Tag Archives: Music

The heart of Saturday night

 

One of my favourite parts of Trevor Griffths’ brilliant 1976 TV drama Bill Brand  is at the very end: a social gathering at the house of Labour MP Brand with his friends from a left-wing theatre group. It’s a Saturday night, which is commented on twice. Friend Jamie remarks that sharing alcohol and singing with friends on a Saturday night will compensate for the disappointing audience reception at that evening’s performance. When Brand apologises for the noise to his visiting neighbour, she brushes it aside: “I’m not bothered…it’s Saturday night.” The collective singing of songs of comradeship, added to an envelope of letters of support which he has just received, encourage Brand to look forward optimistically to the political struggles ahead.

Saturday night was regularly the big night out in the days of the reliable 5-day working week. Perhaps, even within our very different 21st century conditions of employment, it still is. The news media certainly refer to “the weekend” and “the working week” as if we hadn’t years ago invented shift work, 24-hour shop openings and home deliveries.

Saturday night is celebrated in many popular songs by such as Tom Waits (“The Heart of Saturday Night” and “Jersey Girl”), Sam Cooke (“Another Saturday Night”), Elton John (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) and Whigfield (“Saturday Night”). Saturday night is a time for relief and excitement from drudgery and routine, involving cinemas, dancing, pubs and clubs, and, perhaps, also, romance and sex.

Saturday was also a big night for television programmes in the 1970s – variety shows, comedy, sports highlights, drama both light and more serious, produced in Britain or imported from the USA. The special status of Saturday night television is an idea which the present day media is still attracted to, despite the evidence of much lower audiences. Perhaps it makes them feel that those days of large profits and cultural impact have not entirely vanished. Not so long ago I heard a particular TV performer described as “the king of Saturday night” – possibly it was the late Bruce Forsyth – as if their programmes appeared at no other time in the week.

If Saturday night as a time of relaxation and entertainment has changed less than we might have expected, certainly the political improvement which Bill Brand and his comrades were working for, and expecting, seems like a more ridiculous and more old-fashioned goal.

 

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Did the counter-culture end?

 

“There was just a moment in time …when that counter-cultural thing could have happened,” said Shaun Keaveny on his BBC Radio 6 Music programme, reflecting on the Woodstock music festival, “and then it all sort of disappeared again.”

Alternatively, one might argue that a great deal of the counter-culture ethos of the late 1960s did take root in private and public life in the USA and Europe, and spread further in the decades afterwards.

A few examples?

The US presidency of Jimmy Carter, a great fan of Bob Dylan and other popular music of the day, whose government style appeared to be strongly shaped by the counter-culture ethos.

The US presidency of Bill Clinton, who, as Johnnie Walker on BBC Radio 1 pointed out in 1992, was “younger than any of the Rolling Stones and who (played) a mean saxophone.”

The ubiquity of denim as a material of casual clothes, never out of fashion for one second since Woodstock.

Long hair and facial hair for men became totally acceptable throughout the 1970s for older members of the middle-class professions, not merely idling drug-taking students, to the extent that the young rebels of the later 1970s had to revert back to short hair to demonstrate their subversion! Long hair and beards have enjoyed other periods of trendiness since.

The fact that many men in the highest elected government positions and in the most esteemed positions in public life have been self-confessed users of illegal drugs. (You know their names.)

The fact that couples living together and producing children together without being married has been commonplace and unremarkable for many years.

The continuation of mass political protest, most visibly perhaps the protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s, the anti-war protests of the 2000s and the “green” protests of the 1990s and the present day – even when they are seen to be not very effective.

Bob Dylan as winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, which perhaps says less about Dylan’s achievements than about the changed knowledge and tastes of the Swedish Academy which made the selection.

Most especially, the constant cultural status of pop and rock music. Shown in the way that most people’s understanding of the word “music” is the pop and rock music produced since 1955 ; that the BBC, one of the most respected broadcasting companies in the world, has four 24-hour radio stations devoted to pop and rock music and only one which regularly covers the other genres; that every summer there are many weekends of large outdoor pop/rock music concerts which are often also broadcast on national radio and TV stations; that the pop/rock music of the past is continually replayed in the soundtracks to films, in TV documentaries and in the performances of “tribute bands” both famous and local.

