Tag Archives: Music

Simple but effective

 

Although feminism has been a continuing powerful cultural theme in the 21st century, Hollywood’s earlier treatments of its ideas and values are often seen to be dated, and therefore nowadays rarely seen. Films such as those from the late 1970s and early 1980s such as An Unmarried Woman, Julia, The Turning Point, Norma Rae, Coalminer’s Daughter, Gloria, Places in the Heart, Country. Although Nine to Five is still popular…

One of those neglected films is The Rose, set in the world of rock music. The lead character – a confident and assertive woman on and off stage, a white performer of black R&B influenced music, vulnerable to drink and drugs – was already something of a stereotype at the time of its release in 1979. However, she would probably still be a recognised type today, in the light of the death of Amy Winehouse. She was always presumed to be based specifically on Janis Joplin, who died in 1970.

The lead role was one of the first for singer Bette Midler. In some ways, she was an unusual choice for the character as her own music experience had been at the jazz/cabaret/Broadway end of the spectrum, such as with covers of  “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” and “The Big Noise from Winnetka”.

The most enduring part of the film is certainly its theme song. Written by someone who was and has remained relatively obscure, Amanda McBroom, it is in many ways a mainstream romantic ballad, played on piano and using familiar lyrical imagery. However, for me, it does its job with particular force and with a significant simplicity.

The first stanza offers four metaphors of love. Three of these suggest pain and difficulty and hardship: deep water, a sharp razor blade, the lack of food. The fourth, of a flower, offers potential and growth.

The second stanza is still using abstract nouns but is also clearly addressing individuals, and how people are often too shy and cautious and unambitious, and so will never exploit their full potential. Lack of effort and lack of courage, it bluntly states, will lead to failure.

The third and final stanza begins with more metaphors of physical suffering and difficulty – the long journey, the lonely night, the winter snow – to summarise life’s challenges, but then becomes more sympathetic and more encouraging that these difficulties can be overcome. It ends by repeating the first stanza’s metaphor of hope and potential, a flower, and now makes it more particular, a rose.

As the song progresses, the piano is supplemented , inevitably if not really necessarily, by other instruments and other voices. But it is a strong melody and in the last couplet it is again allowed to be on its own with solo piano and quieter vocals.

The song was a big hit in the USA but not at all in Britain, and my acquaintance and fondness for it was built solely on my then regular listens to the US Charts programme on BBC Radio 1 presented by Paul Gambaccini.

The song has been covered by many artistes, and I can well imagine some performances may have used primary colours rather than subtlety. Its lyrical ideas are not entirely radical or adventurous, but I found (and still find) the song powerful because of how the writer applies those ideas sparingly and simply and clearly. About happiness gained, preferably through intimate and compassionate partnership, but certainly through individual effort, resilience and courage. Many more famous songwriters have done less well.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Dazzling

 

That heyday of punk and indie music from 1976 into the mid-1980s was a growth period both of small record labels like Postcard, Stiff and Rough Trade and of fanzines, small independent magazines. Whenever you read and admired a publication about literature or music, you were frequently inspired to set up one of your own which would be equally good if not better. Nowadays people might set up websites and on-line magazines, but then they typed and photocopied them and distributed them at concerts and shops.

Chris Davidson was one such person, producing the Slow Dazzle music fanzine in Greenock, Renfrewshire, in the 1980s. Named after the album by music maverick John Cale, it reviewed and interviewed new and established names from the music scene of the time. The four issues which I still have feature, for instance, conversations with Billy Bragg, the Bluebells, the Pastels, Pete Shelley, Marc Riley and the Creepers, John Peel, footballer/music aficionado Pat Nevin, Tommy Smith, Alan McGee and the Jesus and Mary Chain. In addition, articles on Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Neil Young, Frank Sinatra, African music, apartheid, the Glastonbury Festival, Kurt Vonnegut and scooters.

 

 

In common with many freelance music writers, Davidson was also a keen music promoter, and organised many concerts in the Greenock area in the same period.

I was acquainted with Chris Davidson around this time, and I nursed some literary ambitions. Although I was a music fan, I recognised that I didn’t have the depth of music knowledge and concert-going experience of Davidson and other Slow Dazzle contributors. However, the magazine welcomed wider cultural topics and I did get three theatre reviews included.

