Stairway to Heaven

Our living room is light and airy but rather bland: magnolia walls, white ceiling, beige carpet. A raspberry red sofa and a matching armchair add a big dollop of colour but they are old and the covers become increasingly shredded each time our beloved cat uses the furniture as a scratching post. The time has come to re-think the colour scheme and freshen up the room.

Two new sofas are on order. They are a duck egg colour (a delicate blueish green), which will go well with the carpet, but we will need some deeper, bolder colours somewhere in the room to add variety and interest. We have lots of swatches of curtain material but it’s hard to imagine what those designs would look like on a pair of floor-to-ceiling curtains.

We considered adding some bright scatter cushions and a few colourful pictures on the walls. We thought about slapping on some designer wallpaper. Then, browsing online, we saw some stunning wall murals and our imaginations started to run away with us. Mrs Crotchety liked the idea of a fantasy bookshelf wall. Alternatively, there are lots of lovely floral designs. There are also beautiful landscapes, lush green forests, shimmering fish, chirpy garden birds, wild animals, classical paintings and abstract art.

We must have spent a couple of hours sifting through several catalogues of murals without seriously considering whether anything we’d seen would actually work in our living room. Most of them were the wrong colour, the wrong shape or far too overpowering to live with. Of the rest, no one picture particularly appealed to us. Taking a break, Mrs C noticed that there’s a large, empty wall space rising up beside the stairs; a mural there would have quite an impact.

I imagined a wild-flower meadow at the bottom, a few trees in the distance and above them a deep blue sky that grew darker as you looked up the staircase, fading to coalface black overhead and studded with tiny white stars. It would look like a mountain path climbing up into the sky, our very own stairway to heaven.

Instantly, the Led Zeppelin track came to mind, popping up like a rocky outcrop in a grassy plain. Familiar songs have a habit of intruding into everyday life like that. Coming to mind unbidden is reason enough to be added to the Crotchety Man blog, so Stairway to Heaven is my track of the week this time.

Led Zeppelin

The Hindenburg, 1937

Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest rock bands there has ever been and Stairway to Heaven must be their best-known song. I don’t need to say anything much about it. I will say, though, that I’ve never been a fan of Led Zeppelin. They wrote some really good songs but they spoiled them with vocals that scrape and scratch at the ears and loud guitars that crash like an old metal trashcan thrown across a cobbled street. Whole Lotta Love, for me, is just a whole lotta noise. (I’m with Cerwin Vega, the speaker manufacturer, whose motto used to be: “Loud is beautiful … if it’s clean”.)

Stairway to Heaven suffers from the scratched-ears-and-trashcan sound slightly near the end but, overall, it’s a fine example of early seventies rock and deserves to be on all the ‘Best Of’ lists. Better yet, as I listened to it again today, I realised there’s a bit at the end of Stairway that sounds a lot like Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower and you can’t get better than that!

Baker Street

baker street stationLondon is a big city. A really big city. The population of Greater London is currently estimated to be about 8.6 million, only slightly less than New York. Crotchety Man was brought up in the suburbs of England’s capital city and it will always have special memories for me.

London, though, can be a lonely place to live. It has everything a man (or woman) could want. It has shops and offices, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, museums, bars and clubs of all kinds. There are parks and markets, churches, castles and even palaces. Whatever you need you can find it somewhere in that great city.

And yet, making friends there isn’t easy. As you travel on the crowded trains, the big red buses and the stuffy underground (that’s the subway to our American visitors) people stream past in their hundreds. Every race and creed is represented in the throng. People of every class jostle each other, rich and poor alike. If you were to stop one at random you would probably find you had little in common with them.

One of my favourite quotes defines a city as “a large community where people are lonesome together” (Herbert V. Prochnow) and that perfectly describes what it’s like to be living in London with few friends. The quote seems to have originated with Henry David Thoreau in a slightly different form, but I like the Prochnow version.

There’s a music track that captures that sense of impossible isolation, too. It’s Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.

Gerry RaffertySherlock Holmes lived (fictionally) in Baker Street. There’s also an underground station there and it’s where I used to go as a young man when I was just starting out in the world. I never had many friends and we all seemed to go our separate ways after university. So, when I started working in central London, I would visit a social club near Baker Street tube station from time to time. Did I find friends there? Not really. At least none that lasted.

