Vienna

ViennaBack in January 1981 Ultravox released the single, Vienna. It was played a lot on the radio and shot up the UK pop music chart. I had it earmarked for the best single of the year and a certainty for the number one slot.

After the musical wilderness of the seventies Vienna was a breath of fresh air. In complete contrast to the guitar-thrashing of the early punk bands it builds slowly from a foundation of synthesisers and drum machines. There’s a relaxed, solid beat behind mysterious electronic chords. It reminds us of The Third Man, the post war thriller starring Orson Welles, shot in black and white and set in Austria’s capital city. Atmospheric, shadowy, suspenseful.

A male voice soars over the pulsing electronic sounds singing about cold air, freezing breath. Instinctively, you turn up your collar. Piano notes ring out, echoing through dark streets. A viola scrapes at the mist. And the voice wails unconvincingly, “this means nothing to me”. Something awful has happened and in anguish he cries, “Oh, Vienna!”.

This is new wave music at its best. Although Vienna is often described as synth pop I think that devalues it. The piano and viola parts give it a classical pedigree; there’s nothing superficial here. The production is open, almost sparse, so that each instrument can be clearly heard – more like a string quartet than the Phil Spector wall of sound. And that, says Crotchety Man, is how it should be.

By early February 1981 Vienna had reached no. 2 behind John Lennon’s Woman (a far inferior track in my opinion). The following week, to my horror and utter disbelief Vienna had been leapfrogged by Joe Dolce’s Shaddup You Face. Well, OK, Shaddup was a novelty record and quite fun to listen to, but no-one with any sanity left would actually go and spend their hard-earned cash on it. It was a passing fad, I assured myself; it will vanish like a mayfly at sunset.

The following week the top two positions hadn’t changed. “What madness is this?”, I asked myself. When Shaddup was still at number one as March arrived I was forced to conclude that the record buying public are all morons, and I slipped quietly into the slough of despond. For much of the seventies there had been nothing on the radio worth listening to and when a precious jewel like Vienna comes along it is utterly unappreciated. Has there ever been a better illustration of “casting pearls before swine” in popular music?

Funnily enough the UK’s Official Charts Company seems to have come to the same conclusion. At the end of 2012, in conjunction with BBC Radio 2, they ran a poll to find the greatest track that never quite reached number one. Vienna won the poll beating off competition from the likes of The Beatles (Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever) and Queen (We Are The Champions). The Official Charts Company’s managing director, Martin Talbot, commented:

It is also probably the most apt winner, given the fact that it was kept from the chart summit in 1981 by Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup You Face”, which has long been considered one of the biggest chart injustices of all time.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Official Singles Chart in 2012, we are delighted to declare it as an honorary official number one single.

And I say, “hear, hear” to that. It’s been a long time coming, but perhaps justice prevailed in the end.

Mountain At My Gates

Foals-Mountain-At-My-GatesWhen I launched this blog I wrote that it would feature a lot of indie music, but that hasn’t really happened so far. There are a couple of reasons for this. Crotchety Man’s memory goes back over fifty years and ‘indie’ is a relatively new term in music journalism; a lot of what I have written about pre-dates it. And then ‘indie’ isn’t a particularly well-defined musical style; it’s just an average of what bands on independent labels were doing in the mid eighties. (That’s the 1980’s, by the way, the nineteenth century is well before even my time.)

More significantly, perhaps, ‘indie’ is my bread and butter: a staple food for the ears, everyday fare that hardly ever disappoints but rarely breaks through the excitement threshold that would make it worthy of a blog post. Of course, there are exceptions and much of the music I listen to has an independent-of-the-mainstream flavour, anyway. A dusting of herb here, a pinch of spice there. That’s why many of my rock and pop posts also carry an ‘indie’ tag; it’s the seasoning for the primary ingredients that lifts up the ordinary to the blog-about-it level.

Anyway, there’s no reason why those plain, vanilla indie tracks should be banished from these ramblings so I’ve chosen Mountain At My Gates by Foals as my Track of the Week.

I like Foals. Whenever I hear them on the radio the sun shines a little brighter, a little warmer. Mountain At My Gates is no exception. It has an infectious rhythm that wakes you up and gets you going like a breakfast of coffee and toast. And marmalade. I like marmalade (as Pink Floyd’s roadie once said). Strangely, though, Mountain At My Gates has a dark side, too. There is a deep sense of foreboding in the lyrics. Just beyond the next gate a mountain blocks the path. The steep slopes must be climbed. It will be an arduous and possibly dangerous journey.

But, for now, the sun is bright, there’s a spring in our steps and the music carries us down the path, across the fields and out into the countryside. For the next few minutes let’s forget the ominous mountain ahead and just enjoy Foals‘ latest single.

P.S. There’s a terrific 360° video of Mountain At My Gates on YouTube. You’ll need to have the latest version of the Chrome browser to see it properly, though, I think.

Free Henry Fool

Burning ShedWhile looking for Bill Bruford CDs I was directed to the Burning Shed website. Burning Shed publishes CDs and vinyl records on behalf of a few select musicians and hosts the online shops for various artists/bands. Two things make Burning Shed admirably different: 1) the copyright of the works they publish remains with the artist and 2) it focuses on Singer-Songwriter, Progressive, Ambient/Electronica and Art Rock genres.

