Tag Archives: Music

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. 

 

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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.

 

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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”!

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

 

 

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Some reflections on some Christmas songs

 

The annual release of pop/rock songs on a Christmas theme is still widely mythologised  despite long-term reductions in sales. Yet it was a tradition which became established gradually and accidentally. At the start of the 1970s we already had Phil Spector’s distinctive Christmas Album which seemed to follow the playful style of a novelty record like Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”. Alongside was the more earnest tone of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.

In 1973 came three of the most well-known and re-released Christmas singles, but these were simply the new releases of established groups. “Merry Christmas Everybody” by Slade was the latest in a series of hits which continued for several more years. In contrast, Wizzard’s  “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day” turned out to be practically the end of their career. Elton John was just getting into his career stride and “Step into Christmas” got a much lower chart placing than the previous two possibly just because he had released other records recently or that this one reached the shops too close to Christmas Day.     

However this was the start of a routine. Popular music acts both famous and aspiring would release a single around Christmas following some tried and trusted lyrical (and sometimes musical) templates. Some you liked to hear again each December, some you definitely didn’t. In this time of goodwill perhaps I might muse at greater length on three Christmas singles over the next 40 years which made particular impressions on me.

“I Believe in Father Christmas”, released by the recently deceased Greg Lake in 1975, is definitely in the sombre vein of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”.  Childhood sentimentality is rejected in the lyrics, which were written by Pete Sinfield: “they told me a fairy story” but “I woke up” and “saw (Father Christmas) through his disguise”. World peace is a principal desire of the narrator but not yet available; “hopeful” optimism is appropriate but requires individual effort: “the Christmas we get we deserve”.  

The song’s slow tempo tune was livened by chiming percussion and an acknowledged steal from a classical melody by Prokofiev. Happily it was a big hit and was played regularly on Radio 1 during subsequent Yuletides. Ironically, since Lake released the record as a diversion from his normal band work, it may be the record he is now most known for.

I remember in the mid-1980s saying to someone of my age, “There was a time when we thought that “I Believe in Father Christmas” was as grown-up and intelligent as a Christmas pop song could be” and the other chap agreed. Mind you, at the same time, I heard (or read) cool new young BBC broadcaster Andy Kershaw saying that he made trips to the emerging musical countries of Africa and Latin America around Christmas “so that I don’t have to hear Greg Lake on the radio” !

It was only a couple of years later when I heard on the radio a Christmas-themed record by a band I quite liked but who didn’t usually appear on Top of the Pops. A few days later, I heard the song again and by now I loved it. Although I rarely bought singles, I decided I must purchase this one, because the band was not yet popular, so the record would certainly not be a hit and would not be played frequently on the radio.

I was quite wrong. The record, “Fairy Tale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, was a big hit that Christmas of 1987 and became a Christmas radio staple.

Today I find enough things to dislike in the record that I have to think back a bit carefully to remember exactly what I first enjoyed in it. One attraction was certainly the references to New York, a place I loved both in its idealised and real forms and which I had already been lucky enough to visit twice. (The original single’s sleeve had a wonderful old photograph – below –  of the city sky-line). A musical strength was the potent mix of the voices of Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl as they presented the romantic images of “you promised me Broadway was waiting for me” and “the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day”.  But I always winced at the stereotypical image of Celtic male drunkenness at the start of the narrative and the shared insults voiced later by MacGowan and MacColl. I have not warmed further to these elements as time has passed.  So “Fairy Tale of New York” is definitely one of those cultural artefacts where its qualities change depending on the angle or time of approach.  

 

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Fast forward again, this time to 2011, possibly the last Christmas when in the car I would automatically switch on a popular music station rather than Radio 3 or 4. By accident I caught a snippet of a song which seemed to revive some of the musical or lyrical atmosphere of “I Believe in Father Christmas” or “Fairy Tale in New York”.  Fortunately we now had the internet, so I could quickly find out the names of the artistes and could listen to the song for free to my heart’s content.

It was “When the Thames Froze” by (Tom) Smith and (Andy) Burrows, two members of 21st century bands which I had heard of but never from.

