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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.

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