Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Beta Band

All I am going to write is based solely on what I have from the Heroes To Zeroes album, and I don't know any of their other music (other than the snippet played in the Hi Fidelity movie).

This is a situation I plan to rectify a.s.a.p. Rarely have I felt so compelled to collect a band's opus as I do with this band.

Simply put, The Beta Band, are the greatest neo-sixties-to-seventies acid/psychedelic rock band I have heard.

In fact, they have so deeply imbibed the zeitgeist of that era that they would come across as a highly original and essential band even at the absolute heyday of The Beatles/Pink Floyd/Pretty Things/Beach Boys/Traffic/Family/Soft Machine/Gong psychedelic explosion.

But little touches of everything that has come between also infuse this music, so that it is not merely a throwback. Particularly evident is the music of the greatest neo-psychedelic rock band of the 1970s/80s, Siouxsie & The Banshees. Also evident is the greatest neo-psychedelic pop band of the 1980s, XTC.

If all the record relied upon was the production values of those eras it would not amount to much. But every song here is a melodic and harmonic gem, capable of standing besides the very best of their influences and frequently surpassing them.

Most sadly, The Beta Band are no more. But they demonstrate unequivocally that the experimental rock music of the 1960s/1970s need not remain fossilized, the lode can be mined afresh by every succeeding generation.

In this way, The Beta Band resemble Stereolab, although their sounds and artistic vision are quite different.

No greater counter-argument to the perennial "rock is dead" lament that aging rock fans trot out when confronted with a scene that seems to have left them behind exists than this. For the truth is that no one is left behind unless they choose to be, and every amazing offshoot of rock 'n' roll continues to thrive.

Monday, January 30, 2006


For some reason, I dragged out a number of old Cure albums today and gave them a spin. The Cure is an extraordinarily inconsistent band in my opinion with the exception of their early (pre-The Top) work most of which I find compelling.

Later CDs never grabbed me though. The sole exception in Disintegration, and upon playing it again today I felt that it, too, had lost its magic. But as the record played on, I found my resistance to it slipping. Somewhere in the middle of Prayers For Rain I capitulated completely, and found myself wondering inwardly at what a great record this is.

Just why is difficult to pin down. Does it just wear you down with its unrelenting gloom until you simply have to sucumb? Perhaps there is something to this, but I think there is more. Robert Smith has never sung better than he does on this record, and his thin, whiny voice overcomes its limitations by using them to maximum expressive effect. At first, he seems merely theatrical but as song follows song, the theatre receeds and a starker, more personal, feel makes itself apparent.

Considering this is a band that has made the sparse, stark confessional its modus operandi from the very beginning, the fact that Smith is able to pull this off with such success on this particular record suggests that he was unusually in tune with some deeper, darker emotion.

What is true is that Disintegration stands out qualitatively far above the immediate preceeding and following Cure albums, and to date they have not matched it again. It is the only late - i.e. arena rock - manifestation of the band that makes much artistic sense to me, even as they were simultaneously achieving worldwide commercial success.

It's hard to imagine they will ever top it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

William Billings

The following essay was another part of my recent course on American Music. and was written in response to the following question:

Q. Read William Billings’ prefaces to his Continental Harmony – both “To the several Teachers of MUSIC…” and “A commentary on the preceding rules…”. Comment on what these treatises seem to say about Billings himself: his sense of humor, his ability as a teacher, and his views on music, especially vocal music.

Billings may be better known today than he was even just a few years ago, but he still needs advocating. His music is simply wonderful

The Boston composer William Billings (1756-1800) represented one pinnacle of the uniquely American musical flowering in the latter 18th century. Unique, because although the music was European in background, it was very different from the music of Europe of that time. By the time of Billings’ birth, J.S. Bach was dead and Handel had but three years to live and the Baroque style that had been perfected by those two masters was evolving, not least through the medium of Bach’s son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, into the Classical style that would peak during Billings’ lifetime in the works of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven.

None of this music played any significant part in Billings’ development. Instead, Billings reached back, through the writings of earlier composers and psalter compilers such Willaim Tans’ur and John Playford, to older styles dating back to the Renaissance. But the music of Tans’ur and his followers never aspired to the level, of, for example, a Thomas Tallis or John Shepherd. It was strictly practical writing for small groups of people with limited resources, lacking in many cases any accompanying instrument such as an organ. This was music for the parish church and concentrated on settings of the Psalms. A ‘do-it-yourself ‘element was a necessity – practitioners were frequently self-taught, given the difficulties of gaining a musical education in an isolated rural region of England. The American colonies could be considered in some respects as further flung regions of England; it is thus unsurprising that music making of this type, particularly with the strong religious sentiment of its practitioners, would flourish in the New World.[1]

Billings published four volumes of psalm settings, fuging tunes and anthems during his life, beginning with The New England Psalm Singer, published in 1770. This was followed by The Singing Master’s Assistant, (1778), the Psalm Singers Amusement (1781) and the Suffolk Harmony (1786). The early volumes sold well, the latter less so. By the time The Continental Harmony was published in 1792, Billings was in financial difficulties and his last work failed to restore his fortunes.[2] He may well have been aware that The Continental Harmony was likely to be his swansong given his age, changing public tastes and his financial problems, and writes within from the point of view of someone summing up his discoveries and attitudes to music and music performance. Now let’s consider the work itself.

Approaching the writings of William Billings from the point of view of a sophisticated listener but a rudimentary at best scholar of the language of music, I find myself drawn immediately into the role of student to Billing’s master. This is helpful in gaining an understanding of Billing’s persona as I am already casting myself in my mind back into a New England home, sitting alertly in a wooden chair, listening to the words of the Master as he imparts his knowledge.

And alert I would have to be, for Billings packs a lot of information into his long sentences. Nonetheless, his approach is methodical and well ordered. He begins with The Continental Harmony with a series of lessons directed to ‘the several TEACHERS OF MUSIC, in this and adjacent states[3]”. Note the reference to teachers. Billings is laying out the syllabus and principles here that he believes should be taught, and is giving the local choirmaster a comprehensive set of guidelines by which to do so.

The first lesson, “The Gamut[4]”, consists of tabulated listing of the notes of a scales for Tenor or Treble, Counter and Bass complete with their soundings as fa-mi-sol-la. Immediately, it is apparent that Billings is approaching the pupil as singer, which is as it should be for a book of song, but indicates that Billings is tailoring his musical teaching with practice in mind, as opposed to more abstract theorizing. Billings points out the whole and half note relationships, taking time out even at this early juncture to point out a common mistake of singers singing a B mi note as C fa. In doing so, he shows an empathy with the trials of many a choirmaster as well as the fruits of his own experience.

Swiftly he moves onto “Lesson II On Transposition”, where in two long sentences that need several readings to grasp, he lays out the travels of mi away from B as the key changes and the relationship of fa, sol, la etc. to mi after such changes. Again, practical advice for singers.

Lesson III on “Cliffs” (the 18th century spelling of clefs), introduces us to the written stave and the familiar bass clef, the identical treble and tenor clefs – the G clef – and the unusual counter clef that gives the middle line of the stave the identity of C. In a note Billings tells us how far, in intervals, a note set by one particular clef differs from that same note defined by a different clef and ends by defining the octave as any sound plus a seventh[5].

