicts a recumbent angelic figure looking down upon a busy town whilst apparently being offered what looks like a walkman.

Whether the heavenly legions are issued with personal hi-fi’s I have yet to find out. If they were, then as they looked down upon all those lives teeming back and forth, there’s a good chance that the angelic mp3 players would be featuring this album.

If you believe that music can tap into or even come from the spirit of the age, then this is an epic soundtrack that reflects the sense of unease and discomfort about where our planet is heading. The titles offer a hint; Fear, Distress, Vertigo, Decoy and Cruciform.

Distilling notions of paranoia, suspicion and corruption without recourse to doomy melodrama, or pyrotechnics is a hard thing to pull off. That they succeed so well tells us a lot about the way this partnership has evolved and developed since the arrival of their first album on the DiN label, Blast (2000).

Capable of traversing the varied distance between oblique avant-pop (with vocalist Tim Bowness – Never Trust The Way You Are) and off-beat sci-fi electronica (Cult of Bibiboo) , Angel Liquor isn’t so much ambient as ambiguous music. Frequently devoid of any central theme or hook they leave the listener to make the connections and associations.

Even the percussion seems to be more rumour than fact, a murmur of disquiet pulsing under highly strung chords and textures. It’s hard to put your finger on any of it, and as soon as you do it seems to slip from one’s grasp.

Mixed and co-produced by Bill Munyon (bpm+m), with no overt soloing to speak of, the listener is encouraged to look at the wider picture and pick up on the details left behind in the sweep and swell of their broad-brush approach. The sense of creeping tension which the album exudes is palpable. Angst-ridden it may well be but that doesn’t mean it’s a bleak or moribund affair.

There are many moments of pure beauty located within its 50-plus minutes although its general mood reminds us that all good things come with a price attached. What you get here is provocative and intelligent and somehow brave.

Like those stoic angels atop their skyscraper eyries, Centrozoon look down and stay calm above it all.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Friday’s copy of The Guardian carried a good obituary of Elton Dean. I played though some Softs and his first solo album (now known as Just Us) by way of a tribute.

The jazzy reflection of his Fender Rhodes playing on Part: The Last (which used to be the last track on side two) seemed especially poignant.

Flirting with a bluesy lopsided waltz, Phil Howard’s grumbling rumble of drums is punctuated by Neville Whitehead’s funksome electric bass. Dean himself sticks to stabbing chords on a Fender Rhodes awash with reverb.

As the intensity builds one expects Dean’s abrasive sax to burst in but it never does. Instead Marc Charig holds down a mournful three note theme which leads to a fade and then it’s gone.

I’ve often wondered what happened next in that piece. Just before it disappears, Whitehead’s bass does a quick run and then begins a walking with Howard. Perhaps it broke down – hence the speed of the fade – or perhaps it carried on to include chorus after chorus of solos. When the album was reissued it carried extra tracks but from different sessions (and line-ups) but no outtakes from those original dates.

Perhaps it’s is a good thing that its left to the imagination. To hear it might only be an anti-climax. Instead of the imagined creative glories what if it’s merely a weak spluttering of bad ideas?

Maybe that’s why it was faded out in the first place.

As John L Walter’s observes in same edition of The Guardian, commenting on the impending UK release of yet another Miles Davis box set, maybe you can have too much of a good thing, that our mania to have and to hold everything an artist produced leads to a kind of overkill. The article quotes Teo Macero’s assertion that Miles himself would not have wanted to see the various outtakes made public.

The completist sickness is terrible to behold. There are people whose KC collection make me look like a dilettante. They have the Japanese version with the extra track, the American release with the different colour cover, the Russian bootleg edition of the box set with exactly the same content only in a different size, and so on. And on. And on just a bit more.

Visitors to the Yellow Room are often surprised by the gaps in my KC collection, falling foul of the assumption that with my professional connections to group, I must necessarily have a vast collection. I don’t.

I suppose in my heart I’m not, and have never been, a true completist. I don’t own every Weather Report album, or Fairport Convention or Shostakovich or Soft Machine or even Miles Davis.

Of course that doesn't stop me from coveting the Davis box sets as each release is announced. I have some of them and regularly feel their alluring pull in much the same the way the moon calls upon the tides. My first one, The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings Of The Miles Davis Quintet January 1965 To June 1968, I bought in San Francisco with my per diems on the ProjeKct Four tour. The last one I got, The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, was a Christmas Birthday present from Debbie.

