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Saturday, 29 March 2008

Written in granite: Perhaps

As in the human body, there are a number of Arteries. There's the one nobody took any notice of at all, the not-quite-post-punk outfit which made a series of increasingly odd singles such as Mother Moon and Cars In Motion, then there's the one some people did notice, because they recorded the astonishing Into The Garden (worthy of an entry in its own right) for John Peel and then released it on a single and again on the dazzling Oceans mini-LP. Next thing we knew it was basically just Mark Gouldethorpe (the aorta?) and a bloke on piano and they'd come over all Brecht/Weill, covering The Alabama Song (the 'b' side of which was a thrilling live version of Garden re-titled The Death Of Peter X, just to stop anyone buying it – if memory serves it was recorded in Italy), after that came the proto-Goth Mish-Mash of The Second Coming (a good decade before the Stone Roses) featuring a cover of Leonard Cohen's Diamonds In The Mine, and then there was a live album called Number 4 which I confess I've never heard. Of all these the most neglected is probably the Brechtian phase. Its output consists of the aforementioned Alabama Song single, on 7" and 12" and one LP, One Afternoon In A Hot Air Balloon. Having adored Oceans for the sheer wonder of the lyrics and its mystery I bought a copy. I'd love to say I got it instantly but I didn't. I really liked Song For Lena and the last two tracks, Louise and It's Good To Be Alone but I found the rest of it strangely unremarkable. I was so right that I was totally wrong. To my credit, though, I stuck with it and gradually, although it took the best part of a decade, it became one of my favourite LPs.

I don't know much about the recording of OAIAHAB, it sounds like two blokes in a studio, one of them playing the instruments and one singing. In places it's a bit out of time (musically, I mean, in the other sense it's totally out of time). But it's got... Well, for a start, those lyrics. A number of the songs here are reworked versions of much earlier Artery songs, Unbalanced was on one of the early singles and there are early demos of others such as the title track, Louise and Potential Silence. But Gouldethorpe had such an identifiable lyrical style, right from the start, that the material gels beautifully. Like some of the other people we've looked at in this series, he has the ability to look at fairly standard subjects askew and knows that there is nothing stranger than the everyday world. As for the sound of One Afternoon... Well, that's odd too, in some ways it sounds like cabaret. But not so much Brechtian, Berlin-tinged Cabaret (old chum) as chicken-in-a-basket, one-bloke-plus-synth-with-built-in-drum-machine-plays-the-hits cabaret. It reminds me of nothing so much as a live Domenico Modugno album I remember hearing many years ago. It was from fairly late in his career and it sounded as though he was fronting a pick-up band who he'd met an hour or so previously. It was so cheesy you felt like dipping bread-sticks into it. And yet the quality of the songs and the delivery shone through and transcended everything else, so that it became fascinating. The band played every song in exactly the same way, presumably they'd not actually rehearsed anything else. Well, One Afternoon has something of that too, and a very wonderful thing it is too.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Written in granite: Some Good Advice

I don't understand how Bill Fay managed to slip below my radar and stay out of sight for so many years. All I can think of is that all the people who usually suggested obscure records from the late sixties and early seventies that I'd be bound to like must've assumed that I'd already be familiar with his work given that it was so clearly exactly the kind of thing I'd be bound to adore. But no, it was only a few years ago when Wilco brought his name into the global conversation (thank you Wilco) that I managed to get hold of MP3s of the two albums. You couldn't buy them at that point because the company who'd released the twofer CD reissue had gone bust, making it even more expensive to buy than the original vinyl LPs. I did have a copy of the rather wonderful Deram compilation box Legend Of A Mind, which also included a number of other delights (and, er, some fairly stodgy stuff as well) and that had Screams In The Ears, the 'b' side of his first single. So for a while I made do with these MP3s until eventually the two albums were properly reissued. These came with stickers prominently displaying a quote from Uncut magazine saying that Bill was "The missing link between Nick Drake, Ray Davies and Bob Dylan". Well, I suppose a sticker reading "A bit like an English David Ackles!" probably wouldn't've sold many records. We'll come to Ackles at some point, but Fay reminds me of his American contemporary in many ways. I wonder if they were aware of one another's work? However where Ackles' provenance is simply odd (it sounds as though he's blending country, folk, musical theatre and the European songwriting tradition), Fay is not just firmly English but firmly southern English but isn't whimsical in the Cambridge/Canterbury way (nothing wrong with a bit of that, but surely the North doesn't have a total monopoly on England's supply of lyrical grit? Oh, perhaps it does...) or a cheeky Cockney chappie. Of the three references made on that sticker Ray Davies is the closest. Fay also has a whiff of the music hall about him.

