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Sunday, 30 November 2008

Written in granite: Tomorrow morning, continued

Sorry, I meant to report back sooner but there's been an awful lot to do of late.

The first Granite Shore single, Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m. / Workhouse is now recorded and is currently in the process of being mixed so we're still on course for a release fairly early in 2009. The single will be coming out on the Occultation label, and I'm particularly proud to announce that it will be launched upon the world in company with the first new Wild Swans single in almost 20 years, English Electric Lightning / The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years. This latter single is completed and mixed. One change to the previously published information is that Occultation are now planning to release both singles on limited edition 10" vinyl rather than 7". This seems a more desirable and grossly-underused format, allowing more to be made of the artwork, on which Ged Quinn is currently working and also giving far better sound quality, which is important for both records. There is now an Occultation website, although at the moment there's only a very simple page as work on the label's long-term strategy is still underway. We have great hopes for the label, plans are already afoot for other releases to follow the first two. There will also be a revamp of the Granite Shore website to tie in with the single. So much to do...

At present there are no plans for a CD release of either single, they'll be available on 10" vinyl and probably also as digital downloads. Word from Occultation is that, when they're ready to take pre-orders for the singles, there will be free MP3 or similar copies given to anyone who orders the vinyl versions, although anyone who wishes only to purchase the digital formats will be able to do so, of course. There isn't a definite release date yet but sometime around February seems fairly realistic and pre-ordering might begin earlier than that if things went well.

As to the single itself, well, Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m. sounds huge. That was always the aim, the song is a carefully structured narrative and is written to serve the needs of the story, so it twists and turns. We're really very pleased at the way the recording turned out, we've just got to make sure that the mix is right. Workhouse is a much gentler, more intimate piece, at least in comparison with its companion piece.

Anyway, more information will be published as it becomes available. We'll also be resuming the Written In Granite series of writings on other subjects at some point before too much longer.

The Granite Shore

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Written in granite: Tomorrow morning...

Just a brief note this week as I'm about to set off for Liverpool where work will begin on the debut Granite Shore single Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m./Workhouse. If all goes to schedule (and when does it ever?) it will be released out as a limited, numbered editions on 7" vinyl sometime early in 2009, although there will probably also be a digital download release of some kind to go with it.

Wish us luck... And watch this space in a week or so's time.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Written in granite: One Small Step

It's been a while since we had any actual Granite Shore news and in the meantime we've been looking at some of the records and books (mostly) which have in some way signposted the way. Although I had hoped that 2008 would see the release of a GS album, that was always fairly optimistic; things move slowly... But they do move, eventually.

So now there is some real news. The first Granite Shore single Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m., (a 2006 demo of which can be heard on the website) is scheduled for release as a limited edition on 7" vinyl early in 2009 and it will be appearing on a new label (name to be announced soon) alongside the first single in 20 years by The Wild Swans, English Electric Lightning (click on the link for a demo of that). Both singles will be recorded in Liverpool during the first week in November. We'll be sparing no expense in terms of recording and packaging, and I hope these two singles will be the first of many releases. There are also plans for a digital release but the physical vinyl releases will be a genuinely deluxe affair – artist and original Swan Ged Quinn has volunteered to provide some artwork and the idea is to make these singles as special as we possibly can.

So this all means a sudden flurry of activity: as far as the Granite Shore single is concerned, although the 'a' side is decided upon, the aforementioned Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m., I've still got to decide what other song(s) we might attempt, how we're going to arrange them, the overall sound we want to go for, what musicians will be performing on the tracks... Or, alternatively, we might just go in and see what we come out with.

Wild Swans leader (Leda...) Paul Simpson informs me that he's planning to do not just English Electric Lightning in more or less the arrangement to be heard on the demo but also a second part to appear on the other side of the single, in a long and venerable tradition of such records split over two sides of one piece of vinyl, including the likes of Television's Little Johnny Jewel, James Brown's Papa's Got A Brand New Bag and the Isley Brothers' Shout and, if memory serves, the Four Tops' version of Macarthur Park. It's a great idea and the lyric (which we took a look at back in a July Written In Granite piece) certainly should lend itself to stretching out further, I thought at the time there was a lot more mileage in it. Anyway, for news of the Wild Swans single I suggest you keep an eye on the band's and Paul's MySpace pages).

Anyway, there'll be more news to come over the next few weeks, I expect. The Granite Shore website will also be undergoing an overhaul and there'll be a new site for the label... So much to do, so little time as we go hurtling past... One small step at a time...



Sunday, 5 October 2008

Written in granite: Will Ye Go Lassie Go

I first heard about the exciting prospect of the completion of the second Fotheringay on the grapevine the best part of a year ago and I must admit I was fairly excited. I've been a Sandy Denny fan for a long-time; I can remember buying the 4LP Who Knows Where The Time Goes boxed set when it came out in the eighties and being captivated by the sheer breadth of her talent. She had a voice so English in its purity and an amazing understanding of the traditional songs of these islands, but she was also a superb songwriter – I believe she claimed that Who Knows... itself was the second song she ever wrote. I dare not even think what the second song I ever wrote was, but I'm fairly confident it wasn't as good as that.

I'll assume you're familiar at least with the three LPs she released with Fairport Convention in 1969, in particular Liege And Lief, which effectively invented British folk-rock in one fell swoop and is one of the most perfect albums ever made. Sandy left Fairport after that and the next year was back with another astonishing album – let's just recap: her fourth in the space of two years. The band also featured two members of Eclection, drummer Gerry Conway and Denny's future husband Trevor Lucas, plus Pat Donaldson and Jerry Donahue. And a fantastic album it was too. I have to confess – and I know I'm not alone in this – that I wish Sandy had picked up where she'd left off on L&L in terms of insisting on being the lead singer on everything. It's not that there's anything wrong with the songs sung by the boys, it's just that when you happen to have one of the loveliest of all English voices in your midst it feels rather wasteful not to make full use of it. Even so, we do get plenty of that voice and we also get some more of Sandy's own songs. However my own personal favourite track is the closing rendition of the traditional Banks Of The Nile, and this is where the boys shine too, the guitar interplay sounds to me as though it must've influenced Verlaine and Lloyd (known to be admirers of British folk-rock, so highly probable).

I've owned at least three or four copies of Fotheringay over the years. The original vinyl LP, in one of the most garish gatefold sleeves of all time, with the band all drawn decked out in, ahem, medieval dress (although I hadn't previously been aware of the courtly penchant for flared trousers and wide lapels), then certainly I owned an Island cassette copy, then there was the Hannibal CD release, which added a couple of tracks recorded for the second LP and released on compilations at the time. I've a feeling I've owned another at some point as well...

Then I also have a couple of bootlegs, both of which basically cover more or less the same material drawn from the band's BBC sessions. The better of the two is called Wild Mountain Thyme and it hinted at the riches that might've been in store had they made that second album. So did they? Well, yes and no. According to the sleeve-notes, they started work and recorded basic backing tracks, with guide vocals recorded live at the same time. Then they took a break for the holidays and Sandy was coming under pressure to embark upon a solo career, she hummed and hawed a bit but in the end she gave in – a couple of these songs did end up on her solo debut The North Star Grassman And The Ravens – and the sessions were abandoned. A couple of tracks appeared on various compilations and as bonus tracks on the Hannibal CD reissue of the first album, one or two more on the Box Full Of Treasures Sandy boxed set a few years back. But other than that, unless you'd heard the BBC sessions, much of this will be totally new, at least the Fotheringay versions. The real revelation is their version of Wild Mountain Thyme. The song is familiar – I think I first came across it recorded by The Byrds on Fifth Dimension, but this is an utterly gorgeous reading.

The astonishing thing is that the sleeve-notes remind us that all of Sandy's vocals, at least, are guides, recorded live in the studio while laying down the basic rhythm tracks and never intended to be final. With most singers this would be thin ice at best, if not catastrophic, but with Sandy... You'd never guess it. They sound beautiful.

So then... Is this the second album that Fotheringay might've released in 1971? Well no, of course it isn't. For a start it's almost 50 minutes long (although I am emphatically not complaining!), they would surely have left off at least one or two of these songs. It would have been sequenced differently, they might have recorded other songs for it as Sandy was clearly writing plenty which ended up on North Star... instead. Sandy would certainly have re-recorded all her vocals. The sleeve-notes aren't all that clear about exactly what work has been done on this over the last couple of years and what was on the original tapes – but there's certainly nothing to complain about in that respect, if they've overdubbed anything they've done it in keeping with the sound and spirit of the original and it's seamless. The only real information given is that the aforementioned recording of Wild Mountain Thyme was originally just guitar and vocal and here we can make a comparison between this newly created full band version and the one recorded for the BBC which, under the title Will Ye Go Lassie Go appears on the WMT bootleg. The BBC recording is just electric guitar, bass and Sandy whereas the Fotheringay 2 version adds drums, more guitar and male backing vocals and the electric guitar sound is perhaps a little more swathed in chorus and a little more rounded than it would've been in 1971, but it certainly still sounds right. And the same is true of the whole album, it doesn't sound quite like a record made in 1971, but nor does it sound like some hybrid, it just sounds beautiful.

It's a well-known tragedy that the Corporation frequently erased tapes from that period but the existence of the bootlegs and, in particular, the fact that the WMT one is clearly sourced from vinyl makes me wonder whether they might perhaps have ended up on some of those transcription discs the BBC used to make for use on the World Service. The versions on that are, if not pristine quality, certainly good enough to release if someone did a bit of cleaning up - much poorer quality recordings have seen the light of day.