Lesson IV, “On Characters[6]” defines all the notes by duration, from semibreve down, through minum, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver and demisemiquaver. He points out the changes in note duration from systems in the past where the semibreve was the shortest note rather the longest. He introduces the equivalent rests, and the additive terminology that adds one third to length of any note– the dot – known at the time as the Prick of Perfection but which Billings prefers to name the Point of Addition.

Billings then introduces us to the modifying elements that affect the notes he has just defined – the Flat, the Sharp, a Repeat character, the Slur – ‘a form like a bow, drawn over or under the heads of two, three or more notes, when they are to be sung to but one syllable[7]” (an explanation that personally explains slurs more effectively than any I have come across). He gives us the bar divide, the Direct to show the placement of the first note of the next staff, the Natural, and the Mark of Distinction, a quotation-mark like character set over a note to indicate it should be ‘distinct and emphatic’ - a character that ‘when properly applied and rightly performed, is very majestic[8]”. It’s worth noting here the value of the long abandoned habit of capitalizing the opening letter of a significant word that Billings, along with all contemporary writers of his age, uses in large measure. It is a wonderful aid to understanding.

Lesson VI covers the pacing of music from slow to fast. Billings begins with the adagio, and details a very precise way for the conductor – the choirmaster – to beat out this pace – or mood as Billings calls it. Each crotchet should be beat using the method “first strike the ends of the fingers, secondly the heel of the hand, and thirdly, raise your hand a little and shut, and fourthly, raise your hand still higher and throw it open at the same time[9]”. What a wonderfully expressive motion this is, surely the method that Billings himself used. Billings very precisely sets the true time of each crotchet as one second, defined by the periodicity of a pendulum thirty nine and two tenths inches long. Should you not have such a pendulum, Billings even tells you how to make one “of common thread well-waxed, and instead of a bullet (as weight) take a piece of heavy wood turned perfectly round, about the bigness of pullet’s egg, and rub them over, either with chalk, paint or white wash, so that they may be seen clearly by candlelight.[10]” Billings was clearly a practical man capable of some invention, as would befit a man who made his living primarily as tanner. Also the one of first, if not the first, in a long line of American inventor-composers! He also has strong grasp of the physics of pendulum periodicity, being able to calculate precisely the length needed for a desired timing.

Largo mood, “in proportion to the adagio as 5 is to 4”, follows with Billings providing pendulum lengths for beating in crotchets or minums. Next is allegro, beat as adagio except with minums replacing crotchets. Two from Four or 2/4 time follows, with each crotchet as half a second – a more manageable pendulum of nine inches and eight tenths![11]

Billings then switches from these common time moods to consider two moods, 6/4 and 6/8, with 6 crotchets and 6 quavers to the bar respectively, judging these “neither common nor triple time, but compounded of both, and, in my opinion, they are very beautiful movements.”

Following come three triple time moods. These are 3/2 time – each bar containing three minums, two beat down and one up. Again we are given precise hand movements “let your hand fall, and observe first to strike the ends of your fingers, then secondly the heel of your hand, and thirdly raise your hand up, which finishes the bar[12]”. Then Three to Four (3/4), similar to 3/2 except crotchets are now used instead of mimums. Logically, Billings finishes with 3/8 – ‘an indifferent mood, and almost out of use in vocal music” where the beat is defined by the quaver.

Billings takes time in lengthy footnote to explain exactly the relationship of the numbers used in these time signatures, the named notes, and their place in the bar. In the same footnote, he gives performance instructions for the singer to negotiate figures placed over the bar, such as a 3 above three tied notes, a situation where you must sound the three notes in same the time it would normally take to sound two of the same kind - directions easier to grasp “by practice than precept, provided you have an able teacher[13]”.

Now we move onto more complex concepts. Lesson VII covers “syncope, syncopation or driving notes”, that “have not been sufficiently explained by any writers I have met with[14]”. Using no more than the musical materials that he has already given us, Billings demonstrates, in his first example, in the Allegro mood (i.e. two minums to the bar or 2/2 time), the equivalence of a minum between two crotchets in a bar to two tied crotchets between two untied. This is syncope.

His second example, again Allegro, with a bar containing a crotchet followed by a dotted minum. Here one beat consists of the crotchet, plus half the minum that is carried back, and the second beat is the last half of the minum plus the point of addition.

His third example, illustrating syncopation, shows the effect of ties that cross bar lines. Here Billings is not clear, and the first two examples[15] that he shows as being the same do not seem to be so, although a third example he gives us is equivalent to the second. Sowing confusion in a subject ‘that has not been fairly explained by any of our modern authors[16]’ does little to separate Billings from his contemporaries, but is perhaps explained by typographical errors – again his “Example 5th[17] shows inconsistency as Billing reiterates his ideas of syncope and syncopation using different time signatures.

Finally, Billings concludes his series of lessons with the statement that there “are but two primitive keys in music, viz. A, the flat key, and C, the sharp key” and “these two keys should be well understood; they must be strictly enquired into by all musical practitioners; for without a good understanding of their different natures, no person can be a judge of music.” Furthermore, Billings insists that words be set to flat keyed tunes to portray the sad, and to sharp keys for the happy. Clearly Billings has a strong attachment to a relatively simple set of compositional rules, all of which were being greatly expanded by European developments during latter half of the 18th century.

Having relatively tersely laid out the basic rules of music, Billings then chooses to develop his themes at much greater length by the strategy of a question and answer dialogue between a doubtless idealized student and Mr. Billings, the music master. This dialogue is carefully constructed to follow the plan of his lessons. Initially, we learn that “The Gamut” is Greek in origin but owes its current form to a monk, Guido Aretinus, “whose name deserves to be recorded in the annals of fame” and who was probably ‘inspired with this invention, by Him, who is the Author of harmony itself[18]”. Billings here underscores his belief in the great religious value of music, a sentiment out of sympathy with the strict beliefs of the Puritans. To make his music acceptable to as large a part of the New World, Billings would need to underscore its divine origins as much as he could.

In such vein, Billings continues with speculation about the music of the original Royal Psalmist, King David himself, ultimately suggesting that The Gamut is none other than “King David’s Scale”.[19] Shrewd speculation, that regardless of its accuracy, stamps Billing’s method with Biblical approval.

In great and turgid detail, Billings then attempts to explain all the transpositions of B first mentioned in Lesson II, a passage to which the ‘student’ responds, “I doubt not but I shall reap the benefit of it”, and after parsing it repeatedly he may well do so.

Billings informs us that he know of only three clefs, the F, G and C, the former two being shackled to the stave, the latter moveable as stated in Aaron Williams in The Universal Psalmodist, 1764, one of Billing’s own reference sources.

Now we diverge from the lesson plan, no doubt to accommodate a practical concern of Billings, to consider choral performance practice. After defining the difference between a medius – a man singing the upper part of a four part musical piece two octaves above the bass – and a treble, a woman singing the same part three octaves above the bass, we then enter a consideration of the worth of each. For Billings, they are best set together for “such a conjunction of masculine and feminine voices is beyond expression, sweet and ravishing, and is esteemed by all good judges to be vastly preferable to any instrument whatever, framed by human invention.[20]

This is most significant statement. It tells us exactly why Billings chose to be a composer of choral music and not instrumental, and it is clear, as Billings expounds further on the design of choral music, that the interplay of the sung voice is the one element of music that truly inspires the composer.

