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Sunday, 27 April 2008

Written in granite: The Shadow Over His Mouth

Everybody loves The Fall, apparently. Oh and everybody has always loved them. It seems odd that the Bingo Master's Break-Out! EP failed to make number one given that so many thousands of people (and everyone now working in the media) bought it when it came out. I honestly did – might not have been the day of release but it was very soon after, and I did get Live At The Witch Trials the day that came out, I remember walking 3 miles into town to collect the copy I'd ordered and then splashing out on a bus home. Everyone I knew hated it, absolutely loathed it – and these were people who liked punk, even people getting into the burgeoning independent label scene. They all preferred PragVec. I couldn't understand this: I mean, the PragVec EP seemed OK, it had quite a nice sleeve considering it was an independent release - remember, at that point most independent singles looked like those by the Desperate Bicycles, listing recording, mastering, pressing, etc. costs. At first sight Bingo Master looked a bit like one of those, black and white, spindly line drawings, typed credits on the back... Except that it clearly had class and coherence. The music was... well, it was The Fall, except that we didn't know what that meant back then. The two songs on the first side were fast enough for punks, but way too clever – I have a vivid recollection of asking the DJ at our local punk club to play The Fall. He obliged and it cleared the dance-floor, quite literally, I had the weird experience of quite literally dancing all on my own, for certainly the one and only occasion in my life. The title track was clearly a narrative of some kind but, er, could we have a plot summary please? However it was Repetition on the other side that hooked me. Around this time – I was 13 and a half years old – I'd recently ditched my prog LPs (I didn't have a lot, I was only 13) and had bought just punk for a few months, but then gradually I started exploring, became obsessed with The Velvet Underground when I found a cheap import copy of 1969 – Live... This wasn't far from The Fall. Very soon afterwards I began to discover sixties stuff, Nuggets, then Love, then MX-80 Sound's epochal Hard Attack from 1977 (why isn't that ever mentioned in lists?) and a whole world began to open up to me. I was also forming my first proper, out-of-school bands, getting in with people a bit older than I was, but still at school, in short it was a time of the utmost drama. A band member would leave, the world came crashing down.

I bought The Fall's second single, It's The New Thing/Various Times. And at some point around this time I wrote to the address given on the back of one of these two 7" slabs of vinyl. I might possibly have done this once or twice before, to artists I admired, but without ever really expecting a reply other than perhaps a pre-printed invitation to join a fan club. Well, after all, these people made records, so they were rock stars. As far as I knew The Fall had made not one but TWO singles, so they were presumably living lives only a small remove from those of, say, the Rolling Stones. Or at least The Clash. I've no idea what I wrote in my letter but I must presumably have mentioned some of the latest cataclysms to have hit my turbulent life, basic, humdrum events so earth-shaking and Shakespearean in their reach. Then, within a couple of weeks, I received a brown envelope in the post, addressed in a scrawl which is now familiar to us all but which at the time I failed to recognise. I opened it and out tumbled some photocopies of Fall blurb, with the handwritten words, in that same scrawl, "history is bunk" – I'd learned at school only shortly before that this was a quote attributed to Henry Ford. Then I found the letter. It wasn't just "thank you for your interest in The Fall, please buy our album, a fan club membership application with introductory rates is enclosed". It was a proper letter, at least 3 or 4 sides of handwritten A4. And when I read it I was flabbergasted to discover that not only was it from Mark E. Smith himself, not only had he clearly read my letter – again, himself – but he'd clearly given some thought to the weighty matters exercising my mind and discussed them, offering a few bits of advice. And actually it was damned good advice too. He pointed out that members did tend to leave bands, but that this wasn't necessarily such a bad thing (clearly advice he took himself famously on some 50 or more occasions, although at that point former Fall members were still in single figures), that your parents tended to fuss over you because they were insecure both about themselves and about your future. This last one came as a huge revelation, I was 13 and the concept that my parents might not be infallible hadn't yet dawned at all. Anyway, I'm not going to go into much detail because that was a private letter and is thus between the 21-year-old Mark and the 13-year-old me. All I'll say – and MES may not thank me for this - is that there was no bile in it, it was full of compassion but no patronising. It probably had rather a big effect on me. In fact it definitely did.

