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Monday, March 31, 2008

Where Once There Was Chaos...

Phew! That's better.

Testing For Buzz XXXIX 1968 And All That XIV

“With America's sons in the fields far away, with America's future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world's hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office--the Presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

Although I had little grasp of world politics in 1968 I knew who LBJ was because of my interest in the space race and the fact that my morbid obsession with the assassination of JFK had reached fever pitch around this time.

Seeing the photograph of Johnson taking the oath of office on Airforce One alongside the First Lady fuelled my juvenile conspiracy theory that LBJ must have had a hand in the killing of the President. I mean, it’s obvious isn’t it. Isn’t it? Well no, not all but of course there are a thousand books and websites that’ll tell you that and a whole lot more.

All I knew at the time was that LBJ’s announcement (along with the partial cessation of the bombing in Vietnam) was exercising the TV and the daily newspapers that came through our house at the time.

Looking back on it now, I have quite a soft spot for the old codger though I can’t quite decide whether it was something noble or whether his political nerve had cracked.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chaos In Theory And Practice

Help my world has exploded! What was meant to be a quick tidy up has burgeoned into an all-out attack on personal detritus. Discard the superfluous indeed.

The reason for this burst of unSid-like activity is that our guestroom is soon to be occupied on a regular basis by my niece, Verity, who needs office space as part of her relocation from London to the north-east. It’s a temporary measure but in order for her to move in, I’ve had to move my junk out of there.

Two boxes of stuff came up to the yellow room and have taken over as I’ve attempted to sort through it all. I found old hand-written diaries, badges, old poems, bills, letters from old employers, various certificates and instruction manuals for items of electronic gadgetry that I no longer have. And so on.


In order to make room for the stuff I do need to keep, I’ve had to address some of the outstanding junk on my desks here in the main control room. So tons of review copies have to be addressed, binned or filed; magazines and cuttings, ditto.

In the interim period just about every available surface is occupied. Actually not so much occupied but more like under siege.

Street Life CXV

Friday, March 28, 2008

Nominations For God XXXIII

Jacques Brel

Words And Music VI

There are some songs that stop you dead in your tracks, which scramble senses and catch our breath. These are the songs of innocence and experience, our lives, our loves and our deaths.
“If You Go Away”, written by Jacques Brel and translated into English by Rod McKuen, captures the grim moments where the thought of losing someone is too much to bear. Though it's been covered by everybody under the sun, my favourite version of this song for years has been Scott Walker’s rendition from 1969s Scott 3. It’s not only that magnificent voice but the sparse, mournful simplicity of the arrangements that gets to me.
I didn't think it could get any better than that but last year I came upon the original version sung by its composer. Here the implicit hope in McKuen’s translation and repositioning of the emotional argument is absent. McKuen talks about “if” – “if you go”, “if you stay”, but in Brel’s world the deed has already been done.
We join the narrator of the song as his love is about to walk away. The words here are brutal, messy, ridiculous and laughable. It is the desperate rambling of a man reduced to an almost incoherent state transfixed by the totality of loss, self-pity, abject supplication, pleading for his life, begging "don't leave me".
He's trying to make his love laugh, creating a diversion, spouting anything simply in order to keep the conversation alive, scrabbling around in the dirt attempting to delay that unthinkable moment when he knows his love will leave for the last time.
By the time he's reduced to begging to simply be in the presence of his love's shadow, or even absurdly, the shadow of her dog, both singer and audience know its over. For good.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Howlin Rain Magnificent Fiend

Back to the future…

Magnificent Fiend
Howlin Rain

Birdman Records

The first impression of Magnificent Fiend was that it was merely a smirking irony-laden parody of all those Vanilla Fudge, Stoneground, and Steppenwolf records that used to clutter the album collections of serious rock-heads back in the day. There was so much to dislike about this record. Every track on it reminded me of something else, every visitor who heard it agreed that you’d never have guessed it’d been recorded in the 21st Century.

Relegating it to the “do nothing” pile, I moved on. That should have been that except that I found myself retrieving it on an increasingly regular basis, regarding it warily as something of a furtive, guilty pleasure.

The brainchild of Ethan Miller, whose vocals evoke vintage Rod Stewart or Steve Marriot (with maybe a twist of Terry Reid), Magnificent Fiend erupts from a melodramatic jazzy blur of blaring trumpet and rolling piano to abruptly jerk the listener into a full-blown early 70s Hammond-led rock convention.