A few years later three of the five members of Fotheringay were back together again except that, in one of those peculiar quirks of fate, they were Fairport Convention (although they outnumbered original members of that band) and they made Rising For The Moon. This is a much less celebrated Fairport album but I've always loved it, the title track is typical of that period when folk-rock was flirting with pop music (see Steeleye Span's All Around My Hat album) and the title track is a great pop song.

Anyway, I heartily recommend both Fotheringay albums, both of them available on the excellent Fledg'ling label, the first one is one of the key early UK folk-rock albums, along with others such as those 3 Fairport albums, the first three Steeleye Span albums, Trees' On The Shore, Pentangle, etc. Now there's another instalment in the story. Oh and the first Trees album, The Garden Of Jane Trelawney has recently been reissued with a few bonus tracks – what about someone digging out their BBC sessions?

Finally I'd like to apologise for the brief hiatus over the last few weeks: there's some very exciting Granite Shore news which we'll be announcing shortly and therein lies the explanation... Watch this bit of cyberspace.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Written in granite: Time Passes Slowly

Although Judy Collins' first five albums are all fine records, very much in the pre-electric Dylan style so prevalent at the time (i.e. traditional songs and Dylan songs done pretty much straight by singers with less nasal voices than Mr Z himself), in 1966 she embarked upon a series of four truly superb and much more adventurous albums, the first of which was In My Life. She began working with an arranger by the name of Joshua Rifkin and his mostly orchestral scores were perfect for the material and for Judy's pure voice; and Judy knew how to pick a budding songwriter as we'll see in a moment...

The album opens with one of the most fascinating of all Dylan covers – in fact this is one of the first to take Dylan beyond folk or folk-rock. Tom Thumb's Blues (losing the parenthetical "Just Like") is given a woodwind led setting, slowed down and delivered beautifully, giving a completely new slant on the song. That's followed by Richard Farina's Hard Lovin' Loser, maintaining a bluesy feel but also adding a baroque flavour. Then comes the first European incursion with Brecht/Weil's Pirate Jenny, although almost certainly via Nina Simone's version of a couple of years earlier. She follows this by the first-ever recording of a Leonard Cohen cover. Yes, there was once a world in which there were no covers whatsoever of songs by Leonard Cohen, in 1966 the man himself had published several volumes of poetry and two novels, but he didn't release his own version of Suzanne until the following year – legend has it that he sang it down the telephone to Ms Collins. Hers has a beautiful descending guitar pattern and that famous purity of voice and diction. She then follows it with Jacques Brel's La Colombe (for some reason although the lyric is delivered in English the title isn't translated as "The Dove"), she was to return to Brel on the next album. Next up is another theatrical piece, Marat Sade, and then another piece by a budding songwriter still some way of releasing his own first album in an illustrious career, namely Randy Newman's gorgeous I Think It's Going To Rain Today. After that it's Donovan's Sunny Goodge Street followed by Liverpool Lullaby, which does perhaps sound very slightly odd coming from an American, and then it's another Cohen preview, this time of Dress Rehearsal Rag, the author's own version of which didn't appear for another five years on Songs Of Love And Hate (although he did record it for 1968's Songs From A Room, as witnessed by the recent slightly expanded edition). Then the LP closes with the title track by Lennon and McCartney.

In My Life was recorded in London but Judy was back in New York for the following year's Wildflowers. As an overall album it's not quite as good as its predecessor, but even so it's very fine indeed. This time there are three Cohen compositions, Sisters Of Mercy and Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye, both also on his own first album, and Priests, his own version of which has never been released. There's also another Brel number, this time in French, La chanson des vieux amants and two songs by yet another up-and-coming songwriter, Joni Mitchell. Did I say that Judy could spot talent? Her version of Both Sides, Now is my favourite, a gorgeous piece of pop music with a beautiful arrangement. Judy also writes three of the songs herself and whilst it's always going to be tough lining them up alongside such heavyweight material, they're really good. 1968's Who Knows Where The Time Goes takes a slightly different direction, a very 1968 direction in fact, this being the year of Music From Big Pink, it has a slight country tinge to it, there's less in the way of baroque adornment. Dylan is back with I Pity The Poor Immigrant from another "back to basics" album, John Wesley Harding, there are two songs from Cohen's Songs From A Room (Story Of Isaac and, fairly obviously, Bird On The Wire) but there's also a British folk presence with Robin Williamson's First Boy I Ever Loved (First
Girl in the original Incredible String Band version) and Sandy Denny's gorgeous Who Knows Where The Time Goes? which she'd earlier released in a slightly different version as a 'b' side.

It was a couple of years before the next album, 1970's Whales And Nightingales but it is one of her very best. It opens with a terrific version of Joan Baez's Song For David, then the first of two Brel songs, Sons Of... (with Marieke to come later) and then Dominic Behan's The Patriot Game. My own personal favourite track is yet another Dylan song, a fantastic rendition of Time Passes Slowly. The album ends with one of the odder hit singles of the 1970s, her more or less a cappella version of the English hymn Amazing Grace, which spent 67 weeks on the UK charts, a record for a female solo artist at the time – strangely enough the same hymn provided another of the oddest chart-toppers of the decade when performed instrumentally by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards a couple of years later.

Judy Collins tends not to get a lot of credit among historians either in rock or folk music. And yet just take another look at the list of songwriters whose work she performed either for the first time or at least before they had established reputations. OK, Dylan had made a name, but even so, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, Randy Newman, Brel wasn't well-known outside the francophone world, her recording of La Colombe predates Scott Walker's first solo album, with three of the Belgian's compositions, by well over a year.

All of the four albums mentioned here are or have been available on CD. Elektra did twofer sets of Judy Collins' Fifth Album/In My Life and Wildflowers/Who Knows Where The Time Goes which can now be picked up very cheaply.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Written in granite: Extra! Extra!

Every now and again I find myself getting rather bored with rock and pop music, the stuff we get in this country (by which I mean England and more broadly speaking the UK). The first time this happened was probably around 1985, the early eighties had been such a thrilling period with music exploding off in all kinds of directions but by the middle of the decade it was becoming extremely dull. Everyone had decided to sign up for what Simple Minds presciently or unwittingly called the "New Gold Dream" (they probably did get the dates about right, come to think of it). At first this was really exciting, our independent heroes going full pelt for gold and having hit records! Appearing on Top Of The Pops! Signing to major labels and taking them on at their own game! Journalism written entirely with exclamation marks! It all seemed so possible and like such a good idea at the time. But my the middle of the decade everything was sounding the same, there was that huge Linn snare sample and that DX7 ("one of the first ever keyboards!" Chesney Hawkes, overlooking the harpsichord, piano, organ, etc. and their various ancestors over several hundred years) on everything. Then when a reaction did come along for the first time I felt as though it wasn't really taking things further forward but simply going backwards. Suddenly every band you heard seemed to sound like a cross between the Buzzcocks, the Byrds and the Velvet Underground and have floppy fringes and anoraks. So although I did still buy new records, and there were occasional exceptions, I began to look elsewhere for music to excite me. I was already fairly familiar with a lot of French music, I'd discovered Brel whilst still at school (and then Scott Walker which is another story), then I met a French girl and she expanded my francophone horizons considerably. I fell in love with Barbara, I heard other wonderful records such as Claude Nougaro's Une petite fille, then there was the actor Serge Reggiani's first album which we'll cover in a future piece... Indeed, this gives us an idea of how different things are in France. In the English-speaking musical world actors who decide to sing are generally frowned upon. And there is generally good reason for this. Much the same goes for singers who decide to demonstrate their thespian abilities. There are exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule. However in France the rule does not apply. Actors have been known to make good records, and actresses even more so (although in most cases these involve Serge Gainsbourg) and occasionally the move is made the other way, Brel appeared in a number of films, as did Gainsbourg (who was also at one point the highest-paid director of commercials for French TV, I believe). In France the setting of poems to music is commonplace, indeed the line between poetry and lyrics is nowhere near as clearly defined as it is in English. Although there's of plenty French bubblegum (the sixties variant being often known as "yé-yé" which pretty much sums it up and is at least honest), they also have the chanson tradition which is taken very seriously indeed – and rightly so. Gainsbourg's complete lyrics are published in the same collections as editions of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Obviously they aren't poetry, they are lyrics, designed to be sung. As I may perhaps have mentioned before, the best definition of the difference between lyrics and poetry that I've heard was given by Leonard Cohen in an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts magazine programme, in which Mr Cohen said that a lyric had to "find its way more quickly from heart to heart". I can't think of a great album in English which takes its lyrics from poems... I can think of a number in other languages. In Spanish Joan Manuel Serrat has done at least a couple that I know of, most notably Antonio Machado, in France Jean Ferrat has recorded so many songs with lyrics based on poems by Louis Aragon that there are 2 or 3 compilations just of the Aragon songs. Then there are multiple settings of pieces by Jacques Prévert, the best-known being Les Feuilles Mortes, although the poem didn't really make it intact through the translation into English as Autumn Leaves. Then there's plenty of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Villon... It does tend to be the so-called poètes maudits (accursed poets, though it amounts to a lot more than that) who attract musicians in search of a lyrical idea.