When I want to get that hair-raising blast of Davis skipping and punching his way around the studio with Jack Johnson, it’s invariably the original edited version I reach for. After initially slaking my thirst, the box set CDs with their numerous takes, re-takes, grooves and leftovers now rarely leave their deluxe packaging.

Maybe Macero was right on the button after all.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Earthworks Undergound Orchestra by Bill Bruford & Tim Garland

The man with the heat-seeking snare hits the mark...

I was never quite sure what to make of Earthworks in its early incarnation. Top drawer, top flight playing from all concerned for sure, but its overly ambitious blend of jazz-rock voicing and Loose Tubes-style eclecticism was often uneven, leaving this listener particular listener feeling somewhat disorientated; although happy about the ends I wasn’t always convinced by the means.

After his 1997 collaboration between Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, If Summer Had Its Ghosts, Bruford seemed to find his stride as a composer, a fact more than confirmed with the release of A Part, And Yet Apart in 1999.

Earthworks II was a wholly more satisfying, stable mix of no-nonsense jazz with nothing to prove. With young guns including the excellent pianist, Steve Hamilton, sax player Patrick Clahar and Mark Hodgson bringing up the bass, Bruford’s new quartet issued a sprightly, fleet of foot albums that positively danced with joy.

The celebrations continued when in 2001 Clehar departed and saxophonist, Tim Garland was recruited. An inordinately talented player, arranger and composer, Garland has established himself as an expressive and forceful player working at an international level with the likes of Chick Corea, as well as receiving commissions in the classical world including a critically applauded saxophone concerto and works for the Northern Sinfonia.

His nine-piece Soho based Dean Street Underground Orchestra and its residency was definitely one of the hottest tickets in town both in London and in New York’s Blue Note Club. Although the excellent Random Acts Of Happiness was recorded in 2003 it wasn’t until last year that it was released and showed the quartet in superb form. In 2004 Bruford expanded the line-up to form the Earthworks Underground Orchestra when he and Garland were joined on stage by seven other musicians at the Iridium Jazz Club, NYC for two nights.

The resulting album is a set bursting with bonhomie and good humour, evidenced in no small manner by Bruford and other’s whoops and shouts of encouragement at the conclusion of solos and numbers. Garland’s prowess as an imaginative arranger is a constant factor as several vintage Earthworks tunes are given a detailed make-over that peels off any hint of tiredness. Libreville first made its appearance back in 1989 on Dig?, then seemingly unable to make up its mind if wanted to rock out or jazz it up. There’s no such ambiguity on this reading.

Garland’s charts constantly galvanise both material and band, coaxing an incandescent trumpet solo from Alex Sipiagin. Garland gets the rocking bit right when he makes space for a gritty spluttering baritone sax solo from Chris Karlic which kind of adds a fruity twist to the plot. Sipiagin is something a secret weapon on the album. Born in Russia where the cold winds blow, Sipiagin blows nothing but hot across this release, especially on Bruford’s epic The Wooden Man Sings, And The Stone Woman Dances. Anyone thinking about getting this album should do so whilst it comes with its two track bonus CD. Sipiagin and Karlic’s combined firepower are utilised once again on Thud to devastating effect.

Garland himself of course shines throughout, proceeding waspish bursts of stinging notes capable of flying anywhere when he takes a tenor solo on the ever-agile Footloose And Fancy Free. He also gives a darker reading to Bajo del Sol, his impassioned, smouldering bass clarinet bringing more fire to the track than previously imagined.

Bruford, as you would expect, is an engine in perpetual motion, releasing and applying the rhythmic handbrake always when he knows it will have the most impact. His partnership with Garland has definitely his lifted his game and one wonders what Garland would have done with the maddeningly smartarse grandstander, Bridge of Inhibition, that remained a staple of Earthworks concerts for many years.

Full to the gills with intricately scored parts and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of absurdly bright solos from everyone concerned, it’s a tour de force of deliriously happy music that will reward both newcomers and even the most seen-it-all before jaded Jazzbo.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Market Forces

It’s been a marathon session today. In between listening to unreleased soundscapes and KC shows, I’ve been working on ideas arising out of a script conference with Eric O the other day.