Yes, London is a big city. Too big. It’s too easy to get lost there and far too difficult to find yourself again. And yet, it has everything a man could ever want.

Guillemots

Guillemots are a bit of a mystery. They are undoubtedly my favourite band of all time but it’s hard to say why. Let’s do some research, see what we can find out, and try to throw some light on the band and their music.
Pair of guillemots: on the right the typical form and on the left the "bridled" variant.

First of all, they are named after a seabird.

Guillemot:

/ˈɡiləˌmät/
noun
  1. a black-breasted auk (seabird) with a narrow pointed bill, typically nesting on cliff ledges.

According to Wikipedia, Guillemots music has been influenced by ‘BIRDSONG first and foremost’. Certainly there are several other references to birds in Guillemots‘ recordings (redwings, flycatchers, doves) and there’s a YouTube video in which a delighted Fyfe Dangerfield brings our attention to the songs of a wren and a robin. Could that be the secret?

Fyfe is a classically trained pianist, guitarist and singer/songwriter. He formed Guillemots in 2004 along with Grieg Stewart (drums), Aristazabal Hawkes (acoustic and electric bass) and MC Lord Magrao (guitars, synthesisers and effects). There’s nothing particularly unusual about those instruments; that can’t be what makes the band so special.

Fyfe was born and brought up in England, Greig hails from Scotland, Aristazabal is Canadian and Magrao is from Brazil. You might think that brings different influences to the music but I can’t detect it. No, it’s not the cosmopolitan make-up of the band that explains their unique appeal.

Guillemots music has been described as “indie rock” (Wikipedia), “avant-garde pop and indie rock” (Last.FM) and “a cappella/pop/big beat” (Guillemots official Facebook page). The last of those is definitely different but, unfortunately, it’s also very misleading. There are no a cappella tracks on any of Guillemots four albums (although Blue Would Still Be Blue comes close) and I certainly wouldn’t call them a big beat band.

Stripped down to the bare essentials Guillemots tracks are just good pop songs. They’re fairly short, have a simple, conventional structure and feature melodies that you want to hum. You might have heard them all before, on the radio, in shops, while you travel; and they sit easy on the ear so you hardly notice your spirits lift a little when you hear them.

But there’s more than that to Guillemots songs. If you listen a bit more carefully you’ll find there’s a beat that pumps a little more blood through your veins and urges your steps to synchronise with the music. You might catch an unusual chord sequence here, an interesting bass line there, an unexpected change of rhythm, dulcet vocal harmonies, subtle special effects; a treasure trove of delights hidden in plain view.

There’s no screaming guitar, no complex rhythms, no brain-numbing thump, thump, thump of bass-and-drums. There’s nothing outlandish, weird, or off-the-wonderwall; no one thing that makes Guillemots stand out. It’s simply a dish of the finest ingredients, expertly blended, beautifully cooked and superbly presented. Not too little of this, not too much of that. Everything just deliciously right. That, I think, is the secret.

Guillemots 2

Guillemots have released four albums to date: Through the Windowpane (2006), Red (2008), Walk the River (2011) and Hello Land! (2012).

For my money the first is still the best. It’s the most varied, the most adventurous and, ultimately, the most successful. Three UK top 40 singles came from Through the Windowpane: Made Up Love Song #43 (a Crotchety Man track of the week in February), Trains to Brazil and the superb Annie Let’s Not Wait (best single of 2007 in my opinion). And there are at least two more tracks on the album that are just as strong (the title track and Sao Paulo). All in all, Windowpane is a truly brilliant album full of exuberant songs and epic productions.

By contrast, Red is a sweet and sour mix of plaintive melodies and abrasive, raw energy. The second album was never going to be as good as the first; that would have been impossible. But there are soothing songs, rocking riffs and echoes of the wide-screen, film-score music of the previous album. There is one track, though, that grates on me like squeaky chalk on a blackboard and that’s Get Over It, Guillemots best selling single. There’s no accounting for taste, I suppose. Especially that of the unwashed, single-buying masses!

Walk the River, is perhaps the most assured and the most indie of Guillemots albums. Most of the tracks roll gently along, carrying you away on the current of a lazy river. Sounds to comfort you as your mum pushes you through the park in your buggy with just the occasional jolt as a wheel bumps over a stone (like the exquisite bass part in I Don’t Feel Amazing Now.) Life doesn’t get any better than this.