When Wilco started to drop Fay's name into conversation, and Jeff Tweedy played Be Not So Fearful in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary film, MOJO magazine ran a piece wondering what had happened to Fay, speculating that when he left the music business after his second album, Time Of The Last Persecution perhaps this was because it documented a crisis of faith leading to madness and depression. Indeed perhaps, like Drake, he'd left not just the music business but the land of the living... Hilariously the next issue printed a letter from Fay to the effect that although he thanked MOJO for its concern he was fine and that he hadn't left the music business, it'd left him because nobody was buying his records. Personally, although Persecution is an absolutely fantastic album, it's the eponymous debut that caught my imagination, along with the single released a year or so previously. Although the aforementioned 'b' side, Screams, was probably more commercially viable at the time, being a kind of existentialist foreshadowing of You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties to a rock backing, the actual 'a' side, Some Good Advice, is a wonderfully eccentric and very beautiful song, kicking off with the perfectly sensible hint that "If you want to build a shed, go ahead and build a shed". Well, you can't argue with that. But it also warns "don't pick your nose or your ears will grow" - now he tells us! The first album is a lushly orchestrated affair with thirteen short songs. Vignettes is probably the right word. They sometimes sound as though they're from an earlier age, Sing Us One Of Your Songs May and Gentle Willie, these are songs that take then topical themes (er... war, again, a lot of it about at the time, as at most times) but come at them from very odd angles indeed – something that can also be said of Ray Davies. The Room starts off a bit like Where Do You Go To My Lovely? (going to Paris, an heiress) but then charts a descent into drug hell and perhaps rather a lot more. Fay's songs aren't vague, though, it's just that the economy of the writing is stunning. Like Pere Calders' short stories, he manages to suggest so much with so little, to find the extraordinary in the commonplace and vice versa, a very difficult trick to pull off in a two-minute song, and one Fay manages with consummate ease over and over again. There are so many lyrics that begin intriguingly enough but then the writer seems to think "oh hell, we must be up to 2 minutes 30, I've only got another 30 seconds left if this is to be a single!" so the rest is garbled. As a fan of narrative lyrics this often annoys me. Although there are times when it can be hard to fit the story you want to tell into few enough words to condense into something that can be sung before outstaying its welcome.

Fay did make one more album, with The Bill Fay Group, in the late seventies, finally released a few years ago as Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and there was also a compilation CD of tracks from 1966-70 called From The Bottom Of An Old Grandfather Clock, some of these tracks sound like alternate takes from the first album but without the orchestral settings, although the sleeve-notes claim that they're demos. You have to keep reminding yourself that this was a time when major labels would fund a whole album of songs like this with full orchestral backing and would then allow the artist to make a second album even when the first failed to sell.

If Dory Previn was – to paraphrase (translation: misquote) Virginia Woolf on Middlemarch – writing for grown-ups, then there's something adult in Fay's songs too, even though they can sound almost childlike in places, rather like fables. Of course, the test of any good fable (Aesop, La Fontaine, etc.) is that while you can tell it to a child it will remain with the adult. Given that it took Fay's records 30 years to achieve even a modicum of recognition (and, like Ackles, nothing like what they deserve) it seems safe to align him more with the tortoise than with the hare. But we all know who won in the end, don't we?




Saturday, 22 March 2008

Written in granite: Dory Previn [1] - On My Way To Where

Dory Previn is an artist of such importance here at The Granite Shore that we're going to be looking at each of her albums individually and we may also look at other aspects of her work. I first came across her work through by far her best-known LP, Mythical Kings And Iguanas, at a girlfriend's. At the time people like myself were frequently accused of having male-centric record collections, although I generally defended myself with the fact that although I might have fewer albums by female solo artists than males, I still had several times more records by female artists than most of my accusers. I'd then take stick (not in a good way) when it emerged that one of the female artists whose work I owned was Dolly Parton. Country music in general was not cool at this juncture (the early 1980s). People used to assume I was engaged in that emerging art-form, irony, when they discovered half a dozen or so Johnny Cash albums. Gram Parsons was only just about barely acceptable, though mainly because nobody had heard of him and you could point out that he'd been in The Byrds (who were on their way to becoming extremely hip, although their haircuts made comebacks before their music, of course). I was accused of liking Dolly "for two reasons" and was left to infer that I would not be believed if I claimed that these were her extraordinary songs and her voice. But then these were polarised times. Having said that, although I did own more records by female artists than said girlfriend, there was always room for plenty more and I am indebted to her, and her sister, for introducing me to the work of Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday but most of all to Dory Previn. By Christmas that year she and her sister still only had Kings but I owned at least four of Dory's albums and as soon as I could find the rest I had them all.