Slow Dazzle lasted for six issues during 1983 and 1984. It ended not because it was unsuccessful but because it was too successful. It was taking up too much of Davidson’s time and energy but of course not earning any money. He already had a full-time job plus a wife and family so there came a point where Slow Dazzle became too big to have all these parts of his life running concurrently.

However, Davidson’s fondness for and dedication to music did not wane. 20 years later he was co- running another live music night in Greenock called the Pineapple Club. Its website is now discontinued but its playlist and programme demonstrated that his voracious musical appetite had not dulled with time.

I had always intended to include a homage to Slow Dazzle in Leaf Collecting, but the timing was decided when I saw (belatedly) a proper press feature about Chris Davidson credited in a proper book – A Scene in Between by Sam Knee – about the indie music scene of the 1980s. Well done, Chris! Happy memories for all of us.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Ritchie Yorke, Van Morrison and the unmade Christmas album

 

In the 1970s, books about pop/rock music were rare, and newspapers and magazines were still the authoritative sources. After all, the landscape changed fast. New bands and artists appeared regularly and some became successful quickly; others changed personnel or broke up equally quickly; some major figures died like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison or became inactive like Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton; most artists still produced an album every year; concerts and tours took place regularly in venues large and small.

Van Morrison was a major artist. His Astral Weeks, although only a few years old, had already been universally and confidently acclaimed to be a classic. The first Morrison albums I myself heard were Veedon Fleece (actually similar in tone to Astral Weeks) and the live It’s Too Late to Stop Now (both loaned by someone or taped for me by someone – it happened endlessly in those days) and then I bought, and loved,  Astral Weeks itself.

By unfortunate coincidence I had become acquainted with Morrison during a period of his inactivity and lack of confidence. It would be another three years before he released a new record.

Also during this time (1976-77), I bought Into the Music, a biography of Morrison by one Ritchie Yorke. The book was informative in many areas but Yorke’s personal critical assessments often seemed too dogmatic and shallow. His opinion was that Astral Weeks was Morrison’s masterpiece, a view already widely shared.  However he would scornfully and dismissively find fault with any other journalist who had found anything of value in Morrison’s subsequent albums, Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir and Tupelo Honey.

As I said, the music journalism landscape often changed fast. You might still though have shared my surprise when, a couple of years further on, I saw Ritchie Yorke’s name again, this time as a contributor to Paul Gambaccini’s Critics’ Choice book. Not that Astral Weeks was his choice as the number 2 album of all time, but that his number 1 and number 3 choices were of albums by Supertramp – whom nobody at that time or later ever judged as one of the notable acts in the pop/rock genre! It did make me wonder at the time about the quality of Yorke’s research and writing and the soundness of his judgement. Anyway, my musical tastes soon moved on, Yorke continued to have a substantial media career, and, now, many decades later, I have no taste in traducing a recently deceased person whom I know so little else about.

I do still find it intriguing how pop and rock music, once so defiantly the province of the young, came to become so religiously practised and followed by the middle-aged and the old. It is actually rather nice to see how many of those artistes of our youth, once super-cool and therefore exalted and distant, have mellowed into regular tourers of accessible songs. Morrison, despite not entirely losing his grumpy taciturnity, has released about a dozen albums in the last 20 years and appears to perform frequently.

In Yorke’s book Morrison expressed an interest in some day releasing an album of Christmas songs, of the type that in the 1970s would have been associated with older “easy listening” singers like Perry Como or Frank Sinatra. One possible track he named specifically was “The Christmas Song” aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Such a plan seemed then bizarrely individualistic even for one of rock’s mavericks.

However, as Morrison’s career has stretched and broadened, with his recordings of other people’s jazz and blues songs, collaborations with such as Georgie Fame and Cliff Richard and the Chieftains and Tom Jones, the tendency of other contemporaries to move into such earlier “classic” repertoire, his own knighthood and status as one of the grand old men of pop/rock music, it’s actually rather astonishing that somewhere in the last couple of decades this hasn’t happened!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Rolands’ quests

 

 

 

Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.

