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Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Enemy of Productivity I

Let me count the ways the BBC’s iPlayer helps me dodge the page…

Portillo On Thatcher: The Lady's Not For Spurning

Jonathan Meades:Magnetic North

Citizen Smith

Richard Rogers

Dance With A Serial Killer

OMD Dazzle Ships

The Sinking of OMD

Dazzle Ships OMD

The UK music scene in the early 80s was awash with the bastard progeny of Brian Eno and Kraftwerk flagging up their desire to be different by waving a series of increasingly preposterous names at the record buying population. Depeche Mode, A Flock of Seagulls, The Human League, and perhaps most flamboyantly named of all, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, were pop groups branded to broadcast their outsider status before even a note had been heard.

Making the reality of the music match up to the rhetoric of the name-calling required effort. Rickety songs were pitched as quirky Quatermass lab lash-ups, iced with consumptive keyboard introspection and filled with Radiophonic Workshop-nostalgia.

Like the name of the bands that begat them, their tunes were christened with titles designed to layer in extra-textual depth. Thus in the case of OMD, a tune could be titled “Architecture & Morality” with a completely straight face. What might have once been a tongue in cheek approach to titles was now an alchemical conjuring act that transformed it into a proposition ripe for semantic and semiotic interpretation - a sheepish pop tune now bigged-up in Camus’ clothing.

The formula worked though and OMD’s commercial star was firmly in the ascendant by the time they retired to the studio to figure out the follow-up to 1981’s Architecture & Morality.

Plagued with writers block it was the call signs of Eastern bloc radio that provided inspiration. From these, Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphrey’s created a collage of short-wave warblings that criss-crossed between the regular tunes such as “Genetic Engineering”, “Telegraph” and the best of the lot, “Silent Running” wherein it’s obvious they’ve yet to forgive themselves for not being Joy Division.

Originally released in 1983, the allusion to camouflage in the album’s title couldn’t hide the fact that even with Rhett Davies’ glacial production this was pretty thin stuff at the time, requiring the inclusion of two old B-sides to beef it up.

25 years on and expanded with a clutch of extra tracks, the hope that this ugly ducking of clunky samples might somehow have transformed into a beautiful swansong of music concrete pop poetics is just wishful thinking.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

At The Fractious Clinic

Joseph is in rude health as our visit today to the fracture clinic at Rake Lane Hospital happily confirmed. We were seen about an hour and a half after the time stated on our appointment card. The substantial waiting area was packed to the gills and tempers were getting frayed.

I asked Joe how he was feeling about having to wait and he replied “There’s no point in getting angry. It’s not like they’re making everyone wait because they can’t be bothered to see anyone is it?”

The wisdom of a fourteen year old boy was evidently beyond the grasp of several adults old enough to know better.

Observing this behaviour from afar Joe commented about how much energy the chump was using up by being so angry. He went on to make a further point about how much energy it takes to be angry – this coming from a rugby player, mind you – and that getting stressed about things over which you have no control is a waste of time and effort.

Apparently the UK was hit by an earthquake in the early hours of this morning. Unlike the accounts on the radio of people being shaken violently out of bed or falling chimney stacks, I slept soundly through it all. Indeed, I’m not sure if the tremors even extended to Whitely Bay although I heard that Battle Hill (a suburb of Wallsend seven miles away) was affected.

The only potential participation in these seismic events I could see was a fine film of masonry dust across the top of the bathroom sink. Of course, this may be more to do with the gale-force winds that battered the house during Monday and Tuesday and my own tardiness in dealing with that fall-out.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Atomic Rooster Homework

Sad epitaph to once great band
Atomic Rooster
Angel Air

By the time Atomic Rooster founder/organist, Vince Crane, reunited with singer/guitarist, John Du Cann, in 1979, the glory days of Death Walks Behind You were long gone. Two singles and the promise of an album release on 1980s label Polydor had Du Cann spend nine months at home with a drum machine writing songs.

After their rejection, Crane moved on (to Dexy’s Midnight Runners) leaving the guitarist holding the Rooster torch and a clutch unreleased home demos. Hardcore fans may claim the 17 rough sketches presented here (alongside the Vic Maile-produced singles) to be of Holy Grail significance but this material simply lacks the turbulent energies which fuelled the band at its best.