“Lord Have Mercy” forensically recreates the moment when straight rock started branching out. Within the space of one six minute song we move through a series of moods and movements; bluesy, Clapton-like reveries, hard-rock gospel and then a Hammond-led lurch into a turbo-charged prog-rock crescendo that could have come straight off The Yes Album

“El Ray” gets all Curtis Mayfield, “Goodbye Ruby” has flashes of Chicago’s brass-rock adventures whilst “Riverboat” enjoys the dizzying, sun-kissed harmonies gracing CSN’s debut.

The energy is high but happily so is the quality control. By taking the best features of the period and ditching the sappy indulgent excesses (there are no sprawling solos anywhere), it bristles with a righteously tight organisation, shifting thoughtful arrangements and carefully chosen timbral highlights (vintage synths, over-driven electric piano, brassy underscores) which will win the hearts and minds of even the most dubious listener.

There must be something in the water or in the air over there in San Francisco for all these retro-future acts to keep appearing with such good material. Ethan Miller hails from psych-rockers Comets of Fire (who contain Ben Chasney - see Six Organs of Admittance) and then there's also Wooden Shjips operating somewhere near the Bay as well. All are doing something genuinely interesting and expressive.

Despite the constant echoes of another time, somehow Howlin Rain emerge very much themselves, with songs that stand up to scrutiny and repeated listening. Arguably the best album I never heard in my teens it really is magnificent stuff.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Street Life CXIII

The Apprentice

“I’m a winner not a quitter”

“With me you get 110 % commitment”

“I don’t know the meaning of the word failure”

“I’m simply the best“

“I push the boundaries”

“I don’t ever take no for an answer”

“I’m a natural leader”

“I can’t contemplate defeat of any kind”

“I can sell anything”

“Nothing stops me from achieving”

“I’m a world-class talent”

“I am totally goal-orientated”

“I take no prisoners when it comes to getting ahead of the competition”

“People tell me I’m brilliant all the time”

“I always have my eyes on the prize”

“What you get with me is a winner”

At some point over the next fifteen weeks we are going to hear all of the self-anointing homilies mentioned above, spouting from the mouths of young dashing men and women hoping to worm their into the affections of Sir Alan Sugar or if not, then maybe the commissioning editors of day-time property-porn shows.

The Apprentice has once again trawled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom to come up with another set of self-obsessed go-getters.

Tonight’s episode was the usual ugly-pageant, testosterone-addled pissing contest (and that was just the women’s team), as the two groups ran around London trying to flog as much wet fish as they could, out-do each other and pass the buck when anything went wrong. Shoving lobster out at a fiver apiece was as wrong as you could get as the incredulous look on the punter’s faces should have told them.

These opening skirmishes are probably the least interesting part of the series and it was obvious that the unfortunate Nicholas de Lacy-Brown had was the “You’re fired” fodder from the off. I had hoped I’d got over The Apprentice after last year’s disappointing series but I hung grimly on through the set pieces enjoying the misfortune of others which they so richly deserve.

It’s too early to say who might be a contender but the cocky Alex Wotherspoon held up well against Sir Alan’s boardroom barrage. Certainly one to watch.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

No Country For Old Buildings

Today I had a date with Debra over in Gateshead to see No Country For Old Men at the Tyneside Cinema. Whilst its home in Newcastle is being refurbished the operation of the cinema has been transferred to the old Town Hall.

Gateshead is a strange place that always feels in a state of flux whenever I visit. The town centre seems as though it is forever being redeveloped, pedestrianised, re-contoured and regenerated. As soon as you step out of the concrete and glass box Metro station, you're confronted with the 19th, 20th and 21st Century competing for attention.

Just around the corner, a stroll past what used to be the old Jackson Street Co-operative Society (where I once worked in the early 70's). Though now a dismembered hulk - a far cry from its once-swish department store modernity, it is still breathing but only just.

to another "centre" that is now cordoned off and waiting demolition...

One famous denizen waiting for the chop is the multi-story car park, featured in Get Carter, with which I have a historical performance art connection.

On the other side of the road we get a glimpse of what made the civic planners bristle with pride back in the mid-80s, when this frankly plug-ugly lump of public art was deposited upon the populace.
In a way these two civic homunculus deserve each other, slugging it out for the possession of hearts and minds, but in reality alienating those they come into contact with.

In Gateshead, even the skies seem tired today, heavy and lumbering toward dusk...

The approach to the old town hall is interesting. What was once quite literally the civic centre of the town has been relegated to an island surrounded by lanes of traffic.

And now, the main feature...