After this illuminating diversion, we return to plan as Billings informs of the bar filling properties of the semibreve rest, before once again considering the performance practice of the hold, not mentioned in the lessons. Billings has scant regard for this device, where a note is sung for longer than the time value of the note, as it disrupts the time structure of the piece and should not even be present in a properly constructed bar. In doing so, he declares his independence from the written principles of two earlier psalmodists, John Arnold and William Tans’ur.

Billings continues in this vein, considering the role of the double bar in psalms – a point to take a breath according to some – but for Billing a point to merely catch breath while keeping a good sense of time. Billings then reminds us that in psalms double bars are placed at the ends of lines, indicating to the congregation where to stop so they can keep some sense of place using the old practice of lining out, or retailing, as Billings calls it. This gives Billings a chance to rail at the practice of lining out, “which is so destructive to harmony[21]”, and aligns himself with the advocate of musical literacy, Dr. Watts.

We then learn of the old long notes values, the Large, the Long and the Breve, that have supplanted by the shorter values beneath the semibreve, and Billings again, in the manner of his earlier explanation of the transitions of B- mi, expounds on the difference between Common and triple time, doing his best to set to rest the misperception that common time is slow music, and triple time fast, ending with the characteristic assertion “You may depend on the infallibility of this rule in any mood whatsoever”.[22]

He again asserts that 6/4 and 6/8 time are composed of elements of Common and triple time, emphasizing that 6/8 “largely partakes of the beauties of both”[23], before turning has attention again to performing practice, precisely defining the speeding up or slowing down of a musical line that is marked for such as one quarter of the current speed. Billings approves of grace notes but not for note values under half a beat, as “it makes the sound like notes tied together, in threes, which is very false and entirely spoils the air (Billing’s italics)”. Again, Billings demonstrates he has a very clear concept of just how he wants his music to sound.

Back again to the consideration of key, which is best, flat or sharp? Here, Billings expounds on his “flat = sad, sharp = glad” concepts, with a lengthy consideration of the setting of psalms. He quotes the uplifting Psalm 95, “let us make a joyful noise” contrasting it with lamentations such as Psalm 42, “O my God, my soul is cast down with me”, assigning the sharp key to the former and the flat key to the latter. With great enthusiasm he relates how those latter flat key settings “affect us both with pleasure and pain, but the pleasure is so great it makes even the pain to be pleasant…(Billing’s italic)”, but then counters with the exaltation and “ecstasy of joy” that tunes in the sharp key produce[24]. He resolves that neither claim any superiority, and relates a charming story of the susceptibility of Alexander the Great to music, leaping up to slay his enemies upon hearing the sharp key, yet being soothed to weeping by the flat – all in the course of a brief performance. Nonetheless, he ends by declaring that should a vote be taken of all music lovers, the flat key would easily win. On further query by his pupil, he reveals that although men may regard each key equally well, women, nine-tenths no less, would prefer the flat.

Which leads again to another lengthy and dense paragraph on the mechanics of music, seeking to explain the transpositions of keys, a concept more effectively diagrammed than described, but he slips in a disarming poetic verse (previously published in The New England Psalm Singer) to explain the migrations:

By flats the mi is driven round

Till forc’d on B to stand its ground

By sharps the mi’s led through the keys

Till brought home to its native place

His ‘student’ interjects with the not-unreasonable statement as to “the necessity of transposing B-mi from one place to another, for if the tune must always end on A or C, I do not see any great difference between a tune that is set in its native place and one that is transposed”[25]. Billings responds by stating that such transpositions serve to keep the music on the stave, but, more importantly, let the music give “a variety of airs”[26] – a way of saying that every melody has a key that suits its temperament better than any other, and also implying that ending every tune on a C or an A is an easily broken rule.

By now it is clear that Billings is doing no less than codifying all the principles upon which he based his own compositional method. Clearly he feels it important to share this knowledge, suggesting a strong belief in both the originality and substance of his thought.

He continues to parry practices stated by other composers. A well-pitched tune is one where the performers can clearly produce the highest and lowest note, but Billings allows for exceptional singers who can carry a tune “perhaps five or six notes too high, or too low”[27] yet “oftentimes the greatest masters of composition set some of their pieces too or too low” (and there is a strong sense here that Billings is including himself in this class) as the ‘student’ will soon comprehend once he begins composing.

Billings then goes on to state the importance of the third note above the key note, plus the sixth and seventh as important guide notes for composition, rejecting fourths, fifths and the octave. He offers some conjecture as to the singers practice of hitting sharpening the B-mi, being drawn so by the key note. Clearly based on his own observations, he comments on the difficulty that even well-trained singers have harmonizing upon first meeting and performance, assigning the clash to differences in the singers transitions from one note to another. A good choirmaster, by laying emphasis on the first and third beats of a bar in common time, or the first beat in triple time, can effectively knit his singers together[28].

This advice, with its emphasis on accenting, elicits an extraordinary footnote from Billings who, answering a ‘critic’ who notes the lack of such attention on accenting in the earlier The New England Psalm Singer , proceeds to confess that he began composing without understanding “either tune, time or concord (Billings’ italics)”. After this confession, he vacillates between humility and hubris with the latter triumphing. Billings must have been sensitive to his own lack of formal musical training and, inevitably, his growth as a composer would encompass works that he now regards less well. Nonetheless this pugnacious apology is overdone and unnecessary – a strong pointer to an undercurrent of insecurity in the man.

Moving on, we read Billings’ opinion of the interval of a fourth, decidedly casting it as a dischord (contrasting with the opinion of Thomas Walter as stated in The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained).[29] He then considers the use of dischords in general, confessing that he has formulated no rules to handle them, going so far to acknowledge that “when fancy gets upon the wing, she seems to despise all form, and scorns to be confined or limited by any formal prescriptions whatsoever”[30]. It becomes clear that Billings compositional method begins with such freedom, and involves the attempt to organize and harmonize the latter parts of the work to this, this being “the grand difficulty in composition”.

A similar consideration of concords reveals Billings fondness for thirds, sixths and tenths – “the octave to a greater third[31]” – which he considers to be the greatest concord found in nature.

Returning to performance, Billings states his preference for singers with a musical ear rather than voice, “for any one that has not a musical ear is no better judge of musical sounds than a blind man is of colours[32]”. He conjectures on the global origin of the best singers, allowing that singers from the tropics, “the blacks brought here from Africa”, are better singers than native Americans. No mention is made that those same blacks would be slaves.

Billings defines an Anthem for us, making clear that he considers that the form of this “divine song” to be of his own creation[33].

Finally, Billings returns to his theme of the innate Godliness of music by quoting (through the “scholar”) the Italian proverb, “God loves not him who loves not music”. Claiming that there is no such thing as one who does not love music, Billing’s qualifies his opinion by extending his definition of music well beyond the sound of the choir into abstractness – “the usurer in the sound of interest upon interest (Billings’ italics). For Billings, music is “nothing more than agreeable sounds” and “that sound which is most pleasing is most musical.[34]” Only the deaf are excluded (although surely a deaf usurer would rejoice as well as any other in the music of his accumulating interest). Billings’ statements here, although they do not hold up to logical analysis, tell us much about the regard in which he holds music; a regard that is on the highest level and is effectively equivalent to any meaningful and spiritual human endeavor.