I've remained a Fall admirer for these last 30 years. I bought pretty much every release up until the late eighties, when I left the UK. I don't own all 95 albums or whatever it is, but I certainly do own all but a few of the 26 (with another out tomorrow) studio albums and a fair number of the compilations and live sets. If I had to pick a favourite I'd go for Hex Enduction Hour (and I also loved the preceding Lie Dream Of A Casino Soul/Fantastic Life single), although Live At The Witch Trials also has a very special place in my affections. I saw The Fall a number of times during the 80s. In the late seventies I developed a bit of an obsession with the work of H.P. Lovecraft, so I was thrilled when it emerged that this was an interest of Mark's too. For a while I wondered whether I'd got into Lovecraft through The Fall, but I'm now sure this wasn't the case, I just happened across a collection called The Shadow Out Of Time in my local library and it had a totally black dust jacket and that great title, The Fall connection didn't really become clear until a year or two later, in the period from Dragnet through to Grotesque.

This brings us to Renegade: The Lives And Tales Of Mark E. Smith, which I read last week. The first thing to be said is that this is the funniest book I've read in a very, very long time. It is also far less... well... mad than you might expect. It's been ghosted and clearly edited together to form at least some semblance of a coherent narrative, but we also get plenty of the thoughts of Chairman Mark on subjects of all kinds. Well, see for yourself, a couple of extracts were printed in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago and can be found here (part one) and here (part two). But there is far more to Renegade than the whole "Mad Mark" persona, as he is at pains to point out. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the book is so short, at under 250 pages , but then again, now that Mark has started writing books we can probably expect new one a year for the next 30 years with numerous recordings of live readings and anthologies. His bibliography will reach a hundred before we know it, although the discography will presumably be pushing towards four figures by then. Thanks Mark.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Written in granite: Ordinary Man

We'd better deal with the worst thing about Christy Moore's Ordinary Man first: the sleeve is utterly dreadful, as though done by sticking some Letraset onto a cheap chocolate box. I actually often like sleeves using black with very simple wording or motifs, you can do something very effective without spending a fortune on printing - look at Unknown Pleasures. But this just looks tacky. However, having got that one major gripe out of the way, the album within is absolutely fantastic and simply oozes class. I first heard it at the time of its release, about 1986, I should think. It opens with one of the most wonderful things I'd ever heard, Sweet Music Roll On. Listening to it now you can't help giving thanks that they didn't put any drums on it because, as this was 1986, someone would've insisted on that one Linn snare sound that's on almost every record made around that time. Fortunately the only sounds on the record which have dated very slightly are some of the synth sounds, but they mostly stick to fairly standard synth sounds so they've aged fairly well, and the real pipes blend in and make them sound more organic. There's some percussion on a few songs, but no Linn anywhere, thank goodness. The acoustic guitars are among the most beautifully recorded I've ever heard, and Christy's voice sounds fantastic throughout the album. Sweet Music is a wonderfully atmospheric narrative about a sailor's dalliance with a girl met in a bar and it just has that indefinable something that sends shivers up and down my spine. I bought the CD version in one of two double packs I bought direct from Christy's website perhaps 2-3 years ago, having not heard the album for around 15 years. You know what it's like, especially with albums made in the eighties, you're always worried in case they've dated appallingly, if sounds that sounded all shiny new and adventurous have turned out to have been a horrible mistake. So it was with some trepidation that I hit "play" and allowed the sweet music to roll on. I needn't have worried, if anything it sounded even more beautiful than I remembered and I actually found that the rest of the album was much better than I'd remembered.

