The Battle of Epping Forest

Epping Forest - Little John

As a child Crotchety Man lived in a south London council flat with his brother and parents. Sometimes in the summer when the weather was nice we would go to the south coast seaside resort of Brighton for a day out. The trip was usually planned the previous day and we looked forward to strolling along the promenade and playing on the pebble beach.

One day we boys were roused from our beds and told to get washed and dressed because we were going out. Not Brighton this time, a place called Epping Forest where we would have a picnic. Nothing had been said the previous day, the youngsters had never heard of Epping Forest and the family had never been on a picnic before. This was a big surprise and it promised to be quite an adventure.

Epping Forest - Birches

It was all a long time ago and I don’t remember much about that day. It seemed like a long journey. When Dad parked the car all we could see was sparse woodland and parched brown scrub. There didn’t seem to be any designated picnic areas, no picnic tables, no toilets, not even a patch of soft green grass to sit on. We hadn’t brought any sort of ground sheet; I’m not sure if we even had a blanket. But, we found a patch of relatively flat ground, plonked ourselves down, opened the tupperware boxes and sat there eating our sandwiches.

Epping Forest wasn’t a pretty place and, as we sat eating our lunch, it didn’t seem worth the journey. But we were here and we might as well make the most of it. After we had eaten, my brother and I trotted off among the trees to explore, with mother’s “Don’t go too far” ringing in our ears. We didn’t find any dark and secret places or beautiful glades, just a big patch of ferns – a plant we had never seen before – a plant with deep green fractal leaves that unfurled like an alien tentacle. That was fun.

By the time the two of us returned to the picnic spot everyone seemed a lot more cheerful. After all, the sun was shining and being surrounded by trees was a welcome change from the housing estates of south London. In the end it was a jolly good day out.

Epping Forest - Selling England

I suppose it was nearly ten years later that I bought Genesis’ fifth studio album, Selling England By The Pound. Of the other Genesis albums Nursery Cryme was already in my collection and one of my very favourites, Trespass was a bit raw for my taste, Foxtrot I managed to overlook somehow and From Genesis to Revelation I had missed altogether. By 1973, though, I was hungry for progressive rock and eager to find out what the band was doing.

At first I was not particularly impressed with Selling England By The Pound. It seemed pleasant, but unexciting. Gradually, though, it began to grow on me. The single, I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe) was the first to catch my attention. And then The Battle of Epping Forest reminded me of that family picnic and intrigued me with its story about rival gangs fighting for the right to run a protection racket in the East End of London.

Epping Forest - Noduled Man

Epping Forest fades in to the sound of a military marching band: fifes, drums and the tramp of soldiers’ boots. The combatants are assembling. Then we hear the Genesis signature prog rock sound of keyboards, guitar, bass and drums as the narrator describes the scene before the battle.

Along the Forest Road there’s hundreds of cars – luxury cars

Soon the song is lolloping along with a lopsided beat. It’s rather like that old Christmas cracker joke: “What goes 99 clonk?”. Answer: “A centipede with a wooden leg”. Each instrument has its own beat so that keyboards, guitar and bass compete for our rhythmic attention. And yet each part mysteriously fits with the others.

On one side of the forest there’s Billy Wright’s gang (one helluva noise) and on the other Little John’s thugs (supersmugs). This is going to be the fiercest conflict ever seen in the leafy Essex countryside, the biggest fight since the Civil War. A gangland battle it may be but there are rules.

With the thumpire’s shout, they all start to clout
– there’s no guns in this gentleman’s bout.

The words are clever and amusing. They are jammed in to fit the instrumental parts but who cares? Genesis are not going to let the music get in the way of a good pun.

With the battle in full swing a simpler, more melodic section is dropped into the song, telling the story of a man of religion led astray by his love of women.

They called me the Reverend when I entered the Church unstained;
my employers have changed but the name has remained.

It is a half-time break. A chance to escape the hurly burly of the battle as we listen to the reverend’s fall from grace. The gangland bosses have taken a break, too. They are sitting in their Silver Cloud taking tea served by a clumsy butler.

The butler’s got jam on his Rolls; Roy doles out the lot,
with tea from a silver pot just like any picnic.

Yes, Epping Forest is not a bad place for a picnic. I speak from experience. Although, of course, as an ordinary working class family we didn’t have the comfort of a Rolls Royce to sit in or the services of a butler.