He concludes with words of advice to his ‘student’, neither be overconfident or unduly insecure, seek the truth, always be open to new knowledge, but ultimately to be most concerned with the essence of music, an essence irrevocably bound up in faith and allowing entry into “that land of Harmony, where we may in tuneful Hosannahs and eternal Hallelujahs, Shout the REDEEMER (Billings’ italics and capitals)”.[35]

Never one to let an interesting point go said without extra comment, Billings adds in a footnote that “ignorance and conceit are inseparable companions[36]” and expounds with another tale lambasting churchmen who fail to understand the use of appropriate meter for whichever psalm their service requires. A final footnote ends on a more spiritual plane by quoting Milton from Paradise Lost – a short section describing a unison performance of a sacred text “such concord is in heaven”.[37]

The Continental Harmony reveals Billings to be, if not an intellect of the first ranking, a thoughtful, inquisitive and confident individual, not to overbearing extent of excising self-doubt, but clearly an attractive advocate of his music. Indeed, a man of strong opinion as to the worth of music in general, and the competent understanding and practice of such. A strong streak of individualism runs through his works, casting him clearly in the forefront of a long line of ruggedly independent American composers who choose to work with the materials available to them, or invent new ones, rather than simply accept prevailing European cultural concepts. Like all in such a position, he is forced to become teacher to ensure the promulgation of his ideas, but this is a role he clearly relishes and his enthusiasm is very appealing.

[1] Kroeger, Carl Introduction to Billings, William The New England Psalm Singer American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1981 pp. xviii-xx

[2] Kroeger, Carl Introduction to Billings, William The Continental Harmony American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 pp. xiii-xxii

[3] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 3

[4] ibid, p. 3

[5] ibid, p. 5

[6] ibid, p. 7

[7] ibid, p. 8

[8] ibid, p. 9

[9] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 9

[10] ibid, p. 10 footnote.

[11] ibid, p. 10

[12] ibid, p. 11

[13] ibid, p. 11

[14] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.13

[15] ibid, p. 14

[16] ibid, p. 15

[17] ibid, p. 15

[18] ibid, p. 16

[19] ibid, p. 17

[20] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.18

[21] ibid p. 21

[22] ibid p. 23

[23] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p. 23

[24] ibid, p. 26

[25] ibid, p. 27

[26] ibid, p. 27

[27] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.28

[28] ibid, p. 30

[29] ibid, p. 31 see footnote 44

[30] ibid, p. 32

[31] ibid, p. 33

[32] Billings, William, The Continental Harmony, American Musical Society - University of Virginia Press 1990 p.33

[33] ibid, p. 34

[34] ibid, p. 34

[35] ibid, p. 35

[36] ibid, p. 35

[37] ibid p. 35 Footnote 55 – refers to Paradise Lost, Book 3, II 369-72

Let There Be Love

It's strange to consider that Oasis have now been around longer than their heroes The Beatles, albeit with revamped line-up and Ringo's son now on drums. But the essence of the band, Liam's voice and Noel's songwrting remains intact.

Nonetheless, listening to the latest Oasis album Don't Believe The Truth is a rather weird experience. The sound is in someways a throwback for them - if you can say a sound that was a throwback to begin with is a throwback! Nonetheless, it sounds like a classic Oasis album and that means their first two records.

I haven't yet decided if this record is in the same class, but one song, Let There Be Love, is most definitely up there with their finest.

It reeks of Beatles influences (Lord knows how much trouble they went to get a piano sound exactly like that of Lennon's Isolation), '60s production values and instrumentation (prominent mellotron), but, as is the case with all of Oasis's best material, completely transcends them to stand out as a moving and beautiful ballad, gorgeously sung by both brothers, and with the melodic weight of the most enduring folk music.

Oasis were always a group out of time, a sixties-obsessed band thriving in the nineties because they cherry-picked enough of the music in between to give themselves a uniquely powerful sound. But really none of this matters very much. Their strength is their songs and their singing, with Liam as surely one of the finest rock vocalists of all time.

A great Oasis song is simply that - great.

The Unexpected Influence

Every now and then, I hear something in a piece of music that I know I have heard before - be it a melody or chord progression.

This is a rather bald statement. The truth is that it is very hard to hear any music that does not contain elements heard before. So what separates the new from the merely derivative?

Not an easy question to answer, and I'm not sure I can.

Anyway, these thoughts popped into my mind while listening to The Beta Band track, Assessment, from the Heroes to Zeroes CD. This track contains a very distinctive set of chord changes that I have recognizably heard once before, on the Carlos Santana/John McLaughlin album, Love Devotion Surrender, specifically on the track The Life Divine. This version is a hypercharged guitar jam over the vamp of this particular chord sequence and remains my favorite track on the album.

Considering it's really a very basic descending sequence, I am surprised I have not heard it elsewhere, but there it is. At least The Beta Band had inspiration to write a very affecting song around it. Whether they thought of it on their own, or whether they picked it up from the Santana/McLaughlin album who knows. The only clue is in the title Assessment - which is close to the Ascension or Acknowledgement title used for the title of a Coltrane album and part of the A Love Supreme suite respectively. Love Devotion Surrender draws on Coltrane for two cuts.

Tenuous at best. But that's all part of the fun of trying to trace musical influences.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Despite my oft stated disgust with the current state of mainstream pop - a disgust that in truth could be applied to the mainstream pop of any time - I am actually a sucker for a well-crafted, hook-laden commercial song that shows any spark of individuality and creativity. However, such music seems to be in short supply in the USA right now, so I found myself turning to different sources.

And not necessarily the obvious British alternative. The single hugely successful, hugely commercial, and decidedly mainstream (albeit with a strong individual touch) artist who appeals to me today is the Columbian singer Shakira.

Not that I have heard her latest albums (something to put right soon enough). No, this impression is based on her Spanish only Dónde están los ladrones? that I recently picked up after hearing a clip or two on the BMG website.

This is one masterful CD. Sure, all the mainstream pop motifs are in place, be they dance beats or power ballad guitar chords, but they are fresh and exciting. Shakira is a very good songwriter and has a crack band behind her here. Her melodies are seductive, the arrangements sparkle. Perhaps her greatest gift is to have mastered that effortless synthesis of world music (and I don't necessarily mean NPR-style ethnic world music here) that I believe is the key to popular music growth today. One hears touches of everything from Country, through Latin, through all kinds of alternative, through electronica, through simple balladry, through everything basically, but none of it sounds artificially appropriated.

On top of all that she is a compelling singer. Comparisons to Alanis Morrisette have been made, and, yes, Shakira shares some of the vocal mannerisms of Morrisette. But she has a much larger vocal and expressive range.

She also writes better songs.

Clearly she is richly self-confident in her music, so much so that on her song Octavio día she appropriates the two chord motif of I Am The Walrus and generates a song that carries echoes of The Beatles without in any sense being a Beatles song.

So what, you may say, artists having been appropriating The Beatles non-stop since their earliest records, and this is certainly true. However Shakira's song seems to go beyond homage or mimicry into something reflective and thoughtful. A further example of her creativity is the blending of Western dance with Middle-Eastern melody and form on the catchy Ojos así - not something you would necessarily associate with a 'Latin' artist.

So, an artist I shall be looking into much more. But why did she dye her hair blonde? She looks so much better with those black tresses.