For a start it is very well paced, with a few shorter, funnier pieces such as Delirium Tremens, which features some topical Irish political references some of which are now lost on me (most probably would've been even at the time, as I must confess I've never kept an especially close eye on Irish domestic politics). The main highlights – for me, at least – are the other narrative ballads, The Diamondtina Drover, The Blantyre Explosion, the closing Quiet Desperation, but there isn't really a weak track here as even things like DT serve a purpose, giving the album light and shade and, as I say, it is beautifully arranged and recorded.

Ordinary Man is by far my favourite Christy Moore album and I have around a dozen CDs. Like the other greatest storytelling singers, unless you check the credits it's impossible to tell which songs he's written himself and which are by other people, he has that knack of making a song his own. This is a particularly difficult feat to pull off in any form of music with a long tradition, such as folk, where some of the other songs in your repertoire may be 100 years or more (indeed, possibly a lot more) old and Christy pulls it off with consummate mastery, whether he's performing a traditional song, one written 40-50 years earlier, written recently but by someone else or by himself. As I've already hinted, this is a prodigious feat at any time, but records made from the mid to late eighties which pull it off can be counted on the nails of one finger. i.e. I can't actually think of another one. It took Dylan until 1989 to make his first great record of the eighties (Oh Mercy), Neil Young decided not to release his best of that period (Times Square), Joni Mitchell's Geffen albums, whilst no disgrace by anyone else's standards, are the weakest in an otherwise extraordinary body of work... Van Morrison managed a couple of fairly fine albums, but even they are marred slightly by the sheen of the production. Of course, Christy stands out from that kind of company in that he's not a worldwide (super)star. Nor is he primarily a writer of his own material like the artists I've just mentioned. Indeed, the only artist of that generation and stature I can think of to have produced no mediocre albums and indeed some of his finest work during the nineteen eighties is Leonard Cohen and first of all at the time he wasn't really commercially in that company, he's been elevated to a higher plane of stardom bizarrely by dint of staying out of music mostly and allowing celebrity fans to do it for him, and secondly Cohen only actually made two albums in the 80s, one just before Linn-mania really took hold (1984's Various Positions, which personally I love, but not everyone does) and 1989's I'm Your Man, a record on which it was no longer possible to miss the fact that he had a sense of humour, particularly as he was pictured clutching "a happy banana" on the sleeve.

Anyone wanting an introduction and overview to Moore's work should consider investing in The Box Set 1964-2004 or, as Christy engagingly referred to it at the time on his website, "the Box Set Me Bollix". This is one of those boxed sets you can buy without worrying that either it'll be full of stuff that you'll end up duplicating if you get into the artist (i.e. a kind of bigger greatest hits with a few rarities to make hardcore fans shell out) or alternatively that it'll be full of stuff that remained unreleased for years for a very good reason. I think pretty much everything on the six CDs is otherwise unreleased at least in this form, there are lots of live recordings, demos, outtakes, collaborations but it makes a wonderful set. Moore seems to share Dylan's work ethic in that he has regularly released albums, toured, written songs, interpreted other people's songs, new and old, without prejudice, and generally continued with the life of the working folk singer. Certainly in my estimation he belongs in the august company I mentioned in the paragraph above. Most of his work remains available and not just in Ireland. There are career retrospective compilations but Moore's is not really an oeuvre which lends itself to this. The BSMB works because it's been carefully put together, with the six discs programmed thematically (and helpfully colour-coded). I really must get more of the man's albums, for instance I don't have any of the Planxty or Moving Hearts stuff.