Anyway, another favourite to whom I was introduced by the young French person mentioned above was Léo Ferré. She played me an album called L'été '68 which blew me away. I'd never heard anything like this. In 35 minutes it tackles poverty (Madame la misère), the star system and celebrity (L'idole), anarchism (Les anarchistes), the 1968 Paris riots (the title track) and, er, the death of the author's beloved pet chimpanzee who frequently appeared on stage with him and who is favourably compared to Gainsbourg in terms of both personal appearance and habits. Then it also features C'est extra, which is one of the best-known songs in France and which knocked me into a cocked hat the first time I heard it. Unlike much of Léo's other work, especially later on, it's incredibly simple from a musical point of view, just a single chord sequence which runs through the whole thing. The lyric alludes to the Moody Blues' Nights In White Satin which had been a hit a year or two earlier and basically captures a moment in time. The instrumentation is acoustic guitar propelling the thing along with drums and bass in a very sixties cool jazz style, and then a wonderful organ part scattering runs and frills (what a friend of mine very accurately calls "curlicues") all over the verses. Then there's a string section and the third verse has one of the most perfect pieces of string arrangement I've ever heard, as the violins go on an upward run weaving around the vocal and then kind of shoot off at the top of it, a bit like a firework. But most of all there is that vocal, one of the finest ever committed to tape. Léo did have a fabulous voice and he knew how to use it. He builds throughout the song and then the bit at the end where he takes the chorus of "c'est extra" (it's fantastic) and pushes up and up and over, well, it still sends shivers up and down my spine to this day. It's a great piece of pop music except that it sounds so much older than 1968 in some ways and yet in others it's timeless. The rest of the album is pretty fantastic too, with Pepée (yes, that's the one about the chimp) being another obvious highlight, a thing of extraordinary beauty in every respect. By the late 1960s Ferré had been recording for a long time, he was in his late fifties and his music had already developed through a whole series of styles, his early stuff draws on the French music hall tradition and he also recorded a number of albums drawing on poems by the likes of Baudelaire, Aragon, etc., but by the sixties he was putting a lot of politics into his work (see above), and was becoming more ambitious. But he was never afraid to write a love song either, although always in his own inimitable style, in fact one of my favourite albums of his is Avec Le Temps, which I think came out in around 1972. The title track, which closes the LP, is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, based around a figure so sequentially logical and obvious that, when you sit down at a piano and work it out you start to wonder whether perhaps Chesney might've been right because surely, had keyboard instruments really been around for several hundred years, somebody would've come up with this before? It is gorgeous. Mind you, it's a bit trickier to play on the guitar as I discovered when I did an arrangement of it which I used to perform live in the late eighties, with my own translation of the lyric. People always used to ask what on earth that song was...

The following year he released the first album moving in a still-more ambitious direction, Il n'y a plus rien. I suppose you might call this chanson progressive except that Léo wasn't simply paying lip service to classical influences, he really knew what he was doing. Side one of the original LP starts with a Préface, a spoken-word piece in which he sets out his store, "nowadays people will only touch words with gloves on..." Then that segues seamlessly into Ne chantez pas la mort (don't sing about death) in which he tackles the greatest of all taboos ("don't sing about death, it's a morbid subject" shows he had a sense of humour, "it's a taboo subject for accursed poets" – all of which sounds a lot better in French than in English, of course), based on another of his wonderful piano triad figures, with a truly gorgeous orchestral arrangement, lasting seven and a half minutes... Then that gives way to Night and day, which is most emphatically not the Cole Porter song. Indeed it continues in the same vein as Ne chantez... and with more memorable lines such as "Il paraît que la Vérité est aux toilettes et qu'elle n'a pas tiré la chasse... La Vérité, c'est dégueulasse"
("it seems that the Truth is in the toilets and hasn't pulled the chain... The Truth is disgusting" – that one really does sound much better in French), then side one comes to a phenomenal climax with Richard, sitting in a bar, contemplating the world and one last drink. Every now and again Léo breaks off from his gloomy ruminations to ask his companion "Eh, Richard, ça va?" building to a wonderful finale as Léo shouts "Eh! Monsieur Richard! Le dernier! Pour la route!" (Hey, Mr Richard! One last drink! For the road!") Side two opened with another gorgeously arranged piece called L'oppression (I'll leave you to guess what that one's about) and then, this being 1973, the remainder of the side is taken up with the 16-minute title track which is effectively a fairly nihilistic (the title means "there's nothing left", which is about as nihilistic as you can get, I'd say) poem delivered over a piece of contemporary classical music.

Now I think about it, I remember that in the late 1980s, Channel 4 here in the UK showed a French TV series directed by Jean-Luc Godard and called something like Le Tour de France de deux enfants and it featured a section set to the music of Richard, I remember loving it, although I was already familiar with the song. I don't remain much else about the series but that sequence did stick in my mind. Léo himself died at the age of 76 in 1993.

I had – hopefully still have in my vinyl collection – one of Ferré's later albums, by which point he was working almost entirely outside the structure of the song and essentially making modern classical music adorned by that gorgeously quavering tenor of his. It was called L'imaginaire and I remember there was one song (or piece) on it that I loved, called Les ascenseurs camarades. He stuck to his guns, did Léo and I admire him enormously for that. Plus he pulled off one of the great tricks, mixing the sweetness of his voice and the lush orchestral arrangements he used to go for with the tartness, or even the downright power of his views, whether upon the tenets of anarchism as the ideal philosophy upon which the organisation of human society might best be founded, empathy for the dispossessed or cross-species friendship between man and other simians. Certainly I can put my hand on my heart and say that, if I am ever asked – as I feel sure I one day shall be – what my favourite song about a chimpanzee is I shall reply instantly "Pepée by Léo Ferré". And likewise, if required to name my favourite song mentioning the Moody Blues I shall plump for C'est extra. I just love the ambition of records like that, or Barbara's L'aigle noir, that is the kind of thing to which the Granite Shore aspires.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Written in granite: Wrecking Ball

Let's make no bones about this: if push were ever to come to shove and I were put on the spot and asked to name my favourite album ever made, I would have to plump for Emmylou Harris' Wrecking Ball. There are other records which are perhaps better-constructed, have more layers of meaning, have historic significance... Come to that the two albums Emmylou recorded after this one were made up of her own songs and are utterly brilliant, in many ways even more towering achievements than this, especially within the context of her career(s)... However Wrecking Ball has an emotional impact upon me which I get from no other album; there's something about it which reaches out and moves me, it reduces me to tears. It is also important as the starting point for the journey which led to those extraordinary albums of her own songs, which we'll be looking at in detail later on.

Above all it's an incredibly brave record. Emmylou was in her late forties when it came out and I imagine even she'd admit she'd fallen into something of a rut during the 1980s – like the vast majority of her contemporaries. As ruts go it was a pretty great one, the quality never really slipped too much, it was just that... one album was starting to sound much like the previous one, lovely though they often were. She was hardly in trouble, though; she had a loyal audience and was deeply respected within country music, she'd forged a style and a reputation, she was a star, there was absolutely no need for her to take risks. So of course she responded in the way that only the greatest artists will: she made an album which deeply offended an awful lot of people within the genre. There's a telling moment in the Deeper Well documentary shown on BBC4 a couple of years or so back when a member of the country establishment (I can't remember who now) is asked about WB and basically clams up. He clearly hates it but doesn't actually want to say so because... well, she's Emmylou Harris and she is deeply respected in country music. In the end he mutters "all I'll say about that record is that it ain't country music..." He is, of course, both quite right and totally wrong. It's probably fair to say that this is more of a rock record than a country one. However there's plenty of country in the material; it's just that Emmylou decided to acknowledge that the form was moving on and that she was ready to do something new herself. However any record featuring the voice of Emmylou Harris (and this one features some of the most stunning vocal performances she's ever committed to tape, and that really is saying something) is always going to have some country in its make-up.

Let's start with the cover which I always think is symbolic of what lies within. Well, that's what record covers should be, isn't it? Both on the front, and even more graphically inside the sleeve of Wrecking Ball, we see that Emmylou, having presumably spotted a grey hair and realised that she's no longer in the first flush of youth has decided to embrace this by dyeing her entire barnet grey! Not only does she look absolutely amazing, but here is a first portent that we're in for a genuinely grown-up record, made by a woman who is approaching the peak of her powers and, indeed, about to embark upon an astonishing third proper career as a great songwriter, following on from her second as one of the greatest interpretative singers of the twentieth century and her first as half of one of the greatest of all duet singers, with Gram Parsons (and Dylan and everyone else...) Oh, and before that she'd started out as a folk singer, but that didn't really work out so we won't count it. Having decided upon a conflagration of bridges, she doesn't hold back. To produce the album she calls in Daniel Lanois, best-known at the time as Eno's right-hand man on U2 albums, although he'd also made a name as a producer in his own right, most notably on Dylan's one truly great album of the 1980s, Oh Mercy and Robbie Robertson's solo debut, but also with Peter Gabriel and plenty of others. Lanois is one of a now very rare breed: the auteur producer. In other words if you hire him then you've got a pretty good idea of what you'll be getting. Just as back in the early 1980s if you hired Martin Hannett to produce your record then you could be fairly confident that the drums and bass would be mixed up, the guitars further back and menacing, with lots of delay and oodles of space. Or Phil Spector, where it would not be unreasonable to expect the use of a smidgeon of reverb here and there and a sound of a certain size.

Lanois clearly loved the idea and indeed he wrote three of the songs that ended up on the album, bringing us to the song selection. There isn't a single country standard, in fact many of the pieces are by up-and-coming stars of the generation of country writers on the rise at the time: Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Julie Miller... Plus there are some songs from out-and-out rock sources, which we'll come to in just a moment.