But one example where the values of the counter-culture have certainly not taken root? That during the last fifty years, in practically every country in the world, material wealth has become more unevenly shared,  and that poverty and deprivation remains visibly widespread.

 

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Your most important job?

 

The media of my youth was full of (male) polymaths, I reflected, when I read about the recent death of another. Bryan Magee was a philosophy academic who was also a Labour MP and a television presenter. Two TV series which he presented for the BBC about philosophy now seem astonishingly old-fashioned in their intellectual earnestness; at the time they were screened, I’m afraid, any such discussion programmes I would have been watching would be on the less demanding subjects of cinema, theatre, books and music.

Also on TV in the later 1980s was Pat Kane. He was the lead vocalist and co-songwriter of Hue and Cry, one of several British bands of the period who took their musical cues from US soul and jazz music. From the start, he was a confident interviewee on both musical and political topics, and at one point, I remember, he was writing two Saturday columns for The Herald newspaper, one interacting with theories of arts and culture and the other dealing with day-to-day political issues. As time passed, Kane participated more in the media and less in music. His two current websites The Play Ethic and Thoughtland show a variety of intellectual interests and suggest an impressive capacity for hard work and learning new skills.

Kane’s singing style famously recalled Frank Sinatra as much as Marvin Gaye or John Lennon, and he and his keyboardist brother Greg were an ambitious pair who liked to set themselves apart from contemporaries who sounded similar. For instance, they worked with acclaimed young Scottish jazz and classical saxophonist Tommy Smith, and, on the Big Day concert in June 1990 as part of Glasgow’s City of Culture events, I recall they appeared on the international stage at Glasgow Green with Nanci Griffiths and Les Négresses Vertes rather than the UK pop stage at George Square with Wet Wet Wet.

The Kane brothers’ latest musical work in Hue and Cry shows they have both retained much of their original expertise even if the passage of time makes it sound rather repetitive and familiar. Pat Kane has built a decent career on transferable skills, but I wonder if he wishes his musical career had been more like David Byrne’s or even Damon Albarn’s: more records, bigger venues, more chances to develop musically, a higher reputation among his peers as an artistic innovator.

Jonathan Miller was already a qualified doctor when he became a comedy writer and performer with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in the stage revue Beyond the Fringe. That success led him to more serious work as a theatre and television director. I discovered him as an engaging conversationalist and raconteur on such TV shows as Michael Parkinson’s in the 1970s , where he regularly protested that he was a serious medical person first and that all these stage and TV performances were distractions which he would soon pull himself away from. These different strands in his professional life did seem to come together with his TV series on medicine The Body in Question, although I personally was more interested in his stint as producer of the BBC’s project (during 1978-1984) to televise all of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Parkinson’s first period of BBC shows ended in 1982 but revived successfully in 1998 – by which time the original “chat show” description was being replaced more often by the more grandiose American “talk show”, probably because the format was becoming ever more ubiquitous in the TV schedules. I remember noting that similar groups of celebrities whom Parkinson interviewed in the olden days returned in the new period: established Hollywood actors, TV comedians, and sometimes the same people, like Michael Caine or Billy Connelly. But I never saw again Jonathan Miller. He was now in his mid-60s, and he probably felt that the format of the TV interview and the interests of TV audiences had changed too much.

George Thomson was also a Labour MP,  a few years before Bryan Magee, who later became one of the UK’s representatives on the European Commission when the country first joined what was then called the EEC . However he started his adult life as a journalist with DC Thomson, the Dundee-based publisher famous for children’s comics as well as adult newspapers and magazines. “I sometimes wonder,” I heard him say once on TV, “whether I added more to the sum total of human happiness during the years when I was editor of the Dandy.”

 

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Eurovision, and the particular legacy of Brighton 1974

 

The weekend of the Eurovision Song Contest, the most well-known event of the European Broadcasting Union and popular music’s closest equivalent to an international celebration, is another suitable time to reflect again about the decades of changes in the music.