Early in 2012, Fyfe announced that Guillemots were working on a project that would deliver four albums in a year. The first of those, Hello Land! was released in May 2012 along with an apology for being behind schedule. That album bears all the hallmarks of Guillemots compositions: lilting tunes, sumptuous synthesised strings, haunting vocals, a smorgasbord of sounds beautifully blended and artistically presented. A worthy successor to Walk the River.

Then, in 2013, Magrao announced that he was leaving Guillemots to concentrate on his own band, LUNGS. Later that year Fyfe posted a Facebook message assuring us that more Guillemots music was in the pipeline and, in June 2014, he announced a gig while he was visiting Arista in L.A. – just the two of them playing Guillemots, Arista and Fyfe tracks. Since then there’s been nothing.

Have we heard the last of Guillemots? I don’t know but, If we have, it’s been great while it lasted. Whatever the future holds Guillemots are worthy winners of my band of the year award for 2006.

If you’re not familiar with Guillemots’ repertoire you must have been asleep since 2006. Shame on you! Wake up now and start listening. No matter how sleepy you feel Annie, Let’s Not Wait will get you out of bed. Vermillion will rouse you. You can listen to Standing on the Last Star on the train, relax with Fleet in the evening. Let Guillemots accompany you throughout your day. And when you go to bed, Byebyeland will lull you to sleep. Sweet dreams, my child. Sweet Guillemot dreams …

Road to Nowhere

talking-heads

The weather forecast for tomorrow and the next few days is lousy here, but there’s not a cloud in the sky this morning so let’s make the most of it. How about a drive through the glorious English countryside? We don’t have to go anywhere in particular. We’ll just point the car in a random direction and drive. Take a picnic, stop at a pub or two along the way, enjoy ourselves and escape from the real world for a few hours.
Talking_Heads_-_Road_to_Nowhere

Look! There’s a hitchhiker. “Going my way?”, he asks. “Sure”, I reply, “hop in”.

It’s David Byrne and he’s brought his band, Talking Heads. They know where they’re going (but they don’t know where they’ve been).

It’s all a bit cramped in our little car but there’s a party atmosphere and soon we’re all singing Road to Nowhere accompanied by an accordion and a dashboard beat ringing like the tramp of marching feet.

“What’s this song about, David?”, I ask. “It’s a joyful look at doom”, he replies, cheerfully. “At our deaths and at the apocalypse”.

Come on everybody, sing along!

We’re on a road to nowhere,
Come on inside.
Takin’ that ride to nowhere,
We’ll take that ride.

R.S.V.P.

One sunny summer’s day around 1980, while browsing through the albums in my local record shop, I came across a striking and unusual cover. In the centre there was a large black and white photograph of a diver in mid flight, arms spread wide. This was surrounded by a wide silver grey border with the words The Monochrome Set above the picture and “Strange Boutique” below it.

Monochrome Set - Strange Boutique

That little record shop in Redcar on the north east coast of England was a favourite haunt of mine in those days and I recognised most of the covers in the racks. But this one had me stumped. Was this an LP by a band called The Monochrome Set? If so, it certainly wasn’t a band I’d ever heard of.

The back of the cover listed the personnel as: Bid, lead vocals and guitar; Lester Square, lead guitar and vocals; Andy Warren, bass guitar and vocals; J. D. Haney, drums, percussion and vocals. No-one christens their child Bid (unless they’re crazy) and Lester Square has to be a made up name. Somebody, perhaps everybody, was having a laugh.

Below the list of band members there was a track listing. It included the intriguing “The Puerto Rican Fence Climber” and the whacky “The Etcetera Stroll”. Bursting with curiosity I asked the sales assistant if he would play a track or two for me. He was happy to oblige and, as I continued to browse, the strains of the first track, “The Monochrome Set (I Presume)”, percolated through the shop.

It was like nothing I’d heard before. That first track started with the sounds of the jungle: cicadas, birds, monkeys. Soon a dull thud of African tom toms started to pound and then a thin, twangy guitar came in. It sounded like something by one of the early electric guitar tutors (anyone remember Bert Weedon?). After a while a bass guitar filled out the sound and then a voice began to sing: “The monochrome set, monochrome set, monochrome se e e et”.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Another quirky track came over the speakers and as it faded out I went back to the counter. Tossing a metaphorical coin in my head I decided to buy the album. At least it would give me time to listen to it properly and give a considered evaluation.