Epping Forest - News Clip

The Times, 5th April 1972

There really was a gangland battle in Epping Forest. It was mentioned in a news story in the Times (on 5th April 1972 if this blog entry is to be believed). Peter Gabriel’s lyrics, though, are only loosely based on that real-world incident. In the song all the combatants come to a sticky end leaving the bosses to settle the score with the toss of a coin. In real life there were serious injuries but no deaths.

For Crotchety Man, the early Genesis albums were the best. In my vinyl days I had Nursery Cryme, Selling England By The Pound, A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering. The last of those rarely felt the stylus tip and the band’s work seemed to lose something with Peter Gabriel’s departure so I never bought another. The three that I did play were among the first to be re-acquired on CD when I switched to the digital medium. They contain some of my all-time favourite songs and tracks like The Battle of Epping Forest have a personal connection to the past that I will always treasure.

A Glorious Dawn

Crotchety Man was brought up in a semi-religious environment: born in a (largely) Christian country, educated in Church of England schools, singing in the church choir, but growing up in a family for whom religion was essentially irrelevant. I was immersed in Christianity but not a part of it. Given no guidance I was left to find my own way, to develop my own philosophy, to choose my own religion or none.

Sermons and Bible readings in church and Religious Instruction lessons at school provided me with a reasonably good understanding of Christianity. I found some of it compelling: love thy neighbour, for example. But I never found a reason to accept the Christian God. “Does God exist?” was a question with no satisfactory answer. Both “yes” and “no” make perfect sense and there is no objective way of deciding between the two.

A Glorious Dawn - BHA LogoSo I adopted Christian morals, which I saw as universal, but rejected the idea of a supernatural being. It wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I stumbled on the website for the British Humanist Association and discovered not only that my approach to life is shared by many others but that it has a name: Humanism.

The website listed some of its more well-known members, which included many eminent scientists, comedians and public figures – people I already deeply respected for their intellect and ethical values. I had found my moral niche and I joined the organisation immediately.

The BHA publishes an email newsletter with links to other resources, including a closely associated website called Humanist Life. There, back in 2012, I found a “Songs for a Humanist” playlist and in the list there was a YouTube video that featured Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and science populariser most famous for the American TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. (For British readers, Sagan was the U.S. equivalent of professor Brian Cox.)

Curiosity piqued, I played the YouTube video. It starts with a few self-deprecating words from Carl Sagan over some gentle notes from an electric piano. “I’m not very good at singing songs but, er, here’s a try.” Sagan then starts to make some peculiar noises: “Whoop, awww; whoop, awww, awww…”. You have to agree him; he’s really not very good at singing. Then you realise his voice has been sampled and is being played as a rhythmic base for the ambient piano music. And it’s a catchy piece.

A Glorious Dawn - Carl Sagan

The voice continues. It is Carl Sagan speaking but the video maker has adjusted the pitch of the sampled speech to make a tune that fits this original composition. It’s a manufactured singing voice and it’s inviting us to make an apple pie.

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch
You must first invent the universe.

The video is a lesson in cosmology (space is filled with a network of wormholes), a hymn to the human race (the first moment in human history when we are … visiting other worlds) and an ode to the universe (The Cosmos is full … of the awesome machinery of nature).

The piano is joined by electronic drums and deep, rippling synthesiser notes creating a big, spacious soundscape.

A Glorious Dawn - Eye

Looking up from the Earth, in the night sky we see the myriad stars of the Milky Way and beyond them the unimaginable vastness of space with its countless galaxies stretching 13.8 billion light years away. Human beings are only just beginning to explore it and there are untold wonders waiting to be found.

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean;
Recently we’ve waded a little way out
And the water seems inviting.

The video is called A Glorious Dawn. It was created in 2009 by John D Boswell, a composer of electronic music and a highly accomplished constructor of video mash-ups. This particular video (according to Wikipedia) notched up a million views in its first six weeks and was one of the top-rated videos of all time. YouTube is currently showing 9,988,235 views.

A Glorious Dawn - John D Boswell

John D Boswell

A Glorious Dawn is one of a series of videos on science topics that form part of John D Boswell’s Symphony of Science project, which is available from his website on a pay-what-you-like basis as either videos or music tracks. All the Symphony of Science pieces are worth listening to. As an album of ambient electronic music it stands up well in comparison to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Pink Floyd’s Endless River. I often played it at work when there was a lot of background noise and I wanted to concentrate.

The words are those of eminent scientists: Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, Robert Winston, David Attenborough and others. If you listen to the lyrics they will take you on a journey through many areas of science: fundamental physics, cosmology, biology and evolution. A Humanist Life can take you to strange and wonderful places.