Despite occasional sparks, the underdeveloped ideas and sluggish rhythms suggests Polydor were right to pass.

Rick Wakeman Aspirant Sunshadows

Wakey, wakey Rick!
Rick Wakeman
Aspirant Sunshadows

In the early 90s Rick Wakeman set his synths to snooze-control and produced a trilogy of new age noodlings specifically designed to help the stressed listener fall asleep. The story goes that his recording engineer fell asleep during the making of this, the third album of his intentionally soporific tunes.

These piano melodies, wreathed in smooth string sounds and occasional choral-style effects, are understandably different to the more dynamic solo work he’s better known for. However, though unobtrusive, they’re too much like pleasant but rather dull hymns that’ll have you yawning for sure but not necessarily for the reasons Rick would appreciate.

As the gentler works of Satie or Debussy demonstrate, “relaxing” doesn’t have to mean “bland.”

Random Penguin 10

1965 cover drawing by Charles Raymond

Monday, February 25, 2008

Testing For Buzz XXXIV 1968 And All That X

Having tuned in from the very first episode of Doctor Who in 1963, I was enjoying the show more than ever in 1968. This had a lot to do with Patrick Troughton’s portrayal as the erratic time-traveller and a clutch of classic stories that included Yeti in the London Underground, sinister seaweed infiltrating North Sea gas pipelines, the appearance of Wendy Padbury as regular companion, Zoe (a major crush), the Tardis exploding into space (and our team landing up in the land of Fiction) and of course, Cybermen stepping out in the vicinity of Saint Paul’s cathedral. Phew!

In those simpler times all that was required for a story to capture my youthful attention was:

  • the Tardis materialising
  • the Doctor flicking a few switches on the Tardis console
  • an air of mystery
  • a passage of spooky music
  • a fearful discovery
  • the Doctor rapidly explaining how bad things are going to get
  • a bad-guy glowering full-on at the screen
  • a bit of running around
  • the alien menace marching remorselessly forward
  • a soon-to-be-dead character futilely resisting
  • a bit of screaming
  • an explosion or two
  • the bad guy betrayed by his alien allies and meeting a grizzly end
  • a race against time
  • the Doctor rigging up a world-saving device from an old Domestos bottle, an upturned funnel and the innards of a radiogram
  • the Tardis dematerialising

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Street Life CVII

Happy Birthday Sam

Sam took time off from his busy birthday schedule to call in and say hello. The celebratory excitement factor was operating a full-force 10 on account of him getting a new job (better pay, vastly improved prospects) and possibly looking to get on the property ladder. I can't imagine that I was so together at the tender age of 23. I can't imagine it because I wasn't!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Nick Lowe Jesus Of Cool


Jesus Of Cool Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe distilled everything he knew about the art of writing songs and making pop music into Jesus Of Cool. And what he didn’t know, he made up as he went along with all the chutzpah of a quick-talking chancer who reckoned he was about to be shown the door at any moment.

As the glorious cover artwork infers, the album is a guided tour of his experience as a grizzled professional in the industry of human happiness. The man who served his apprenticeship in Kippington Lodge and Brinsley Schwarz, surveys the UK’s music scene from his bolt-hole in airless cut-price studios with a mixture of imperious disdain and idiot glee. Going for some glam-rock edging, “Music For Money” sticks the boot into the whole self-consuming cycle of manufactured pop, whilst no less caustic, “Shake And Pop” (also available here in its Rockpile persona as “They Called It Rock”) still rattles cages. Lowe’s studio tan got a break following an unexpected hit with “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass”, although how the ebullient “So It Goes” escaped the singles chart compilers remains a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown page-turner.

It doesn’t always work. “Nutted By Reality” is two separate songs awkwardly joined at the hip. The first part is a light skittering funk whilst the second is a bouncy Eurovision contender. OK, so it’s firmly tongue in cheek and viewed one way, it can be seen as ironic commentary on throwaway thrown-together material: viewed another way of course, its just bollocks.