I Predict A Riot

Listening to the Kaiser Chiefs hugely enjoyable Employment CD reveals the ultimate absurdity of the relentless urge to subdivide and sub-classify rock music. You might as well throw all those endless divisions away and return to simple pop/rock definition that I personally prefer for any music with a pronounced rock 'n' roll derived backbeat.

For the music on this CD would have been called pop music a la Beatles or Kinks in the 1960s, power pop in the early '70s, punk pop in the late '70s, guitar pop in the 1980s, Brit-pop in the 1990s and it is all those things.

So let's just call it rock, and rejoice in the effortless synthesis that the band has mastered to produce yet one more entry in the patheon of highly satisfying rock albums.

Whether Employment is a masterpiece I can't tell yet, but it contains a lot of witty, catchy, energetic songs and is good food for the soul. Despite the long and honorable heritage that it draws from, the band sounds individual and self-contained and may, assuming it holds together, join the finest of its predecessors as another essential building block in the edifice call rock.

I think it will.

The reason why is encapsulated in the single I Predict A Riot, a sublime rocker of social unrest not unlike The Jam's Eton Rifles, and it is just as powerful complete with glam-rock style riffing guitars under the chorus and a very nice sense of dynamics. It resembles a lot of great songs that have come before it, yet sounds exactly like none of them. Which is precisely how it has worked for every great rock song since the beginning of the form.

Postscript: Having listened to this album repeatedly, I have grown only to like it more. It may eventually come to rank with Definitely Maybe.

The Sound Of Fury

One of the consequences of the "Music of The Beatles" course that I took last summer was an exploration of British rock 'n' roll and pop music prior to the release of "Love Me Do". Adam Faith was one of those artists, but his forte was pop music. Billy Fury was a different story.

Not that Fury recorded nothing but ace rock 'n' roll - far from it, he recorded his fair share of often slushy and unrocking pop ballads. But somehow, astonishingly, in the midst of all this Fury managed to record what is easily the best British rock 'n' roll album before The Beatles.

Indeed, The Sound Of Fury, is a trailblazer in all sorts of ways. One of the more enduring Beatles' myths is that before that band broke, rock 'n' roll artists seldom recorded their own compositions and certainly did not put out albums of new self-composed material.

It certainly true that most albums consisted of a handful of hit singles and hastily arranged filler, but any examination of the 1950s LP output of major artists such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly, reveals holes in the argument.

The Sound Of Fury is entirely self-composed by Fury. It's also performed by an astonishingly tight and accomplished British band including Joe Brown on electric guitar and Alan White on drums. The music is essentially Sun Records-derived rockabilly and rock 'n' roll with a touch of Buddy Holly's Texan style thrown in for good measure. Nothing strikingly original, to be sure, but it is executed with such self-confident swagger that it easily stands up to the American classics.

All of the songs are gems, but my particular favorite is the opener, That's Love. A mid-tempo rocker with Jordanaires-style vocal harmonies, it is a excellent showcase for Billy Fury's extraordinarily expressive and wide-ranging vocals. Influenced by Elvis, yes, but Elvis has never sung better than Fury does on this session. He's also beautifully recorded, as can be heard to great effect on the latest CD incarnation of this classic record The Sound of Fury: 40th Anniversary Decca Records 8449902.

The Sound Of Fury is superior to the weaker Beatles albums; indeed it's superior to much of the output of the more well-known 1960s British beat-boom. If it has any fault, it is simply too short. But for Fury to persuade his record label to record even only a 10" LP's worth of original material in 1960 was a miracle in its own right.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I was listening to the early 1990s CD Girlfriend earlier today, and checked up on the All Music guide review of Matthew Sweet's single and title cut. This led to an interesting review of the new Rhino box set Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box.

This is a 7-CD take on the nineties concentrating on alternative rock, and a cursory glance at the track listing reveals about 35% songs that I own, and about 50% I've heard, 90% I've at least heard of and 10% that slipped under my radar.

All well and good, but as reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine points out, the set essentially bypasses hip-hop, dance, Brit-pop as well as a good number of the most important alternate rock acts (Nirvana, Pixies, Sonic Youth, P.J. Harvey, Radiohead for example). That's understandable given inevitable licensing restrictions, but as a record of the 1990s it misses the mark for me.

And it was probably inevitable that it would do so. As Erlewine perceptively points out the 1990s really saw the splintering of rock into self-contained sub-genres, categories so inclusive within themselves that is possible to become completely immersed and shut-out all the rest.

Much of the blame for this has to lie with the record industry, whose penchant for playing it safe reached epic proportions in the 1990s. Outside of a few glory years in the earliest part of the decade, can anyone say that there has been any truly memorable top-40 pop music since? I don't think so, and with radio industry condensing into a series of genre and era-specific formats, all exhibiting woefully repetitive shrunken playlists, was there even any reason to listen to see there was something to hear?


No wonder file-sharing took off like a rocket once the technology became easy to use.

So I spent much of the latter '90s exploring dance and Brit-pop, giving up completely on commercial radio and greatly reducing my interest in 'alternative', a genre which was running out of steam by 1995. I have always maintained an oblique relationship to hip-hop, dipping into very shallow waters there.

So a 1990s compilation that cherry-picks the best of those genres would be very interesting, and I dare say we will start to see them before too long.

But however splintered and difficult-to-follow the 1990s were, the 2000s has them beat. Half way through, and I still don't have any clear sense of any movement at all! Perhaps the times for those are past.

I'm In Love With A German Film Star

One of the many mysteries of popular music is the one-hit wonder. Why is it that an artist or band of questionable talent and dubious originality can produce, in one glorious moment of otherworldly inspiration, a song or recording that reaches to the stars?

I have no answer to this question. However, such records form a constant thread throughout the history of popular music, and, when collected into a set such as the Rhino Records Nuggets series form a powerful corpus of delightful music.

All these are thoughts that occur to me as I listen to one of my favorite one-off songs, The Passions' I'm In Love With A German Film Star.

Film Star was released by the band in the winter of 1981, and was a moderate hit, but nothing special. I first heard it in early 1982, on a compilation tape that a friend has sent me from England, and was bowled over by it.

It's heavily derivative (of Cure, Joy Division new-wave doominess), filled with cliches (the standard rock 'n' roll derived skip-drumming of many punk hits), a female singer of no great ability and essentially banal lyrics (I'm in love with a German film star I once saw in a movie; Playing the part of a real trouble-maker but I didn't care, it really moved me).

Nonetheless, I remain entranced by the song, and would put it in any desert island compilation (of decent length!). It works because all the elements are perfectly in balance and thus the song transcends what should be insurmountable barriers. Who cares if the guitar solo is lifted almost verbatim from Robert Smith's work on "Seventeen Seconds". Who cares if the melody is little more than a blues progression - the song suceeds completely on its own terms and joins that select group of what might be called Perfect Pop Songs. Naturally enough, nothing else the band ever recorded comes even close.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cafe del Mar - Ibiza

Growing up in the 1960s, discovering rock in the 1970s and following it through the 1980s led to a quandary in the 1990s. How could the music continue to generate freshness?

With a family, ears that no longer tolerated blasts of loud sound, and no great inclination to stay up to 2 a.m. in a crowded club or bar, I was cut off from the root source of much of the music that I had taken on board in the past. Commercial radio was crushingly dull, dominated by the same prepackaged acts that have always dominated it, but without any of the extra-musical hooks that might have drawn me to the music in the past.