One of the other things I've noticed as being key to most of the greatest artists in most fields, and particularly those whose stock-in-trade involves words, is a sense of knowing where you've come from. I'd always take the Beatles over the Stones because while the Liverpool band were certainly heavily influenced by American music, they were always very British, whereas the Stones, although they made some great records at times, particularly singles, were – and are – essentially fakes. Their best records are the ones where they stop trying to ape the blues. This is why I've no real time for the work of the likes of Eric Clapton – apart from the man's obvious hypocrisy in taking his entire musical identity from black musicians and then claiming that Enoch Powell was right – remarks for which he has never apologised. Having said that, I rate the Kinks higher than any of the above, because the sense of place in the songs of Ray Davies is tangible. We'll look at the Kinks soon as they fit rather well into this series. Christy Moore is another great example: he sings in his own accent and from his own Irish perspective. He is, at the end of the day, a living, working folk singer, and I have no higher praise.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Written in granite: Knock, knock...

A while ago a friend of mine whose judgement in such matters is generally trustworthy suggested I should read Andrew Lycett's biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Helpfully the cover tell us that this was "the man who created Sherlock Holmes". This strikes me as slightly unnecessary, rather like saying "David Beckham, the footballer". I mean, Beckham also has a number of parallel activities, modelling, shaving, husband and father, etc. etc. but generally speaking any interest in these other pursuits would be extremely limited were it not for the man's ability to bend free kicks around defensive walls and deliver pinpoint accuracy crosses from the right wing. Likewise Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of many parts; a doctor, a keen cricketer, a spiritualist, an author of historical novels, horror stories, boys' own adventures and a whole gamut of other styles but he would be at best a footnote in literary history if he had not created the world's first genuine superstar fictional detective in Holmes and his sidekick Watson. We won't be looking so much at Holmes here, suffice it to say that he was far from the first fictional detective, indeed he drew heavily on the likes of Poe, Gaboriau, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to name but the better-known predecessors. Anyway, I think most people who know Doyle's name will be aware that he created Holmes, good though many of the other stories are the two names are inextricably linked. If they know anything else about him then they might've heard of the whole Cottingley "fairy photographs" business and Doyle's interest in spiritualism, which developed throughout his life. Lycett's excellent biography goes a long way towards explaining this. It also offers wonderful snippets of fact so that, for instance, we learn that Doyle once bowled out W.G. Grace and that the latter doctor got his revenge on the former a few years later (although there is no record of Grace creating a consulting detective).

I was listening to BBC Radio Four's Front Row arts magazine the other evening and they had a piece linked by the theme of spiritualism. It featured Julian Barnes – who had clearly either read Lycett's book or seen the same source material - talking about Doyle. It also featured John Harwood talking about his second novel, The Séance, which has just been published. His first, The Ghost Writer, was a curious but very enjoyable Gothic novel which I remember reading a few years ago. His second is yet another piece of faux Victoriana of the kind which has enjoyed such a vogue over recent years. I've just finished it and it's impossible not to bring the name of William "Wilkie" Collins into any discussion of it. I remember being thrilled by The Woman In White when I first read it roughly 25 years ago and looking for more, only to discover that the only other Collins novel in print was The Moonstone, that favourite of T.S. Eliot's. General opinion at that point was that Collins was a second-rate Victorian author of "sensation novels", which were treated with the kind of disdain reserved for all "genre" fiction. But over the last 15 years or so in particular there has been a huge resurgence of interest in the late 19th century as a setting for fiction of all kinds. It is not too hard to see why: the way the Victorian period looks to us now, it is all about the occult in the original sense of the word, i.e. that which is hidden. All those layers of underclothing, the seething passions under the morality and keeping up of appearances, the advent of a technology-driven society: this is a gift for any plot. So, although we saw a few early pieces of faux Victoriana in the eighties, Peter Ackroyd, Charles Palliser's extraordinary The Quincunx, one or two others, the mid to late nineties saw a sudden explosion, most famously Sarah Waters, two of whose novels were filmed as BBC series, with the curiously postmodern concept of novels by a writer not only living but at the start of her career being filmed as costume dramas (indeed Tipping The Velvet was Waters' first novel and the other, Fingersmith, only her third). Then there was Michael Faber's The Crimson Petal And The White, Michael Cox's The Meaning Of Night, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell, Iain R. McLeod's Light Ages books (these latter being essentially fantasy, alternative history), plus we suddenly saw lots of Victorian detectives...

