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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Written in granite: Extra! Extra!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Written in granite: Wrecking Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Written in granite: Love, Death And The Lady

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

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

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

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




Sunday, 10 August 2008

Written in granite: Power Of Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
















Sunday, 3 August 2008

Written in granite: Nevertheless

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

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

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

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


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