Acoustic Environment

Are you tired of electric guitars? Fed up with the sound of oscillators, filters and shapers? Do you yearn for the sweeter tones of traditional musical instruments? Then Acoustic Environment by Mark Hillis is the album for you.

Acoustic Environment

Mark is a guitarist and photographer from San Diego, California. During his college years he teamed up with vocalist Jerry Harrison to record a progressive hard rock CD called Harlequin, which was released in 1990 and still seems to be available as a download. Although he makes no apology for that earlier effort, Mark’s later work is very different.

Acoustic Environment is an album of acoustic guitar pieces played by Mark himself with a few guest musicians adding violin, trumpet, Chapman Stick, bass and percussion. If you’re familiar with John Williams, the classical guitarist, and Sky (the classical/rock crossover band of which John was a founder member) you’ll get the idea.

Mark Hillis has composed a set of classically-inspired pieces and had them performed by musicians with a foot in both classical and pop/rock camps. The result is a collection of instrumentals, some reminiscent of Spanish dances, some like jaunty sea shanties, some with a folky feel and all with a satisfyingly full modern production making use of electronic devices only to compliment the conventional instruments.

The album opens with ‘Climbing the Walls’, which features the dulcet tones of Tiffany Modell’s violin floating lightly over guitar chords that ring harmoniously for most of the track but introduce a grating dissonance once in a while. It reminds me of an artist applying the finishing brush strokes to a masterpiece when someone jogs his arm. The painting is eventually completed but the process was unnecessarily difficult and frustrating.

Tiffany’s violin features strongly on ‘Synthesis’, too, but this time everything falls into place beautifully. Tom Griesgraber’s Chapman Stick and Mark’s guitar play together like children in the park, the violin sings as they scamper by and Jeff Hurt’s trumpet murmurs pleasurably as parents look on.

The simplest track on the album is ‘Solitude’ which, as the name suggests, is a contemplative guitar solo. The remaining pieces augment the guitar work with a little bass, percussion and synthesiser sounds, a modern reworking of classical, folk and Spanish themes – not exactly John Williams but very pleasing none the less.

There’s a playful feel to many of the tracks on Acoustic Environment, none more so than the last one, which is called ‘Squirrely’. Mark mentions it specifically in the sleeve notes where he has a note to his parents: “I know you wanted to hear some vocals from me, so ‘Squirrely’ is for you”. He is referring to his brief giggle that ends the album.

Like Sky’s recordings Acoustic Environment should appeal to a very broad range of tastes; unlike Sky, though, Mark Hillis and his collaborators are virtually unknown. Crotchety Man believes the Hillis crowd deserves better recognition and this is reflected in the ‘hidden gems’ tag on this post. Give it a whirl. If you don’t like it perhaps your mother, uncle or cousin will.

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open - Power to Believe

Decisions, decisions…

I’ve done most of my Yuletide shopping. There are still one or two gaps on the present list, though, for those awkward people who either have everything already or insist they want nothing this year. What shall I choose? Well, if inspiration fails me they’ll just have to have whatever I gave them last Christmas.

My general state of indecisiveness has spilled over to my choice of Track of the Week. After last week’s excursion into slow pop songs I want to get back onto Crotchety Man’s home ground. So, what shall I choose? My list of candidates contains plenty of sixties singles but I’m not in the mood for pop songs. There are lots of album tracks spanning multiple genres, too, but most of them are earmarked for the Album category.

Quavering Boy suggested I revisit King Crimson. As a band they are very much Crotchety material and some  of their tracks would  make excellent singles. But, I countered, there are no King Crimson tracks on Spotify and a music post is no good without a link to the piece in question. “Ah”, said Quavering Boy, “but have you tried YouTube?”. Crotchety Man considered the suggestion for a millisecond and turned his browser to the Tube on the Net.

Eyes Wide Open

It turns out there are many King Crimson videos on YouTube. Some are unavailable for copyright reasons (and many more probably should be) but that leaves quite a few for me to choose from. Now let’s see… Aha! If you keep your eyes and ears open long enough you’re sure to find something that fits the bill eventually. There’s a song here with lyrics that go:

Well here it comes, here comes another day, another decision on the way.
Well here it comes, here comes a colour display, of preferences to make.

The decision has been made for me. My Track of the Week is Eyes Wide Open from King Crimson’s 2003 album The Power to Believe. At just over 4 minutes long it’s the right length for a pop song. It has a pleasant, singable melody, too. But it has the unmistakeable sound of the Fripp/Belew/Gunn/Mastelotto line-up of King Crimson: guitars (of course), Warr guitars (very similar to Chapman Sticks) and electronics (synthesisers and percussion). In fact, it sounds a lot like something from Tom Griesgraber’s A Whisper in the Thunder album.