This splendidly rough-cut frantic package comes with tons of extra material including the dark intimacy of “Endless Sleep” (from the Bowi ep), giving a hint of the mature Lowe style still to come. Lowe is credited on the track as playing “Senior Service cigarette lit by Swan Vesta Match, Fender Telecaster, cardboard box struck by cider bottle (possibly Bulmer’s)”. They don’t make ‘em like that any more.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reliquaries II

The recently rediscovered rolls of film taken by Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Words And Music III

I Know What I Like

It’s good to be busy but not so good to be dizzy, that is, feeling unfocussed and disorganised. I blame it on a developing head cold which leaves me feeling wrecked and slightly hard of hearing on my right side. I recall seeing a Steve Reich ensemble performance several years ago just after a serious ear infection.

Although I’d largely recovered by the time the musicians took to the stage, the vestiges of the infection leant the music an exotic tonality that wasn’t unpleasant exactly but neither would you want to hear too much of it. Still, things could be a lot worse.

All of which means this may not be the best time to compile a quick list of favourite songs by Genesis. I was recently talking to Zorky (who looks after the official Genesis site over in the US) and in that pushy, self-serving way of mine, suggested that I compile him a top ten list of Genesis tracks which, if the ship went down, I would take to that mythical desert island.

The golden must-have period of this band for me is pretty much anything from Trespass to Foxtrot. I love the way the acoustic / pastoral aspects from that time have a mysterious, dark texture underlying them, the same kind of something-sinister lurking-in-the-shrubbery deal that a lot of Edward Gorey’s work taps into come to think of it. After that it starts going off for me although the first two post-Gabriel albums aren’t entirely without their moments.

So, without thinking too hard about it, this is what the top ten list looks like today.

1. “Visions Of Angels” from Trespass

2. “Dusk” from Trespass

3.“The Musical Box” from Nursery Cryme

4.“The Fountain of Salmacis” from Nursery Cryme

5. “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” from Foxtrot

6. “Supper’s Ready” from Foxtrot

7. “Watcher of the Skies” from Genesis Live

8. “Cinema Show” from Selling England By The Pound

9. “The Light Dies Down On Broadway” from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway

10. “Blood On The Rooftops” from Wind And Wuthering

Interestingly, one of my old school pals, Alan Pearson, is a member of a Genesis tribute band called Los Endos, and that’s more than excuse to plonk one of their Youtube videos. We hadn’t really seen each other since leaving school so it was especially nice to meet him again when he came along to the launch event of the Toxic Tome in 2001.

Annoyingly he hadn’t aged a bit. Still thin as a rake, still blessed with all his own hair and still quick with his rapier-like wit. I suspect he has a sinister portrait festering in his attic. The swine.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Random Penguin 9

The cover shows a detail from 'Triumph of Socialism' by W.Crane, 1898


And Now For Something Completely Different…

(p)ATCO records

Pat Mastelotto’s musical journey outside of his day job as drummer with King Crimson takes him into some eclectic places. Whilst forays into the prog-electronica of TU (with ex-Crim Trey Gunn), TUNER (with touch guitarist L’enfant terrible, Markus Reuter) and the gob-smacking squall of avant-world mayhem of KTU (with Kimmo Pohjonen) have their sonic differences with Fripp and co, there’s enough common ground for most fans of one to gravitate towards the other.
This may not be that easy to achieve with the latest off-shoot of the TU-franchise which may well surprise folks with its straightforward blend of funked-up blues rock. M P TU brings together a bunch of pals operating in the vicinity of Pat’s Texas backyard: guitarist Phil Brown (who enjoyed a brief stint in Little Feat following the death of Lowell George), and veteran bassist and founding member of 60s art-rockers Spirit, Mark Andes. The potent dynamics are completed by the hard-rock rasp of the wonderfully alliterative Malford Milligan, adding a demonstrative frisson to Brown’s more introspective voice.

As far as the guitar goes, citing both Truth and Electric Ladyland (Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix respectively) as formative inspirations, Brown’s liquid style provides the dash and brio infusing tracks such as “The La-Land Land” and “The Heaven”. Mastelotto keeps it all trim and true in the pocket although manages to stretch out in the spacey menace of “Green Manalishi” (wherein a fleeting reference to “The Court of the Crimson King” briefly surfaces).

Middle East policy is questioned on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (with soundbites of Martin Luther King, to whom the track is dedicated), appearing particularly resonant in the age of Obama; a powerful, moving version wearing its hopes loud and proud on every inch of its unashamedly Liberal sleeve.