As I was growing up, it was obvious that the USA and the UK were the dominant forces in pop and rock music. Other countries’ artistes sometimes seemed to copy openly these countries’ originals; for example, Johnny Hallyday in France. If only more pop music heard in the UK was sung in languages other than English, I used to think, more young people would be encouraged to learn such languages. But such artistes never seemed to emerge into the music mainstream.  Artistes from other countries who enjoyed international status tended to be instrumentalists, like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream from Germany. World music artistes from the French- and Spanish-speaking countries remained a niche market. The music world became more European only with the rise of electronic dance music in the 1980s, building through the continental clubs of Ibiza and Ayia Napa and the Sónar festival of Barcelona, and most of this music was instrumental where any vocals in any language were unimportant.

 

Views of three cities which have hosted the Eurovision Song Contest: Amsterdam, and, below, Paris and Bergen.

 

In its beginning the Eurovision Song Contest was definitely a forum for western and central Europe. Political changes like the end of the Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union led to the event being hosted and contested by countries formerly on the fringes of and even outside the continent. The fifteen or so participants in the 1960s has now more than doubled to this year’s 40. Qualification procedures seem now as tortuous as for the UEFA Champions League or Formula One motor-racing.

In the 1970s, it was sometimes seen as ironic that, at a time when British pop/rock songwriters and performers like Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Elton John and David Bowie were so successful all around the world, none of these people represented the country in the Eurovision Song Contest. That was possibly because it was felt that the UK was doing well enough with acts who might be considered as our “second eleven”, like Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw, Lulu and the Shadows. Whatever, it allowed our major figures to concentrate on their serious work in the important markets and stages.

The most musically significant of the artistes who have won the competition during its history is probably Abba, who won in Brighton in 1974. Although Scandinavian, they sang in English, following the dominant US-UK paradigm. Their Eurovision victory led to an international career and further decades of influence and homage.

 

The Grand Hotel in Brighton.

 

In the 1970s any self-respecting pop/rock producer or artist could compose a strong melody. Because it was a minimum requirement of which everyone seemed to be capable, it led to arguments among fans about which practitioners were the more culturally acceptable. Abba became an acceptable pop act for the musically snobbish – which most of us were at least some of the time. Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (occasionally assisted by Stig Andersson) wrote some great melodies and arrangements for songs like “SOS”, “Money Money Money”, “The Name of the Game”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “One of Us”and “Head Over Heels”. They also wrote lyrics in their second language which were at worst perfectly serviceable, and at best witty and sensitive.

Nowadays I am more interested in the European Broadcasting Union for their annual radio days of music for Holy Week, and Advent broadcast in the UK by BBC Radio 3, but a lifetime of listening to pop music has included at least a little attention to the Eurovision Song Contest. While it may not have helped to raise musical standards, it will still, in the middle of a period of European division,  remind viewers and listeners of ideas and a culture which they share in common.

 

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There be monsters

 

 

Some time ago, I discovered Stephen Prince’s website A Year in the Country.  It sought to investigate the strange, frightening and paranormal aspects of the English countryside through his own photography and also by analysing other artistic work such as the writing of Alan Garner and John Wyndham, films like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and A Field in England, music by folk-rock artists of the 1970s and some later musicians like Kate Bush and Virginia Astley, and some neglected TV drama.

I have since found that Prince’s successful completion of one year has spawned several more, plus a published book and music production.

A recent musical work which fits perfectly into the ambit of A Year in the Country is Pastoral by Elizabeth Bernholz, who performs under the alias of Gazelle Twin. I was guided towards it by two trusted sources, the BBC Radio 3 programme Late Junction  and the online publication The Quietus, who both regarded it one of the best albums of 2018.

The title suggests its subject is a peaceful and stable English countryside. The landscape on the album sleeve evokes the sylvan landscape of painters like Claude Lorraine. The tracks have titles like “Little Lambs”, “Tea Rooms” and “Sunny Stories”.

 

 

However, Bernholz’ music shows that she does not believe in an idyll of stability and safety. It is cluttered and dissonant. Sometimes there are heavy bass-like beats, sometimes the sounds are higher-pitched and meandering. The instruments will mostly be keyboard synthesisers but others sound like the flute and the harpsichord. Singing voices are sometimes individual and female, sometimes in choral ensembles. Various speaking voices interject, both male and female, which are usually unhappy and anxious and angry: “it was much better in my day…the streets were safe then…trust no-one…picking the wound bleeds, pus flows…is it not just criminal…I don’t know what I’m doing here…dirty brawl by the town hall.”