Last time we looked at another late starter, John Cowper Powys, who was around 43 when Wood And Stone, his first novel, was published. Similarly, Dory Previn was 41 years old by the time she released her first solo album, On My Way To Where, in 1970. Way too old to compete with the emerging Jonis, Lindas, Caroles whose appeal was not damaged by them being clearly young and attractive. Now don't get me wrong, exactly the same can be said of many a male performer and I'm a huge Joni Mitchell fan, although give me Court And Spark or The Hissing Of Summer Lawns over Ladies Of The Canyon any day. Joni became genuinely exciting when she began to move beyond her own demographic. Dory never seemed to have one. The surname came from the fact that she'd been the work and life partner of conductor, composer and Morecombe and Wise sidekick André Previn, until his head had been turned by Mia Farrow. More about that in a moment. She had recorded one album under her maiden name of Dory Langdon, in the late fifties but, like Lucinda Williams 30 years later, she started her career again a decade on. I shan't go into too much detail about Dory's biography, there's no need as it's documented in almost terrifying detail on the LP. Like so many of the greatest writers, Previn knew what her subjects were and mined them for all they were worth. And they were worth an extraordinary amount. Well, really it's just one subject, with two subdivisions. The subject is the male of the species and the subdivisions are her father and her husband and lovers. There's a wonderfully self-deprecating moment on the later double live set At Carnegie Hall when, after delivering I Ain't His Child (from this album) she introduces the next number, I Dance And Dance And Smile And Smile with: "this next song is about my father which... I guess two in a row tends to constitute a hang-up but there it is".

On My Way To Where opens with Scared To Be Alone, a wonderful example of her ability to take a then-obligatory subject which has dated and become hackneyed since, and to give it a new slant, there are so many songs from this period invoking Marilyn Monroe but there's only one which then brings Jesus Christ into it ("were you jealous of your father? Were you short when you were fully grown? Did you like to walk on water? Were you scared to be alone?") That's then followed by I Ain't His Child, apparently based on fact. It's a desperately terrifying subject dealt with hilariously (I think the title pretty much sums up the plot). Then comes Esther's First Communion, in which Jesus makes his second appearance in three songs. Unlike so many other albums made at this time, and right up until the eighties, this is the work of an adult. This is a theme we'll be looking at in more detail later on, how so little pop and rock music (and particularly the lyrics) was grown-up until the very end of the eighties, but Dory is the exception that proves the rule. After becoming a Bride of Christ, Esther decides "...that if he sees us/we ought to get a look at Jesus/So she began to see the one she'd wed", to her parents' horror when she announces the fact. This leads to the wonderful pay-off that "so instead of seeing Jesus/she began to see a lot of other men". The lyric is perfectly constructed, full of Dory's trademark detail.

Side one ends with something truly chilling, With My Daddy In The Attic. Again, apparently based on fact, as Mr Langdon apparently did board the family up in the attic for a long period. However the song takes on even darker overtones, and the jauntiness of the music makes it one of the few genuinely scary things I've ever heard. That and Helen Reddy's Angie Baby. If Mr L is the star of side one, then it's André and Mia who get star billing on side two with Beware Of Young Girls. Other than actually naming names it couldn't be a lot clearer. Side two is slightly weaker overall, there's a fairly standard end of the sixties song anti-war piece called Veteran's Big Parade (still far subtler than most such offerings, of course)... The other highlight is the wonderfully funny Twenty Mile Zone in which Dory is engaging in a little primal screaming, as you do, to the displeasure of the local constabulary who insist on driving her away... sirens screaming.

As debut albums go it's fully-formed. All Dory's primary concerns are here. It is all about the words though, the music is beautifully done but it's purpose is to act as a vehicle for those words... Daddy In The Attic is the zenith of this, with its ragtime feel and clarinet solo at the end accompanying the "Oh God, she doesn't mean... Does she? Oh God, she might, you know..." last line "...and he'll play his clarinet when I despair". Even forty years on there are few albums with words like this. It's nice to see Dory's name starting to crop up a bit... Back in the mid to late 1980s when I met Nick Currie, better known as Momus, one of the things we had in common, besides a love of Brel and Gainsbourg, was that we were both Dory fans. I don't think I'd ever met another man who'd even heard of her before Nick. I could hear her influence on Nick's own lyrics, of course, and it's no surprise to learn that Jarvis Cocker is also a fan (Jarvis' own debt to Momus is fairly obvious, compare the lyrics to I Spy on Different Class to those of Nick's The Homosexual on Tender Pervert. Notice any similarities? Yup...) Ms Previn is now very nearly 80 and hasn't made a record for more than 30 years. She only made six studio albums and one live double, but her legacy is assured.