Julian’s Treatment A Time Before This

The albums that time (thankfully) forgot
A Time Before This /Julian’s Treatment
Waiters on the Dance /Julian Jay Savarin

One can only imagine that the execs at the Youngblood label in 1970 were persuaded to record and release a double album whose titles and characters included Altarra, Princess of the Blue Women, Twin Suns of Centauri and Alda, Dark Lady of the Outer Worlds, in the hope of cashing in on the then burgeoning space-age zeitgeist.

Whilst echoes of Floyd’s Ummagumma can be detected (and obliquely inspired by the success of In The Court of the Crimson King), this sprawling mess of a double album was the brainchild of sci-fi author and keyboardist, Julian Jay Savarin. What it has in the way of organ-driven motifs, stodgy riffs and histrionic vocals belting out preachy message of doom, gloom and space travel, it lacks in sophistication, vitality, and perhaps most important of all, a modicum of credibility.

The second album by Savarin, Waiters on the Dance released in 1973, continues with yet more leaden, portentous themes although ultimately all were destined for black-hole of obscurity.

Still, obscurity is the lifeblood of the reissue market and these days it seems the “lost classic of progressive era” tag is applied to just about anything that was recorded in the early 70s with a Mellotron or Hammond organ on it. Whilst these admirably lavish reissues (remastered from original tapes) earn their curiosity status, they’re far from being classics - lost or otherwise.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mike Oldfield Music of the Spheres

This will ring a bell…

Music of the Spheres
Mike Oldfield

If you’re going to prove your detractors wrong better to do it in grand style. In his autobiography (Changeling 2007) Mike Oldfield describes how, after being the butt of patronising attitudes whilst a member of Kevin Ayers’ band, he wanted to come up with something that would make everyone sit up and take him seriously. Well, it doesn’t get much grander than Tubular Bells and more or less the whole wide world (give or take a few million sales here and there) sat up and took notice.

The phenomenal success didn’t necessarily make him happy. Several times in his book he talks of being grateful for the abiding interest in TB whilst simultaneously resentful about having everything he does compared to that first record.

Despite such stylistically diverse pieces such Ommadawn, the catchy pop and rock of “Moonlight Shadow” , “Family Man”, or even the techno-tinged moods of 2005’s Light And Shade, he’s never quite escaped the gilded cage which his debut album has constructed around him.

It’s no great surprise therefore that the dancing string motif of the opening track “Harbinger” is clearly drawn from the same gene pool as the first fruit of his loins. Similarly the stirring bass figures which stoke the engines of “Musica Universalis” bear a striking resemblance to those underpinning the Stansall-narrated coda of Tubular Bells.

Back then the guitar was pretty much the star. Here, it’s the tunes that he wants us to focus upon but only after they’ve been threaded into Karl Jenkins’ opulent orchestral embroidery class. The pair first worked together when a Soft Machine-era Jenkins played the oboe and keyboards on the BBC’s Full House performance of TB, and it’s interesting to see the way in which their very separate subsequent career paths have crossed once again, losing their distinctive qualities and becoming interchangeable.

Perhaps understandably, Jenkins has taken Oldfield’s melodies and come up with something that sounds an awful lot like one of his Adiemus albums. “Shabda” in particular has those shrill choral voices to the fore which was a feature of the Adiemus aura, though mercifully they aren’t lumbered here with all that ridiculous invented “ethnic” language malarkey.

Possibly because Oldfield’s playing presence is limited to a few fairly anonymous cameo appearances on the classical acoustic, the album lacks the personality and tension which he achieved with side one of Tubular Bells. And if the constant comparison to his former glories seems unfair then bear in mind that so much of Music Of The Spheres sounds like an old arrival rather than a new departure.

Another Postcard From The Blue Room

A couple of years ago, (August 16th 2005 to be exact) Tom was thrilled to move into his very own bedroom after a lifetime of sharing with his brother, Joe. It was the smallest room in the house but to Tom it was a palace.

After a swap around caused by Sam leaving the nest to get his own place in Heaton a few months ago, Tom has now inherited Alys' old room. When I asked him what colour he wanted to paint it, Tom immediately said "blue!"

So, today being a bank holiday, Tom and Joe spent the morning slapping the blue about the place. I called in to help out but was really surplus to requirements.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's So Nice To Travel But It's Oh So Nicer To Come Home

It's always nice when your work gets noticed. I've been asked to contribute a few words about what a wonderful place Whitley Bay is. This is for a publication which may or may not be called the Whitley Bay Guide.

The publication is being designed by Chris Wilson, the designer who did such a spiffing job with the King Crimson biography, and he suggested to the great and good who are funding the guide that my modest snaps be included.

Hurrah for Chris who sent me a rough draft of what it may look like. I'm not sure when the finished version is being published but I was very pleased and flattered to be asked along for the ride.


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