The fools in Shakespeare’s plays are usually characters who disturb the equilibrium and challenge the established order, such as the fool in King Lear, Feste in Twelfth Night and Touchstone in As You Like It. The figure on the cover of Pastoral appears to be a contemporary equivalent, dressed in red and white motley but also with a baseball cap, a balaclava mask and training shoes.

The tone and atmosphere of Pastoral is similar to what I understand is the tone and atmosphere of Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem. Where the countryside is vulnerable to the modern urban infections of crime and drugs and where one larger-than-life individual demonstrates that the ideal of a settled community respecting tradition no longer applies.

Journalists are fond of linking every piece of contemporary arts work to the UK electorate’s recent vote to leave the European Union  and to the UK parliament’s debates and disagreements about how and whether this should be carried out. But it is true that the populations of small towns and villages are often older and socially conservative and that they did tend to vote to leave the EU as they seemed to feel membership was responsible for their poverty and deprivation and poor economic prospects.

The Gazelle Twin website describes Pastoral as “a deranged absurd reflection of deranged and absurd times”. Certainly an alternative vision for Easter and St George’s Day.

 

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The confusing shape of modern pop music

 

If you’ve been listening regularly to various types of popular music for 50 years, it’s hard to break the habit entirely, isn’t it? You want to keep up to date, to know what the current stars sound like.

And, actually, what the pop/rock mainstream sounds like is the way that it has sounded for a while. The only significant shifts in the sound of most pop music came when the practice of several acoustic or electric instruments being played together at the same time was gradually replaced by such things as synthesisers and computers and sampling, and with voices rapping rather than singing. Those changes took place only slowly and gradually from the 1980s onwards. It is probably true that this is today’s dominant popular musical sound, although other music is still regularly released which sounds similar to other styles of the 1970s or 1990s, such as heavy metal, punk, rhythm and blues, jazz and acoustic.

Writers much younger than me can feel a confusion in navigating the current scene. Kitty Empire admitted in 2017 that there was “(a) matrix of sameyness currently plaguing pop”.  Caitlin Moran made a similar complaint wittily in an interview at the Hay-on-Wye book festival in 2016. “There’s such a uniformity of voice and tone and subject matter across… pop music at the moment,” she said. “ (It’s either) ‘ everybody in the club tonight’ or a very sad man who appears to be sitting in a cupboard with a ukulele playing a very sad song or they’re taking bangers and saddening them, (for example) people are taking massive huge bangers by Queen and paying them very sadly on a ukulele”. Barbara Ellen wrote that the music scene was “almost as dominated by a smug clique of multimillionaire mega-artists as it was back when punk exploded”,  while, in a discussion earlier this year on BBC Radio 3, Luke Turner from The Quietus expressed concern that “ increasingly… this age of algorithms (feeds you) the blandest lowest common denominator rubbish” .

The BBC’s Ian Youngs (or the sub-editor who chose the headline of his article) summarised the current period of popular music as “the collaboration age”.  This may be why, as pondered before,  new artists continually talk about “writing” their new album. Do they worry they have no distinct identity, or are not treated seriously enough? Invariably the released material has been co-written, even that of the most famous icons like Beyoncé, Adele and Ed Sheeran. This must surely be at least partly because competence in playing and a reasonable technical skill in composition are both nowadays rarer.

Even though we are in “the collaboration age” and the business of recording music is for most people still as much a team activity as it ever was, many more artistes today release their work under an individual name rather than a band name. 45 per cent of the most successful albums of 2018 appeared under the names of solo artistes,  whereas in 1995 the percentage was 34%
and in 1978 it was 26%. Although solo artistes often give themselves names which sound like ensemble titles apparently to distance themselves from the old 20th century singer-songwriter stereotype; people like Iron and Wine, Bat for Lashes, Gazelle Twin and Snail Mail.