We'll be looking at her other albums over the next few weeks, or whenever I get around to it. You can buy On My Way To Where as part of a 2CD set together with the later Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign. Admittedly Mythical Kings And Iguanas probably is the best place to start, and is her masterpiece, but in my book this one comes a fairly close second. She's certainly one of the major influences on my own work and I'm proud of the fact.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Written in granite: Raw Powys

I first came across the name of John Cowper Powys in 1982. The band I was in at the time had just released its first and only single and throughout the early part of the year we played quite a lot of gigs. There was one in Yeovil, I think it was, or possibly Taunton – we played both around that time – at which we were interviewed for a fanzine called Feeding The Fish. A few weeks later I was sent a copy of the issue we were in and it was absolutely fantastic. It was way ahead of its time in that, unlike so many fanzines of the time, it didn't limit itself to covering the author's (or occasionally authors') favourite bands, it covered a broad remit, taking in all sorts of subjects from across the arts. So as well as august words from myself there was also a sizeable article on Powys which fascinated me. I then came across one of the novels mentioned, Maiden Castle, in the library so I took it out and read it. I was still in my teens but was a fairly – though not exceptionally – precocious reader. I'd been through my existentialist phase (lots of Sartre, fair amount of Gide, a bit of Camus), decided I wasn't too keen on the mysticism of Hesse, though I quite liked Thomas Mann, had had quite a thing about Kafka although, in an era when there was a fine band called Josef K, I was unusual in that I enjoyed America the most of the novels. Somehow or other I'd moved on to Dostoevsky by the time I was sixteen but I hadn't really discovered an awful lot of English literature. Oh yes, Zola, I adored Zola and was working my way through translations of the Rougon-Macquart series (all 20 big novels). I'd probably read one or two of Hardy's more famous novels too. So I was pretty well primed for Powys. Ah, I should mention that when I was almost alarmingly young, I'd developed a liking for Colin Wilson and I'm sure there was some mention of JCP in The Outsider (Wilson's book of that title, rather than the slightly misleading/wishful thinking translation of Camus' L'Étranger), alongside most or all of the aforementioned. We'll look at Wilson in a subsequent piece. Anyway, Maiden Castle was the fourth and final of the Wessex Quartet (the others being Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance and Weymouth Sands) but happened to be the one I got my hands upon first. I really enjoyed it, enough to want to read as much Powys as I could get my hands on. Well, my luck was in. It would appear that JCP comes into fashion roughly every 20-25 years. Having died, in his nineties, in 1963, by the early eighties there was a sudden resurgence of interest, which had caught me. Picador had reissued most of the major novels (except for Wolf, which was – and still is – available in the Penguin Modern Classics series) a year or two previously and I picked up Sands, Romance, Owen Glendower, the newly published early novel After My Fashion and the Autobiography. I came across what looks like an early seventies edition of Morwyn or The Vengeance Of God in – of all things – a series called something like "Classics of Science Fiction" (it has roughly the same amount of SF content as Dante's Inferno, on which it is loosely based) and also a copy of the new Village Press edition of Porius. I also remember taking The Brazen Head out of the library. So I devoured perhaps 10 or so of Powys' books over a period of 3-4 years in the early to mid eighties.

However I don't think I've read any of his books in the last 20 years. He simply dropped out of view again. There have been a few occasions when I've thought "hmm... I really must reread Weymouth Sands but then something with a more pressing claim has come along and... well, there's also the fact that there have been quite a lot of books I read in my mid to late teens and loved at the time which I've returned to only to be immensely disappointed. And others which are bathed in that aura of adolescence and very early adulthood and which I can't imagine wanting to revisit. I can't imagine wanting to reread any of Sartre's or Camus' novels, for instance – of that whole host of (mostly French) books I read around that time only Simone de Beauvoir's Mémoirs d'une jeune fille bien rangée might tempt me now. At least, I did first attempt Proust at around that time, but struggled and it wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I fell under his spell. I'd love to read Proust again but he requires time, and lots of it. This, of course, is another of the reasons I've put off tackling Powys again; he wrote big books. A Glastonbury Romance was around 1500 pages of fairly densely printed text. I remember being enthralled by parts of it but still finding others heavy going. He could also be very wild and elemental. I also remember struggling with Porius. But perhaps now I might enjoy those more difficult novels more.

There have been a number of articles reclaiming JCP's place in the literary firmament of late, at least a couple of them by Margaret Drabble (one in the TLS and one in The Guardian) and there's a biography called Descents Of Memory which I shall be purchasing as soon as I can find a copy here in the UK. Interestingly the books are being published again first of all in the US by the Overlook Press and then simply imported into the UK with a barcode sticker by Duckworth. Yesterday I bought the hardback edition of Maiden Castle, which I didn't previously own because I'd borrowed it from the library. It looks to be a very nice edition indeed and they've also reissued Romance, Sands, Glendower and now a "definitive" Porius, restoring a lot of material cut for the original. So I'll be picking these up as I can find them. And I really must make the time to read Powys again, I've a funny feeling that he might be one of the rare cases of something I enjoyed in my teens but without really grasping, and thus I might just get more out of it now that I'm older.