“When the Thames Froze” follows the solitary reflection of “I Believe in Father Christmas” rather than a narrative like “Fairytale in New York”. The lyrics seek a balance between the contemporary and the timeless. While the title image hints at centuries past, one striking line is clearly contemporary and political: “God damn this government, will they ever tell me where the money went?” And will they ever take some action about civic discontent and homelessness? The scene described elsewhere is less fixed: the hazards of “snow” and “cold” may not be physical. Whatever, the narrator seems reasonably confident that “my friends” and “you” will support him through difficulty.  As in “I Believe in Father Christmas”,  the ending builds tempo with cautious optimism although here all that is needed is hope and communication rather than effort : “tell everyone…let’s hope the next (year) beats the last”. Like many 21st century pop-rock songs, “When the Thames Froze” seems aware of its shaky structure, which is perhaps why familiar instrumentation touches are re-employed to build the Christmas cheer: brass band, ensemble singing.   

It is widely agreed that our celebration of Christmas has gradually become less religious and more secular. Is this change reflected in this arbitrary selection of three Christmas songs over 30 years? Yes, I think so. “I Believe in Father Christmas” does refer to “the virgin birth” and a faith in “the Israelite” although the narrator appears to be scoffing at this as “a fairy story”. Even fewer biblical references in the later two songs. The two characters in “Fairytale of New York” do not appear to be religious even though the church bells ringing on Christmas Day is an image of hope and happiness, delivered in a major key. And, 20 years later on, when the Thames freezes, perhaps not physically, the only reference to God is in the form of a curse:  “God damn”.

 

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Days of the counter-culture

 

Supplementing a recent BBC4 documentary, the Roundhouse website includes some great historical information about how the 160-year-old former railway shed evolved into one of London’s most active and vibrant arts venues.

The early days of the Roundhouse included performances of the new “psychedelic” pop/rock music, so it was not surprising on the documentary to hear some music by Jefferson Airplane.

Their song “White Rabbit” struck me as eerie and other-worldly when I first heard it several times without knowing its identity on a university union jukebox in 1974-1975,  with its snare drum, climbing guitar line, building crescendo and Lewis Carroll-influenced dreamscape lyrics. It still casts a decently strong eldritch spell today.

 

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San Francisco, from whence came Jefferson Airplane. Photographed in 2000.

 

The programme and web-site impressed on me that Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 plan for the Roundhouse in 1964 must have been one of the first times anyone envisaged that a former industrial work space might be adapted to arts and cultural use. More recent high-profile examples in the UK have been the Tramway in Glasgow, the Tate Modern in London and the Baltic gallery in Gateshead.  

 

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The Baltic art gallery, constructed from a former flour mill on the banks of the river Tyne at Gateshead. Photographed in 2003.

 

 

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The lichts o’ Hallowe’en

 

I have always been sceptical of the authenticity and value of modern writing in the Scots language, but I must concede a powerful example is some of the poetry of Violet Jacobs. Mind you, she lived from 1863 to 1946 so might be regarded as being closer to the era of Robert Burns  than to anyone living today.

I first came across her poem “Hallowe’en” in the musical setting by Jim Reid, which gives it added power as well as makes its reflective structure seem strangely similar to John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas”. Jacobs’ narrator observes all the features of a local Hallowe’en – the children dressed up, the sharing of ghost stories – and finds them especially poignant because her loved one is in France, probably a casualty of World War One.

Burns himself also wrote a poem called “Hallowe’en”, which is a description of various folklores of the season, carried out by some named characters, with accompanying notes by the bard.

Biographer Maurice Lindsay felt it “one of Burns’ least successful poems…perhaps (because it was) a too-conscious attempt to preserve customs.” However, Lindsay did point readers in the direction of two livelier poems which probably influenced Burns’ “Hallowe’en”.

“Hallow-Fair” by Robert Fergusson, the contemporary whom Burns greatly admired  reports on a public celebration near Edinburgh, while “Hallowe’en” by the less well -known John Mayne provides tips for family celebrations at half the length of Burns and at twice the pace.

 

Reference :  Lindsay, Maurice (1994)   Robert Burns : The Man, His Work, The Legend   London : Robert Hale

 

 

 

 

 

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A time to meet in Ayrshire

 

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The A Frame of the former Barony coal mine in Auchinleck. “The Barony A Frame” was the title of a piece of music by Scott Lygate given its world premiere at the Cumnock Tryst this year. The coal mine closed in 1989.