 

  

 

The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats’ play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.

 

   

 

 

Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.

 

 

    

 

All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.

 

 

References:
Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It takes two, or more

 

Although pop/rock music has continued to be given a high status in modern culture (shown for example by the extent of regular coverage on the BBC4 channel and the prominence given to the deaths of pop/rock musicians on national TV news) many modern practitioners appear to feel less confident about their individual talents and careers. This, I think, is why they are keen to be described by the media as “writers” as well as singers.

In fact, they are mostly actually co-writers – especially those whose songs are part of the pop/dance genre. People like Beyoncé Knowles, Adele, Pink, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Emeli Sandé, Katy Perry, Will Young, Sam Smith and even Ed Sheeran. Invariably, on closer research, you find their songs have been co-written with one or more other writers and producers.

The first artists in that genre who gained a huge individual success from such collaboration were probably Madonna and Michael Jackson in the 1980s. In the late 1990s came Robbie Williams.

The pop/rock music industry has in my lifetime produced many people who constructed a significant celebrity on a modest ability – but I do think that Robbie Williams is the most startling example of that phenomenon. A competent singer who left a successful group for a solo career, who was not content with keeping fans returning regularly to concerts but always preferred to play vast open-air venues, yet who has little individual skill with an instrument and whose music has been almost wholly composed throughout a 20 year solo career by other people, such as Guy Chambers and Steven Duffy. His success has been gained mainly through fierce ambition and a distinctive stage and media persona (usually characterised as “cheeky chappie”!) which, I can’t deny, has had an amazingly long appeal.

Pop music has long been a highly collective endeavour because it is often something you start doing when you are young with your pals. In the past most people have had the good grace and sense to become a member of a group if as individuals they have only one or two playing or writing skills. In addition, many successful groups sang and played songs written by non-performing songwriters.

At first I thought it was only the modern generation who tended to exaggerate their abilities. It is certainly true, in these internet-dominated times, that it is much harder to make a decent living from music, even if your work is played on national radio or performed in venues up and down the country. Then I remembered two earlier British artists who have gained solo credit for collaborative success.

Ian Dury was a highly accomplished lyricist and a singer and performer of real personality, but he didn’t play any instruments and all those great tunes from New Boots and Panties and elsewhere were composed by Chaz Jankel and some others. Morrissey’s lyrics, singing and stage presence were a natural ally to the tunes of his school friend guitarist Johnny Marr in the Smiths, but his own musical abilities were modest and the music of his solo career has mostly been composed by Steven Street, Mark Nevin and Alain Whyte.

If you were to analyse the appeal of all these three artists, you might discern some interesting similarities. All working-class boys who have covered shyness and vulnerability with flamboyance. All three have felt outsiders: Morrissey openly gay, Williams clearly bisexual, Dury disabled. All have shown a fondness for older musical traditions and developed their careers through a willingness to blend music-hall, rockabilly and swing with contemporary styles.

Another couple of earlier examples of collaboration, sometimes forgotten. Elton John, for many years in the 1970s probably the biggest star in the world, mostly co-wrote his greatest hits with Bernie Taupin  – although he did write the memorable tunes rather than the more disposable lyrics. David Bowie is regarded even more highly, as one of the great multi-talented auteurs of the pop/rock era, but his “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger is usually accepted as being significantly assisted by Brian Eno, the Let’s Dance album by Nile Rodgers and quite a few other tracks through his career co-written with others.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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…”

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A welcome to new life

 

Here and below, four scenes of Orkney photographed in 1992.

 

I had never heard Peter Maxwell Davies’ song “Lullaby for Lucy” until six months ago, when I heard it performed by Genesis Sixteen at the Cumnock Tryst. Since then, I keep bumping into it, most recently as the finale of the BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week programmes dedicated to the late composer.

The text of the piece is a poem by George Mackay Brown , only eleven lines long but still resonant with trademark references to nature, food and drink and spirituality.

Maxwell Davies set it to music in 1981, bringing what to my ear are medieval influences into the undulating harmonies.