I must pick the publishers up on one thing, though; I commend them for the fact that, as far as I've been able to see on a quick perusal, they've not tampered with the British spelling (I wouldn't expect to see an American author's spelling Anglicised for publication in the UK, it's part of the flavour of the writing, a bit like an accent in speech) as sometimes happens, however they claim on the dust jacket that Powys wrote ten novels. This is incorrect, he must've written at least fifteen, perhaps a couple more than that. It depends what you classify as a "novel" and what as a "novella" but either way there are certainly more than ten. It's interesting to note that this time around pride of place goes to a quote from George Steiner (The New Yorker) comparing JCP to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I suppose that's not wildly inaccurate, in some ways, particularly the former, but last time around the writer whose name used to come up most commonly was Thomas Hardy, I suppose partly because of the whole Wessex connection. Both wrote novels set in and around Dorchester, Weymouth and other Dorset towns. Both feature characters who are driven by elemental forces and often have names that tell you a lot about them. I'm not sure there's anyone very much like Powys though: he was like a Victorian writer who'd somehow strayed into the 20th century. Well, in many ways that's exactly what he was: born in 1872 but didn't publish his first novel until 1915. So he was 43 when he started, and almost 91 when he died.

He claimed descent from the poet Cowper (his mother's maiden name), two of his brothers also became writers – and indeed T.F. Powys' Mr Weston's Good Wine is another favourite of mine and a book I have reread over the last decade, enjoying it enormously again. There's something wonderfully English or, to be more accurate, Anglo-Welsh about his writing. Its eccentricity, its sheer volume, its elemental savagery, its indomitability (in the original sense of "impossible to tame"). It's wonderful to see the books back in print again, for years the only one you'd ever see in bookshops was the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Wolf Solent and you'd be reduced to searching for old Picador or Village Press copies second-hand. So the Overlook Press are to be commended for doing such a beautiful job and I do hope they'll continue with more of the work of this great British writer. Otherwise I suppose we'll have to wait until sometime around 2030 for the next revival.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Written in granite: From Home To Home

Fairfield Parlour only released one album during their short life (they recorded a second, a concept album, but we'll perhaps leave that for another time). Except that they'd already released two before they started... Let me explain: FP had previously traded under the name of Kaleidoscope. I hope you're paying attention because this is complicated by the fact that there was another group of the same name in San Francisco, featuring David Lindley. The UK Kaleidoscope's first album, Tangerine Dream (hmm, that'd make a great name for a group, wouldn't it?) had its moments but was very much of its time (it includes songs with titles such as Please Excuse My Face, Flight From Ashiya and The Sky Children and there was a single called Jenny Artichoke), it's a good but not remarkable album. Their second, Faintly Blowing, hints at something much more, it incorporates a folkier influence, there are echoes of their friends the Moody Blues but we're not into prog territory just yet.

The band then changed their name and their style fairly dramatically. Whereas Kaleidoscope was very much a psychedelic proposition, with the mark of 1966-7 all over them, Fairfield Parlour (perhaps they ought to have gone for something not quite so easily confused with Fairport Convention?) was a different beast. For most of the sixties there'd been this bizarre crosstalk between the UK and the USA, with each apparently wanting to be the other. Then The Band made Music From Big Pink and The Band and Fairport (that's Fairport) made Liege And Lief and it was turn and turn about. Typically Ray Davies had been ahead of the game with Village Green Preservation Society (not to mention Face to Face, Something Else and singles such as Waterloo Sunset). Suddenly there were people in Britain prepared to admit they'd had British childhoods which hadn't started with Elvis, Buddy Holly, et al. Fairport (...) went right back to folk songs dug up at Cecil Sharp House. All of a sudden it was possible to get a record deal writing very English songs. We'll deal with Bill Fay in a later entry in this series, but for now let's look at the FP album, From Home To Home. Musically it's not too far removed from the early Moody Blues albums, except that there's far more restraint. Don't get me wrong, I'm very fond of In Search Of The Lost Chord, in particular but, let's face it, drummers should NOT be encouraged to write poetry. I'm sure that somewhere there's an exception that proves the rule but if so I've yet to come across him or her (and I think it's far more likely to be a her). The lyrics on FHTH are really very fine indeed. The opening Aries is simply superb, kicking off with the beautifully down-to-earth image of "I used to collect cigarette cards..." and ending "and somewhere that I've never been, it's still raining". In between Peter Daltrey unfolds a vignette of growing up in England in the late fifties and early sixties. Oh and it's got one hell of a chorus. The mystery is why the song is called Aries, the word appears in the chorus shorn of all context. Any ideas anyone? There is, of course, a song called Emily. No English album of the time was complete without one. But this is one of the best and most intriguing. Musically the basic template is acoustic guitars, cleverly constructed songs with wonderful choruses swathed in Mellotron. It's interesting how it was the British groups that took to the Mellotron – although it was built in Birmingham, I suppose. Suddenly though there was genuinely British-sounding pop and rock music. Now a lot of this music made at the end of the sixties and in the early seventies did lay the foundations for the excesses of the next 5-6 years but personally I'm fond of a bit of excess, especially when it's done with panache. And this was one of the most extraordinary periods of invention in popular music, rivalled only by the end of the following decade. In both cases, 1969-72 and 1979-82, suddenly it became easier for people to make records. In the former case because record companies were so confused as to what might sell that they bankrolled all sorts of unlikely projects and in the latter suddenly there were lots of small, independent record labels putting out records. In both cases ambition eventually got the better of people, but not before some truly great records had been made. And, make no mistake about it, From Home To Home IS a truly great record. There's not a weak track on it and the lyrics are a million miles from the brigades of pixies and elves which were marching across the plains and about to carry all before them. But then the best of the prog that grew out of this period doesn't deal in Tolkein, or lost Tibetan scrolls... Perhaps we should have a look at the first few Genesis albums, with the focus on Peter Gabriel's lyrics because their subject is... England. But there'd been people who'd got there before him; Ray Davies, Bill Fay, all those anons who wrote the ballads Fairport had been digging up and taking for an electric jig and reel... and Peter Daltrey. Hmm. I don't appear to have concentrated on Fairfield Parlour as much in this piece as I'd intended, so perhaps this might be one to return to. Just look at the album sleeve, though, they'd come a long way from psychedelia, hadn't they? And although the trip had been short, just a couple of years, it'd been a mighty strange ride...