 

Three years ago, a Leaf Collecting post drew similarities between contemporary composer Sir James MacMillan and the earlier Benjamin Britten.  If I had waited another year, I could have added the further similarity of their two music festivals.  

MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst is still small by the standards of other festivals, but it is significant for being a classical music weekend in an area which does not normally host such things and which will benefit greatly from any such cultural and financial investment. Cumnock, the former mining town where MacMillan grew up, and its smaller neighbour Auchinleck together boast several handsome churches and other buildings which can ably stage classical concerts, especially of sacred music. 

 

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The interior of the Catholic Church of St John the Evangelist in Cumnock is the more striking, but its sloped, wooden-framed entrance vestibule still catches the eye and hints at the varied influences of its architect William Burges.

 

I was thrilled to be at the first concert of the first festival in 2014 to see the world-famous and brilliant choir The Sixteen conducted by Harry Christophers, in the church of St John the Evangelist, Cumnock, with its sumptuous Arts and Crafts/Gothic interior by architect William Burges. Their programme included a mix of works by the 16th century English composer Sheppard and modern compositions based on the “Stabat Mater”.

 

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This view of Cumnock Old Church displays its proportions but not really its prominence in the centre of The Square in the town.

 

Nothing in the second festival line-up enticed me like The Sixteen, but the concert at the Cumnock Old Church was still highly satisfactory. It included Fauré’s “Requiem”, some Bach and a MacMillan première, performed by the collected forces of the Hebrides Ensemble, Genesis Sixteen and the newly-formed Festival Chorus.

This year I was back at St John’s Church for a performance by the aforementioned Genesis Sixteen, the younger “apprentice” ensemble of The Sixteen, conducted by Eamonn Dougan. Their varied programme included Renaissance composers like Lassus, Bertolusi and Ramsay and 20th century names like Peter Maxwell Davies, Kenneth Leighton and Roderick Williams.

 

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The exterior of Trinity Church in Cumnock, where Nicola Benedetti performed as part of a trio at this year’s Cumnock Tryst, is echoed by the distinctive shop fronts next door.

 

One tiny criticism of the Cumnock Tryst is that twice in three years it has featured another Scottish classical music celebrity, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and thus might create the impression that it is too heavily reliant on two local star individuals. Another is that the use of the 18th century Robert Adam-designed Dumfries House, already a great tourism and commercial development for the area since a Prince Charles-led consortium secured its future in 2007, unbalances the shape of the Tryst as it has hosted three Sunday finale concerts with the most expensive tickets which have all sold out quickly.

 

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Dumfries House, designed by Robert Adam and his brothers in the 1750s.

 

However, I know these criticisms are not really fair.  Benedetti is the designated patron of the festival and her appearance this year was as part of a trio in a varied programme which included the contemporary music by Mark-Antony Turnage, which I would rather liked to have attended myself. And why should the fans of the splendid Dumfries House not enjoy their rare chance to hear live music in its period setting? Elsewhere throughout the weekend, the Cumnock Tryst celebrates less famous composers and musicians, plus some fine buildings in Cumnock and Auchinleck.

Next year, I should go more often than once to this valuable social and cultural enterprise.

 

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The elements which made this war highly effective if not lovely

 

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One of the dozens of cemeteries of named and unnamed casualties from World War One in northern France and Belgium.

 

The great World War One commemoration machine is never far from view. Recently the Battle of Jutland, imminently the Battle of the Somme. So my very first viewing of Richard Attenborough’s film of Oh! What a Lovely War has been of particular interest.

Joan Littlewood’s original production in 1962 has passed into theatre mythology, a huge influence on a generation of political theatre.

However, it has been suggested that, by the time Attenborough’s film version was released in 1969, the show and its style were already a little out of date. The success of The Great War, the 26-part BBC TV documentary with its detailed use of archive photographs and film, plus the less hierarchical social habits which were developing, had spread a more balanced and more critical, less imperialistic and less jingoistic account of the War.