It seems we came together in order to figure out that we are working on separate ideas.

Does that mean we’ve been wasting our time? Not at all. I can’t think that the treatment I’m currently working up would have happened without our work on what was going to be joint idea.

As Ed Reardon, my literary hero and role model, would no doubt observe, a writer is no stranger to presenting fantastical tales to sceptical listeners. In my case this usually involves telling my bank that the cheque really is in the post and if they could see their way to extending the overdraft facility, etc, etc. Fantastical tales often have happy or surreal endings.

Tragically, my version of this usually ends with all the grit and grime of a kitchen sink drama in which the two protagonists realise they’re stuck in an unhappy marriage but have to make the best of it. In times gone by such tawdry drama’s have been played out in those tiny fake panelled rooms that are only big enough for a half desk, a couple of chairs and a reminder about Ethical Investments. What such rooms lacked in comforts and views they at least made up for in privacy.

At a time when many are calling for transparency in our financial institutions my bank has done away with the walls in favour of the more continental open-plan look. So far so stylish you might think. Except that now one’s business is clearly audible to all of those folks waiting in the queue for the teller. I know this because when I joined the queue I could hear every single word, including passwords and date of births, of those undergoing this oddly public form of Star Chamber.

Afterwards I took a stroll up to the Grainger Market.

Built in the 19th Century, it’s recently been refurbished but hasn’t quite shaken off the rumours of impending closure. It would be a pity if it did close but it has fallen on hard times.

We always try and use it when visiting Newcastle and today I bought some tea from Pumphrey's.

and some cheese from Mathew's conveniently located a few stalls further down...

And it's not just cheese either!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Elton Dean

Jakko rang me today with the news that Elton Dean has died.

Best known for his work with Soft Machine, Dean had played for many years on the British scene recording albums under his own name and with groups such as Phil Miller’s In Cahoots.

He had been working with Soft Machine Legacy along with other SM alumni although illness had forced Elton to step down. UK sax player Theo Travis took over from Elton, playing his first gig with them in Milton Keynes at the beginning of the month.

Travis is one of the best players of his generation and the legacy of Soft Machine, and that of Dean’s is safe in Theo’s more than capable hands.

I don't know the precise cause of death but Leonardo Pavkovic emailed me to say that internal bleeding was a factor.

Elton was 60 and will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Prophet And Loss

I heard on the news today that the protestor who dressed up as a suicide bomber during last week’s protests about the cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed has been arrested. It seems that Omar Khayam was a convicted drug dealer released on licence and may have violated the terms of his parole.

The moral compass is a fascinating thing. Omar thought dealing in drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin and reaping the profit was fine but that it’s an outrage and offensive for someone to draw a cartoon of the prophet.

Of course, for all I know Mr. Khayam may be a reformed drug dealer who has since taken part in many a protest at the sickening spiral of addiction, dependency, family break-up, abuse, criminal damage, theft and death which accompany the drugs he used to sell. I sincerely hope so.

I’m grateful to Rupert Loydell for sending me this article. As Orlet observes “This cartoonish row may blow over soon, but its consequences may echo for years to come.”

The DGMLive site continues to grow and develop in all kinds of ways I hadn’t foreseen. By no means perfect, it nevertheless is meeting a demand for live material which I wouldn’t have anticipated. The range and quality of what’s become available to fans is impressive.

I got an email a couple of days ago from Richard Parry who said “at this rate you’ll be bankrupting me within a couple of months. Couldn’t Fripp have waited a while before he started touring America.” His comment related to the fact that he’d recently downloaded all the soundscape gigs on the site.

Just hold your horses, I told him, that stuff isn’t going to go away. There’s plenty of time to listen to it. The best analogy I’ve heard regarding the site came from Robert who likened it to a library – there’s a quite few different subject to browse through and though not every title will be of interest, there should be enough to keep most visitors happy.

BBC TV have been touch with me regarding a documentary series of television documentaries they are making dealing with rock music. One of the producers was asking if I might be willing to take part. Of course, said I. The programme promises to be more than a mere listing exercise and wants to go into things in the kind of depth not usually afforded to rock. They are planning a one hour show just to deal with progressive rock, although things may change once the actual scripting gets underway. Let’s hope it’s not just a few cheap laughs at the expense of King Arthur On Ice, etc.