Monday, 17 March 2008

Written in granite: Chronicles of the Hidden Truth


I promised a piece on Pere Calders and, as Spanish has it, a promise is a debt. Calders was one of the most popular Catalan writers of the 20th (or any other) century but, without wishing to get into too much of a debate on Catalan nationalism, the fact that he continued to write in his own language, even when living in exile in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico) probably explains why he's not better-known outside Catalonia – frankly this is criminal. Had he written in Spanish (or French, or English, or another of the so-called "major" languages) I think he'd be much more widely translated into other languages and recognised as a crucial link in the chain that runs from Poe to Kafka and Borges and then on to Magical Realism, Calvino, Murakami et al. I've only ever heard of one collection of English translations of his stories, The Virgin Of The Railways, although I've never seen a copy. As I'm fortunate enough to speak Catalan I've got the complete short stories in the original and have read most of them many times. As mentioned in What The Waves Are Saying [1], one, Demà a les tres de la matinada,
gave me the starting point for a song, Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m. However I'd like to acknowledge my debt which is far wider than one story = one song. I have rather a lot of IOUs of this kind so I'll be attempting to redeem at least some of them in these entries.

Although he wrote all sorts of things during his long career Calders was primarily an author of short stories. Many of them are very short indeed, there are some which last for just a few words and the typical length is probably 5 or 6 pages. As the title of one of his early collections had it, these are Cròniques de la veritat oculta (Chronicles of the Hidden Truth). Like so many European artists working in the mid-twentieth century, war hovers in the background a great deal, although the focus is on the everyday details, the commonplace as extraordinary and the extraordinary as commonplace. Calders himself fought as a volunteer in the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War and, like so many of his generation of Catalan writers and artists, was forced into exile for 20 or so years after it ended. Demà is the title story of my favourite of his collections as it also features the wonderful – and now almost preternaturally topical - El sistema Robert Hein in which a self-help book called The Robert Hein System For Getting Rich changes the world. However, as the system works, all the workers at the printers read it, get rich and leave their jobs, so there's nobody to print more copies. Soon a critical mass of rich people is reached and everyone else has to make do with the follow-up: The Robert Hein System For Finding Happiness in Poverty. There's also the Reportatge del dia repetit (Repeated Day Report) which is a prototype for Groundhog Day in which there are several Tuesdays in a row, causing chaos.

Calders' touch is always very light, even when the subject material gets dark, as it sometimes does. The shortness of the pieces keeps things simple, even at their most dizzying. Like so many of the greatest writers, Calders seems to have a world of his own creation, with its own internal logic. One day I'd love to translate one or two of his finest stories but for now you'll have to make do with songs such as Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m., where an idea has been taken but taken in another direction.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Written in granite: What The Waves Are Saying [1]

Although we'll be discussing all sorts of things on these pages, one of the original ideas was to record the progress of the making of the first album by The Granite Shore. So far we've not really mentioned this at all. At some point in the future, should anyone ever show any interest, we might perhaps go back over some of the history, or we might decide to leave it shrouded in mystery.

At the moment there are six songs on which things are reasonably well-developed, plus another couple which are little more than sketches. These latter two will probably end up as outtakes or perhaps be used for other releases, they're probably not going to fit the album itself. Of the six which have come some way it remains to be seen how many will make the final cut. The Granite Shore website currently has three songs available to listen to, here, and these songs are currently expected to make the album, so let's just have a quick first look at them:


This one took a good two years to write. It started with the silly punch line, filched, like a good name, from Richard III. I knew the story I wanted to hang from it, very loosely based on something I observed and almost certainly completely misunderstood when I was about 15. Clearly events didn't take place exactly as recounted but, as so often, there's a grain of sandy fact around which the pearly fiction formed. This is an early recording of the song and chances are that the arrangement may develop somewhat by the time it gets to the final version.