The back-story of “Lullaby for Lucy” is often repeated. Mackay Brown wrote it in acrostic form to mark the birth of Lucy Rendall, the first child born for 32 years in the parish of Rackwick on the Orkney island of Hoy. The circumstances of her parents’ meeting were suitably unusual.

What happened to Lucy after her birth was marked, exceptionally, by two world-famous creative artists? The internet does have one newspaper article about her forthcoming wedding in 2005.

Maxwell Davies was a prolific composer, working, like Benjamin Britten and James MacMillan, in many forms and for many types of musicians. His style moved from modernist and avant-garde in the 1960s to more conventionally classical later, influenced, it is usually agreed, by his move to Orkney in the 1970s.  

 

 

 

 

“Unite…celebration…new…a pledge and a promise…brightness and light”.  “Lullaby for Lucy” is a fittingly uplifting piece, in both words and music, for spring and for Eastertide. 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Werewolves and Thompson gunners

 

I hadn’t thought much recently about the deceased US musician Warren Zevon  until Verity Sharp marked the 70th anniversary of his birth on Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 in January. She described him as “a man who struggled with life, emotionally volatile, violent, erratic”.  I thought back to other descriptions of Zevon.  Andy Kershaw called him “the Hunter S.Thompson of rock and roll” when choosing one of his songs for Desert Island Discs in 2007. Right at the start of his career, I once heard a broadcaster’s summary of his early extra-musical life which made him sound like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine character in Casablanca.

All these colourful impressions are emphasised by various articles on the internet which mention his father’s gangster connections, his childhood acquaintance with Igor Stravinsky, his acquaintance with writers like the aforementioned Thompson plus horror specialist Stephen King and poet Paul Muldoon, his continual philandering and addictions. 

 Like many people, my first acquaintance with Zevon was through his connection with Jackson Browne.  At the time of Browne’s arrival to prominence with the album The Pretender in 1976, he produced the album Warren Zevon. The two toured together in Britain at that time, including in a concert filmed on  The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Zevon’s cover photograph on that 1976 album is of an alluringly cool dude: the shoulder-length light hair and round-framed glasses, the semi-formal dark jacket over the open-necked white shirt, the serious gaze and the arm raised in purposeful pose.  

Barbara Charone in Sounds described the album at the time as “the ultimate L.A. album”, less for Zevon’s association with more established California-based musicians than for the location-spotting of his scenes of deviant behaviour, such as in “Carmelita”, “The French Inhaler” and “Desperadoes Under the Eaves”.

Looking back now, you feel Zevon’s musical affinity is less with Browne than with another Californian singer-pianist-songwriter: Randy Newman. Like Newman, Zevon’s songs are often narratives, featuring characters whose behaviour is eccentric or subversive.  Like Newman, his perspective is often wry and sour, with an awareness of political realities. Among the best are “Frank and Jesse James”, “Excitable Boy”, “Werewolves of London”, “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner”, “Lawyers Guns and Money” and “The Envoy”.

During the 1980s and 1990s, many musicians tended to overuse the multi-tracked heavy rhythms which were then judged to be most suitable for radio and live concerts alike. This certainly seemed to happened in Zevon’s case. Whether it was others’ commercial interests, his own personal distractions or simply changing musical fashions which were the strongest influence in his artistic stasis is hard to say. As Zevon apparently said himself before his death in 2003, “I got to be Jim Morrison longer than he did”.

Throughout his career, as shown by the many clips on You Tube, continued an attractively self-deprecating personality and a gruff but tuneful voice.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Gangsters and their molls in New York and Havana

 

Happy New 2017!

As a theatre lover I recognise that Broadway musical plays of the 1940s and 1950s such as Oklahoma and Carousel are as important pieces in their own way as the work of Brecht and Beckett, but I’ve never really been a fan. Probably to do with the fact that the actors in screen musicals like Howard Keel and Gordon MacRae always seemed a lighter thinner breed in comparison to Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart or Henry Fonda. Possibly also to do with the fact that my teenage pop listening days also included that bizarre later era of musicals when every established dramatic genre was twisted and turned into a musical like Paint Your Wagon or Camelot or Scrooge or Man of La Mancha. 

However, despite not being a fan of most musicals, I am a fan of Guys and Dolls.