So why does modern pop and rock music sound as it does? From the 1960s and throughout the 1980s (it will be a matter of readers’ opinion when this period ended) all musicians, geniuses or journeymen, could feel that they were creating something new and fresh out of the earlier genres of blues, country, folk, jazz, rock and roll and rhythm and blues.

But if you are a pop/rock musician in the 21st century, you must surely be aware you are standing on the shoulders of giants, to use Isaac Newton’s phrase. The artists from the past are often still around, their songs are recycled into “jukebox musicals” on stage and screen, documentaries are common on TV and radio, and tribute bands are widespread and accepted. This music of the past is still widely available, and, yes, it is generally of a high quality, which must be the reason that so many contemporary artists want to sound like people you’ve heard before. To give just a handful of examples which I’ve heard on the radio in recent weeks: Anna Calvi, Marika Hackman, Beirut, Pi Ji Ma, Julia Jacklin, Jordan Rakei, Big Thief, Lewis Capaldi, Tom Walker. That leads to the further consequence that reviews you read now explain the music of the present mostly by comparing it to artistes or songs from the past.

When I was young, music preferred by older listeners was orchestral and instrumental and long – although often tuneful. Our pop/rock preferences used electric instruments, shorter songs, vocals and lyrics. The abundance of newer radio stations and music festivals show that the latter has become the norm and the former the exception. Pop music has truly become the “popular” music, the mainstream music, the default setting for most people in the UK of all ages when they use the word “music”.

For me, personally, it is the music which is still usually called “classical” which I usually find myself listening to, whether by deceased composers or current practitioners like Roxanna Panufnik or Thomas Adès or Amanda Feery. Just because it is music I haven’t heard before and is generally considered to be worth some of my attention. Happily, a lot of such stuff is still available free on the internet, even as, encouragingly, ways are being found in the new technology world to provide non-celebrity musicians with some income.

Maybe the new technology will bring further new shapes to the pop music scene. As it did in the 1980s.

 

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The ancestors of the Sex Pistols

 

I was slow to start record buying in my teens in the 1970s and most people I knew had larger record collections than I had. Nevertheless, by the time I was in my mid-30s, I was comfortable that, through the rigorous process of listening, buying, borrowing, reading and talking, I was as knowledgeable about the contemporary music culture as the next person. Except on one aspect. I hadn’t yet read the book which everyone agreed was the major piece of critical writing on the subject between hard covers: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, published in 1975.

Three more decades further on, that gap remains; I still haven’t read Mystery Train. Now at least, though, I have read another of Marcus’ books, Lipstick Traces, first published in 1989. A fascination with both low culture (pop/rock music) and high (literature, visual arts) and an ability to combine the two within the same piece of analysis has always been Marcus’ stock-in-trade. As fellow journalist Kitty Empire put it, Marcus is “probably the rock and roll era’s most lateral thinker”.

Unlike many US journalists of his era, Marcus was just as impressed with UK punk music of the late 1970s as he had been earlier by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. It is that era of music which formed the foundation of Lipstick Traces – although only the foundation. As Tony Wilson says at the start of the 1989 TV interview with Marcus about the book, “It’s got a picture of Johnny (Rotten/Lydon) on the front, but it’s about much, much, much, much, much more.” In that interview, Marcus summarises the book as an investigation into a long “heretical tradition”, which first took form in continental Europe as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries and then developed into the 20th century, especially around World War One in Dadaism and then again in the 1950s and 1960s in Situationism. Sometimes this tradition took form in political manifestos, sometimes in individual subversive actions, sometimes in works of avant-garde art, and one of its most visible later incarnations was the short career of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren.

 

A San Francisco street, photographed in 2000. The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 1978 was at the now demolished Winterland Ballroom, a few blocks west of here, and is the starting point of  “Lipstick Traces”.

 

Marcus’ long narrative is not always easy to read. As he explained in another interview with Simon Reynolds in 2012, “I realised that I didn’t have a talent for extended narrative…I had to write (the book) in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn’t one in the entire book; there are no phrases like ‘as we have seen’ or ‘and now’.  Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph.” However, you might well consider this individual literary style, plus a highly varied selection of illustrations, as perfectly appropriate for a book which spends a lot of time in the world of avant-garde artists and political anarchists.