Another early version but the song and arrangement are very nearly complete. Work on a new version has been going on for a while now and is coming along very nicely. The key has been dropped from F sharp to E flat and there are a couple of minor structural changes but otherwise... well, this is one of those songs that need to be allowed to speak for themselves and as they are. Again there is a shred of truth, but as the story was told both to me and about me I can't really vouch for its accuracy, although the source is trustworthy in the extreme. By way of clarification I should perhaps point out that in many English towns when the workhouses closed in the early twentieth century, they quite often reopened a few years later as hospitals, to the horror of some people, particularly from the working classes, who had an atavistic terror of being admitted to the workhouse and to whom the fact that it was now a hospital made little difference. As is so often the case, a number of threads came together when I learned that originally there used to be a workhouse not 50 yards from where I wrote the song and some of the details (the "black or navy suits", for instance) come from this source. Once again the song ends with rather a silly punch line, a play on an advertisement which will be familiar to most Britons of a certain age. The rest you'll have to work out for yourselves, at least for now...

Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m.

This was the song where I started to feel I had something. The idea came as I was trying to get to sleep one night. This happens a lot but usually I've forgotten everything by next morning. The title comes from a possible translation of one of my favourite short stories, Demà a les tres de la matinada by the great Catalan author Pere Calders. We should probably have a piece on Calders at some point, remind me, OK? His story has a similar initial premise but I immediately knew where I was moving it to and that my character was different. As I was writing it the story came alive and took over and then by around the fourth draft, a day or so later, something happened and the whole thing came alive in my hands, the music came in a matter of minutes and I suddenly realised that there was another completely (indeed far more) plausible way of looking at the story. When I played it to Paul, a while later, he spotted this instantly, making me worry that I'd over-egged that particular dessert, but since then hardly anyone else has noticed unless they've been nudged in its direction. Hmm... What do you think? The version here is the one I sent Paul, it dates back to the very end of 2006. There are plans for the song to be re-recorded for the album and I think it'd also make a damned fine single, perhaps do a shorter version too...


Anyway, these three songs are available to listen to at present. We'll probably be uploading a newer version of Workhouse over the next week or so, as that's almost done. Then, as I've got a bit of time off work over the next week, I'm going to start making plans for how we're going to tackle the remaining songs and trying to finish off one or two new ones. As I'm not going to be working hopefully I'll have a little more time to post here, so watch this cleft in the granite shoreline over the next few days.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Written in granite: a bad education

I think I've read too many books, seen too much TV.

I think I've paid too much attention to a bad education

The Blue Orchids, Bad Education, from The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain).


So wrote Martin Bramah, presciently, on the first Blue Orchids album which came out as we tiptoed across the ice and into the winter of 1981, only to find there was no need to tiptoe because it was going to be the coldest winter since before our memories kicked in and the ice was very thick. If he were updating the lyric now he might very well add "I think I've heard too many reissues of 'classic' albums with bonus tracks". And of course, at the time when he wrote this lyric, TV programmes were ephemeral, or if they lived on they did so only by occasional repeats or in the memory (or, at least for comedy, the Chinese whispers of the playground). You couldn't buy a boxed set containing every episode of something you'd loved the previous month, and if you happened to have been too young to have caught some touchstone of popular culture when it originally aired your only chance was to keep an eye out in case it got repeated late at night on BBC2. In which case you had to make sure you were in front of a television set when it went out – I remember planning my evenings around repeats of The Prisoner shown on ITV in the early eighties because I'd been too young to catch it first time around and never having seen it felt like a gaping chasm in my (bad) education.

The article in the Guardian mentioned in yesterday's post can be read here. I'm not sure whether this means that nowadays everyone is receiving a bad education or whether, on the contrary, nobody is. Either would be a bad thing, I suspect. My own education was a fairly haphazard affair, it's fair to say. I've certainly had a lot of it, much self-inflicted, but it's all been fairly disorganised. On the other hand this probably accounts to some extent for the kind of lyrics I write. I'll start off writing about one thing then I'll make some seemingly random connection halfway through the first verse and before I know it I've veered off at a number of different tangents. Sometimes, when I'm on form, I may manage to link things back up again and produce something which I at least feel has a proper arc of some kind. At other times the result is chaotic and, in some cases, we get both, which can be good or it can be infuriating - or again both.

The Blue Orchids album was a very important record, although I suspect probably only for a fairly small group of us. The band's Fall connections were intriguing, of course, but it soon became clear that this was a very, very different proposition. Somehow you couldn't really imagine Mark E. Smith setting W.B. Yeats to music. Nor could you imagine him making unambiguous statements of the kind found on the Blue Orchids' The Greatest Hit, which is full of slogans: "keep a low profile", "climb the mountain", "the hole in my pocket belongs to the State", "this gets me that". It's a political album, perhaps more so than any in the canon of, say , The Clash. But it is also a thing of beauty, of poetry, quite literally, with the aforementioned Yeats-inspired Mad As The Mist And Snow, of aspiration and (from severe to serene) inspiration. Another very unusual thing about the record was that it seemed to have that rare thing, a male/female balance. The lyric sheet included with the original LP did tell us which lyrics had been written by Martin and which by fellow ex-Fall member Una Baines. Interestingly this wasn't always immediately obvious. There were, of course, other groups who were, to quote the Au Pairs (themselves one of the most obvious examples), "playing with a different sex". But in most cases it seemed to be about a tension between the male and the female elements – often that was the great thing – and usually the lyrics would be written by one gender or the other. Or if not it was generally pretty clear who'd done what.

