I Vow To Thee …

I Vow To Thee - pledge

Last Saturday Crotchety Man went back to school.

It was the first time I had visited my old school, St. Dunstan’s College, in more than 45 years. My father, who also went to St. Dunstan’s, had visited a couple of years ago when they celebrated the 125th anniversary of moving to their present site in south London. This time they had invited former pupils who would have been in their final year between 1930 and 1970 for lunch and a tour around the school buildings. Having left in 1970 I was one of the youngest; my father, who left in 1949, was one of the oldest.

We had been told we would be interviewed by one of the prefects about our memories of our school days and subsequent careers. The conversation was to be videoed and added to the College’s ever growing archives. Needless to say this prompted some extensive archaeology within Crotchety Man’s personal memory banks in search of historical facts, anecdotes and, if possible, skeletons in the hope of providing something interesting, amusing or shocking for the official record.

Several artefacts came to light. There was the time Mr. Jeffries, a diminutive but perfectly formed example of the teaching profession (affectionately nicknamed ‘Peanut’), came into the classroom where we were expecting to have a German lesson. He hoisted himself into a sitting position on the big table at the front of the room and announced, “I don’t feel like doing any work today. Someone tell me a joke”. But I am not Tom Brown and this is a music blog not an autobiography covering my less Crotchety school days, so I won’t go into that.

I Vow To Thee - building

St. Dunstan’s College

One memory, though, that is appropriate for these pages is of a hymn we used to sing occasionally in the school assemblies. Although I loved some of the hymns I sang as a choirboy in our local church, I Vow To Thee My Country was always my favourite and it was only in those school assemblies that I had a chance to hear it and sing it. It is a highly patriotic song, excessively patriotic in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why it was never on the board in St. Bartholomew’s church. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the hymn book used there. I don’t know. What I do know is that this hymn, with its Thaxted tune, was given to me by St. Dunstan’s College and for that I am very grateful.

I Vow To Thee My Country started as a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, British Ambassador to the United States of America from 1912 to 1918. The poem was set to music in 1921 by the English composer Gustav Holst. Holst cheated a bit. Instead of writing a new piece to accompany the poem he took the music from his orchestral suite, The Planets. It is, in fact, the middle section of the fourth movement, Jupiter.

I Vow To Thee - jupiter

Jupiter is supposed to be the Bringer of Jollity, as Holst titled it, but it doesn’t feel jolly to me. Perhaps ‘playful’ is a better description for the main theme of the movement but neither ‘jolly’ nor ‘playful’ fit the tone of the bit in the middle that became the patriotic hymn in praise of dear old England. I prefer to think of I Vow as a sober but stirring folk song arranged for a full orchestra and choir. The instrumental parts sound to me more determined than frivolous, more hopeful than carefree. The words, though, express a somewhat different sentiment.

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect the service of my love.

The writer is pledging to serve his country with all his strength and courage, to fight for the motherland even if it means he has to make the final sacrifice and lay down his life. It’s all a bit over the top. I mean, it’s OK to support your national football team but a blind allegiance to your flag, whatever colour it may be, smacks of rampant nationalism – the kind of nationalism, in fact, that had led to the Great War and prompted Cecil Spring Rice to write a rarely used second verse lamenting the terrible loss of life in that conflict.

The link I gave above is to a version of I Vow To Thee My Country by Helena Blackman and the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a tad slower than most but it’s a good recording and the various textures of the strings, woodwind and brass come across really well. Enjoy the music, sing along with it if you like, but don’t think too much about the words. There’s a subtle difference between a love of one’s own country (patriotism) and  a belief that all other nations are inferior to your own (nationalism).

I Vow To Thee - leaver

The school reunion was scheduled to run from 12 noon to 3 pm. Mr. and Mrs. Crotchety had made full use of their Senior Railcards and the advanced booking rules to get cheap train tickets and we had to leave promptly at 3 o’clock to catch the train for the return journey. As the lunch progressed it became obvious that we would not have time for a tour of the school or to recount any memories for a prefect wielding a video camera. So, sadly, I never had a chance to entertain one of the current pupils with my wit and humour. To be honest, although she was polite and welcoming she didn’t really seem to be that interested in the old fogeys who surrounded her. And I’m just a Crotchety Old Man these days.

Afterword

This post was prompted by the school reunion but, in the wake of the British EU Referendum result, it seems to have taken on a slightly political slant. I think our decision to leave the EU highlights a disturbing rise of nationalism within the UK and I worry that this might ignite the fuse of nationalist tendencies elsewhere in Europe. We shall see.