The album opens and your jaw drops, or mine did when I first heard it. This was a few years after the album's release, I must admit. I owned a large number of Ms Harris' earlier albums, having first got into country music after hearing Grievous Angel, like many other people coming initially from a non-country background, but I'll confess that I'd lost interest during the 1980s. Then I started to hear rumours that she'd started doing something special and so I bought 2003's Stumble Into Grace when it came out. After a couple of plays I was besotted with it and immediately rushed out and bought both WB and Red Dirt Girl. I still remember putting the former on for the first time... The guitar riff to Lanois' Where Will I Be? came in and for a moment I had to check the credits to see if Vini Reilly (The Durutti Column) had been dragged over to Nashville. Apparently not, but it sounds like something from the Lips That Would Kiss period. The drumming is stunning, if I remember rightly it's Larry Mullen from U2 playing on much of the album and it's stupendous throughout. So, having opened with a bang, the album takes things up a gear: Goodbye is an incredibly moving song; written by Steve Earle, who also appears, it's one of the great addiction songs, incredibly simple and yet stunningly affecting, especially its punch-line of "was I just off somewhere or just too high? Because I can't remember if we said goodbye..." The arrangement is huge, dark, dense and almost unbearably sad. This gives way to Julie Miller's All My Tears, which speaks for itself and rolls along with its loping gait, followed by the title track, Neil Young's Wrecking Ball and here too, the author makes an appearance. Young's original version was to have appeared on Times Square, which is one of those periodic Neil Young albums that he decides not to release at the last moment, even though it's clear to anyone who isn't Neil Young that they're among his best work (see also Chrome Dreams, the original one, I mean). The reason he apparently gave was that "it didn't have a hit single on it", a more than slightly odd criterion for Mr Young as, were it applied systematically, it would've shrunk his discography to around the size of that of his compatriot Leonard Cohen. The song did eventually emerge on the replacement album Freedom (and yes, it DID have a hit single, Rockin' In The Free World) and very fine it is too. However Emmylou's version is even better, again the sound is huge, spacious and... heartbreaking. Next up is Ms Harris' friend and Rufus Wainright's Aunt Anna McGarrigle's Goin' Back To Harlan. Another incredibly emotional song, superbly delivered. Then comes the first of Emmylou's two contributions, Deeper Well, which sums up the mood wonderfully, er, well.

Emmylou then pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of finding a terrific Bob Dylan song that's not already been covered a thousand times: Every Grain Of Sand was the closing song on Shot Of Love, an album I've always suspected could've been terrific had Dylan only selected a different set of songs from the sessions – there are some terrific outtakes on both the official Bootleg Series and other less legal bootlegs. It is further proof that although Dylan did manage to make some pretty poor records with some very ordinary songs during the 1980s, his genius never truly deserted him for long, and Emmylou does a fine reading and again it fits the album perfectly.

Another of so many highlights of the album is a phenomenally intense reading of Lucinda Williams extraordinary Sweet Old World. Lucinda's own version, on the album of the same name, draws a lot of its poignancy (and it has that in spades, whether or not it was written from immediate experience, as has been suggested, or not) from the rolling simplicity of the arrangement and the way Ms Williams' voice manages to stay light, even when it's on the verge of cracking under the emotional strain. Emmylou's is more obviously dark, mysterious and more than slightly disturbing. The lyric is one of the loveliest I've ever heard, it's beautifully constructed and yet so apparently artless. Lucinda Williams is one of the finest songwriters alive today, of course. Then comes a real turn-up for the books as Ms Harris tackles Hendrix. Now hardly anybody covers Jimi, let alone artists generally pigeonholed as "country". In fact he doesn't generally get enormous credit as a songwriter, probably because the guitar histrionics tend to overshadow the other thing he could do with the instrument and I suspect people are daunted, "what's the point of trying to follow THAT?" they think, understandably. But Emmylou turns May This Be Love into a seething, whirlpool of a track. Then one more song by a writer who was establishing herself on the fringes of the country idiom in the mid-nineties is Gillian Welch's Orphan Girl. Actually Ms Welch is half of a folk duo with her partner David Rawlings rather than a country singer, or else she's a bluegrass artiste... But for me she's a folksinger and a very, very fine one. The song is perfect for Emmylou.

The album draws to a close first another Lanois song, Blackhawk,
and then Waltz Across Texas Tonight, the other song Emmylou herself had a hand in writing, this time together with long-time Hot Band alumnus Rodney Crowell. It's the perfect end to what is an utterly astonishing album. A couple of years later Lanois hooked up with Dylan for the second time and made Time Out Of Mind, which clearly uses a lot of the same tricks, although it's a drier, very masculine record whereas WB... isn't. We'll look at what Emmylou did next in later pieces, starting with 2000's phenomenal Red Dirt Girl, her first album of (pretty much) all self-written songs for almost 20 years suggesting she'd been hiding a complete Pink Floyd light-show under her bushel.

However before we leave Wrecking Ball there's a little more to the story... If you look about you in ways upon which I couldn't possibly comment, it is possible to find a bootleg generally known as The Wrecking Ball Demos. The title is a misnomer as these are clearly not demos but rather early versions, alternate mixes plus 3 outtakes from the album sessions. Generally the songs that did make the album are the same takes minus backing vocals and guest artistes, or with different vocal takes and often substantially different mixes. They're rougher and readier and also superb. Better still, though, we get three more songs done in a similar style: Richard Thompson's How Will I Ever Be Simple Again?, another Lanois song called Still Water and Emmylou's own Never Be Gold, a new version of which has just surfaced on her excellent new album All I Intended To Be, although I have to say that I think I prefer this earlier version. The other surprise is the completely different arrangement of Deeper Well, done as a kind of tribal drumbeat, perhaps not a million miles away from Joni Mitchell's The Jungle Line on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns... You can see why they opted for the released version, which is a little less extreme, but it's staggering and fascinating to hear nonetheless.

So there it is; my favourite album and one that touches me in ways that so few others can.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Written in granite: Love, Death And The Lady

Although Shirley Collins does have an MBE, frankly this seems pretty mean; she ought, surely, to be Dame Shirley – at the very least, if not Lady Shirley. In fact, if we were ever offered the chance to vote for a head of state for England, then she'd definitely get my vote. She has done more for traditional British music, and especially traditional English music which, quite frankly, needed all the help it could get, than almost anyone alive. Like Dory Previn, she hasn't really made any records in a very long time, around 30 years, I think – so no, you won't find yourself coming across a load of awful albums made in the 1980s with Linn drum plastered everywhere and that DX7 bell sound. To be honest I don't think that'd've been very likely even had she recorded during that period, given that most of her records are utterly timeless in both the literal and the more figurative senses of that overused adjective.

Fortunately by the end of the 1970s Shirley had already amassed a fairly extensive discography and most of it is easily available on CD or download. One very good place to start is the superb Within Sound boxed set that came out a few years ago, as it includes key tracks from most of her albums plus lots of rare EP tracks and unreleased material. However there's now a wonderful new compilation of the recordings Shirley and her sister Dolly made for the "progressive" Harvest label in the late sixties and early seventies. It's based primarily around two classic albums, Anthems In Eden and Love, Death And The Lady, plus the additional songs added to Anthems to make the Amaranth set released a few years later. The Harvest Years also includes one or two tracks with Shirley on vocals recorded for other projects such as the Etchingham Steam Band.

Anthems In Eden is dominated by a long song cycle. On my earlier CD copy the whole of the first side, nine songs, were all one track, although on the Harvest Years they are split up individually. These are all folk songs which have been loosely corralled into a narrative and it works beautifully. Shirley's voice is totally lacking in any artifice. She simply sings the songs and lets them come through; there are no vocal tricks at all. This makes her almost unique and also perhaps the most self-effacing of all vocalists. Dolly's arrangements are also allowed to shine through, and they too sound like nothing else... or nothing else that has been heard for a hundred years or so, anyway. This may seem slightly strange given that these records were made at a time when English (and other British) folk music had just been dragged kicking and screaming into the twentieth century by records such as Fairport Convention's epochal Liege And Lief and then the early Steeleye Span albums, Trees' On The Shore and a whole host of others, but Shirley and Dolly always ploughed their own furrow. At some point we'll be taking a look at The Power Of The True Love Knot, the album she made before joining Harvest, with Joe Boyd and featuring members of the Incredible String Band amongst others, which is another huge favourite of mine... And then there's also No Roses, recorded with husband Ashley Hutchings' Albion Dance Band, which is a more electric affair. But, perhaps ironically given the label's output of the time (home to Pink Floyd, Kevin Ayers, Deep Purple, Barclay James Harvest and the early Electric Light Orchestra), the two Harvest albums really do sound completely out of time. If ever there was early music then this is it, we don't know who wrote the songs, if it can be said that anyone really did, they were probably more of a collaborative affair over generations, and they are played in arrangements using instruments such as the viol – indeed, the Early Music Consort (by whom I have a number of classical recordings, one favourite being the 2CD Music Of The Gothic Era) appear on the second Harvest album, Love Death And The Lady, which is a huge favourite of mine, a thing of austere beauty, again it's a collection of traditional songs, most of them very sombre in subject matter and closing with The Plains Of Waterloo which actually has a drum on it, although don't worry, it's not exactly Moby Dick.

We English have struggled to maintain our own identity over the years – this is often the case when states are formed out of conglomerates of smaller nations: the larger partner often feels obliged to stress the overall identity at the expense of its own, whereas the smaller partners feel that their identities could be under threat if they don't take active steps to preserve them. As I said at the start, Shirley Collins has probably done more than anyone I can think of to help preserve and perpetuate traditional English songs and there is something quintessentially English about her records. Her website can be found here and is highly recommended.