What was I to do?

I found an answer by returning to a strategy that I used in the very earliest days of my listening, the dismal mid-1970s when there was precious little good music in the mainstream - I started rifling through cut-out bins and second hand record stores.

This time my object was the burgeoning underground of dance music. Disco revived as house music, and already by the end of 1990s splitting into the hydra head of sub-genres; trance, big beat, trip-hop, speed garage, jungle etc, etc.

Naturally enough, a deal of what I bought was uninteresting and uninvolving. But that's always been true of any time. What I did find were a series of compilation CDs of the music that would eventually be called nu-cool put together by Ibiza DJ Jose Padilla.

These were atmospheric dance cuts, low on insistent beats and high on atmosphere. The first Cafe Del Mar record I heard was the first (1994), and it remains the best.

The artists included were completely left-field to me. William Orbit, Sabres Of Paradise, Sun Electric, the appropriately named Leftfield, The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Sisterlove, Underworld, Ver Vlads, A Man Called Adam, Obiman and Jose Padilla himself. I knew nothing of them. To this day, I know little about some of them - it is a striking characteristic of underground dance music that most of the records are put out by what one might call 'one-hit-wonders'. The artists emerge and blend back into obscurity carried by the winds of a DJ's passing fancy.

So Cafe Del Mar - Ibiza was new to my ears, and it was fresh. It was so fresh and enticing that I hold it to this day as a one of the very best compilation CDs ever issued covering any period of music.

The first cut Agua by Jose Padilla defines the sound of the record. It's a dance cut, with a house-disco beat underneath much of it. But a slow synthesizer introduction (like the waves washing ashore) , a gentle South American or African-style hand drum beat, electronic bubbles, South-American native pipe interjections followed by Asian Indian flute stylings, and a gentle synthesizer keyboard riff all precede the major beat. Once introduced that drops out to make room for a vocal resembling the Middle-Eastern call to prayer, before returning with ever greater insistence.

On the surface this extraordinary mish-mash of world music should be completely synthetic but the effect is totally the opposite. Despite its undisguised scavenging of evocative sounds. Because of its undisguised scavenging, in fact.

There is absolutely no pretence that this music is somehow 'authentic' or a folk-music. As such it completely bypasses the sometimes unsatisfactory syntheses in the work of artists ranging from Paul Simon to The Talking Heads. It's true sound manipulation, barely conceivable in the pre-digital age, but now almost effortlessly possible.

It's simply wonderful.

The rest of the CD follows a similar pattern, with differing blendings but the same overarching concept. A masterpiece of moody dance music that is equally effective simply as a listening experiece.

Cafe del Mar - Ibiza was the first record of the 1990s that I heard that convinced me popular music was moving forward with as much potency as ever. Nirvana did not do it; neither did Oasis. The 1990s were truly the decade of innovative dance, the implications of which are still not worked out or fully integrated into the mainstream. But it will happen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

One year ago to the day...

...I attended the first class meeting of "The Music Of The Beatles". There was no hint that this course, and its sequel (or should I say prequel) "From Plymouth Rock to Rock 'n' Roll", would have have the profound impact that they have had at that initial meeting. This changed very rapidly.

The credit for this goes entirely to the teacher, and now my good friend, Ken. He has a knack for leading the student to the essence of whatever music is under consideration, not least because it is clear that he himself is deeply involved with the music. Ken's true stoke of genius was to invite the student to integrate himself as closely as possible with the time and place of the music in question.

His recommendation was follow the music - and this applies particularly to The Beatles' course - chronologically, and listen to it develop as naturally as is possible (allowing for the current ubiquity of Beatles' music!). The classes provided historical context through the use of film and video that reinforced the immersion, and the texts, particularly Ian McDonald's "Revolution In The Head" continued the process out of class.

I took his advice. It was a revelatory experience that in my case led to a far deeper psychological involvement and exploration that I would have considered possible beforehand.

There is no doubt that today I consequently listen far more deeply and with a far greater sense of history to popular music. All of these thoughts struck me as I was listening to a version of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)" recorded by Louis Armstrong with The Mills Brothers in 1937.

This is very interesting track indeed. Apart from an acoustic guitar and Armstrong's trumpet, all the instrumental effects are provided by the Mills Brothers themselves. Coming out of the barbershop quartet tradtion, this group lay the essential groundwork for the doo-wop stylings of the 1950s. Armstrong sings the sentimental lyric with tongue firmly in cheek, whereas the brothers keep it straighter.

The juxtaposition is very effective. Despite its clear sympathies for blacks in the deep South, the white man's idealization of plantation life expressed in Foster's song rings very hollow for Armstrong. A final sardonic 'yeah man' verges on disgust; by 1937 unacceptably sweet homilies to slavery did not have to be sung to please the white man. Overt songs of black pride were still to come, but Armstrong is being pretty subversive with this song. One wonders how many white listeners of the time picked up on what must come through loud and clear to Armstrong's African-American audience.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Billy Mayerl

There's always something a little unnerving about listening to music recorded before I was born. Something of the same feeling holds for film too - a sense that human activity was in full flood before I had acquired any form of consciousness, either of it or of myself. Strange how this unease is most closely associated with sound; early silent films share with Art a sense of timelessness and have quite a different feel.

But recorded sound seems to define time in a much more precise manner. I suspect that much of this has to do with a tradition of music where a composition was usually heard in a live performance by a contemporary performer. The music might be centuries old; but the music was here and now. This is no longer necessarily the case.

All of these thoughts struck me while listening to a series of recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by the British light music pianist Billy Mayerl. Several of the cuts have singing or spoken dialogue, and the posh British BBC accents sound quite strange in today's context. The music, too, mostly syncopated ditties not so much in the ragtime but more in the novelty piano tradition is very much of its time.

Charming, yes, and very attractive. But impossible to hear without a powerful historical veil settling over it and placing it in a time remote from my own.

Funnily, because this music is unfamiliar and little heard, the sense of history is stronger than found with better known works from the same era that, through constant exposure, have lost their strong ties to their genesis.

I think I prefer it this way. Listening to this Billy Mayerl compilation (Naxos 8.120654) is more akin to rooting around in the attic and finding a trunk full of your great grandparent's belongings. There is a sense of discovery and looking back into a different way of doing and seeing things.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Only Life

I have a particular fondness for music that induces a trance-like reverie, and it's a difficult thing to pull off. One musical device that almost never fails to work with me is a simple guitar or keyboard riff of maybe two or three chords, endlessly repeated to produce a sense of harmonic stasis. One of the finest examples of such is to found on The Feelies' Only Life from the album of the same name.

The Feelies have often been compared to third album (The Velvet Underground) Velvet Underground in sound and mood, and there is certainly a strong similarity. The Only Life album even contains a cover of the Velvet's What Goes On. But although Glenn Mercer's vocals strongly echo Lou Reed's style, they are actually quite distinctive and in some ways more expressive. What is certain is that the sound of The Feelies, guitar-rich yet totally devoid of mainstream or arena rock cliches, was another lasting blueprint for much of the independent music of the 1980s and beyond.