This emerged from my great interest in the National Theatre in its early years at its home on London’s South Bank. That interest was spurred by their practice of touring productions to Glasgow plus the fact that one of their three auditoria, the Cottesloe, had a company for many years led by director Bill Bryden from my home town of Greenock. Guys and Dolls, by Jo Swerling, Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser, was staged at the NT in 1982, directed by Richard Eyre. He discussed it on Desert Island Discs in 1985 in an interview which is still available to hear on the BBC Radio 4 archive.

One interesting snippet from the interview is that Laurence Olivier originally planned to produce Guys and Dolls during his own stint at the National Theatre.  I love Eyre’s anecdote about Olivier’s criticism of his production’s New York accents being “a bit of a melange” and his view that Olivier’s vocal performance, in contrast, “would have been placed exactly to the right street corner”!

 

img090

The southern half of Manhattan, as seen from the top of the Empire State Building in 2003.

 

img088

Near Times Square in New York – definitely “Guys and Dolls” territory.

 

The NT was sometimes criticised in its early years for being too dependent on star actors and the cast of Guys and Dolls certainly had some of my own favourites of that time. Bob Hoskins of Pennies From Heaven and The Long Good Friday was Nathan Detroit (perhaps this led to his American characters in Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mermaids), Ian Charleson of Chariots of Fire was Sky Masterson, Julie Covington of Rock Follies was Sister Sarah Brown. Among the supporting players was Bill Paterson as Harry the Horse.  

This cast did not come to Glasgow but I did see in Edinburgh a touring production in 1985, which Eyre refers to in the radio programme.  I was always struck by that show’s slightly unbalanced casting. The main star billing went to Lulu, then finding her new route between two periods of pop music fame, who was Miss Adelaide. Nathan Detroit was played by long-established TV face Norman Rossington (similar to Bob Hoskins in his earthy persona I suppose, but perhaps then less fashionable). Sky Masterson was the black US actor, then unknown but later more familiar, Clarke Peters. I enjoyed the production although I felt it displayed more of the elements of an old traditional performance rather than a cooler new one. (I think this cast did, however, transfer to London for a time). “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” sung by Nicely-Nicely Johnston is traditionally regarded as the show-stopper song and David Healy had been retained from the original cast, but I definitely recall finding this section technically impressive (with its two encores which appeared to have become standard) rather more than emotionally or artistically.

Soon after I enjoyed the film version, directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz, who was similar to Richard Eyre in being unused to directing musicals.  Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando were paired in the two leading male roles. Sinatra would possibly have been seen as a safe piece of casting as Nathan Detroit being an established performer in screen musicals alongside the fashionable but provocative young dramatic actor Brando, but it’s easy to forget that in 1955 he was still younger than 40 and only two years into the new career which had been launched by From Here to Eternity and its attendant Oscar.

 

carsatmalecon9

Some old American cars in Havana, Cuba, in 2014. Part of “Guys and Dolls” takes place in Havana, a glamorous spot for American gangsters in pre-Castro times.

 

edificiobacardi2

The Bacardi building in Havana, built in 1930.

 

As with many folk of my age, my ideas and tastes in theatre were influenced by the writings of Kenneth Tynan, and Tynan’s review of the London premiere of Guys and Dolls still reads well: not just for his confident assessment of the show’s quality – “not only a young masterpiece, but the Beggars’ Opera of Broadway”, but his adoption of the language of its Damon Runyon characters: “Miss Adelaide, his ever-loving pretty who is sored up…”; “…being short of ready scratch, Nathan places a bet…”; “I will give you plenty of eleven to five that it is the first fugue that many patrons…ever hear”…;  “I found myself laughing ha-ha… more than a guy in the critical dodge has any right to”.      

This is probably the most famous work of its songwriter Frank Loesser. Songs as strong as any by more famous musical craftsmen like Rodgers and Hammerstein, the fruity, quirky Damon Runyon dialogue and its exaggerated delivery by the flashily dressed small-time criminals; the New York setting – all combine to keep Guys and Dolls fresh in my affections.

 

Reference:   Tynan, Kenneth (1984)   A View of the English Stage 1944-1963   London : Methuen

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Frank Loesser, Uncategorized