This Wheel’s On Fire

This Wheel's On Fire - wheel

I remember walking down Putney High Street back in 1968. It was summer and I had time to kill. In the late sixties Putney was a rather dull part of south west London; it probably still is. After so many years I can only guess why I was there. It was where my dad worked and it must have been when I had a temporary job at the insurance company where he was a claims assessor. My role was purely administrative – form filling, filing, running errands – and it was the most stultifying occupation that could ever have been devised for a teenager’s summer holiday.¹ I was there for four weeks, but it seemed like years.

There wasn’t quite enough time in my lunch break to walk to Putney bridge where the wide grey Thames flowed steadily towards central London and on out to the sea. In any case, it wasn’t the most attractive of river scenes and even the famous London skyline was too far away to be appreciated from there. So, on that day, I just wandered past the anonymous shops grateful for the warmth and the sunshine. As I passed a clothing shop piped music spilled out onto the street. I recognised it immediately.

This Wheel’s On Fire by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and the Trinity had been on the radio all summer and I loved it. There had been nothing like it on the radio since the pirate radio stations shut down the year before and this record, more than any other, held out hope that the creative energy of the sixties would live on in the sparser, more regulated world of pop music. As the sixties rolled into the seventies that hope was cruelly dashed by a rash of excruciatingly superficial pop and glam rock singles but back then, in 1968, I didn’t know that. Hope was alive and well and lifting my heart outside a fashion shop in down-town Putney.

Julie Driscoll, Auger & the Trinity (1968)

I paused there in the street to listen to the song. A tinkling piano leads into a driving organ and bass backing track. Julie Driscoll’s clear confident voice delivers an intriguing first line and the listener is instantly hooked. What message does she bring? What tale will she tell? What is she reminding us of with those first few imploring words?

If your mem’ry serves you well
We were goin’ to meet again and wait …

The first verse ends without answers but when the chorus comes the organ swells to a menacing crescendo and a desperate voice warns us of an impending catastrophe.

This wheel’s on fire,
Rolling down the road.
Best notify my next of kin,
This wheel shall explode.

A wheel? Are we talking about a bicycle wheel, a cartwheel, a ferris wheel? A Catherine wheel? Or is it an abstract idea: a wheel of fortune or a metaphor for the cycle of life and death? The singer does not say but, clearly, the consequences will be dire if we don’t do something about it.

The organ, bass and piano roll inexorably into another verse. The story is beginning to take shape.

If your mem’ry serves you well
I was goin’ to confiscate your lace
And wrap it up in a sailor’s knot
And hide it in your case.

We must have made a pact with the singer, a promise that is as yet unfulfilled. But the language is odd and it raises as many questions as it answers. Meanwhile, the organ rolls relentlessly on down the road with the bass bumping and jumping over the humps and the potholes.

In verse three the singer tells us that “you’re the one who called on me to call on them to get you your favors done”. I guess she carried out her side of the bargain and it’s time for us to perform ours. If we don’t do it the wheel she’s been telling us about emphatically shall explode. Perhaps that mysterious wheel is the barrel of a revolver and someone is going to be shot. But still she doesn’t spell it out.

The juggernaut bass keeps on pounding along while a jazzy improvised keyboard solo urges us to remember our pledge and underneath it all a single droning organ note rises up and up and up as we roll on towards our uncertain fate. That droning note is still rising as the song fades out, leaving our ultimate destiny unresolved.

This Wheel's On Fire - julie

It says something about the song, I think, that I always associate it with that otherwise humdrum day when I heard it outside a shop in Putney. There have been many other versions², although I’ve only heard a few of them. It was, of course, a Bob Dylan song and there are versions both by Dylan himself (on The Basement Tapes) and by The Band (on their Music From Big Pink album). Strangely, I find Bob Dylan’s version rather slow and uninspiring. There’s nothing much wrong with The Band‘s version and there’s a nice cover by The Byrds but, for me, the Julie Driscoll et. al. version knocks them all into a cocked hat. It’s just a shame the technology of the sixties couldn’t capture a more detailed and vibrant recording.

Notes

  1. Actually, I’m exaggerating here. One lad I knew told me of his summer job in a glass factory. He was shovelling spilt molten glass away from the bottom of the furnace for several weeks at the height of a hot English summer. It sounded like the job of the under-stoker on the eternal steam engines of Hell. But without the cooling breeze as the train sped along the tracks through the fire and brimstone.
  2. There’s one very recent version by Kylie Minogue who completely fails to get across the mystery, the passion and the menace that makes the song. It is a much better recording, though, and it does have a beat that the youth of today seems to demand. It may well be more successful than any of the earlier versions but Crotchety Man definitely does not recommend it.