At that time, too, film producers were often employing black and white film to add authenticity to war stories. For instance, in the heroic epic The Longest Day, the small-scale anti-war King and Country and more conventional masculine dramas like The Hill and Guns at Batasi. Did Attenborough ever consider that treatment, one wonders? 30 years later Steven Spielberg talked about how the decision to film Schindler’s List in black and white relieved him of pressure to make such very serious material too commercial. The Angry Silence, the working-class factory drama which Attenborough produced, had certainly benefitted from the use of black and white. But Oh! What a Lovely War was Attenborough’s first big directing project and he and his co-producers probably felt that colour went hand in hand with the big budget, big stars and a long running time.

It is also interesting to compare Attenborough’s all-star cast with a similar ensemble (including literally many of the same people: Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Kenneth More, Robert Flemyng, Edward Fox, Susannah York) at exactly the same time in Battle of Britain, a film with a more familiar heroic tone. When people first went to see Oh! What a Lovely War, did they know how different in content and tone was its source material?

 

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Brighton Pavilion, undergoing refurbishment in 2006. “Oh! What a Lovely War” was mostly filmed in and around Brighton.

 

I think the film today still comes across as a notable piece of work. The more realistic trench locations blend satisfactorily with the metaphorical one of the seaside pier, which is particularly effective in the interior scenes where the hazy white light backdrops the elite power politics at the start and end of the war. That scene near the end where the solitary infantryman is led along the blood-red tape past the armistice partners and is seen by them as a distraction in their important business is no less powerful for being theatrical. In fact, it actually seems more effective to me than the famous finale of the hundreds of white crosses on the green country hillside. Olivier’s unflattering characterisation of Sir John French neatly foreshadows his last film role as the wheelchair-bound veteran in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem.

The use of period songs as ironic commentary was of course the major part of Oh! What a Lovely War. Songs with simple and sweet arrangements like “Bombed last Night”, “Hush, Here Comes a Whizzbang” and “If the Sergeant Steals Your Rum” came across now as especially effective. Another “what if?” muse: might a jagged, dissonant Kurt Weill-esqe arrangement have been more powerful and more in tune (pun partly intended) with Joan Littlewood’s didactic sardonic staging style?

What I actually didn’t know until very recently was that the whole structure of Littlewood’s show derived from a BBC radio programme by Charles Chilton called The Long Long Trail, which also used period songs to tell the story of the war experience from the perspective of the ordinary soldier.

Oh! What a Lovely War has been revived again in this period of World War One commemoration, apparently still to considerable effect. This demonstrates not just how those Brechtian theatrical devices can still work, but also the astonishing staying power of those popular songs from so long ago.

 

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A multi-lingual sign at one of the World War One cemeteries.

 

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A period poster at a former Edwardian music-hall: the Panopticon in Glasgow

 

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Background music

 

It was a long time ago when I first joined the large group of people who carried out all activities to the background of pop and rock music –  so maybe it is understandable that the habit has gradually lost its allure.

During the 1970s, a certain type of easy school or university homework was regularly done to the music of BBC Radio 1 or to whatever new record or cassette you had recently acquired. Partly so that you could do two things at one time. In later years, house-keeping activities like cleaning, cooking and ironing could be conveniently carried out to background music. Travelling in cars always needed the accompaniment of a radio or cassette.

By my late 20s in the early 1980s, I was still overwhelmingly a pop/rock music listener struggling to expand my listening into classical or jazz. Working in Toronto, Canada, during the winter of 1983-84, I had the Damascene experience of visiting a second-hand bookshop in the city and hearing an opera performance emanate gently from a local classical radio station. The music was obviously the preferred listening of the proprietor, but its particular blend of human voice and orchestral strings seemed the natural, appropriate sound to accompany the leisurely activity of moving around shelves and glancing through the pages of volumes which you had no real need of. I am pleased that similar classical music always seems to be playing in the background during my occasional visits to the multiple-spaced Bookshop in Wigtown.

 

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College Street in Toronto in 2001. The Free Times Café was a popular haunt in 1984; happily it was still thriving in 2001 and now.

 

A striking and satisfying experience of background popular music was at the 1986 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. While we sat waiting in the former Gilded Balloon in the Cowgate for a comedy show to start (it was still dubbed “alternative” comedy in those days), some Aretha Franklin music came on the PA.  “Respect”, “Chain of Fools” etc… Here, too, as in the Toronto bookshop, it seemed like the absolutely correct aural backdrop: this time dark, smoky, sultry, sexy, edgy, of the past yet still modern. By coincidence, about 36 hours later and before another show at the Assembly Rooms in a totally different part of the city centre, Aretha Franklin was singing again. Many of the classic black artistes of the 1960s and 1970s were being accorded fresh attention around that time so perhaps that is the explanation of the mystery.  Aretha’s Greatest Hits was purchased soon afterwards and helped to fill a significant educational gap in my collection for several years.