But back to the track, Only Life. It starts with two acoustic guitars settling into a two note/chord pattern, one guitar picked, the other strummed with a prominent rolling bass line and steady uncomplicated drumming. This is sustained throughout the song. The half sung/spoken lyrics concern withdrawl from life - a sort of rewrite of the Velvet's After Hours - and there is but one guitar feedback solo to provide an instrumental break between the first and second verses. Much of the song is simply the underlying vamp without adornment, all of which adds to the static, trance-like, quality of the performance.

At just over 3 minutes, this is a brief cut but it seems much longer than it really is (in a good way) and is wholly effective in setting a reflective mood for the rest of the album. The record continues, with variations, in much the same way sustaining a powerfully coherent mood. The Feelies were a well-named band. Absurdly, this masterpiece is currently deleted (a common fate for good records released on the A&M label). Hopefully that will be put right soon enough.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Twin Peaks

The Smiths' Sleep aside, there are few pieces that convey the somnabulent mood more effectively than Angelo Badalamenti's score for David Lynch's still unsurpassed Twin Peaks TV series.

From the amazingly evocative title tune, through Julie Cruise's astonishingly opaque vocal performances (Falling, Into The Night), and into those jazz-in-heavy-syrup instrumentals, nocturnal dreams and fantasies permeate this music. It surely must lay claim to the title of the most psychologically effective ambient score ever to reach a mass audience.

I use the word ambient in its fullest sense here - this really is true ambient music that has the virtue of hewing close to the conventions of song, scene background and title score pieces. Much of this effect is due to the effective production, very rich in middle range textures thanks to imaginatively used synthesized strings, and Phil Spector 'wall-of-sound'-derived mass overdubbing. The obvious retro touches, harking back to 1950s/early1960s song structures, sounds and production techniques, provides nostalgic reference points, with none more effective than the slow Duane Eddy-style low-register guitar twang on the Twin Peaks title cut. The overall effect is uncannily like listening to a jukebox from that period in a smokey hazy bar, dazed with drink and overwhelmed with emotion. Emotions primarily of nostalgia, regret, longing, sadness and loss.

In many ways, the storyline of the T.V. show, with its conventions of murder/victim/detective all present (if thoroughly subverted) is the baldest and most obvious facet of the entire production and serves only as a hook to lead the viewer/listener into a more meaningful exploration of certain psychological states - some of which may have particular resonance with the audience - through the use of symbolism. The show may have lost coherence as it continued, but it never failed to deliver an atmosphere that was capable of transcending those shortfalls.

Much of the credit for this lies with the music.

Sing Me To Sleep

Sleep, the last song on The Smiths' Louder Than Bombs is as direct and effective a lullaby as any. It never fails to make me sleepy, extraordinarily. Strange that that quality should define a Smiths song, but it illustrates why both U2 and R.E.M. failed to get any sort of meaningful grip on me during the 1980s. The competition, primarily The Smiths, was just too good.

I was reminded of this by listening to The Smiths and Louder Than Bombs this afternoon, both of which illustrate the quantum leap in artistry that this band makes over U2 or R.E.M. Morrissey's lyrics are extremely powerful, never more so than in Suffer Little Children that I finally twigged was a direct reference to the Moors Murders and a subject that it is impossible to consider those other bands either addressing or realising with the absolute success that marks this early Smiths song. The music is direct, subtle and unerringly intelligent.

Begin The Begin

The 1980s were a strange time for conventional (as in 1960s/1970s) rock. The new wave sound worked against the classic guitar/bass/drums format, giving keyboards, drums machines and the like an unprecendented role. However, conventional bands did not go away, and two came to represent the decade.

These were U2 and R.E.M., both of whom achieved enormous if inconsistent critical and popular success, and both are still around today. No one would deny that both band's finest moments currently lie long behind them (although rock always has a capacity to surprise) but those moments were very fine indeed.

Nonetheless, I never really warmed to either band. I collected the records, admired much of them, loved little, and was indifferent to the rest. I was reminded of this while replaying R.E.M.'s Lifes Rich Pageant today, and finding, much to my pleasure, that it is actually an even finer record than I first felt upon hearing it. I always considered it their best album, but listening again today seemed to reveal a deeper songcraft, lyrical incisiveness and instrumental facility than I recall from my first involvement with the music.

Perhaps I should revisit their other albums now than I am more receptive. Music has a funny habit of variably fitting into particular times, places and periods, and I am convinced that much of this receptivity (or lack of the same) is psychological in origin, so much so that I regard my musical preferences to be a signpost of my deeper pysche.

Which is how it should be for music, as for any art form. Art should always dig beneath the surface and burrow into hidden truths and meanings, even if they are not necessarily pleasant or consoling. For this reason, I am constantly searching out new music and re-evaluating old. I value the power of the medium to strip away the calcified layers that can bury one's own natural cognition.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Shaman's Blues

Like many people, I went through an avid Doors fan phase in my youth, focusing primarily on their first two and their last two studio albums. Traditionally, the best regarded efforts by the band. I postponed buying the two central studio albums, Waiting For The Sun and The Soft Parade, for a long time as I did want to be disappointed.

Eventually, though, I picked them up and, yes, I was disappointed. Neither album is anywhere near the standard of the other studio efforts, although Waiting For The Sun holds up better by sustaining the group sound evident on Strange Days and a number of very pretty melodies.

The Soft Parade, however, has few redeeming features. Adding strings and horns to the band dilutes rather than enhances the power of the band and many of the songs are pure throwaways. However, two songs stand out. The lengthy title cut, ironically in some ways their finest extended setting of a Morrison poem, and the shorter Shaman's Blues.

Shaman's Blues is a completely successful Doors song, and as such stands comparison with all their best material. It's a blues, a precursor to the much more extensive exploration of that style that would come with Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman, and it is magnificently sung by Morrison. In many ways it is his best blues performance, partly because it is free of the ennui that drenches his later vocals but show intimations of the depth that would also infuse the band's later blues performances. The arrangement is sparkling, a riff driven song heavy with harpischord and wailing electric guitar figures, strong deep bass, and a jazzy blues drum figure from John Densmore. The lyrics are typical Morrison mysticism, but again with that personal touch - "will you stop the pain?", "I'm alone for you - and I cry" - that prefigures the starker later songs. There is little sense that Morrison is acting or uninvolved with these lyrics, something you cannot say about most of the other material on The Soft Parade.

Shaman's Blues is so markedly superior to the songs that preceed and follow it that you wonder how the band could feel comfortable with those woefully substandard efforts. In truth, canning the whole album and putting out a single, The Soft Parade b/w Shaman's Blues, would have been an ideal solution. Thirty years later the rest could appear on an "Anthology" style record to enthuse the true believers.

But that didn't happen, and at least we can be grateful that Shaman's Blues appeared at all.

Friday, January 06, 2006

A Perfect Pop Album

The Beatles perfected the form of the pop album; a series of short, catchy, well-crafted songs, inventive arrangements, and a 'feel' that binds the whole together that reached its zenith with Revolver but marks all their earlier output. Naturally enough, the overarching influence of the band on the music of the 1960s led their competitors down the same road. Thus, in many ways, this period is considered the golden era of the pop album and with bands such as The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Who, Jefferson Airplane all producing masterpieces of the form, it certainly states a strong claim to be so.