Magnolia

Magnolia - face

It’s prog, Jim, but not as we know it.

Magnolia is the latest album by The Pineapple Thief, which is generally regarded as a progressive rock band. But that categorisation sits uneasily with Crotchety Man. When I think of ‘prog’ my first thoughts are of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson and then ELP, Gentle Giant and perhaps Jethro Tull. The songs on Magnolia aren’t quite like those bands’ compositions and yet they fit the definition of prog rock too well to be excluded.

So, what is it that characterises prog rock? The most succinct description I know says that prog rock is “a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility”. It’s high-brow rock. In their pursuit of greater sophistication the early prog rock bands took many ideas from classical music. They wrote long tracks and collected them together on albums with a common theme. They used keyboards or traditional orchestras to create big, symphonic soundscapes. They incorporated long instrumental passages. And they weren’t afraid to use complex harmonies and rhythms. Prog rock was music to be appreciated for its technical merits as well as its more visceral impact.

Magnolia isn’t really like that. There are no tracks on the album longer than 4 minutes 20 seconds and there are no instrumentals. It’s not an album that could be accused of being pretentious. On the other hand, the band does use orchestral instruments, there are some intricate rhythms and, overall, it does raise rock music a notch above the average sophistication level of most rock bands. Is it prog rock? Well, sort of. It’s what Wikipedia labels ‘new prog’.

Magnolia - band

To my ear the songs on Magnolia sound like a cross between recent Radiohead and Muse – thoughtfully constructed art rock with outbreaks of crashing hard rock. The first track, Simple As That, is a straightforward hard rock piece but with a vocal very reminiscent of Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke. It is followed by another rocker, Alone At Sea, that sounds to me like something by the indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club. The next two tracks are quieter and more melodic. Don’t Tell Me introduces strings for the first time and builds to an anthemic ending. The title track is a late night festival crowd song, one for gently waving Magnolia flowers and singing along dreamily as the bass rolls forward toward the coming dawn.

Next comes the slow, lush Seasons Past with a haunting piano/synth theme and plenty of sensual strings bringing past times reverberating into the present. And then we’re Coming Home, but it’s a journey that we seem reluctant to take, a road that is taking us back to pay for our sins. The One You Left To Die picks up the beat again, telling a story of regret after leaving a loved one. Perhaps that is the sin we must atone for. Then Breathe crashes in with flailing guitar chords as if a medic is frantically pumping a ribcage while we can only watch and quietly pray that our friend will come back to life.

From Me is a short mournful interlude about a dear relative who has been taken to an old folks home far away “for the dying days”. It’s rather too slow and melancholy for my taste, though. In complete contrast, Sense of Fear starts with a machine-gun guitar that takes us into an ominous hard rock song, although it’s not clear what terrible fate is about to befall the two of us. Perhaps it’s just A Loneliness that awaits us as we are serenaded by a choir and our loving relationship slowly goes up in flames. Then, finally, the Bond between us is broken. All that’s left is the wash of sad orchestral sounds and a plaintive muted trumpet bewailing our loss.

Magnolia - sculpture

Magnolia Sculpture – Himalayan Gardens, 2013

So, this ‘new prog’ thing … Do I like it? Is it any good? Well, yes, I think so. Magnolia was added to the Crotchety Collection quite recently and it has settled in quite nicely. I’d rate it 3.5 out of 5 – happy to have it, will play it from time to time, but won’t swoon over it. The acid test is to see how those tracks affect me when they come up on an all-songs shuffle, but it’s too early yet to know what that will bring.

Postscript

A new album by The Pineapple Thief is due for release on 12th August; it’s called Your Wilderness.

Golden Brown

Golden Brown - seventies

The Stranglers were formed when punk was sweeping away the bland and sickly sweet pop groups of the early seventies. They toured with the American punk band, The Ramones, and regarded themselves as part of the punk scene. But they were never a punk band.

Originally called The Guildford Stranglers the band was assembled in 1974 by Jet Black (real name Brian Duffy), a successful business man and jazz drummer. Unlike many of the punk bands The Stranglers were all accomplished musicians. Jean-Jaques Burnel moved to bass after learning classical guitar. Hugh Cornwell started as a blues guitarist and switched back to the guitar after playing bass with folk guitarist Richard Thompson. Dave Greenfield, who joined them in 1975, was a pianist with a progressive rock band.