I heard a show on the radio this morning which made me laugh out loud. I’d never heard of Anna Russell before this but am a confirmed fan for life now. The link is good for seven days.

Monday, February 06, 2006

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Brian Eno & David Byrne

The Sound Of Surprise. . .

In an age where sampling is second nature we now take all and any kind of combination of musical styles and cultures in our global-savvy stride. Be it Tuvan and Tex Mex or Swahili with Spanish, our Western ears are no longer surprised if, during the course of a song, its references and origins slip the leash to stray into foreign climes.

That we think nothing of such crossovers these days is due in no small measure to this album first released in 1981. Before “world music” was coined and before Peter Gabriel’s Real World there was My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

Recorded in that remarkably fertile period somewhere between Talking Heads’ Fear of Music and Remain In Light, we know that Byrne and Eno weren’t the first to tinker in this direction. Holger Czukay’s beguiling Boat Woman Song from his 1969 album, Canaxis is often cited although Cage, Stockhausen and many others could also make a credible claim in the inspiration stakes.

There are of course precedents in Eno’s own music; Kurt’s Rejoinder in 1977 utilised Kurt Schwitter’s Ur Sonata and John Adams’ 1975 Obscure label Eno-produced release employed a religious radio phone-in on Christian Zeal and Activity.

Whatever its distinguished antecedents may have been, it was Byrne and Eno who were the first to achieve such a fluid and convincing synthesis that resonated so profoundly in marketplace of popular music.

Whatever its distinguished antecedents may have been, it was Byrne and Eno who were the first to achieve such a fluid and convincing synthesis that resonated so profoundly in marketplace.

Tagging eclectic excerpts from radio, phone-ins, religious ranting and Middle Eastern singers with an infectious hybrid-funk, Byrne and Eno created a genre that set musicians and producers the world over rushing to plunder radio and all kinds of exotic and esoteric sources to emulate the novel, and slightly dangerous spark that ignites when two distinctive cultures collide.

Supervising the remastering, David Byrne has restored the punchy dazzle of the original album, which after years of having to put up with an indifferent CD transfer is very welcome indeed. On pieces such as The Carrier, new voices leap out from the densely packed bazaar of sound as though in celebration of their greater clarity and new found freedom.

Also included are a clutch of bonus tracks taken from the original recording sessions that have been doing the bootleg rounds for many years. They make for an interesting comparison with the old tracklisting and reveal something of the choices available to Byrne and Eno as they scoured tapes and worked towards the final album. One song, Defiant has a jaunty comedic voice asking “Can I go with you?” over a pulsating, choppy backbeat and attendant riffs and sonic swoopery.

Fine as far as it goes but when compared to the track it would eventually become, The Jezebel Spirit, you realise just how acute Byrne and Eno’s sense of the dramatic really is. Even now, the ludicrous telephone exorcism somehow retains its dread chill with those cavernous synth-brass splashes helping to sending shivers down the spine.

Also of note is the entrancing Number 8 Mix with its whirling beats and ethereal zither which demonstrates that they had plenty of ideas in reserve.

25 years on this landmark album still maintains the sound of surprise.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pencil Frenzy

No matter how many packets of pencils I buy and dutifully place in the chicken soup can on my desk, you can bet your bottom dollar that when I need to use a pencil there’s none to be had.

Sure enough today there are no pencils.

The children protest their innocence which means either the cats have taken them for some terrible feline purpose the planet can only guess at or…my kids are bare-faced liars.

The Observer today has a good editorial about the debacle of the cartoons and the resulting violence.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Nutter Alert

What kind of people go out onto the streets waving placards demanding death and destruction to those who print a cartoon of their god? Is their belief so shaky and insecure that they must threaten the lives of dissenting or confrontational voices?

They’d best not listen to Roy Harper’s polemic The Black Cloud Of Islam, written in response to the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

I heard in the week about the complaints arising from the tour of Jerry Springer The Opera. I watched the show when it was televised and found it rather witty and incisive though I confess if I were Christian I might well have been offended by various representations. But would I protest? Would my faith in Christian principles be fatally undermined by this show? What about proportionality here?