Sunday, 10 August 2008

Written in granite: Power Of Five

There are a lot of books – of all genres – that I read once and enjoy enormously but know I'll probably never wish to reread. Then there are some that I think I might perhaps like to reread, although often I know it'll need to be at some reasonably remote future time when I've forgotten the plot and can enjoy it as though for the first time. Then there are the ones I know I'll want to read over and over again. Some of these are apparently less plot-oriented with Proust's A la recherché du temps passé and Joyce's Ulysses being two very obvious examples. However on the whole, when it comes down to it, I'm a story-lover. And actually Proust's novel is only apparently less story-driven; in reality it's got very Dickensian plotting (a stranger appears only for the Narrator to recognise him as someone he knew during his childhood, everyone knows everyone else, there's plenty of coincidence), it's Proust's level of detail that deceives people into thinking that ~nothing much happens". An awful lot happens, it's just that it 3000+ pages. Ulysses is also very tightly plotted: it's the story of a single day but with its tentacles reaching back into pasts known and unknown (there are plenty of references to Portrait and Dubliners, as well as real characters and events).

I'm currently nearing the end of my third reading of Charles Palliser's monumental The Quincunx. If ever there were a plot-driven book then this is the one. Another peculiarity of the book is that although it is ostensibly a little over 100 years behind its time, in a very real sense it was actually around 10 years ahead of its time. What I mean by that is that the book purports to be a Victorian novel in the style popularised by the likes of Dickens and Wilkie Collins and yet it is very clearly a product of the time when it was really written – it was published in 1989. Just a few years later we started to see a whole slew of faux Victorian novels many of which became big hits: Sarah Waters' first three, Tipping The Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith (itself deeply indebted to Collins), Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal And The White, Michael Cox's The Meaning Of Night, even that oddity Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, an alternative reality faux Victorian novel (see also Iain Mcleod's Light Ages and House Of Storms) and a number of others. The Quincunx wasn't the first novel of this kind, but it was the first I'm aware of to take on the Victorian format on its own scale. Indeed this is a truly huge novel. I've got two editions, an original US hardback which runs to almost 800 large format pages with fairly small type and then a Penguin UK paperback with larger type which is 1200 pages.

The novel is subtitled "The Inheritance of John Huffam". So... what's in a name? Quite a lot, as it happens, because these were Dickens' middle names. The two share more than that: both (probably; there's little one can say for sure about Huffam's birth, or indeed his name, he goes by several surnames during the course of the book – I've not counted but I'd not be surprised to learn that there are five, see below) born on the same day in 1812. Personally I've got a little theory that Palliser has attempted to work bits of plot or at least something from each of Dickens' novels into his book. For instance, John spends a few months at a Yorkshire school not at all dissimilar from Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby (see also Silas Clothier's resemblance to Ralph Nickleby in the same book). There's a long-running Chancery suit (like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce in Bleak House), there are characters earning a living from digging through the mud and shit either of the river or the sewers (Our Mutual Friend), there are plenty of thieves and prostitutes and Barney Digweed, one of many characters with Dickensian names, is certainly reminiscent of Bill Sikes (Oliver Twist), characters end up in prison for debt (Little Dorrit)... Need I go on? I expect someone else has come up with a similar theory and documented it more fully than this. And, like Edwin Drood, nobody seems terribly sure what actually happens in the end (or, more to the point, at the beginning).

In case all this is putting you off then don't let it: above all The Quincunx is a thrilling read. Yes, it's very long but believe me, you won't want it to end. Perhaps Palliser's most extraordinary achievement is to pull off what so many of us attempt and yet so rarely manage in that the book genuinely works on several levels and can be enjoyed on any of them. The first time I read it I wasn't really aware of all the complexities of interpretation, I simply read and enjoyed it as I would've done a novel by Dickens or Collins, in thrall to the twisting and turning of the plot, the breathless pace kept up throughout and the beautiful writing. Then of course I read the Author's Afterword in the paperback edition which is careful merely to hint at some of the deeper layers without actually exposing them. So the second time I read it, probably 3-4 years later in the mid-nineties, I was on the alert and began to see what he meant about other ways of interpreting things. This third time I'm reading even more closely and, of course, I'm also reading in a world where we have the Internet making it possibly to check facts (and indeed fictions) quickly and easily. I really don't want to spoil anyone else's enjoyment – and believe me, for all the complexity under the surface, you can simply allow yourself to be entertained on a very lavish scale indeed, so I'm trying to rein myself in on details. There's also the fact that I myself have, over the past 2-3 years, been engaged in producing fictions which are designed to operate both on a surface and on a deeper level, and it's fascinating to observe the work of someone who has pulled this off to such an astonishing degree.

In his Afterword, Palliser says that essentially he decided to break the implicit contract between author and reader on which the Victorian novel reposed. This contract says that although the author is free to bamboozle the reader as much as s/he likes throughout the course of the novel, with red herrings, false leads and even actual falsehoods, s/he undertakes to provide a single satisfactory explanation to any matters arising by the end of the book. "All", the contract states, "will be revealed". Except that in this book not only is all not necessarily revealed, but, if we're reading anything at all below the surface (which, as I say, isn't necessary to enjoy the book immensely), we come to suspect that the things that are revealed are not necessarily to be trusted.

Another key aspect is the novel's structure. It is divided into five parts, each of them bearing the name of one of the five families involved in this most labyrinthine of plots, and each part is divided into five books, itself divided into 5 chapters. So there are 125 (5x5x5) chapters in all. Chapter 63 (the middle one) is one hell of a tease in that in it we find that the key (probably!) to the whole mystery is missing – through the device of a few pages being ripped out of John's mother's journal – did I mention that there are journals? Well of course there are. This is the Quincunx. However the Quincunx also appears in the plot as a lock behind which is kept a key document which will perhaps unlock justice. This is some of the most fiendish plotting ever devised.

The Afterword is a real tease, especially the first time you get to it. You think everything has just been explained in execution of that contract, at least, unless you've been reading very closely indeed, are an expert in the field or just of a particularly suspicious turn of mind... I suppose things are different nowadays but when I first read the book, which would've been not all that long after it was published, probably in the early nineties, there were no websites throwing out hints, everything I knew about the book was contained within its covers and, as is my wont, I began at the beginning and thus didn't get to the Afterword until I'd finished the novel. So, having just completed it, although still somewhat puzzled by the final sentence, I read what Mr Palliser had to say. And he seemed to be laughing at me because quite frankly I hadn't noticed most of the things he was talking about. Well, OK, I'd spotted some, and I knew that this wasn't a real Victorian novel written while that Queen was on the throne, but one published at a time when another was still brutalising us all, and I was a confirmed Dickens fan so I'd spotted a lot of those allusions but even so... Talking about that final sentence, Palliser alludes to difficulties faced by his Swedish translator who'd informed him that in that language there are different words for maternal and paternal grandfathers.

There's an excellent site discussing the book here – it was originally in French but there's a very well-translated English section. There are other sites around the Web as well but, if you're reading the book for the first time, my advice would be not to pay them too much heed. And if you're taken in then don't worry, you're not the first and even in these days of instant information you won't be the last and you'll have such fun being fooled.

As for me, well I've still got around 150 pages to go before I complete my third reading, I'm seeing so many things I missed on previous perusals, of course, but this is a book that reveals itself gradually. However I'd like to conclude by stressing once again that this is one of the most immensely enjoyable novels I've ever read, whether you engage with the author's teasing little games (well, they're quite big games, really...) or whether you take it completely at face value.
















Sunday, 3 August 2008

Written in granite: Nevertheless

Eclection was a lamentably short-lived affair. Just one album, a few singles drawn from it (with just one non-LP 'b' side) and one single recorded after it with a substantially different sound and line-up. The line-up itself was an odd one: although they're often thought of as a "British folk-rock band" this is inaccurate even in purely factual terms given that only the drummer, Gerry Conway, was British. Two of the original band were Australians, singer Kerrilee Male and bassist Trevor Lucas. Then the two main songwriters were a Canadian called Michael Rosen and a Norwegian son of a Russian prince called Georg Hultgreen. Exotic enough for you? Conway and Lucas later appeared in Sandy Denny's post-Fairport Convention band Fotheringay and indeed both later ended up in Fairport for Rising For The Moon, by which time confusingly Fairport actually had more original Fotheringay members (three) than Fairport ones. Lucas was also married to the divine Ms Denny.

The important thing, though, is that the one LP Eclection did make is a thing of extraordinary beauty. It dates from 1968, which puts it on the "before" side of the line in the sand drawn by Fairport's epochal Liege & Lief. As a result it is very much in thrall to American folk-rock, which had had the idea of setting folkier ideas and melodies to a beat a while earlier and by this time was indulging in all sorts of experimentation with the form. So anyone hearing the Eclection album is probably going to start by making comparisons with West Coast combos using male-female vocal harmonies, such as the Mamas and Papas, the Jefferson Airplane, etc. And those comparisons are certainly valid. However there's far more to it than that: personally I've always felt that while the Ms&Ps made fantastic singles, their albums tended to be padded out with filler, standards and the like. The Eclection album features one of my all-time favourite singles, Nevertheless, a song of soaring beauty, wonderful interwoven vocal lines and harmonies and a beautiful string arrangement. It still sends shivers up and down my spine. But the whole album is very strong and musically it's very adventurous. Interestingly, it seems that the idea for the strings – which are one of the elements that lift the album out of the ordinary, came because the band were managed by Ossie Byrne, another Australian whose more famous charges included everyone's favourite Antipodean Mancunians, the Bee Gees, whose own early albums are packed by baroque stylings of this kind. Apparently one of the reasons for Male's departure from the band was that she felt her vocals were underused – and she certainly had a point; she's got a fantastic voice and yet a lot of the time it's only used as a supporting instrument or for harmonies. Admittedly some of these harmonies are among the most spine-tingling moments on the record, particularly on the opening pairing of In Her Mind and the aforementioned Nevertheless, one of the most perfect openings to any album I can think of.