But, despite the fragmentation of rock post-mid-1960s-pyschedelia into an ever expanding series of streams, many of which chose (such as progressive rock, heavy metal and jazz rock) to move well beyond the 45 rpm single length song as the basic building block, an adherence to and love of the pop album was maintained. You had to look deeper, as many of the finest records (such as Big Star's influential first two albums) were not much more than cult favorites, but the music was always there. From time to time the style would gain a name - Power Pop being one such in currency in the late 1970s/1980s.

But the essentials remained largely the same, all based on the classic guitar, bass, drums rock band line-up established with the original early 1960s beat boom. Fashionable accessories - organ, various keyboards, synthesizer - might be added to the mix but always in a coloristic manner; not as the base.

With such a weight of history behind the style, one might think that later efforts would be hampered by a lack of originality and to some extent that is true. There is always a slightly nostalgic subtext at work when listening to new pop albums while simultaneously being thoroughly aware of their precursors. However, this diminishes to vanishing point when listening to a truly well-made record and one such is Positive Touch by The Undertones.

By the time of that album's release The Undertones had already established themselves as a superb pop/punk band in the Ramones/Buzzcocks manner, but Positive Touch is quite a different animal from their prior work. Firstly the band almost completely abandon the guitar roar of The Undertones and Hypnotized for a much more layered, strummed, picked and altogether more carefully constructed guitar sound. The volume level is greatly reduced, keyboards and horns introduced here and there and Feargal Sharkey is allowed to make full expressive use of that remarkable voice of his.

One might also add that the bands melodic sense reached full-flower here, but in someways that would be inaccurate as the band had always possessed an unerring understanding of the melodic essence of great pop music. Nonetheless, the varied instrumentation and added textural touches allowed the melodies to shine as never before.

So far, so very good, but what makes Positive Touch a truly great album is the sustained mood of disillusionment, hypocrisy, and foreboding that underpins all the material. Perhaps most overtly demonstrated in the long delayed single release from the album It's Going To Happen, an oblique commentary on the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time with more specific - although not directly stated - reference to the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA member Bobby Sands. The song primarily focuses on the futility and repetitiveness of the struggle moving from generation to generation without resolution. Such themes run through most of the songs; in one sense this is a very jaded and cynical record but it has a much lighter tone than that might suggest. More, it is effort to make the listener penetrate the unconsidered assumptions of whatever life he or she may be living to see the framework beneath clearly in all its strengths and weaknesses.

Heavy stuff, perhaps, but this album in no way preaches or hits you over the head. What it does do is to draw you deeply into its mood and leaves you, as the final cut, the aptly named Forever Paradise fades out in psychedelic weirdness, feeling that you have been taken somewhere, learnt something and been brought home again.

As such, it closely resembles the earlier but near-contemporary Buzzcocks masterpiece A Different Kind Of Tension but that record is a far more flat-out punk/rock recording. One thing is sure - as a record of the slow boil in British society that was about to explode into nationwide riots and burnings, Positive Touch accurately chronicles that tension (if not its specifics) more than any other record.

Of its time and out of its time, like all the greatest music, Positive Touch is easily one of the very greatest rock albums ever made.

Monday, January 02, 2006


See this! Most satisfying.

Symphony No. 4 by Arnold Bax

I only recently warmed up to this symphony, and much of the credit must go to David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra who recorded the work on Naxos 8.555343. The earlier recorded version by late Bryden Thomson with the Ulster Orchestra never really gripped me, and as other Thomson Bax recordings most certainly did, I always assumed the music was to blame.

However, listening to this newer recording, it seems that Thomson never quite got the measure of this work. It is a difficult piece - it lacks the 'big tunes' that characterize its predecessors even though there is plenty of melodic interest. More than any other Bax work this is a sea symphony (and Bax hardly ignored the sea in his other works), and it makes a lot more sense if you imagine you are looking out over the waves while listening to this. For this work ebbs and flows in many ways from a great undertow, to an undulating swirl, to the waves crashing on the pebbles, even to shoreline rock pools filling and emptying.

As such, it is a very satisfying tone poem. No, not on the level of Debussy's La Mer, but not far below. More convincing sea music than Britten's Sea Interludes (although I think the Britten pieces are better music overall). Bax's greatest weakness is a tendency to meander; one senses a country walk with him would be filled with interuptions to look at a flower or explore a copse. Naturally enough, this weakens the symphonic structure and is frustrating if you are looking for the rigor of, for example, mid to late Sibelius. So it's best not to think of his symphonies as symphonies at all (doing this actually greatly enhances a feel for Bax's musical structure which is by no means as incoherent as implied by what I have already wrtitten!) and enjoy them as tone poems with symphonic tendencies. As late-Romantic manifestations of a nature lover's fascination with the wilderness, they really are unsurpassed and wholly individual.

Great stuff.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Harvester Of Eyes

Is there a more seductive riff than found on The Blue Oyster Cult's Harvester Of Eyes?

Probably, but it will do nicely for the moment.

Tyranny and Mutation

I have always had a difficult relationship with heavy metal music. Part of this is undoubtedly due to growing up when the music was critically despised as being loud, monotonous, lyrically banal and executed by morons.

All of this remains true for huge chunks of the music.

But it is interesting to see the shift in critical opinion over time. Thanks to the punk explosion in the mid-1970s that reminded everyone that loud, monotonous, lyrically banal and moronically executed music was the essence of much of the greatest rock and roll music, it was no longer possible to criticise heavy metal convincingly on those grounds. So, grudgingly perhaps, the music entered the mainstream and almost immediately lost whatever coherency it had, splitting into dozens of subgroups from hair metal, through thrash metal, to goth metal.

But before those days, one band, the 'thinking man's heavy metal group' slipped right through the critical barrier and became hip with those who otherwise disliked metal. This was the Blue Oyster Cult, still around today and making good noise, but whose true heyday was the early to mid-1970s. The first album of theirs that I bought, all the way back in 1976, was Tyranny And Mutation. Originally released in 1973, I spotted this in a record store in Brighton and bought it solely on the strength of the cover, a stark geometrical monochrome rendition of a pyramid against a black and white rainbow backdrop. That, and the title which was strikingly perverse.

The music was not a disappointment, as it so often is after these impulse buys. Thom Jurek has written a very nice review in the All Music Guide that comes closer to the essence of this record than anything I have read before or since. It is, perhaps, the best pre-punk metal/punk amalgamation, and much of the reason for the success of this blending is the clear affection that the band has for 1960s pop/rock music (perhaps most effectively realised in the later Byrdsian masterpiece Don't Fear The Reaper). A melodic sensibility threads through the songs on Tyranny and Mutation that moves them out of the heavy metal mainstream, while still maintaining much of the sound and attitude of the genre as it was at the time. The lyrics are drenched in science-fiction derived obscurities that are difficult to follow, but what is said is much less important than how it is said and singer Eric Bloom really comes into his own on this record with a style that owes much more to Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger than Robert Plant or Ozzie Osbourne. It is easy, listening to this record, to see why The Clash would have sought out the record's producers for Give Em Enough Rope.

Tyranny and Mutation remains as fresh and as enjoyable today as it was then, partly because so few other records manage to pull off the balancing act between heaviness and pop lightness that this record manages with such aplomb. The Cult came close with their prior The Blue Oyster Cult and their later Secret Treaties and Agents Of Fortune but rather lost the plot subsequently.

Nevermind. To have made what they did is reward enough.