The zealots and nutters who jam BBC switchboards without having seen the show (in the case of Jerry Springer), who issue death sentences on writers expressing ideas, who urge and extort others to kill in the name of their God and religion don’t represent the vast majority of believers who have a sense of perspective about such matters. They represent their own twisted view of the world and the very worst instincts human beings are capable of.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Out-Bloody-Rageous by Graham Bennett

A Band Of Two Halves...

The short version is that Graham Bennett’s book is an indispensable guide to one of the most intriguing and largely underwritten experimental pop / rock / jazz / jazz-rock outfits ever to have trodden the boards.

The longer version goes like this.

Bennett makes no apologies that he approaches his subject from a rock perspective and this he does with considerable success. His detailed account of middle-class bohemian post-war life in England is first rate and authoritative. The cultural and social milieu is lovingly documented and the names of Wellington House, Tanglewood, Deya, UFO, Burroughs, West Dulwich, Wilde Flowers et al glitter brightly in the firmament of the Canterbury sound just as they should.

Similarly, the excitement of the period and the early recordings are explored, investigated and assessed in a clean style which clearly transmits the author’s enthusiasm for that era

It’s when the band part company with Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean that Bennett’s account begins to loses some of the heat he has been careful to generate. If the early Wyatt-era Soft Machine is portrayed in loving and heroic terms, the latter part of the story has an equivocal, pragmatic feel to it in places.

It barely alludes to the creative crisis which gripped the band between Fourth and Six, presenting it more as a series of relatively benign comings and goings rather than the artistic watershed that radically redefined who and what Soft Machine was. As a principal composer, Ratledge was by now largely a spent force yet had paradoxically rejected the moves towards a freer playing style which resulted in the sacking of drummer Phil Howard and in turn precipitated Elton Dean’s departure.

It is Ratledge’s decline as a writer that is the most important factor that led to the recruitment of Karl Jenkins rather than the need to bring in a new soloist.

There must have been a dozen soloists who could have filled Elton Dean’s shoes at the time. What was needed was someone to come up with the tunes to keep the Machine ticking over and it was, rather than Jenkins’ capacity as a soloist, that attracted Ratledge’s eye and ear. With Hopper sulking on the sidelines, the good ship Soft Machine had badly run aground. Jenkins wasn’t so much a new member of the crew but rather the lifeboat for those floundering out at sea.

Jenkins himself has always been clear about his limitations as a soloist but what he did have in spades though was a talent for riff-based composition. He came to dominate Soft Machine so quickly was because there was precious little else on the table from its original members.

Whether the absence of detailed commentary about Jenkins’ tracks is due to the lack of participation by their composer or indeed the preference of the author is unclear, but it does flaw the direction of the narrative at certain points.

For example, an important signature composition such as The Soft Weed Factor (from Six) is dealt with in a mere seven lines (and without reference to John Barth’s novel on which the title is a pun), which given its importance as the future template of the band’s sound seems scant compared to the degree of space spent referencing 70s TV comedy team, The Goodies whose input and influence is at best tenuous.

In the blurb on the jacket Bennett is cited as having “witnessed many of Soft Machine’s concerts in their peak years”, implying perhaps that by the time Jenkins joined, the band had seen better days. In reality it was a completely different beast compared to the avant-pop of 60s London and needs to be assessed on its own terms rather than as a terminal adjunct to rock group gone wrong.

Viewed another way this period was something of a renaissance for the jazz-rock version of Softs; they topped the polls, played to packed, enthusiastic halls of weekend Hippies right up to the end. I know because between 1974 and their demise I was hitching up and down to gigs when they weren’t appearing in Newcastle.

Bennett makes the point that Soft Machine’s commercial success ended after Third but emerging from the creative doldrums and personnel difficulties characterised in the Fourth and Six period was a music that was intelligent, visceral and on the concert platform packed a punch not quite conveyed by the albums of the day. Like its 60s precursor this has only recently begun to be fully appreciated with the release of many archive recordings not available to the listening community at the time.

None of these observations should detract from Bennett’s considerable achievement in having written this book nor imply that his assessments of the post-Wyatt period are necessarily flawed. He is right to point out the many shortcomings which occurred under Jenkins’ stewardship such as the pale disco filler of Soft Space and the entire Land of Cockayne debacle.

However, those later chapters do lack the analytical clout and weight of the earlier sections, where his clarity and command of 60s Softs adds significant and complimentary depth to Mike King’s Wyatt-centric account of the same period, Wrong Movements.


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