The album came out on Elektra and it's also possible that this may have contributed to its lack of impact, given that Elektra was always a very US-based affair, their only other major UK signing being the Incredible String Band who, whatever you say about them, were definitely very, very British indeed. Joe Boyd's fascinating memoir White Bicycles gives an account of Elektra's UK operation around this time.

The album has been reissued on CD by the American Collector's Choice label and is fairly easy to get hold of. The non-LP 'b' side Mark Time was included on a compilation of rare tracks from Elektra singles called, imaginatively, Great Lost Elektra Singles (good to see their marketing department working so hard...) and one side of the post-album single, a cover of Kaleidoscope's Please (Mark Two) – that's the American Kaleidoscope, not the British psychedelic group who later evolved into the wonderful Fairfield Parlour – was on the Forever Changing boxed set of Elektra recordings, but is rather disappointing, bearing little relation to earlier glories. That boxed set also quite rightly includes Nevertheless which I think I'm going to listen to once more now, it really is utterly gorgeous...


Sunday, 27 July 2008

Written in granite: Swan’s Way

Some of you will be wondering how I've managed to get through more than four months of Written In Granite without a piece on The Wild Swans. The truth is that I felt that I'd said my pieces in the sleevenotes I wrote for Renascent Records' magnificent Incandescent double CD set collecting material from the original band's Zoo single, BBC sessions, etc. and for Korova's Magnitude set, comprising the two albums recorded by the Mark II band for Sire in the mid to late 1980s. Pretty much anyone out there who's been paying attention ought already to be aware that their one single for Zoo Records, 1982's The Revolutionary Spirit/God Forbid 12", is my favourite single of all time, and what I think of staggering pieces such as No Bleeding or Flowers Of England (hint: I rather like them).

However last week saw the uploading of a new Wild Swans song called English Electric Lightning to the band's MySpace site. This is an early demo version recorded in Wales back in June and I think it's fair to say that this is the first major work from the new Mark III band. Some of the earlier demos posted have been very fine indeed, of course, but the thing about this band was always that the shorter, sharper, simpler songs made far more sense when you heard intermingled with the epics, and Lightning is the first new WS epic for a very, very long time. Wild Swans leader (or should that be "Leda"?) Paul Simpson is working on a concept album to be entitled The Coldest Winter For A Hundred Years, and even at this early juncture this song sounds like a centrepiece, something worthy of having a concept album built around it. Now admittedly I probably can't offer an entirely unbiased view: I'm a known Swan fan and associate; aside from my involvement in the re-releasing of the band's back catalogue over the last 5-6 years, I played on Simpson's unreleased solo album The Wickedest Man In The World a few years ago (a possible subject for a future Written In Granite piece), together with former WS keyboard player Ged Quinn who is now a very well-known painter and the artist responsible for the landscape which adorns the top of this very page - the original hangs in my living room. Paul and Ged are both very good friends of mine and I speak to them regularly so yes, I suppose I do have to declare an interest here. But having got that out of the way make no mistake about it: English Electric Lightning is utterly thrilling – and you don't have to take my word for it, go and visit that MySpace page and judge for yourselves. As I say, this is an early version and the arrangement isn't final but already there are some of those trademark moments when the whole sound just takes wing and soars towards the sun. Limited copies of the original 12" Zoo single had a painting of Icarus and that was no coincidence. If I remember my Ovid rightly, Daedalus urges his son neither to fly too low for fear of the froth from the waves making his wings too heavy and dragging him down nor to fly too high, lest the sun melt the wax which held the wings together. Well, the Wild Swans failed to avoid either fate, they flew both too high and too low, but what a flight it was, for the short time it lasted. Even the second time around, when they returned with new corporate wings held together by cement made – to quote Paul slightly out of context – from "cocaine and crushed teenagers", the results were still far better than might've been expected and the Bringing Home The Ashes LP was actually a succès d'estime on US College Radio - deservedly so; it perhaps does lack the epic reach of some of the earlier material but it still has some gorgeous songs and a lyrical cogency some years ahead of its time.

If the music manages to set the propellers spinning for take-off then lyrically Lightning is an even finer piece of work. It opens with Paul surveying the kingdom (Britain today) and finding, to his disgust, that all is quiet on the (north-)western front, although "darkness binds my way". Next we come to the first in a sequence of references to some of this country's most emblematic (what the French call "identitaire", although we don't really have an equivalent adjective in English) literature: "voyagers, pilgrims, rebel angels..." – I think we can assume that the Pilgrims are on a Progress and that the rebel angels are looking for a Mislaid Eden (a later reference confirms that these are indeed "Milton's angels resurrected"). This first verse also name-checks Shakespeare's Sonnets and ends with a wonderful line about "William Blake in Cash Converters". The chorus comprises a series of allusions falling broadly into two categories: matters martial (Airfix Spitfires, Douglas Bader, Skinheads, Drake defeating the Spanish Armada, knights in armour, Trident submarines, Thatcher sinking the Belgrano), and the country's animal and tribal fauna, (skinheads, urban foxes, mods and rockers, bulldogs), there's also a link back to Paul's own hometown through an allusion to Meccano, which was invented by Frank Hornby, a Liverpudlian. Although a great British invention, since 1980 Meccano has only been manufactured in France and in China, further reinforcing the point being made. Then the second chorus continues the theme with some choice rhymes and yet more images both bellicose and tribal:

"Sun reporters, New World Order

Johnny Rotten, Geoffrey Chaucer

Bargain Booze and Robert Wyatt

Happy slappers, Toxteth riots"

And, with the reference to Toxteth, we're back in Liverpool again, it's 3 a.m. and Paul's having one of his long dark nights of the soul. Like Knut (or, if you prefer, Canute), he can't stem the tide alone. It's a striking piece, and of course the music ebbs and flows like the tide that can't be held back. If we now go back and listen to Liquid Mercury, another song demoed in Wales earlier this year, in the light of Lightning (so to speak) it makes so much more sense, talking as it does about the poisoning of the River Mersey.

There's always a danger in attempting to return to the scene of past triumphs, of course, but because the Wild Swans were such a fleeting formation in the firmament both the first and the second times around, there is still so much left to say and do and I, for one, can't wait to hear more of the material for Coldest Winter. Perhaps this time they'll manage to steer that middle course which Daedalus (whose own name was famously borrowed by James Joyce for the surname of the [Stephen] Hero of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and the Telemachus figure in Ulysses) commends to his son in the Greek myth. Although somehow I doubt it, as that's probably not in the nature of the bird.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Written in granite: Beyond

The other day I came across a trailer for a forthcoming documentary about Mark Stewart and also the promotional video for The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil. I had no recollection of seeing this video at the time, although obviously I've known and loved the single for very nearly 30 years. It struck me as astonishing that there was a time, less than three decades ago, when record companies not only signed bands this radical but gave them the resources to make promotional videos to what for the time were pretty damned high standards. There's even another promo for the even less commercial album track The Boys From Brazil. Obviously Beyond Good and Evil is an extraordinary record, with that wonderful opening image of "my little girl was born on a ray of sound..." It wasn't actually on the Pop Group's debut album Y, which made the single sound commercial by comparison, although it has been added to CD reissues. Their second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? (oh they just got snappier as they went along...), is also fantastic, taut and as funky as you like. But other people will tell you about these records. Whenever I hear the screeching fade-in of Beyond Good And Evil or the different screeching at the beginning of We Are All Prostitutes (one of the more unlikely t-shirt slogans to emerge from that period but far better than "Frankie Says..." I've always felt) I'm reminded of my friend Dixon who died tragically just a few years ago.

Dixon ran a Pop Group website, which is still available in his memory, from his home in Austin, Texas and it gradually grew into something of an obsession with him. I met him a couple of times when he came over Pop Group hunting to the UK and stayed at our place. My abiding memories are of the pair of us chomping on cigars over bottles of wine as we rootled through my record collection... "have you got...?" And I'd grin... "Oh yes, but have you heard...?" The drunker we got, the more brightly his eyes would shine. The last time I saw him was at the beginning of October 2001. He'd flown over a few days previously with his girlfriend, not to be deterred from his request by anything, not even all-out terrorist attack on his country. Other Americans were staying at home, but if there were flights then he was going to be on one. The pair of them spent a couple of days with us and then they were due to go to Bristol to search for more PG history. We were driving to Liverpool, for the start of an adventure of our own, so we dropped the pair of them in St Paul's and away they walked, after a hug, and disappeared into a house there. And that was the last time I saw Dixon. We e-mailed one another, of course, we exchanged Christmas cards, he was always full of enthusiasm, encouraging me in various projects and always breathlessly relaying his own news. Then suddenly there was silence. This wasn't totally unusual; occasionally a few months would go by without anything. But it continued. Then one year we got no Christmas card back and that wasn't normal at all. I checked his website and was confronted with a picture of the man and the words RIP. He'd been killed in a freak accident a few months previously. It was a strange feeling; I'd only met him twice, I think, although we'd been exchanging e-mails for perhaps 5-6 years. But I felt a real sense of loss. An e-mail address was given on the site and it turned out to be that of a friend of his so I e-mailed him and explained. It was weird to find out several months after the event and I didn't want to make his girlfriend go through the whole thing again so I sounded his friend out as to whether I should e-mail her... We left it that he'd tell her diplomatically and she could then contact me if she wanted to. She did and was very gracious.