After about the third spin Strange Boutique had grown on me. It still had an unpleasantly thin, twangy tone and the chord progressions were simple, almost naive, but the end result was surprisingly fresh and original. The songs soon took root in my subconscious, surfacing from time to time, going round in my head in quiet moments.

Monochrome Set

Strange Boutique was released in 1980. It was followed by three more albums: Love Zombies (1980), Eligible Batchelors (1982) and The Lost Weekend (1985). I bought them all. Then the band split up and I heard no more about them. No more, that is, until a little research for this post (thank you Google and Wikipedia) turned up the startling fact that they reformed in 1990, split up for a second time in 1998, got back together again in 2011 and, amazingly, released another eight albums since I lost track of them in 1985. Not only that, they are currently touring on the continent and in the UK.

To give you the flavour of The Monochrome Set I’ve chosen R.S.V.P. from Love Zombies as my track of the week. The lyrics make no sense at all – they’re not meant to – they’re just French phrases that have been imported into English. “Ma chérie”, “savour faire”, “je ne sais pas”, “pâté de fois gras”. Mad? Yes. Amusing? Definitely. Surreal? Utterly. And thoroughly enjoyable, too.

Reflektor

The older I get the harder it is to find new music that stands out. It’s like prime numbers; there are infinitely many of them, but they get harder to find the further you go. Just once in a while, though, mathematicians find a new prime and sometimes, in my wanderings through the soundscape, I stumble upon a completely new sound.

Most recently, at the end of 2013, my browsing on Spotify was interrupted by an advertisement for a new album release. I have a mental advert filter tuned to remove the current rash of rapping and popular drivel but this 30 second clip came through loud and clear. It was the title track of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor. (Curse this spellchecker… The album is called Reflektor, with a ‘k’, dammit!)

Reflektor (the track) has a bongo-driven beat that you can’t ignore, a new wave mix of rhythmic synthesisers and intriguing lyrics. Like a dog hearing unfamiliar footsteps I pricked up my ears.

Listening carefully now, more and more synthesised sounds emerged, blending with each other and the vocals: some strings here, a piano piece there, a guitar break, a few horns. It’s a recipe with many ingredients but they’re not just thrown into a big pot and left to stew. This is food for the ears with room on the plate for every mouthful to be savoured separately. Like a dog I gulped it down in big, hungry bites.

Although Arcade Fire were new to me then, they had already been around for some time. They’re a Canadian indie rock band, originally formed in 2001 and coming to prominence in 2004 with their first album, Funeral. To be honest I wasn’t very impressed with that first offering but the band seems to have been improving with every new release. Reflektor is a double album and there are no bad tracks on it. There are one or two places where the raw guitar offends my palate, a little fat on the prime steak, but overall it’s a meal to relish.

Reflektor is my album of the month for May 2015, a prime example of indie rock with strong new wave influences.

Flowers in the Window

It’s Spring here in England. A time for the grass to grow, the flowers to blossom and the birds to build their nests. Right on cue, a pair of blue tits has taken possession of the nesting box on our garage wall. Like them, Mrs Crotchety and I are making a new home for ourselves and I can think of no more appropriate track of the week than Travis’s Flowers in the Window.

Travis is a Scottish post-Britpop band. Following in the footsteps of classic Britpop bands like Oasis and Blur (both musically and chronologically) they adopted a style closer to traditional rock while retaining a strong emphasis on melody. In company with bands like Stereophonics and Coldplay, Travis helped to define the post-Britpop genre in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Flowers in the Window
Flowers in the Window is a typical track of the period – equally at home on pop, soft rock and indie radio stations. It tells of a man who was once cold and isolated but has now found love and set up home with his girlfriend. Judging by the sound of seagulls in the background their house is by the sea. For him it’s a dream come true and the flowers on the windowsill provide the perfect finishing touch.

Wow look at us now
Flowers in the window
It’s such a lovely day

You are one in a million
And I love you so
Let’s watch the flowers grow

When Crotchety Man moved to the Leicestershire countryside we were given several bunches of flowers as moving-in presents. Mrs Crotchety put the daffodils in a vase and displayed them in the dining room window. The flowers have long since died but we still have the photo and we can still listen to Flowers in the Window to remind us of our own little patch of heaven here on planet Earth.