 

The main façade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, photographed in 2005. “Lipstick Traces” describes the incident on Easter Sunday 1950 when, during Mass at Notre Dame, four men, one dressed as a monk, walked onto the altar and read a sermon announcing “God is dead” and accusing the Catholic Church of “swindling (and) infecting the world (and) being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.”

 

Some of Marcus’ musical favourites from the late 1970s and early 1980s were the less well known from the era, like X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, Essential Logic; music which often included brass and jazz rhythms as well as guitars, drums and  vocals. This pushed me towards several more of the maverick outfits from the period whose names I knew better than their sound, like Rip Rig and Panic, the Pop Group, Shriekback, Durutti Column, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Some of the music relevant to the book is included within the frankly breath-taking Ubu anthology of avant-garde material compiled by one Kenneth Goldsmith. But, of course, in the wonderful modern world of the internet, audio and video files are also available on You Tube or elsewhere!

Marcus saw Lipstick Traces as his anti-Reagan book. Elsewhere in his interview with Simon Reynolds he describes the “depression” which he felt during that time in US public life and how he viewed the writing of the book as an “act of cowardice or betrayal” when he should have been joining in political activism.

Lipstick Traces certainly brought back many memories of my own 1980s. That was a time of the fresh popularity of Brecht  and Weill, the profusion of small touring theatre companies, writing about eastern Europe and the Middle East championed by Granta, the popular battleground of protests against Thatcherism and nuclear weapons, the politically engaged Mayfest arts festival in Glasgow, the contemporary art presented by the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, the New Musical Express  with its mix of new music, old music, politics and wider culture.

It may be that such periods of political and cultural ferment belong to particular circumstances of the past. However, Marcus says that creative and valuable voices of protest come around often in forms you don’t expect. Perhaps I just have to look more closely.

 

Reference : Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces : a Secret History of the Twentieth Century   London: Secker and Warburg

 

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Missing the message

 

Judee Sill was one of the musicians signed to the David Geffen’s new Asylum record label in the 1970s, alongside Joni MitchellJackson Browne, Linda Rondstadt and the Eagles. That she is less famous than those artistes is largely due to the fact she released only two albums and died prematurely, at least partly from drug use, in 1979.

However, I clearly remember the first single released from her debut album being played regularly on the radio: “Jesus was a Cross-Maker”. This was the golden era of the singer-songwriter and also the time of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, Christian narratives welded to pop/rock music. Equally the gospel influences of black soul artistes like Aretha Franklin were often admired and copied by white musicians from different traditions. The title of “Jesus was a Cross-Maker” certainly made this listener (plus many 1970s music show presenters ) think this song was one of those examples.

Sill’s singing and playing were very attractive, but these distinctive features and the song’s brisk tempo led to another consequence which is familiar to anyone who has listened to and loved pop/rock music any time during the last half-century: you cannot hear every word of the lyrics.

It was many years later, in the internet era, when, finally seeing the lyrics written down, I realised that the title phrase is the only reference to Jesus and that the lyric does not seem to have any particular Christian meaning or relevance.
One interpretation offered by Michael Crumsho in the Dusted music website is that the lyric is about “gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one’s life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker.”

Artists from the past who have died young or who are perceived to have become neglected are often the features of TV or radio programmes which blend factual information with the presenter’s autobiography or personal exploration. Judee Sill was the subject of such a programme in 2014 presented by the journalist Ruth Barnes.

This programme provided some new information about “Jesus was a Cross Maker”. John David Souther, another West Coast musician of the period with whom Sill was having a relationship at this point in her life, said that Sill specifically told him that the song was written about their relationship. So that might mean the song’s references to “bandit” are metaphorical references to Souther’s emotional influence over her rather than recalling her own dramatic youthful criminal exploits. It probably means that the reference to “Jesus” does not directly point to the Bible, although another contributor to the programme suggests that Sill had a genuinely wide interest in religion and spirituality which informed many of her lyrics.

The present-day internet allows many free opportunities to remind ourself what Judee Sill sounded like. Unlike Ruth Barnes, I tend not to regard her as a forgotten major figure, certainly not as important as Joni Mitchell. However, it is certainly easy to appreciate her songwriting as better than that being produced by most 21st century artistes, and to wonder whether that decline in quality might be caused partly by the erosion of the literary and cultural foundation once provided by the Bible and other religious texts.