The whole thing is and was strange. Our friendship was perhaps a virtual one but it wasn't the less of a friendship for that. I can never hear any of The Pop Group's records without remembering him. And it's to his credit that they're such great records. And now there's this documentary due out soon and I can't help thinking how excited he'd've been.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Written in granite: Within The Usual Frame

Well, with all the hoo-ha over the film version of the Mamma Mia musical and the allusion to Waterloo in my own Greasepaint and grapeshot
(which has, admittedly, attracted slightly less attention), I thought this might be a good time to look at ABBA from a lyrical perspective. Most musicians of my acquaintance adore ABBA – it's hard not to: they represent a perfection in the art of arrangement and recording of a kind found only patchily in most artists' careers, a Pet Sounds, a Forever Changes and yet they sustained it over a decade producing what is probably the greatest single body of singles in popular music history, particularly if you use a few selective memory techniques and conveniently overlook the very occasional mawkish aberration such as I Have A Dream. My favourite "greatest hits" compilation of all time, The Singles: The First Ten Years (the only ten years, actually, but we should be thankful for what we got) features just one dud, I Have A Dream, but
if you replace it with Angeleyes, the double "A" side of Voulez-Vous then you have a double album of unbelievable quality. And, unlike most greatest hits packages which, even (or indeed especially) when arranged chronologically tend to be terribly front-loaded, on this one side four of the original double LP is possibly the strongest... Or if not then it's certainly a very close second (admittedly side two is phenomenally strong as it has the singles from Arrival AND The Album). Another personal thing is that ABBA are one of the few groups to have been important to me throughout my life. On my 11th birthday I received a mono cassette player (the latest technology at the time) and shortly afterwards I acquired the ABBA album and then, in 1976 on release, Arrival. In spite of punk I bought The Album in 1977 and Voulez-Vous sat next to my A Certain Ratio records as the 1970s segued seemingly seamlessly into the 1980s (yes, well, that didn't work out too well, did it?) A few years ago I splashed out on the Complete Studio Recordings boxed set of 9 audio CDs (8 expanded albums plus one set of rarities) and two DVDs, and what an investment that's been.

However I'm getting distracted. As I think I mentioned in the G&G piece, people are often rather dismissive of ABBA's lyrics. Now admittedly some of them are truly awful, especially early on; it's clear that English is not the lyricist's mother tongue. Even so, some of the oddness is rather appealing – who else would release songs called What About Livingstone?, Sitting In The Palmtree and, pushing the jungle theme a little further, King Kong Song on a single album (Waterloo)? But gradually they began to get the hang of writing lyrics in English and as they did the idiosyncrasies began to become a trademark. There's that famous "...when I called you last night from Glasgow" in Super Trouper, a lyric of some subtlety (the title comes from a kind of spotlight, I believe). Even so, it came as quite a shock when I first heard The Day Before You Came in 1982. Let's make no bones about this: it's one of the finest lyrics in all popular music, it craps all over 99.9% of everything written by native English speakers. Of course, it wasn't a huge hit; it's an incredibly brave record for a major artist to make in so many ways. There's the 14/8 time signature for a start, the fact that it has no chorus, is six minutes long...

Whereas most of the earlier more successful (non-jungle) lyrics tended to show at least some autobiographical content (it's generally accepted that The Winner Takes It All deals broadly with the intra-band divorces, Super Trouper is about life on the road), TDBYC is about a girl who works in an office. This is the extraordinary thing about it, the way that it looks as the minutiae of her everyday life. The only thing which know is that the day being described is "the day before you came". Like many ABBA songs, the English is slightly odd, mixing in occasional Americanisms even though it's very European... I think that this was the first time that I'd ever encountered the expression "food to go". Actually the line is: "I must have opened my front door at eight o'clock or so/And stopped along the way to buy some Chinese food to go", which suggests people in Sweden are so well-off that every single home has a Chinese takeaway in the hall and thus, after a hard day at work, you can unlock your front door and pick up a takeaway on your way through to the dining room. Now that's what I call convenience food. However it is this level of detail that gives the song it's monumental emotional content, although the staggering simplicity of its construction shouldn't be overlooked either. We encounter the young lady in question leaving her house "at eight, because I always do", we learn that she "must have lit my seventh cigarette at half-past two", that at the time she didn't even notice that there was anything missing in her life. The rest of the afternoon is so humdrum that... well, it would appear that fag no. 7 was the high point because next thing we no it's five and she's off to catch a train home again, and that newspapers are printed twice a day (she reads the morning paper travelling to work, the evening paper going home), something which used to happen at the time only with local newspapers in England, as far as I can recall, then she gets home exactly 12 hours after leaving, picks up her Chinese takeaway in the hall and plonks herself down to eat it in front of the telly: "there's no, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn't see". She then clearly allows her food to digest for around an hour before heading up the wooden hill at quarter past ten, where she sits and reads for a while, again we're given the detail: "the latest one by Marilyn French or something in that style" – I must confess that I didn't even know Ms French had written anything other than The Women's Room, which caused an awful fuss and so this is telling us something more about our character and doing so with a wonderful lightness of touch: French is – or certainly was at the time – synonymous with feminism. The ending of the song is beautifully done: it resists any twist or big payoff and remains as prosaic and down-to-earth as the preceding five minutes or so: "and turning out the light, I must've yawned and cuddled up for yet another night/and rattling on the roof I must've heard the sound of rain/The day before you came".

There are so few lyrics like this: the other truly great one of this kind, dealing in the detail, the sheer minutiae of a character's everyday life, that springs to my mind is Dory Previn's astounding The Lady With The Braid. In fact the two songs are close relations and I've often wondered whether perhaps Björn, who I assume wrote the lyric, was familiar with that song. Then there's Good Year For The Roses, most famously performed by that greatest of all purveyors of the heartache of the humdrum George Jones, which has a character who can't help thinking about trivial stuff while his world is falling apart ("the lawn could stand another mowing..." genius). Either way The Day Before You Came is one of my very favourite songs, with one of my very favourite lyrics and the fact that it was written by someone whose mother tongue is not even English should chasten us all. I keep promising myself that one day I'll write my own song full of commonplace detail, although it turns out that it's a hell of a lot harder than you'd think... You need some kind of idea to hang it on and it has to be the right idea. When I get the idea hopefully I'll be able to pull it off without simply indulging in plagiarism... So if I ever announce that I've written a song called A Couple Of Days After You Went you'll know I gave up and just stole... Although at least I'll've been stealing from the best.







Sunday, 6 July 2008

Written in granite: Matchless

Last week I mentioned Christopher Fowler's "Bryant & May" series in passing and this week I've read the sixth in the series which has just been published in hardback. When Mr Fowler (who, for some reason, I always think ought to be known as "Kit" – even though I think the last time I came across a person called Christopher and known as Kit was in a Dickens novel, but somehow I feel that the person who writes these novels ought to be a "Kit". I imagine this might come as some surprise to Chris, as he's probably known in reality) embarked upon this series a few years back - 2003, I think – he announced that he'd be doing six of them and that'd be the lot. However he has shown some signs that he might be prepared to relent. I do hope so. He did, perhaps deliberately given that he did only plan half a dozen of these books, commit the classic series novelist's mistake: Agatha Christie admitted that had she realised that the Hercule Poirot books would merit even a second or third book, let alone thirty or so over a period of forty years, then she certainly wouldn't've made him so old. John Mortimer made precisely the same mistake with Horace Rumpole; if I remember rightly we're told in the first Rumpole book that he's sixty-nine next birthday (or is it sixty-seven? He's past statutory retirement age in any case). That was in 1978 which would make him either ninety-seven or ninety-nine now. So the moral for authors is clear: unless your resolve not to be drawn into a long-running series is absolutely steely then don't make your main character any older than you are, and ideally make him or her a bit younger which will allow you to continue writing past retirement age. Otherwise you'll be stuck doing what Christie, Mortimer and so many others have had to do and simply pretend that your character is somehow ageless a few books in. Of course, if your character is strong enough and becomes well-loved enough then this won't really matter but it seems to irk writers themselves.

However in Kit's (sorry, can't help it) case it's not actually so much of a problem. I don't think he's ever specified the exact ages of either Arthur Bryant or John May and in any case the point about them is that they're old, way past normal police retirement age, in fact they've probably done twice their thirty years (note to Ian Rankin: you didn't think of that, did you?) In the earlier part of the series the point was also that it allowed him to set his novels at least partly in the past. If I remember rightly, the first of them, Full Dark House, is set mostly in wartime London's theatre land, when his two detectives were just embarking upon their careers. This thread has been quietly abandoned to some extent in the later books, although they are always about London past and present and these later books have also developed the supporting cast at the Peculiar Crimes Unit to a much larger extent. In a touch that I feel sure is indebted to the long-running BBC Radio 4 "antidote to panel games" I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, the PCU's offices are located above Mornington Crescent tube station in Camden Town although the unit is forced to move out of these premises at least once in pretty nearly all of the later novels.

The only one of the six novels to be set to any degree at all outside of London is number five, White Corridor, when Bryant and May find themselves marooned in a snowdrift on the edge of Dartmoor but still manage to solve a fiendishly convoluted mystery in London by remote control, with the aid of their trusty cohorts.