Let’s pause for a moment here. That last paragraph mentions jazz, punk, classical, blues, folk and progressive rock. With all those obvious influences The Stranglers was never going to be just another punk band. A betting man would have put good money on a short life and a spectacular firework finale for that band as artistic tension mounted to an explosive climax. But they would have lost their stake. The Stranglers are still going. Hugh Cornwell left in 1990 to pursue a solo career; Jet Black, now 77 years old, is not well enough to perform at live events; but the band is touring the UK this summer and also has a couple of gigs scheduled in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The secret to The Stranglers longevity, I suspect, is that the band members have unusually broad tastes and an easy, laissez-faire attitude to life. Their music evolved over the years from strident, intelligent rock delivered with a punkish sneer to more refined and more melodic songs straddling the boundary between rock and pop.

Golden Brown - noughties

Golden Brown is a fine example of those more mellow, less aggressive compositions. It grabs your attention immediately with its lilting waltz-time harpsichord and synthesiser introduction and then slaps you in the face with a 4-beat bar. “Listen up!”, it seems to say, “I’ve got something to tell you”. And then Hugh Cornwell’s storyteller voice comes in with a soothing vision of suntanned skin and soft pillows.

Golden brown, texture like sun,
Lays me down, with my mind she runs

Never a frown with golden brown.

The tale unfolds in a steady 3-time, allowing the listener to slide back into a comfortable sleepiness before the second verse introduces a sense of pleasurable entrapment.

On her ship, tied to the mast,
To distant lands,
Takes both my hands,
Never a frown with golden brown.

She is taking us on a journey. We are powerless. And it’s wonderful. The jolt of the 4-beat bar rouses us again before another verse. Then a melodic guitar break adds the music of the spheres for our listening pleasure. We have arrived in a golden honey heaven, a caramel taste on my tongue, a chocolate glaze on her soft sweet lips. For a few moments Shangri-La is real but it soon begins to fade away. As the scene dissolves and vanishes the angel choir sings softly …

Never a frown with golden brown.

Never a frown with golden brown.

Never a frown with golden brown.

 Golden Brown - beyonce

The Kinks

The Kinks - band

It was 1963 when the Beatles’ She Loves You sparked my road to musical Damascus moment. For the next two or three years the Beatles were the benchmark for every song I heard on the radio. Only the Rolling Stones challenged them for the honour of the Crotchety Kid’s ‘best band’ rosette. But there was another group at that time that sounded a lot like the Beatles, if I’d only known it. It was The Kinks.

If you doubt that The Kinks were a lot like the Fab Four when they were formed in 1964 listen to their second single, You Still Want Me, and tell me this couldn’t be an early Beatles track. That song passed me by at the time but another Beatlesque song, You Really Got Me, became a number one hit on the UK charts and it made The Kinks a third contender for my best band badge in the autumn of 1964.

You Really Got Me and the follow-up single, All Day and All of the Night, which reached number 2, were both up-tempo beat group songs typical of the Mersey scene in the early sixties. There was no hint that The Kinks would develop their own unique style until their next single, Tired of Waiting for You, spilled out onto the air waves at the start of 1965. The new song was less frantic and more melodic than before and it had a rocking bass line that invited the swaggering gait of a young Errol Flynn¹. The Mersey beat had been given a new direction.

The Kinks released another six singles and an EP in 1965. Three of the singles charted in the UK top ten: Set Me Free, See My Friends and Till the End of the Day, and all three were quintessentially Kinks songs. The band had found their own magical island in the sea of popular music styles and for that I’m giving them Crotchety Man’s Band of the Year award for 1965.

The Kinks - albums 1 to 4

The Kinks issued another two dozen or so singles between 1966 and 1970 when Crotchety Man lost track of them. They included some dazzling jewels: Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Sunny Afternoon, Waterloo Sunset², Death of a Clown, Days and the rib-tickling Lola.

The writing credits go almost exclusively to Ray Davies who formed the band that became The Kinks with his brother Dave in 1963. The brothers were brought up in the north London suburb of Muswell Hill along with their six older sisters. There they were immersed in music of a wide range of styles from the music hall songs of their parents to the jazz and rock ‘n roll records that their sisters preferred. And that goes a long way to explaining the smorgasbord of musical styles evident in The Kinks material.

By the time the band had been named The Kinks and had a recording contract the lineup was Ray Davies (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Dave Davies (lead guitar, backing vocals), Ray’s friend Pete Quaife (bass, backing vocals) and, recruited via an ad in Melody Maker, Mick Avory (drums, percussion). It was that quartet that recorded almost all the tracks familiar to Crotchety Man. In 1969 Pete Quaife was replaced by John Dalton on bass and there were further personnel changes in subsequent years. Ray and Dave Davies, though, provided the backbone of the band for the whole of its 32 years of active existence.