Another book featured on Front Row recently was Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, a factual account of a fairly grisly real-life Victorian murder case, generally reckoned to have influenced the course of detective fiction. The Woman In White was in the process of serialisation at the time and, apart from the sexual aspects of the case being somewhat too close to the surface for fictional propriety at the time, it could've been scripted by Collins, featuring, as it does, remarriages, a first wife tainted by madness, her place in the master's affections (and bed) usurped by a governess who thus becomes a stepmother, the possibility of the madness being transmitted to the children of the first marriage, questions of identity, emigration to Australia, the shadow of the noose, clergymen, a proper detective... All of which leads us back to The Séance, a book which has pretty much the full set of Collins' habitual themes. I'll try not to give too much away here, but first of all the book is written using the device of a number of overlapping journals written by the main characters. Then we have more clergymen, lawyers and doctors. We have mediums and psychic research investigators seeing to expose them. We have the shadows of both the noose and the asylum, i.e. have both murder and madness, we have questions of identity, of heredity, we deal with the question of women essentially being the chattels of their husbands... This is core Collins territory. That and the book is beautifully plotted, another key Collins trait. There is also a spooky country mansion from which people keep disappearing inexplicably, with hints of alchemy and occult dealings, so there is more than a hint of M.R. James (which makes a change from Henry James, who seemed to crop in every third novel published a year or so back) and I wonder whether it is any coincidence that the central male character's first name is Magnus. The Séance is actually a highly enjoyable novel in its own right and you don't need to be familiar with Wilkie Collins to enjoy it. In the end it is not a supernatural novel, not really, there are one or two ghosts but they appear only in minor roles and are more about building up the unstable atmosphere surrounding certain characters. Nor is it a murder mystery. The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher is a murder mystery (oh and it comes with quotes from the aforementioned Sarah Waters on the dust-jacket), although the identity of the perpetrator becomes known well before the end.

I don't imagine we've seen the last of the current vogue for books of all kinds written by modern authors and set sometime in the 19th century. As I say, it offers a wonderfully tight setting and all sorts of plot devices are available. It's easy to see the attraction to both authors and readers.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Written in granite: Dory Previn [2] – Mythical Kings And Iguanas

Mythical Kings And Iguanas was Dory's second and by far her most successful LP; it is also her best. This is the album people know if they know any of her work. Its influence on my own lyric-writing is incalculable and I recently realised that I've taken a lot of my phrasing from Dory too. MKAI is an album made by a woman in her forties and that's also its main subject matter. And, for once, Dory's Dad barely gets a look-in (at least not directly, the male of the species doesn't come off particularly well; but then there's no myopia about the shortcomings of her own sex either). It opens with the title track with its self-deprecating late-sixties stuff about "astral walks" and I Ching. That's followed by the album's one slightly throwaway song, Yada, Yada, La Scala, although even a slight song like this contains the key line: "talk to me please in bed, where it matters". Then comes a sequence of three absolutely astonishing songs. In a parallel universe run by and for myself, The Lady With The Braid is a standard, it is performed by every singer-songwriter as a rite of passage and indeed there are several thousand cover versions (a bit like Yesterday in this one). It has a lyric of surgical (open-heart surgery) precision and attention to detail. And, as we know, over the ages it has been claimed that either God or the Devil can be found in the detail. I rather think that this song deserves a piece all to itself so perhaps I'll do that soon, but the moment halfway through when she sings "You can read the early paper and I can watch you as you shave... Oh God the mirror's cracked..." is absolutely heartbreaking. Anyway, we'll take a closer look at this song later. That's followed by another tour de force in Her Mother's Daughter, the story of a domineering mother who starts by insisting that no suitor is good enough for her daughter, then that she needs looking after in her old age. In the hands of a lesser writer this could easily turn into melodrama, with the daughter becoming bitter, twisted (or even psychopathic), but in Dory's, from the opening "'You'll grow into a beauty' her mother always said..." to the final "she listens in on other people's joys, and looks longingly at all the passing young boys" the touch is deft, there's even humour. Then, when you think this can't possibly be taken any further, side one closes with Angels And Devils The Following Day, which has one of the most arresting first lines in all popular music, especially for 1970: "Loved by two men equally well/Though they were different as heaven and hell/One was an artist, one drove a truck/One would make love, the other would fuck". There is a definite art to the use of the "f" word in popular music. Delivered in the right way it can be devastatingly effective and this is one of the finest deliveries ever made, light and clipped for maximum effect.