Stylistically, a million miles away from Mastelotto’s usual stomping ground, the superb playing and top flight sun-kissed Southern rock will probably render MPTU too mainstream for hard-core progsters. The rest of us though, get to kick-back and enjoy these old friends doing their thing.

Street Life CVI

Sunday, February 17, 2008

This Sporting Life IX

It's amazing (for me at least) to think that only a week ago at this time, I was wondering if Joe would ever walk again. Today, Joe was on the touchline as Rockcliff played a splendid game against Novocastrians, only coming onto the pitch to hand out refreshments at half-time and collect the flags at the end. Rockcliff's team work continues to impress and gave them a well-deserved victory after their two recent defeats.

Joe's accident made the front page of the local newspaper this week.

Whitley Bay News Guardian 14th February 2008

Joe has a few signed copies available on application!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Van Der Graaf Generator Trisector

Three's A Crowd...
Van Der Graaf Generator


What was always so striking was their collective sound as much as the material itself. Whilst Peter Hammill provided the bulk of the content, it was the group process that transcended the sum of its parts. The surprise departure of sax and flute player, David Jackson, whose ethereal embellishments and caustic licks were a unique selling point, therefore caused speculation about the remaining trio’s ability to maintain VDGG’s identity rather than end up as an adjunct of Hammill’s solo career.

Ultimately, they compensate for Jackson’s loss with shorter songs and Hammill’s precarious rocked-up electric guitar - more to do with timbre than technique. Whilst “Interference Patterns”, “The Final Reel”, “Lifetime” and the pile-driving blast of “(We Are) Not Here” have at their core those famously jagged and discursive elements which are instantly recognisable, their impact is marred by some inconclusive riffage such as the stodgy instrumental opener, “The Hurly Burly”, or a tired-sounding rant about gender politics and male hubris in general on “Drop Dead”.

Hammill’s over-driven vocals aside, this kind of stuff is simply too tame and run-of-the-mill to really cut the mustard.

Given that much of the lyrical content is about the passing of time, coming to terms with loss and encroaching senility,(“All That Before”) it’s perhaps forgivable that the otherwise atmospheric, “Only In A Whisper”, is a merely retread of “Solitude” from Hammill’s 1970 album, Fool’s Mate.

The Jackson X-factor is most sorely missed on the 12 minute ponder-athon, “Over The Hill” which never quite takes off in the way you suspect it might have done a couple of years ago. Despite such reservations, and the inescapable fact that Trisector lacks the consistency and bite of Present, their noisy ruminations exert a dark fascination that is hard to deny.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Truth Jeff Beck

Not Quite The Whole Truth…

Jeff Beck


Emerging from the psychedelic spring of 1967 with "Hi Ho Silver Lining", Jeff Beck got back to his blues rock comfort zone the following year with his first album. Though Beck's acerbic guitar and vocalist Rod Stewart's street-wise rasp had won hearts and minds in concert (particularly in the USA), when it came to the studio their onstage intensity became dissipated across what amounts to a patchwork of cover versions, old B-sides and some erratic production decisions.

The worst of these is the overdubbing of polite supper club applause onto the start of “Blues De Luxe”, which bizarrely transmutes into Beatles-style screamers by the end of the track. The fact that both Beck, and producer Mickie Most, felt the need to augment an otherwise serviceable performance this way suggests either a prescient post-modern irony, or (more likely) a lack of confidence in the medium itself.

The sense of this being a missed opportunity is tangible. The wah-wah gimmickry of “I Ain’t Superstitious” displays Beck’s formidable technique but it also reveals a stylistic disorientation, flirting with post-Hendrix pyschedelia and heavy blues but falling awkwardly between the two. “Morning Dew” fares better with a soul-infused rocking, and it’s hard not to admire Stewart’s stretching out on “Ol’ Man River”, despite being incongruously punctuated by Keith Moon’s ludicrous tympani work. Although containing many fine contributions (bassist and future Faces guitarist, Ronnie Wood is very good), ultimately it’s an unsatisfactory muddle.

