Monthly Archives: April 2013

When an orchestra is more dramatic than an electric guitar


Orchestras have often been employed by pop and rock musicians either to give some old-world timbre and gravitas to the younger, lighter style, or to expand its structures into classical dimensions. The  results have frequently been unhappy or at least have not aged well. However, for me, there have been two musicians in the pop-rock genre  who have used orchestras exceptionally successfully.

The first is Randy Newman. I don’t think he is classically trained, but his uncles were film music composers so perhaps that is where his aptitude for orchestral arrangements comes from.  They certainly suited songs which were composed on piano and constructed in a story-telling style which seemed to belong to an earlier pre-rock era. Except for one feature : Newman’s lyrics, underlined by his rough-edged, low-pitch delivery, have an irreverence and irony, and often cynicism, which certainly belongs to the social and political shifts and doubts of the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years, Newman has become commercially successful by diversifying, in the family tradition, into film score composing, gaining Oscar nominations and awards. While gratified with this deserved fame, I do feel his more distinctive work came in his early albums.

A few examples from You Tube where the orchestration blends powerfully with song and voice :  “Sail Away”, where his uses his familiar lyrical device of the unreliable narrator, in this case  a slave trader encouraging Africans of the attractions of the New World;  “Louisiana 1927”, an account of the Mississipi river flood of that year, which seemed to gain a greater celebrity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and “In Germany Before the War” apparently based on a real-life serial killer.

The second maestro is almost totally forgotten. David Ackles recorded only four albums before he died in 1999.   My main acquaintance with him is through his third album American Gothic, which he actually recorded in the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra and which was produced by Bernie Taupin, whose career was zooming at the time as the regular lyricist of Elton John.

Part of my fondness for the album first time around derived from how it seemed to synthesise with other works with which I was becoming acquainted. The album sleeve included a homage to the famous painting by Grant Wood, and its subject matter evoked the poetry of Robert Frost and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

The album’s highlight is “Montana Song”: a story which combines both the personal and the epic,  with an air of the pre-1960s past which sounded even stranger when it was released in 1972 than it does now. 

Other favourites  are the bleak narrative of the title track and “The Ballad of the Ship of State”, a metaphor presumably about the Vietnam war. The Brecht and Weill influences of both these songs seem very strong to my ear now.

Although other samples of Ackles’ work on You Tube show blues and country influences more prominently, the Weill influence shows again, this time in a sparer form, on a track from the first album, “Laissez Faire” .


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One of the biggest mysteries of Hollywood


… seemed, to me for many years, that an actor of perceptibly limited range and skills starred in some of the best films made by two of the best directors in the history of Hollywood.

The two directors are John Ford and Howard Hawks and the actor is John Wayne.

Even Wayne’s greatest fans have usually conceded that he had a rather wooden performing style, perhaps comparable to recent stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. Yet not only did he have a long and successful career,   he starred in several films which are generally regarded as among the best directed by Ford ( Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and by Hawks (Red River, Rio Bravo).

Wayne is most often remembered as a Western hero, for example a sheriff or a US Cavalry officer. Alternatively he is a fighter on land or sea in other 20th century combat zones. His persona is not always a figure of official authority but certainly a man whose leadership skills are respected by others. He is not usually an ordinary man mixed up in difficult or dangerous events : invariably he is in command of the situation, and often hired to deal with that situation. The narratives of his films are usually straightforward in style and tone, and any comic situations he appears in are broad and sentimental such as in The Quiet Man. Unlike Cary Grant and James Stewart, he did not diversify into film noir or into more ironic material.  Playing Genghis Khan or a minor Roman soldier was definitely untypical.

One reason that my favourite Wayne film is Ford’s Fort Apache is because the narrative does not centre around his cavalry officer character. He is part of some good ensemble playing but the film is certainly dominated by Henry Fonda’s arrogant commander.  However, I do share the popular admiration for his complex leading role as the less admirable ex-soldier looking for his niece in Ford’s The Searchers, which has become more highly regarded in recent years, exemplified by its rise in the American Film Institute best films list from number 96 in 1998 to 12 in 2007.   That shift in critical reputation is  similar to that enjoyed by James Stewart’s performance in Vertigo and, by dual coincidence, The Searchers was made at almost exactly the same time and Wayne’s character is as driven, obsessed and unpleasant as are many of Stewart’s characterisations of that era.

Wayne played old men for both Hawks and Ford practically back to back in the late 1940s, in Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, although later, like many big stars, his roles were more suited to younger actors. However, his last performance, in Don Siegel’s The Shootist  playing a gunman dying of cancer when he was in a similar situation himself, is one of quiet dignity and makes you wonder whether, if he had worked with Don Siegel more often in his later years, that would have been  more artistically fruitful relationship than those with more gung-ho action film-makers like Andrew V. McLaglen.