Eyes Wide Open - Offshore Windmill

Eyes Wide Open rolls along effortlessly like the sails of an offshore windmill rotating slowly in a steady breeze. There’s none of Bob Fripp’s characteristically frantic plectrum work here, just the easy picking of guitar strings immersed in a rolling sea of Warr guitar and Mellotron-like electronic sounds. And above the waves Adrian Belew’s vocals catch the wind, dipping, banking and gliding along with the instruments.

This is King Crimson at their most tuneful, their most accessible. If you haven’t heard it, don’t let this opportunity go by.

And there it was, it was a chance of a lifetime
It flew right by and what did you do?

This, dear reader, is my Yuletide YouTube gift to you. I hope you like it.

Don’t You Wait

Ambiguous:

adjective

  1. (Of language) open to more than one interpretation; having a double meaning.
  2. Unclear or inexact because a choice between alternatives has not been made.

Cloves - Don't You Wait

Cloves – Don’t You Wait (live)

Last month something in my inbox announced that Peter Green had released a new album. Intrigued, I clicked through to see what the ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist has been up to recently. It wasn’t what I was expecting. Ambient orchestral music is very different from everything Peter Green, the blues man, has done in the past. On further investigation it turns out that there’s a Peter Green who writes music for babies and infants as part of an early years education project. As far as I can see there’s no connection between the blues guitarist and the baby music composer, but the works of both these gentlemen appeared under the one “Peter Green” artist on Spotify.

I reported a “broken song or wrong song information” and got a standard acknowledgement email from the Spotify support bot. Wait a minute while I check… Yes, there are now two artists called Peter Green on Spotify. Excellent. Although the baby music composer has the other Peter Green and several of his associates listed as “related artists”. I guess the software isn’t quite clever enough yet. Or perhaps there was a fallible human in the loop somewhere.

Then a couple of days ago the December issue of the Rock & Indie Newsletter featured several artists I’m not familiar with and I started to explore their offerings. I got stuck on Cloves.

Cloves - Don't You Wait 2

The link provided in the Newsletter was to a YouTube video of a live version of Don’t You Wait. Visually the video is very ordinary. It’s all shot in a recording studio, the camera panning back and forth between the five members of the band: singer, guitarist, pianist, bass player, drummer.

The song starts with the quiet, slow strumming of an electric guitar and a young woman’s voice. It’s the kind of song that Adele writes, a slow ballad with a very personal message, but it’s sung with a silky, sensual, captivating voice like Lana Del Rey. It’s as if your lover has sat down beside you and is telling you gently that the relationship is over:

I could have stayed there but it wouldn’t be fair to you.
I could have faked it but I couldn’t see it through.

Like a fly, blind to the danger, Crotchety Man was instantly caught up in the sticky silk of Cloves musical web.

Cloves - Don't You Wait 3

Turning to the other Web and invoking the magic incantation “cloves band” revealed that ‘Cloves’, in that context, is ambiguous. More than ambiguous, in fact. Apart from a band/artist called ‘Cloves’ there was a music project of that name by the Scottish musician Philip Ivers, there’s a band from Washington State called ‘The Cloves’ and another band called just ‘Clove’ from Pennsylvania. The first two are lumped together on last.fm under the band/artist ‘Cloves’. I feel another “wrong information” email coming on …

After sifting out the chaff of misinformation it seems that Cloves is the stage name of the singer in the video. Her Facebook page describes her music as “Scandinavian Soothing Metal”. It also says she’s from Melbourne, Australia, she has just finished a tour of the U.S. with James Bay and her debut EP, XIII, has just been released. And that’s all I’ve been able to find out.

Unsatisfied, Crotchety Man turned to the oracle that is Spotify, and selected the artist Cloves. There’s just one entry, for the new EP, and I played all four tracks. All the songs are slow ballads; they shouldn’t be my cup of tea at all. And yet, even after a night out with friends at a local restaurant, normally guaranteed to reset the internal music player, Don’t You Wait was still in my head the following morning.

Cloves is a Siren. She has beguiled Crotchety Man with her lovely voice. Sat down beside him and opened her heart. And, in return, he has dipped into his piggy bank and bought the EP. It’s a bargain at £1.99. But does it fit into the Crotchety Collection? I’m still ambivalent about that.