When I say “a few select musicians” I really mean well over 100 artists/bands including Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Phil Manzanera, Steven Wilson and, of course, the aforementioned Bill Bruford. That’s a list that warmed the cockles of Crotchety Man’s heart and prompted me to wander around the Burning Shed searching for the cool flames of innovation and creativity.

Henry FoolMy eyes were drawn to a section labelled ‘Henry Fool’. The name appealed to me, a brief review of an EP intrigued me and a tasty ‘free download’ morsel dangled enticingly in front of me. Without hesitation I swallowed the bait. A few minutes later I had created an account on Burning Shed, downloaded the Free Henry Fool EP and was relishing a cosy blend of progressive rock, jazz and atmospheric sounds. Strongly reminiscent of Canterbury-scene bands, it was every bit as tasty as it looked.

For now the free EP is all the Henry Fool I know but I will be exploring more of their work very soon. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend the free taster download. If you have fond memories of Caravan, Soft Machine and the unknown Axis, sign up, download the EP and enjoy my Album of the Month, September 2015.

Marks To Prove It

Elephant and CastleIn London, just south of the river, there’s a large, multi-lane roundabout complex called the Elephant and Castle. For drivers not used to big cities and unfamiliar with the area it’s a terrifying place. Cars come at you from every direction. And not just cars. Lorries, vans, motorcycles and buses roar and thunder round the bends like trumpeting elephants charging into battle.

Standing in the middle of the larger, northern roundabout there’s a building that looks like a cross between a small multi-storey car park and a large modern sculpture. In fact it is the electricity sub-station for the Northern and Bakerloo lines of the London Underground. It is also a memorial to Michael Faraday, the physicist and chemist, who was born nearby. The Maccabees‘ studio is close by, too, and the Faraday memorial features on the cover of their latest album, Marks To Prove It.

The title track from the album is a thumping indie rock song. Guitars, bass and drums pound along as the singer tells of a population searching for fulfilment, struggling to cope with change, bouncing from pillar to post like a ball in a pinball machine and gathering dark psychological bruises along the way. Invisible marks that prove they are playing their part in the hurly burly of the rat race.

Suddenly there’s a change of rhythm. The pounding footsteps falter, the pace slows and the music stumbles forward uncertainly for a while. It is a chance to catch our breath. But it is only a brief respite for soon the pinball flipper launches us up into the maelstrom of modern life once more, and we are running headlong towards an unknown destination, our feet pounding the pavements again.

We tell ourselves that the bumps and bruises are worth it and we charge bravely on into life’s battles, a defiant war cry on our lips. Then those invisible marks become too much for us again, we stumble into a puddle and, this time, we fall. Down under the water we go. Down, down, down into another world. A watery world, but very much like the concrete jungle now above our heads. Here there are houses, streets, offices. There are roads and taxis and people having arguments.

We can not stay here. We can not survive here. We must swim. Swim up towards the light of the sky. We beat our arms and with that first stroke we rise a little. Kicking our legs we paddle upwards again. The last of our breath rises up before us in bubbles. A few more strokes and we reach the surface, where we peep out into the Elephant and Castle walkways. We are safe from drowning but we have come full circle. Our armoured elephant has taken us once round the roundabout where Londoners feet still tramp relentlessly on.

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Marks To Prove It is a thumping indie rock song but it would be wrong to judge the Maccabees on this track alone. The other tracks on the album are generally quieter, slower, more nuanced and more ‘alternative’. They feature instruments other than guitars: piano, synthesisers, horns; they vary in pace, feel and texture. The Maccabees are relatively new to me but I’m impressed. As a fellow south-of-the-river Londoner I may be biased, so watch the video, check out their albums and see if you agree that the band is well worth listening to.

Midnight at the Oasis

No, this is not the Gallagher brothers arguing after a night in their local pub, this is somewhere much more romantic. We are in an Arabian desert.

Midnight OasisIt is night; the only light is from a half-silvered moon. Hidden among the dunes there’s a shimmering pool of fresh water, surrounded by palm trees. The oppressive heat of the day has eased and a warm breeze strokes our faces with a feather’s touch. Camels rest by the bedouin tents, chewing slowly on their memories. Patterned red rugs cover the canvas walls and festoon the furniture. Under the canopies the remains of a sultan’s feast are being quietly cleared away.

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The scene is set for some entertainment. Some story-telling, some music, a belly dancer. As you sink sleepily onto a pile of soft cushions Maria Muldaur whispers seductively in your ear…

Heaven’s holding a half moon
Shinin’ just for us
Let’s slip off to a sand dune, real soon
And kick up a little dust

Who could resist!

I confess Midnight at the Oasis beguiled Crotchety Man when it was released in 1974 and it remains the only track in my collection that could be described as an old-fashioned middle-of-the-road night club standard. It’s one of those timeless classics that never grows old, as fresh now as the day it was recorded. Exotic, playful, teasing, sensual, seductive; in fact, positively sultry. A song to bring a little enchantment to a warm summer’s evening.