It would take Led Zeppelin (still someway off the horizon when this album was recorded) to refine and perhaps, define, what Beck was struggling to achieve with Truth. Zep would not only lift “You Shook Me” (which includes future Zep John Paul Jones on organ), but push the call-and-response interplay deployed by Stewart and Beck on “Let Me Love You” and “Rock My Plimsol”, to its logical, symbiotic extension. Truth’s influence on Page and co, can be further heard by comparing Beck’s heavied-up intro to The Yardbirds’ “Shape Of Things” to Zeppelin III’s “Out On The Tiles”.

This album (and its follow-up, Beck-Ola) are often touted as important milestones in heavy rock’s emergence. Whilst true in part, the lack of cohesion in the choice of material and the failure grasp the potential of the album format as a means of expression, makes it more of a miss (albeit an heroic one) than a hit on that score.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Aftermath Of A Near Miss

Joe got out of hospital having passed his period of observation and the occasional prodding and tapping of his reflexes. The damage to his muscles will take a while to heal but basically, apart from some soreness in his back and neck pain, he’s fine.

I know I should feel pleased and elated at his homecoming but instead my mood is incredibly flat. Perhaps this is a result of going slack after all the tension of the last three days?

I’m not sure Joe has any real sense of what might have happened but maybe it’s better to be like that rather than dogged by the sense of having had a near-miss with something terrible. I know it seems maudlin but as a parent you just can't help but do that double-take.

Tonight Joe's got a couple of school pals visiting and is enjoying all the fuss and attention. Yep, that’s a much safe bet for sure.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Monday, February 11, 2008

Back On The Mend

The consultant swept in early in the morning to tell Joe that there’s no evidence of a fracture – it’s confined to nerve and muscle damage - and that he should make a full recovery. They want to keep him in for another day for observation and an assessment by the physiotherapist. So today was an opportunity to get out of his rugby kit (at last!) and get a much needed shower.

As you can see from this post-shower picture, Joe is a joyous mass of celebration and gratitude following the news of his prolonged exposure to the National Health Service.

His mood was lifted later in the day when his mates from school and Rockcliff rugby team visited. Even better news for the tyro egotist was the arrival of a photographer from the local newspaper who took a couple of snaps of yer man on his bed of adulation. Unable to find a wifi signal in the hospital, I missed all the fun having slipped home to meet a couple of deadlines which were looming up.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

This Sporting Life VIII

It began well enough with a lovely sunny day and perfect conditions for Rockcliff’s match against Seghill. Although Rockcliff were trailing by five points as they went into second half, there was a sense that they would eventually overwhelm the opposition.

As usual, Rockcliff were giving it their all and Joe was right in the thick of it as he dived in for the ball. It was more of a collision than a tackle, and to be honest I’ve seen worse but as I watched Joe attempting to get up and his legs going out from under him I knew immediately it was bad news.

Joe was prone on the ground, in great pain and unable to move or feel his legs or feet. An ambulance quickly arrived and after an agonising period where he was put into a neck brace, he was strapped onto a board and taken to hospital.

He was assessed as soon as he was wheeled into A&E but obviously needed X-Rays to see what was damaged. It would take another six hours before we had confirmation that his neck wasn’t broken and the brace could be taken off, and only then was he put into a bed. Those six hours were the longest day of my life, running through the worst case scenarios quietly through my head whilst giving every appearance of being chipper.

As the day wore on, Joe’s essential reflexes returned and with the help of some heavy duty pain relief he was stoic about the whole thing and gutted that he was going to miss Monday’s school rugby tournament.

We made jokes about the ceiling and the lack of reading material on it, talking through how it happened, the cheers of his team mates as he was carried off the pitch, how his neck brace might be the next big thing (Joe wanted to see what it looked like hence the picture), whether or not he would be able to get his headphones connected to the brace in order to hear some KillSwitch Engage, and all kinds of small talk designed to fill the moments where darkness and panic might otherwise loom to fill the void.

It’s a curiously draining experience sitting around waiting for information, a combination of high anxiety and utter boredom, as we lurch from one emotion to the next. Thoughts flit about from the jobs planned for later in the afternoon, the shopping you were meant to be getting, to the panic and dread that your child might be paralysed: a startling, stupid collision between the mundane and the profound that leaves you breathless.

By the end of the day, we knew that Joe was on the mend and although their was a doubt as to whether one of his vertebrae might be fractured (subsequently found not to be), the fact that all his reflexes and sensations were where they were meant to be, left us all relieved and elated.


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