It is often said that the characters in Hawks films are  small, ad-hoc groups of disparate individuals thrown together by circumstance.   As  David Boxwell summarises in Senses of Cinema, they deal with  “the primacy of the group over the individual; the value of male bonding through rivalry or through rite of passage; the elevation of male communities validated by codes of ethics and professionalism; the potential for women to gain access to male groups in unconventional ways”.

Although his films often feature men of action,  Hawks tends to give less prominence to landscapes, whereas Ford films, according to Richard Franklin in Senses of Cinema,  feature “ the individual dwarfed by (the) landscape, of family and community huddled against (its) brutality”.  Ford’s expansive location exteriors of the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley, on the border of Arizona and Utah, are an instantly recognisable part of many of his famous Westerns.



The scale of this butte in Monument Valley can be imagined by the tiny cars in the bottom right-hand corner.



The iconic Ford film locations are actually some miles distant to the right from these scenes of Monument Valley, photographed in 2010.


While the idea of the group struggling against the landscape certainly fits many Ford Westerns like Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and The Searchers, you might argue that, following the Boxwell description, the motley group of characters in Stagecoach is bonded together by circumstance just as much as in a Hawks film like Rio Bravo. However, this may prove merely that in any director’s oeuvre (and Ford directed over 140 films, with Hawks’ total a still significant 47), some works will always escape easy categorisation and stereotype.

Of course John Wayne is hardly the only actor who made many films with particular directors. Hawks made several films with Cary Grant, both comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday and the drama Only Angels Have Wings.  Ford famously had a stock company of supporting players led by Ward Bond,  and several other highly regarded films starred Henry Fonda, like The Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine.   The practice has continued in recent decades : Martin Scorsese has worked frequently with Robert De Niro and latterly with Leonardo De Caprio, Tim Burton has regularly cast Johnny Depp. Modern critics have sometimes taken to using the term “muse”, although you can’t imagine it a word which Ford or Hawks, both men born in the 19th century,would have been comfortable with!

So how to explain the regular and central casting of Wayne by Ford and Hawks?  Perhaps it was just good luck for Wayne? Hollywood film-making in his era was such a huge business, and populated by so many different individuals, some serious artists, some interested only in money, most interested in both together or somewhere in between : it was able to accommodate every type of product and every type of actor from the Shakespearean specialist to the sports star, of which Wayne was definitely more in the latter camp. He was lucky that he worked in the era when the actors became the stars and adored by fans, whereas those other people behind the scenes, the writers and cinematographers and producers and directors, were often the superior craftsmen and artists.

However, if you accept that Wayne deserves some credit for his fame, you might deduce that his rugged, plain-speaking, unsophisticated  persona, honed by work in 70 films before his star-making turn in Stagecoach, was what Ford and Hawks were looking for in those dramas of adventurers, pioneers and land-builders.

So perhaps not so much a mystery – just one of the many intriguing stories from Hollywood’s Golden Age.


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Lehrer and some heirs


Recently, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a programme to celebrate the 85th birthday of the now slightly forgotten American writer and performer of comic and satirical songs, Tom Lehrer.   I caught only the first part, but, happily, You Tube contains plenty of evidence of the wit and acerbity of Lehrer’s songs.

I was already familiar with “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, but a new acquaintance was “The Vatican Rag”, perhaps a reminder of the John F.Kennedy era when Catholicism was in the forefront of cultural life (although I know that Lehrer originally planned it as the Presbyterian Rag).

“Who’s Next” reminds you of Lehrer’s influence on the great Randy Newman, specifically Newman’s “Political Science” which the latter regularly used to introduce as “a song about American foreign policy”, while “National Brotherhood Week” recalls Newman’s “Rednecks”.

Lehrer’s piano-driven style certainly sounds to have been an influence on our own Victoria Wood in both songwriting and performance, even though her persona is much more amiable.

In my youth, 10CC – Lol Creme, Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart – were famous for the verbosity of their song lyrics. For example, “Oh Effendi” covers Middle Eastern oil politics, The Dean and I” draws on  US 1950s high school iconography, while “Life is a Minestrone” is simply a collection of puns from food and geography.

However, listening again, I am reminded that their songs’ impact comes as much from musical invention, pulling sounds from earlier pop eras into their lush state-of-the-1970s-art multi-tracked arrangements, juxtaposing falsetto vocals and sweet harmonies  with chunky guitar riffs, often constructing mock-operatic epics.   You can hear now the lyrics lack the polish and precision which  Lehrer applied : Creme, Godley, Gouldman and Stewart seemed to be aware they were comfortably clearing a bar which few of their pop and rock contemporaries ever set very high.


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Kincaple and Kirkcaple


If you travel on the A91 road in Fife from Cupar to St Andrews, you see signs for Kincaple.  My own first journey on this route many years ago brought back to mind a story (or an excerpt of one) which I had once read in school : written by John Buchan, and entitled “On Kincaple Sands”.

