Monthly Archives: October 2017

The songwriter who might have been a Nobel laureate?

 

The wise David Hepworth made another shrewd comment when he said that perhaps it was the recently deceased Leonard Cohen rather than Bob Dylan who was the more deserving Nobel Prize winner for literature from the ranks of pop/rock songwriters.

In my own first flush of musical education, I actually read more articles and reviews about Cohen than heard his songs. At that time, as posted earlier,  Joni Mitchell was for me the most accomplished and most literate songwriter and musician. Not until the 1980s did I get my first sustained listen to Cohen with the compilation album which was released in the UK under the title Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits. By this time Cohen was gaining renewed attention as an influence on some younger artists like Lloyd Cole and Nick Cave.

Coincidentally, I recall a review of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits in Melody Maker at the time of its original release in 1975. A curious title for a Cohen album, the journalist remarked – his songs had not recently graced the Top 20. Unless, he went on to muse, the title applied to the number of times Cohen “hit” the nail on the head, with his shrewd lyrical analyses and observations? That would make the title highly appropriate.

It is irrefutable that Bob Dylan had a wider and deeper cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s than did Cohen, so, on that count, he is the more deserving of the Nobel Prize. However, the internet now allows a free and easy listen to all of Cohen’s work, and some of those songs really are brilliant, are they not?

Skilfully and thoughtfully crafted, technically precise and crammed with vivid images. Musical influences from traditional ballads or Jacques Brel or Kurt Weill or others from the earlier 20th century, lyrical influences from the Bible, Bertolt Brecht, Walt Whitman and Federico Garcia Lorca. Imagery which is often not immediately contemporary and therefore timeless. A long list of highlights would come from all periods of Cohen’s career: “Suzanne”, “The Master”, “Hey That’s No Way to say Goodbye”, “Sisters of Mercy”, “The Story of Isaac”, “The Partisan”, “The Old Revolution”, “Last Year’s Man”, “Love Calls You by Your Name”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Joan of Arc”, “The Guests”, “The Ballad of the Absent Mare”, “Dance Me to the End of Love”, “Hallelujah”, “First We Take Manhattan”, “Everybody Knows”, “Democracy”.

Although many songs shine brightest in the simple guitar playing style he began with, Cohen was clever enough to work with collaborators who helped him construct sensitive arrangements which drew from traditional or jazz or classical idioms. Even the most glaring exception to that rule – Death of a Ladies’ Man, the 1977 album where music as well as production is credited to the ostentatious and eccentric Phil Spector – probably merits fresh attention for its novelty.

Throughout Cohen’s career listeners often regarded his music as bleak and pessimistic. As a youthful fan of Neil Young I never felt such criticism was fairly applied to him and I certainly felt it was equally unfair to Cohen. His singing voice was always of a narrow range, but that could just as easily be applied to singers of other sub-genres like Robert Plant or Bruce Springsteen or Adele. That narrowness would certainly be a problem if the songs were not sufficiently varied. With Cohen they definitely were varied, and were regularly performed, as suggested earlier, by a sympathetic group of supportive instrumentalists and backing vocalists.

In his performance and public persona, Cohen aged gracefully as he retained his musical popularity. He was fond of classic male tailoring, was well-groomed, softly and thoughtfully spoken and known for asking for high-quality wine in his dressing-room after performances. As a man born into a Jewish family in French-speaking Canada, who had once lived in Greece and later as a Buddhist monk in Tibet, he was respected and celebrated as someone who was part of and comfortable in many different cultural and spiritual traditions.

Perhaps because of Cohen’s Jewishness rather than his North American background, I find when I listen to him that I think of other disparate cultural figures who were part the changing landscape of mid-century and post-war Europe. Film-makers like Buñuel and Wajda and De Sica and Truffaut, writers like Lorca, Havel and Auden.

 

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“You men and the war”

 

Some photographs of Newcastle and Durham – the approximate settings of “When the Boat Comes In” – including a few buildings which would have been recognised by its 1920s characters.

 

I was a great fan of the drama series When the Boat Comes In, written mostly by James Mitchell, when it was first screened on BBC television in 1976 and 1977. While my initial viewing was random and perfunctory – it was scheduled after the essential Top of the Pops and I was already a fan of its lead actor James Bolam through Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – I was soon engrossed in its dramatization of working-class life in the north-east of England in the years directly after World War One.  In particular by the exploits of Jack Ford, played by Bolam, the handsome, clean-featured ex-sergeant who appears to have survived unscathed four years of trench warfare in France and Flanders , plus a period of unspecified “intelligence” work with the British forces supporting the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Ford is simultaneously presented as ambitious, charming, generous, resourceful and ruthless, whose leadership qualities are variously used in becoming the local head of his trade union and in challenging local employers, making money as an independent capitalist and promoting the careers and employment of those he regards as friends.

That historical period was a popular setting for drama then,  as it still is. It was a time of great social upheaval as people moved out of domestic service and farms into factories and as women gained a more independent and public role. The battles of the Great War were fought over small geographical areas by soldiers who knew similar small geographical areas, serving alongside men from the same locality as themselves. The scale of its casualties was horrendous and notorious so those who returned home without serious injury must have been regarded with some awe.

Watching the series again provides a striking reminder of how many ways and on how many occasions it is that recently fought war which specifically influences the present behaviour and ideas of the characters. This begins in the very first episode, pointedly entitled “A Land Fit for Heroes and Idiots”, with Jack Ford’s overt cynicism at inaccurate newsreel footage of the war and his organised political protest of throwing down campaign medals in scorn at the victorious Liberal parliamentary election candidate. 40 episodes later, in the story “High Life and Hunger”, Ford scornfully refers back to that Lloyd George “Land Fit for Heroes” promise as he watches hunger marchers .