The Kinks - albums 5 to 8

The Kinks was a very English band. The lyrics were often about the English way of life, telling stories with a self-deprecating detachment that only the Brits manage to carry off. The mix of Merseybeat, music hall and folk music neatly complemented the wit of the words. If you can imagine a cross between early Beatles and the Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band you’ll get an idea of what makes The Kinks both unique and special.

It’s hard to over-play the impact of The Kinks on the music of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There is general agreement that Ray Davies and his band influenced rock groups such as The Who,  mod revivalists like The Jam, punk bands like The Clash, some new wave bands and the Britpop bands Blur and Oasis. It can even be argued that their influence can be seen in some of the American psychedelic groups (The Doors, Love, Jefferson Airplane, for example).

And, inevitably, The Kinks also influenced the Beatles. After hearing the early morning chant of Bombay fishermen Ray Davies penned the mysteriously oriental-sounding See My Friends. It was this track that is supposed to have prompted the Beatles to use a sitar on Norwegian Wood, the first time that instrument had been heard on a pop record.

Notes

  1. If Errol Flynn is now lost in the mists of time for you, think of Puss In Boots from the Dreamworks animated movie instead.
  2. Waterloo Sunset was a Track of the Week in November 2015.

Tyler

Tyler - Gary

The bathroom in the Crotchety house is being upgraded. Among other things the pedestal washbasin is being replaced with a basin set into a vanity unit. Initially we thought the new vanity cabinet would completely cover the footprint of the old pedestal, hiding any ugliness on the floor. As it turns out, though, the new units are not quite deep enough for that and the cutout in the vinyl floor tiles for the pedestal would be a dark scar on the bright shiny skin of the rejuvenated bathroom.

With a sigh we suspended the work of the plumber/joiner team and called in a tiler to fit new flooring. As I added his appointment to the calendar that old UB40 track, Tyler, came to mind and the song was soon added to the list of candidates for Track of the Week. Then, the following day, another UB40 track, Food for Thought, featured on The Chain on the Radcliffe and Maconie show. “Was this the first time UB40 had been played on the RadMac show?”, I wondered, as fond memories of their vinyl LP, Signing Off, came to mind. That’s one album I never did acquire in digital form and I miss it now sometimes.

The song came to an end and one of the DJs (it’s hard to tell whether it’s Mark or Stuart speaking on the radio) mentioned that his favourite UB40 song was Tyler. In fact, he got quite carried away for a moment. Could this be a sublime coincidence? No, of course not, this was undeniable evidence of the Rock Gods’ guiding hands. It’s time for UB40’s first outing on the Crotchety Man blog.

Tyler - march

Tyler is a song about Gary Tyler, a black 16 year old high school student who was accused of murdering a white 13 year old boy in Louisiana in 1974. Gary was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1975 but the case has been widely regarded as a travesty of justice ever since the witnesses who testified against him retracted their statements shortly after the trial. Certainly, UB40 were in no doubt that there had been a terrible miscarriage of justice when they wrote Tyler in 1980.

Police gun was planted
No matching bullets
No prints on the handle, no proof to show

Tyler is a reggae track with a sombre, bluesy feel. It has that lolloping effect that comes from a strong emphasis on the weaker beats in the bar but the prominent bass strides along confidently, a stable platform for the melody carried in the vocals and saxophone. There are nice touches from an organ and electric guitar, too, lifting the song out of the reggae rut and into pop chart territory. Although only ever released on albums Tyler would have made an excellent single.

There’s a helpless anger in the lyrics. When injustice is perpetrated by the very authorities charged with administering the law what can we do?

Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
What right do we have to say it`s not so

There’s another reason for adding Tyler to this blog, too. Gary Tyler’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1977. In spite of efforts by lawyers and human rights organisations to have his conviction overturned Tyler remained in prison until a change in the law in 2012 enabled a compromise. In return for pleading guilty to murder Tyler’s sentence was reduced to 21 years and, having already served 41 years, he was released on 30th April 2016.

Let me repeat that. Gary Tyler served 41 years in prison for a murder he probably did not commit. (An Amnesty International report from 1994 is available here.) So, do listen to UB40 playing Tyler and enjoy it but ponder on justice as you do so.

Tyler - UB40

UB40

Notes

  1. On 2nd June 2016 Food for Thought became the 5940th item on The Chain. It wasn’t the first UB40 song to feature in that series; item 3119, played on 7th August, 2012 was Tyler.
  2. There’s a Guardian article about Tyler’s release here.