So that's side one. Side two doesn't let up the pace. It opens with the wonderful narrative Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign, which was later turned into a short-running musical revue and an album we'll come to shortly. Again the humour is savage, the rhyming brilliant and the overall effect. It is also absurdly prescient, being a story about the nature of celebrity. The story (essentially true, I believe) is that of an actress in Los Angeles who failed to carve out a career in films and then committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood Sign. "She jumped off the letter 'H' because she did not become a star/She died in less than a minute and a half/She looked a bit like Hedy Lamarr" followed shortly afterwards by the pay-off: "When Mary Cecilia jumped, she finally made the grade/Her name was in the obituary columns of both of the daily trades". Next, Lemon-Haired Ladies is a return to the territory covered in Beware Of Young Girls on the first album, but this time it's directed at the man (ooh, who could this be; a clue: not her Dad). We're back to storytelling on A Stone For Bessie Smith, about a woman who buys a gravestone for the eponymous singer but fails to make any provision for her own funeral arrangements. Did I mention the black humour? That's followed by The Game, a sustained metaphor of a fairly hackneyed kind (er, "life's a gamble, you know...") but here once again the sheer detail raises it to another level and she manages to bring the Crucifixion into it again. The album closes with a reprise of the title track.

Musically it's Dory's most coherent album, acoustic guitars, electric lead providing mostly atmospheric touches, keyboards filling out the sound but it's kept restrained most of the time, the music is always serving the lyrics. And what lyrics they are. As I think I said in the first Dory piece this is grown-up stuff. In that sense it was so far ahead of its time that it's difficult to comprehend what a different world it entered when it was released in 1970. I've got a bit of a theory about how it wasn't until approximately 1989 that rock music accepted that it was middle-aged and began making records accordingly. Again, this might well be a good subject for a future piece. Dory wasn't totally alone in making adult records before 1989, of course, Leonard Cohen springs to mind, as do David Ackles, Bill Fay and... Frankly not a whole lot of other names. Since 1989 yes, the climate has changed, with female artists leading the way: Emmylou Harris proudly sporting her hair ALL dyed grey on the front of the utterly astonishing Wrecking Ball in 1995, Lucinda Williams effectively starting her second career in 1989 and going on to make some of the truest of all records (last year's West has an emotional impact that just seems to reach into my innards, grip my guts and waggle them about a bit), Joni Mitchell's magnificent Travelogue through her back catalogue, Kate Bush's Aerial, and with a few blokes also picking up on it, Leonard was ahead of the game with I'm Your Man where, by appearing with a heroic banana in hand on the front cover he forced even the most obtuse of critics to acknowledge he'd always had a sense of humour, Dylan's two albums with Daniel Lanois (who also produced Wrecking Ball), i.e. Time Out Of Mind and, from 1989, Oh Mercy... Well, yes, perhaps this does call for a piece in its own right. But, as I say, Dory was 20 years ahead. Mythical Kings And Iguanas is her masterpiece. Virginia Woolf said that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people", well I'd like to paraphrase Mrs Woolf and say that Kings is still one of the small group of rock records made for grown-ups. There are a few more of them in 2008 than there were in 1970, but still not all that many.

We'll be looking at Ms Previn's third album, Reflections In A Mud Puddle (guess what? It's got a side-long suite of songs about her father) at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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