I've no idea whether Kit has ever read any of the early French crime fiction I was talking about last week or whether it's more a coincidence or perhaps a coincidence of influences, but the fact remains that in many ways the reason I've been enjoying this series so much is because it does remind me of the Arsène Lupin, Fantômas and Rouletabille books. Now I'm pretty sure that Boris Akunin, the Russian author who is also writing wonderfully entertaining crime novels with outlandish plots and a firm rooting in history (in his case actually set in the late 19th century) has read at least the Fantômas books because, as I think I mentioned last week, his hero is called Erast Fandorin, who I take to be named for Jérôme Fandor in the series by Souvestre and Allain, but in Kit's case it could just be that he comes from a horror background, so he is also heir to the legacy of the Gothic, as were so many of those wonderful French novels. In English-language crime the closest obvious precursor to Bryant & May would be G.K Chesterton's Father Brown series, the locked-room mysteries (indebted to Leroux) of John Dickson Carr, the wonderfully outré plots dreamt up by Edmund Crispin (who, as trivia fans will be aware, was actually Bruce Montgomery, who wrote the music for the Carry On films) for his don detective Gervase Fen and perhaps Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series. However I think it's reasonable to assume that all or most of those would've read at least The Mystery Of The Yellow Room and probably Lupin et al. So Kit is writing these books in a long, distinguished tradition, although it's one that appeared to have become forgotten and at which critics have always turned up their noses. "Oh come on!" they whine, "the plots are absurd!" Since when has that been a bad thing? Dickens didn't exactly go in for realism plot-wise, did he? Nor did Shakespeare, come to that. Not everything needs to be totally true-to-life, indeed the world and literature would be much duller places if all fiction were "literary" (a twentieth century invention, in any case). Anyway, it is nice to see good writers giving us stories of this kind once again and they also have a lot to offer. This genre tends to draw a great deal on the back alleys of history rather than the main thoroughfares. The Victoria Vanishes, for instance, has a great deal to do with the history of London's public houses, and this is something that needs preserving given that it's reasonable to assume that the smoking ban will kill off a very large number of them over the next few years and will render those that survive unrecognisable. Whether you think that's a good thing or a bad one (and I know which side I'm on) I don't think there's much doubt that this is the case.

The B&M books also do a good job of picking up on the present as well as the past. Book four, Ten-Second Staircase, is one of the finest in the series, featuring a murderer who goes gallivanting around London dressed as a Highwayman, killing would-be or minor celebrities. Book three, Seventy-Seven Clocks, the last one to have part of the plot actually set in the past (the early 1970s), deals with banking, amongst other things. The second in the series, The Water Room, deals with local politics and the gentrification of one area of London after another, and also has some wonderful stuff set underneath London. Each of the novels homes in on a certain piece of London's own mythology, an endless source of fascination for writers for the whole history of the novel and beyond.

I remember picking up Full Dark House in a bookshop when it was first published in hardback and there was something about its cover that spoke to me, I picked it up and it just sounded like my kind of thing. I've bought each of the sequels immediately upon publication and devoured them very quickly, gleaning immense entertainment from them. I do hope that Kit does relent and do some more – he has, after all, followed in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by alluding to other cases from B&M's long, long past and, as we know that their careers stretched over at least 60 or so years, there'd be nothing to stop him filling him some of the numerous gaps. The books are just enormous fun, as well as being packed with some wonderfully arcane stuff. Having finished the sixth and, at least for now, last of them I rather think I might treat myself to reading the whole series through again from the beginning at some point quite soon. In any case, The Victoria Vanishes is out now in hardback and the other five are, I think, all now published in paperback. I should probably whet your appetites by saying that the title of the last book comes from a pub outside which a tipsy Bryant sees a murder victim moments before her demise but which is gone – the pub, not the victim – next morning when he returns, although in the end that's not the real mystery at issue).

Kit, sorry, Christopher Fowler's website can be found here and all the books are available... well, in bookshops, obviously.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Written in granite: Le monstre!

I've got a theory about crime fiction. If we assume, for the sake of argument only, that the genre as such can trace its roots back to Edgar Allen Poe's three stories about C. Auguste Dupin, then in some ways each of those three stories was taken as the model for the development of the genre in the first three countries to adopt it with real vim. The genre's first superstar, who still towers over it a century or so on, was created by a Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle and went by the name of Sherlock Holmes. You may have heard of him. He is based on the deduction and logic used in the final Dupin story, The Purloined Letter – the idea that the best place to hide something is in full view is so Holmesian it's almost a shock to find out that it isn't. You can almost imagine it alongside "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", "once you have eliminated the impossible", etc. And British crime writing developed from there. America, on the other hand, went down the more realistic road signposted by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, a story based upon an actual murder mystery which had shocked New York, except that Poe transposed it to Paris.

And then there's French crime fiction. If the Americans saw Marie R and thought "hey, we recognise that story from real life! This is real, I know those mean streets, now if we could only find a man who is not himself mean..." and hey presto, Philip Marlow (OK, not hey presto, it took the best part of a century but you get my drift) and if the British admired the cool, dispassionate reasoning, ability to see past red herrings and the sheer cleverness at work in Letter then the French took one look at The Murders In The Rue Morgue and went: "woooooahhhhhhhhh! An enormous ape? Non, mais c'est dingue...Wow! What, really? An enormous APE is the murderer? No, no, no, we don't want psychological insight, we don't want to know about the traumas that led to the murders, we want more murders committed as grotesquely as possible! Oh but can someone check the locks on the cages at our zoos, please?" And who's to say they were wrong. Not me, for one.

So, while in English Sherlock Holmes ruled the consulting rooms for much of the early twentieth century, in France things were very different. And absolutely wonderful. Early 20th century French crime is among my favourite genres. In some ways it's not really crime, it's... I don't know, really, it mixes so many different things together. It most certainly picks up on the 19th century "penny dreadful" or "sensation stories" or whatever you care to call them, but it also picks up on Dumas' trick of turning history into thrilling, swashbuckling plots, incorporating plenty of Gothic elements, the interest in spiritualism of the day... Hell, it's got so many elements it can be almost bewildering, however it's always about telling an exciting story at a pace which never lets up and keeps you turning the page.

There are a number of great exponents. Outside France Gaston Leroux is known almost exclusively for The Phantom Of The Opera. Except that nobody actually knows his book, only the film, musical, etc. However Leroux also created the first, and very probably the best locked-room mystery, usually translated as The Mystery Of The Yellow Room. It is the first novel featuring his young reporter hero Rouletabille and it is a wonderful novel. Better still there are a number of translations including a fairly recent one. I must confess I've only ever read it in French so I can't comment on the quality of the translations but there's got to be at least one good one out there, I'm sure. Then there's a second Rouletabille also available in English called The Perfume Of The Lady In Black, which I read many years ago and enjoyed enormously. Then there were a number more, taking Rouletabille to Russia, amongst other places.

We should also mention the Fantômas series. It's interesting that a lot of these French books are interested in the villain as much as, if not more than the heroes. The eponymous character is an almost supernatural monster (he is referred to frequently as a monster), the first book, Fantômas, starts with him about to go to the guillotine for murder and having someone else executed in his place and then ramps the thrills up from there. The heroes are the wily old policeman Juve and another young reporter Jérôme Fandor. I don't think that it's any coincidence that Boris Akunin chose to give his hero the name Erast Fandorin in the really rather wonderful series of books set in late 19th century Russia currently being published in translation. Unusually the Fantômas books were written by two men, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.

However my own personal favourite is the Arsène Lupin series by Maurice Leblanc. As with so many great things, it started off as something else, pastiche, really, and came alive in its creator's hands. Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung's Raffles series had been a huge hit, setting up the crime anti-hero who is still a hero. Leblanc decided to have a go at creating a French equivalent and Lupin was born. There's no attempt to hide the pastiche, so much so that at the end of the first volume of short stories, Arsène Lupin, gentleman cambrioleur, a character whose name had to be cleverly inverted so that nobody would recognise it on legal grounds makes his appearance, arriving just too late to lock horns with Lupin. In the second book in the series the two men do meet and do battle. It's cunningly entitled Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès. The early stories are great fun, but with the next book Leblanc found he had something quite different coming into being. From this point on Lupin focuses far less on crime, or at least on committing it himself, except incidentally, and starts meddling with French and European history. By 814, one of the finest novels in the sequence, he's managing to get Alsace and Lorraine (then in German hands) restored to France by the Kaiser even while he's locked up in the Santé prison in Paris. Oh and if I remember rightly he's also running the Paris police force (echoing the real story of Vidocq, the criminal turned police chief upon which Balzac had based Vautrin in several of his Comédie Humaine novels). There aren't any mean streets here and I don't think many people would see this as a reflection of real life. What it is, though, is the most tremendous fun. And it also manages to achieve something more, it takes on a kind of grandeur, the sheer scale of it. And a real poetry, a sense of past and present combining... The first book of Lupin stories is currently available in the Penguin Classics series. I do hope they'll continue and publish more of the series, especially the super sequence of The Hollow Needle, 814, The Crystal Stopper and The Confessions of Arsène Lupin. Again, I've not read the translations, and I suppose there probably is something peculiarly French about this whole genre... But then again perhaps not, because I can detect echoes of it in modern authors from various countries. I've already mentioned Boris Akunin's excellent Erast Fandorin series which began with The Winter Queen and the first half a dozen or so of which are now available in English (and here I have only read the translations as I don't speak Russian, unfortunately) and are highly recommended. But, closer to home, there are also things such as our very own Christopher Fowler's wonderful Bryant and May series, the sixth (and apparently final, although I do hope not) volume of which, The Victoria Vanishes, is due out tomorrow and of which I shall be doing my best to get a copy immediately as I've absolutely loved the previous five. Interestingly Fowler comes from a horror background, and there's something more than a little Gothic about the plots of these stories. However they remind me more than anything of the improbabilities and sheer imagination of Fantômas, Lupin and Rouletabille. More please!

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