 

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Alpha at different times

 

 

     

 

In art wolves may be dangerous predators to be feared or symbols of personal strength and power. Angela Carter employs both motifs in three stories in The Bloody Chamber.

In “The Company of Wolves”, the wolves are terrifying. They have eyes “like wraiths”, their howl is “an aria of fear made audible”. They are “grey as famine, as unkind as plague”. Children have to carry sharp knives to defend themselves. A confident young girl sets out like Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother. Later, she undresses in front of the handsome young werewolf, and, unconcerned about the gory death her grandmother has just endured, ends the story happily being in bed with him.

In “The Werewolf”, another child is visiting her sick grandmother through a dangerous neighbourhood. She too carries a knife, and, when a wolf attacks, she retaliates and cuts off the animal’s right forepaw. This time the grandmother is not innocent. The wolf’s paw has changed into a human hand and her grandmother is ill with fever because her hand has been cut off. She is a witch and the child unsentimentally leads her execution by the villagers.

“Wolf-Alice” is different: the main character is a girl who was adopted by a wolf as a baby and later rescued by humans. She has responded to human kindness but her wolf qualities are seen as signs of strength: she has “spiky canines” and “bold nakedness”, she is “wild, impatient of restraint “ and “sleeps in the soft warm ashes of the hearth”. The story describes her growing up and developing a maturity which is still animal as much as human. She lives in the castle of a duke who is an actual werewolf whom she tries to help when he is shot.

The idea of humans adopted by wolves possibly originates from the legend of Romulus and Remus and spread through later fictional inventions like The Jungle Book. Caitlin Moran clearly saw it as a heroic and exciting image when she chose Raised by Wolves as the title of the TV series based on her own unconventional childhood, part of a large family sharing infrequent school attendance.

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves places a similar unusual childhood within a spartan American habitat. Her teenage lead character, Linda, lives in rural Minnesota, in a landscape not dissimilar from “The Company of Wolves”; sparsely populated, full of lakes and forests and a few cabins, many hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Duluth, short of material comfort and entertainment, enduring a harsh winter. She feels isolated from her parents who once lived as part of a commune and spends a lot of time baby-sitting for (and with) a young mother whose older husband is often away from home. A brief but significant meeting is with a teacher Mr Grierson. He encourages her to take part in an inter-school History Odyssey at which she chooses the topic of a History of Wolves. Linda’s story is not a Carter-esque fantasy but is certainly presented as taking place in an isolated and eerie and unusual world.

 

   

 

Lupine characters of a less ferocious kind featured in the early work of two other Scottish arts practitioners. The Wolves in the Walls was one of the first shows staged by the National Theatre of Scotland which also toured to England and the USA. These wolves, created by Neil Gaiman, are hidden within the house walls of the ordinary (if usually preoccupied) suburban family of Lucy.

Wolves was the title of the first album of the band My Latest Novel which featured a song called “When We Were Wolves”. Its lines both hint at a conventional domestic setting, and also detail an escape from it : “When we were wolves… we ran…and we hide in lightless rooms and we banged on our pianos”.

A final wolf in this artistic pack is Company of Wolves, a small Glasgow-based theatre group. Their work certainly tends to be physical and non-verbal. “Raw” and “uncivilised” are two other qualities which they say they aim to create. However I was somewhat disappointed to be told directly by the group’s co-founder Ewan Downie at a post-performance discussion that the name of the group is unconnected to Angela Carter and is simply a phrase which suggests strength and mystery.

Wolves. Although extinct in most countries over recent centuries, still a powerful motif. Often protective rather than savage and aggressive and predatory. As Angela Carter writes in “Wolf- Alice”, “ (they inhabit) only the present tense…a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”. As Linda says in her History of Wolves project, “alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.” And she adds, “Those words” – which are taken from a real-life book called Of Wolves and Men by one Barry Lopez – “always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”
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References : Carter, Angela (1984)  The Bloody Chamber    Harmondsworth: Penguin
Fridlund, Emily (2017)  History of Wolves    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

 

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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.

 

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