What I remembered of the plot might be familiar to readers of Buchan or his contemporaries : of a group of boys exploring on a beach one evening and intruding on the nefarious goings-on of some suspicious characters, at least one of whom is of foreign-looking appearance.

A recent trip to the area made me rummage again online for the story and I found it : the first chapter of Buchan’s Prester John, a novel of heroism and adventure, set mostly in colonial Africa, where probably some of the themes and language might be thought to be a little, shall we say, old-fashioned. In fact, my memory of what I had read was flawed : the location of the narrator’s adventure is Kirkcaple, not Kincaple. However, since Buchan describes his location as one which “looks squarely out on the North Sea”,  it is surely not outwith the bounds of possibility that a writer who grew up on the east coast of Scotland might have known Kincaple and modified a place name he was familiar with?

The countryside and beaches of the area are still easy to imagine as an adventure playground of past youth while many   buildings recall Buchan’s Victorian/Edwardian era of empire-building and self-confidence.



St Andrews town and bay.



Some of the ruins of St Andrews’ pre-Reformation cathedral.



Another view of St Andrews cathedral.



A typical example of architecture from the fishing villages of the East Neuk of Fife.



St Monans Parish Church.



A  building near the harbour in Pittenweem.


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Both national and very grand


This is the week of the Grand National horse race meeting at Aintree, in Liverpool.

My interest in the Grand National was probably ignited as a child simply because it was a sports event which was televised regularly each year, so it was an annual festival which, like Christmas, gradually seeped into my cultural awareness. Eventually, however, I became fascinated by the particular  drama it generated.

For example, it always attracted an unusually large field of horses and riders, so that coming  fourth in this race was as significant an achievement  as coming third in others. This huge field meant that it was easier for well-fancied horses to fall, and later I became aware that it was these features which attracted the inexperienced gambler hopeful of a windfall. The 4 mile-plus length of the race, with its 20-plus fences, made it a challenging test for animal and rider, exemplified by the long flat stretch from the final jump to the finish, where the commentator’s screech and the crowd’s audible cheering held the attention of even the most casual TV viewer.

The Grand National which cemented my childhood interest is widely regarded as one of the classics: the 1967 race where many horses fell or refused at the 23rd fence on the second circuit, leaving an outsider, Foinavon, the chance to win.

Shortly afterwards came the astonishing dominance of Red Rum, who won three times and came second twice during the five years of 1973-1977, his performance seeming even more supernatural when you consider that very few other horses in modern times have ever finished even in the first four more than twice.

Elsewhere, Grand Nationals could be seen as emblems of wider national life: for example, the way the 1997 race was postponed because of an IRA bomb alert and had to be re-run,  or how the general decline in racing at the Aintree racecourse, in contrast with the southern racecourses of Epsom and Cheltenham and Ascot, seemed somehow representative of the wider north-south wealth divide which was fervidly analysed and debated during that period.

At its heart, the race is for me a great drama, where success demands, as well as some luck, a heroic effort from both human rider and animal. This heroism was certainly exemplified by the 2001 race where the going had been made so tough by heavy rain that a mere four horses managed to drag themselves around.

Although I am generally not a sports fan, I find that some events carry such weight of history and tradition and such promise of drama that they are impossible to resist. The Grand National is certainly one of those.


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The drama of Emmaus


The Gospel story of the two disciples travelling near a village called Emmaus on the evening of Easter Sunday who meet a stranger whom they eventually realise is the resurrected Jesus Christ has always made a deep impression on me.

Partly it is to do with seeing at an early age a reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting, where the startling chiaroscuro and the figures’ outstretched arms  made it so much more dramatic, so much more alive than more conventional, flatter biblical scenes.

Partly also it related to my early interest in historical fiction and drama, the genre where real life events and characters are readily mixed with the writer’s imagination. As a Christian child who was fascinated by stories, I was particularly intrigued by the occasional biblical examples, of which the best known is definitely the film of  Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.

Perhaps a school holiday which combined brighter spring evenings with its religious feast helped me to imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the observers of that event taking place as the sun was setting on that Easter Sunday. 

The narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter was presented theatrically from the Middle Ages through mystery plays, and most Christian church services during this season have continued to employ some dramatic elements.  

The theory that the two disciples were actually a man and a woman, Cleopas and his wife, gives the familiar narrative a fresh perspective. In addition, Kenny Wordsmith’s analysis of Caravaggio’s painting offers one particularly insightful comment on the drama. Referring to the fact that Caravaggio’s youthful unbearded Jesus  was once controversial, he says this could be the artist’s way of depicting the moment when Jesus, to use Luke’s expression,  “was recognised when he broke the bread” : someone who looks totally unfamiliar and unbelievable at first is now identified correctly, both by the disciples with him and by us, the viewers.


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