In between those two episodes, James Mitchell and the other scriptwriters contrived many other convincing devices to show the dark shadow of war experience stretching into every area of post-war existence. For example, the way in which Ford plans a sheep-stealing expedition like “a trench raid” and how he publicly identifies the former regiments of Fitters Union members to show the union official from London that his members are professionally trained to “deal with” strike-breakers; how the unpleasant Channon knows as much about explosives as Ford or any of the more heroic characters from his own war service with the engineers and so is unpersuaded by their explanation of the destruction of the priceless Vanburgh-designed house Mandrake Place; the plight of the widow Elsie Carter who gets no war pension because her husband though killed in France was not on active duty; the reason why “Ten Bob” Tiverton the artist who had lost an arm took to forging bank notes. The war is also the source of one of the longest narrative threads: Ford’s business association and rivalry with Sir Horatio Manners, the nouveau-riche father of his former company commander. Small wonder that female characters of different social classes, whether Sarah Headley or Lady Caroline Summers, often make at different times comments like “You men and the war” at yet another memory or anecdote.

The programme’s fourth and final series, broadcast originally in 1981, stretched the story into more specific events, beyond the Wall Street Crash and into the rise of Nazism and the Spanish Civil War. These did allow some variation of the Ford character, presenting him as prone to excessive drinking, a little less impressive and a little more jaundiced, still ambivalent about how to balance and blend his competing individualist and collectivist instincts. He angrily lists at one point the only true friends he ever had: army comrades who are now dead.

Living now in London, he criticises a beggar who is exaggerating his war experience to encourage more generous donations. By this time we have heard Ford himself repeat on several occasions one particular war experience about watching the death of the young officer, Captain Manners (“What am I doing here, sergeant? I should be at the Savile Club” ) – always to impress the listener, usually female. From the very start of the series we know that he had had saved the life of Matt Headley, his later union colleague and Labour councillor, but only much later that his own life was once saved by a Sergeant Major Fred Randall. His parting advice to the beggar is “Get your story straight”. Perhaps we wonder by this time how many of Ford’s past exploits are true, how often we the audience might have been taken in by his charming loquaciousness, but nobody is now around to provide an alternative version.

Like all TV drama series from the 1970s and 1980s, When the Boat Comes In is true to its own period, showing its debt in construction and presentation to theatre plays such as by Shaw or Priestley. This means that it includes one or two comic-dramatic set-pieces which tend to slow down the excitement of the narrative, like the party turns at the Seaton family’s New Year party and the storyline of digging for coal under the Seaton front room. However, most of those first three series contained richly written and convincingly acted stories of poverty, unemployment, industrial conflict, political activism, slum living, hand-to-mouth subsistence and the slow struggle to comfort and (sometimes even) prosperity. And even the weaker episodes still show a craftmanship which is missing from 21st century TV standards.

 

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Some more rumination about music crossover

 

A digital radio in a new car this year has meant that I have heard much more of BBC Radio 6 Music than before – which perhaps affords the opportunity for another assessment.

Daytime listening often means catching randomly stuff which sounds listenable or recognisable but turns out to be by someone you had never heard of, like Public Service Broadcasting, This is the Kit, Houndstooth or Childhood. Equally it allows the deliberate listening to Mark Radcliffe, a presenter I have liked since he first appeared on Radio 1 in 1991, continuing in his jovial partnership with Stuart Maconie which I first enjoyed on evenings on Radio 2.

However, this increased listening does also provide further evidence that, whether the music is previously unheard tracks by long ignored bands from the 1970s and 1980s or 1990s or new material by new acts, it does consist mostly of the same rock/R&B/soul/pop elements as might have been heard on Radios 1 or 2 in decades past.

For me, it is a glaring and disappointing omission that the daytime programmes on a radio station which describes itself as presenting “the cutting edge music of today (and) the iconic and groundbreaking music of the past 40 years” does not regularly include as standard some world music from Africa or the Caribbean and some modern classical and experimental music of the kind Radio 3 features in their programmes Late Junction, Hear and Now and Exposure, and thus give its artists and composers a wider audience.

The weekly Freak Zone presented by the aforementioned Stuart Maconie is, as far as I can see, the only Radio 6 Music programme at present which regularly includes at least some music from the more esoteric ends of the jazz and classical spectra.

This particular flaw in Radio 6 Music’s conservative scheduling was highlighted by a comment by Sam Jackson, managing editor of the equally conservative Classic FM, when he suggested part of his radio station’s long-term success lay in identifying and exploiting the closeness of the audiences for mainstream pop/rock and mainstream classical. “There is a far bigger audience crossover between us and Radio 1 than there is between us and Radio 3,” he said, “(because) young people don’t have any preconceptions about how classical music is supposed to enjoyed; they are used to listening to individual tracks so they completely get our approach.”

An earlier Leaf Collecting post argued that the BBC had one pop/rock radio station too many, and I still think that’s true, since it is clear that most of what Radio 6 Music plays would easily fit into the musical offerings of the BBC’s two older pop/rock music stations, Radios 1 and 2. This was further made apparent to me by the employment of DJs from all three channels on the BBC TV Glastonbury coverage, demonstrating that most of the festival acts selected for broadcast would be easily recognisable to all three audiences.

An alternative unhappy interpretation of the BBC’s approach with Radio 6Music is the one expressed by Paul Driver when he was discussing the present-day shape of music criticism on Radio 3’s Music Matters: that the established media’s poor coverage of classical music is not caused by a shortage of space or resources but of a lack of will – “a distinct cultural intervention against classical music really, which has had so many manifestations…”

 

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