The Blue Orchids didn't last long. There had been two extraordinary singles, The Flood/Disney Boys and Work/The House That Faded Out, before the album, after it there was the Agents Of Change EP, one of the finest records ever released in EP form, in my book, suggesting there would be great things to come. But unfortunately they split. Bramah has put together new line-ups on a few occasions over the years and has made some very, very fine records. I recommend you visit http://www.blueorchids.net/ for more information, there's a new solo album, apparently. Most of the back catalogue is available from LTM Records, including the superb expanded reissue of that extraordinary debut album.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Written in granite

that, of course, was the last we ever heard of it. Still, we climbed the tree and looked out over the churchyard. The graves stretched down as far as the cliffs facing grimly out onto the North Sea. "Best not eat the berries," said a voice in an ear, inner or outer, "but, whatever you do, don't eat the leaves, they're the most poisonous part..."

The Granite Shore. Everything is linked, if you know where to look for the nexus – or even if you don't. The name comes from section VI of T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday. Eliot is sometimes seen as a "difficult" poet, although I've never really understood why. Actually there's a piece written by Sean O'Brien in the Review section of today's Guardian about how kids are struggling with poetry because they're losing their connection with their own cultural heritage, so they no longer "get" references that even those of us who didn't get particularly classical educations would have grasped. At least, I suppose it depends on your frame of reference: if your poetical poison chalice of choice happens to be, I don't know, the collected lyrics of Robbie Williams then yes, I suppose you might find The Wasteland a tad tricky. Or if you happened to come across Eliot after spending your life in a cultural vacuum and having read no other poetry. But for anyone approaching his work with even a very sketchy knowledge of the previous couple of thousand years' worth of human artistic endeavour there are plenty of familiar landmarks. Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible – not exactly obscure stuff, surely? There are far, far more difficult poets. Eliot never loses the thread, no matter what bull (or, indeed, minotaur) may be snorting and pawing the ground around the labyrinth. My own education was an incredibly haphazard affair, almost all of the bits that have stuck were self-prescribed and administered and although there was a modicum of rhyme, there was little reason. There may have been madness but there wasn't a lot of method in it. You get my drift.

The thing I find fascinating about Eliot is the way his poetry often conjures up a sense of the English landscape. Or at least, it brings to my mind images of the period of my childhood when we lived on the Norfolk coast. The landscape by the artist Ged Quinn, a photograph of which appears on the forthcoming Granite Shore website (left), also seems to pick up on this. Did I mention that everything is linked? Well, Ged also played keyboards with the greatest of all great lost Liverpool groups The Wild Swans for whose Incandescent and Magnitude albums I wrote the sleevenotes. Incandescent is still available from the excellent Renascent Records and I'm sure we'll have plenty more to say about the Wild Swans anon. I fervently hope that Ged will be performing on the Granite Shore album. Eliot, of course, was born an American, although he later took British citizenship and even converted to the Church of England. Indeed Ash Wednesday is often referred to as his "conversion poem"; again, given my own background, perhaps this accounts for some of the imagery his words evoke. In these journals we'll be looking at a number of things which have (and have not) fed into the writing of the Granite Shore album and certainly these songs, like Eliot's poems, frequently reference the work of other artists of many persuasions and of many ages. i.e. neither of us are afraid of worried about nicking ideas from other people, especially if they happen to be no longer shuffling along the mortal deck.

I've been reading The Letters Of Ted Hughes over the last couple of weeks and I laughed out loud when I got to the letter he wrote to Eliot in the late fifties. At the time Hughes was an aspiring young poet writing to a man recognised as one of the greatest poets of his century, and he had the sheer effrontery to end "I hope you are enjoying April"! As jokes go it's precisely the kind of thing around which I've been known to build whole songs (see Elsewhere); it's referential and yet silly. Nice one, Ted. Mind you, the bloke's spelling was atrocious, which never ceases to surprise me in someone who clearly has such mastery of language. I expect spelling will come up again at some point too.

More to follow. At the moment work is underway on the main TGS website, a very rough draft of which is now online, although it still needs a lot of work. The idea of this log (oh, is the "b" not silent then?) is to get a bit of a dialogue going... Probably only with myself for the moment but who knows, from tiny acorns come... squirrel shit, presumably. With which profound meditation I shall post this. Back soon.

Oh and happy birthday Ged!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

...time is only time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place...

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