 

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Canongate in Edinburgh in 1994.

 

Nowadays restaurants of all sorts usually play a soundtrack of pop/rock music. Especially by the modern generation of artistes who are influenced by Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack etc, and who encase those influences in the sweet comfortable audio blanket which modern technology allows and perhaps enforces. It was a happy surprise to have such a blanket individualised recently at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock by Randy Newman’s  “Dixie Flyer”: similarly relaxing, yes, but made fresher by his distinctive drawling vocals.

Just as the ordinary buyer can buy mood music compilations of classical, pop, rock and jazz, bars and restaurants can probably buy similar collections, perhaps sub-titled “mellow”, “funky”, “edgy”. It makes me yearn nostalgically for that vegetarian restaurant in York in 1998 which played classical music the whole evening, and especially the Beethoven symphony I had just become acquainted with….

 

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York in 1998, possibly Bootham Bar?

 

 

 

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Over the border

 

 

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Dundrennan Abbey, near Kirkudbright, was built in the 12th century.

 

For centuries the border areas around Scotland and England were places of tension, rivalry, crime, and organised military conflict. They were also the scenes of dramatic romantic stories, poems and songs.  The first album I heard by Dick Gaughan, No More Forever, originally released in 1972, included powerful versions of two such songs.

“The Fair Flower of Northumberland” is a traditional song where the daughter of an English nobleman helps his Scottish prisoner to escape from captivity. Each verse repeats a line that the young woman’s love has been “easy won” and, indeed, the Scotsman turns treacherous after they safely cross the border. He is already married and he sends her back home to Northumberland with the ugly epithet that she is a “brazen-faced whore”. Her parents are surprisingly sympathetic: she has been “beguiled” by the romantic foreign prisoner and the correct solution is that they now provide a dowry to find her a more suitable husband.

 

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Threave Castle, near Castle Douglas, was built in the 14th century. It stands on an island in the River Dee.

 

In “Jock o’ Hazeldean”, written by Walter Scott although based on an earlier traditional ballad, the dowry and engagement have already been set. Three of the stanzas are spoken by the future father-in-law of the young English woman and Scott includes some great images of medieval wealth and status. The young woman has already been promised a “coat o’ gowd” and the ostentatious outdoor pleasures of “hound…hawk (and) palfrey”; for her wedding the (presumably pre-Reformation) church is “deckt at mornintide (and) the tapers glimmert fair”. We are given no information about whether this Scotsman is more deserving of devotion than the last; regardless, “she’s owre the border and awa’ wi’ Jock o’ Hazeldean”.

 

photo4

Part of the ruins of Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries. It is so called because it was founded by Lady Dervorgilla of Galloway in the 13th century in memory of her late husband, John Balliol.

 

A later song of border romance from a different musical style is “Moonlighting” , co-written and recorded by Leo Sayer in 1975. Here both lovers are English, living perhaps somewhere in the north of England.

 

photo8HadriansWall

Part of Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient Roman division between England and Scotland, photographed on a drizzly day in 2003.

 

In apparent homage to earlier border traditions, the song has a relatively spare instrumentation in which a xylophone or glockenspiel seems to play a part. The rhythm, gentle but still urgent, evokes  surreptitious plans and nervous excitement.

The narrative is set in happier times when young adults who were not university graduates might have stable secure employment. He works in a printers, she in “the water department” of the local council, presumably in a secretarial or clerical role; he owns a blue Morris van. We know her surname and that he has a friend called Eddie, but neither Christian name.

There does not appear to be any serious tensions between their two families; only desire and adventure fuel the elopement to the border to be married in Scotland. The place name identification in the final lines, “We’re only ten miles to Gretna, they’re three hundred behind” has always struck me as having as much poignancy as in many a more famous song.

 

photo5Gretna1990

The old blacksmiths shop in Gretna Green, as photographed in 1990. The tradition of English couples rushing here to marry began when Scotland had lower ages of consent than England.

 

 

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