Aviation - beach

So far this year there have been about 40 posts on the Crotchety Man blog. Of those only six have carried the 2010s tag and one of them was an appreciation of that great old campaigner Bob Dylan – not exactly up-to-the-minute news. I felt I was in a temporal rut. It was time to break out, to find something new, push the boundaries a little. That’s what artists do, isn’t it? And blogging is, after all, a form of art.

So I browsed Spotify’s New Releases playlist. In many cases I did not recognise either the artist name or the track title. There were, of course, a lot of hip-hop artists and dance tracks that I could skip over – those genres may be popular now but they have never been Crotchety Man’s cup of tea. Then there were some unnecessarily obnoxious titles, depressingly uninspiring thumbnail pictures and a worryingly over-promoted pretty girl band. I did find a new release by indie rock band Two Door Cinema Club but it turned out to be nothing special. I toyed with listening to offerings from Bastille or CHVCHES. But, in the end, using the most technologically advanced selection gadget known to man (the spinning beer bottle) I chose something by The Last Shadow Puppets.

Aviation - turner and kane

TLSP, as they are known to the cognoscenti, is a baroque pop band formed by Alex Turner (of the Arctic Monkeys) and Miles Kane in 2007. That needs some qualification. There’s not much ‘baroque’ in the music of The Last Shadow Puppets. There’s a definite pop throwback feel to most of the tracks on their latest album, Everything You’ve Come To Expect (released April 2016), in which orchestral string and brass sections feature fairly prominently, but it’s a long way from Bach or Vivaldi. And there are a couple of rockier tracks on that album, too, notably the single, Bad Habits, which has had a lot of airplay on BBC 6 Music recently.

The production on some of the tracks on the recent album strikes me as rather corny – too many violins, the horns too subdued, an all too predictable prelude to an action scene in a James Bond movie. So for my Track of the Week I’ve chosen one of the livelier songs: Aviation. This one is neither pop nor baroque; it’s what I would call indie rock. And it rocks like a roller coaster car lurching crazily around a tight twisting track. Yes, there are strings and they do add a candy floss sweetness to the sound, but the crisp pounding beat of the bass and drums never let’s up, propelling us forward over the heads of the timid onlookers below, as we roll on to an unseen destination.

It’s impossible to do justice to The Last Shadow Puppets without mentioning their lyrics. They have a knack of finding a new twist on an old phrase. For example, here’s a line from the title track of the Everything You’ve Come To Expect album:

As I walk through the chalet of the shadow of Death

No, that’s not a misprint, the vocalist really does sing ‘chalet’. And then there’s this amusing couplet from The Element of Surprise:

I thought they were kisses but apparently not,
Do you end all your messages with an X marks the spot?

Aviation - eye

The words are often intriguing and occasionally obscure but always thought provoking. Unfortunately, though, the lyrics to Aviation fall into the ‘obscure’ category. I think it’s about a flight of fantasy triggered by gazing into a pair of beautiful eyes. How else can you explain the phrase “sectoral heterochromia” in the first verse? (To save you looking it up that’s a medical condition in which one sector of the iris is a different colour from the rest and it can be quite delightful.)

On the other hand, the Aviation video tells a very different and completely unfathomable story: a distraught bride watches as two men (TLSP’s Turner and Kane) dig a large pit in the sand on a beach watched over by armed men from the mob. Whatever is about to happen it doesn’t involve aeroplanes and it isn’t going to be pretty. Let’s hope it’s just a fantasy.

The Fairground

The Fairground - horses

In the previous entry in this blog I mentioned A Trip To The Fair, a track on the Scheherazade And Other Stories album by Renaissance recorded and released in 1975. That song recounts a spooky incident at a funfair. Now, there’s an eerily similar song on Ralph McTell’s 1969 album, Spiral Staircase; it’s called simply The Fairground.

The two songs are quite different in their musical styles. The Renaissance song is an intricate prog rock track; Ralph McTell’s is a simple folk song. The Trip is performed by a 5-piece electric band; the Fairground is just one man and his acoustic guitar. The vocabulary and the literary style of the lyrics is quite different, too. There’s no question that the songs were written entirely independently. And yet they might have been inspired by the very same experience.

To illustrate just how closely they match, here is an excerpt from the previous blog post (with one very minor redaction) that describes The Fairground just as well.

. . . . .

The rides are deserted. All is quiet. Everything is still. … suddenly the silence is shattered by the screech of the dodgems, the rumble of the waltzers, the wheezing drone of the fairground organs. Lights blaze and the fair is full of people …

. . . . .

Actually, it happens rather more gradually than that in Ralph McTell’s song but the essential elements are much the same. At first the fair is spookily empty, a deathly shadow of the hustle and bustle that draws young and old to the fairground. Then a ghostly spirit sweeps through the rides as if God has breathed life into the cold clay figure of Adam. The transformation is incomprehensible, terrifying and wonderful all at the same time.

The Fairground - dismaland

The tunes do have one thing in common – they are both in triple-time. Somehow the rhythm of the waltz is inseparable from fairground music. Perhaps that’s why the waltzers are always so popular. Or is that just a coincidence? It would be pointless to compare the two compositions beyond that.

When it comes to the lyrics, though, it has to be said that Ralph McTell tells a good story. His language is down to earth, his imagery is startlingly real. I particularly like the way he describes how movement shifts from the world outside to the fairground and back again as the narrative unfolds.

Standing alone in the fairground at night,
The world racing past on the streets …
. . .
I noticed although the fairground was moving
The rest of the world stopped still.
. . .
Behind me the wheel and the fairground were still
And outside it was moving again.

The Fairground - mickey

What is it about funfairs that makes them so creepy when no-one is around? Perhaps it’s the very fact that a busy fairground is so brim full of energy and movement that we can not imagine it any other way. Whatever it is Renaissance and Ralph McTell have both felt it. Crotchety Man has felt it too.

Scheherazade …

Scheherazade - herself

The trouble with classical music is that it has no punch. The notes have no attack; melodies wander aimlessly; movements stagnate. Where is the zing of a plucked metal string, or the thwack from a flick of a hickory stick on a taut sheet of calfskin?

The trouble with rock music is that it’s all Punch and no Judy. Riffs pile on riffs; axe confronts truncheon; sausages are stolen and the violence never stops. Where is the calm at the eye of the storm, a rest for the singer, a break for the horns?

Too often it seems there’s a great chasm between classical music and rock but Renaissance, like no other band, show that it is not as wide as you might imagine. Scheherazade And Other Stories is, I think, the most spectacular bridge across those two great continents of the musical world.

On the first side of the 1975 vinyl release of Scheherazade And Other Stories there are three songs. As far as genre goes they sit somewhere around the progressive rock and symphonic rock areas – rock music with the elegance and grace of a symphony. The second side is one 24 minute track that really belongs on the other side of the bridge, in the classical lands. It’s a piano concerto and choral work performed with an orchestra, a choir and amplified electric instruments – classical music with a punch.

Scheherazade - waltzer

The long opening track tells of a scarily disorienting Trip to the Fair. A piano étude leads into a stirring march, an electric bass calling “left, right, left, right, …” in double quick time. Ghostly voices cry on the wind and echo above our heads as we tramp forward; a blood-curdling cackle rips through the air and swiftly fades away. We were promised a night at the funfair but this is no joy ride. The drummer rattles out a military beat as the platoon marches on.

Three and a half minutes in we take a break. All is quiet except for a clockwork glockenspiel that tinkles soothingly in the darkness. Then, just when most pop songs are finishing, the light contralto voice of a wide-eyed girl begins to sing:

I took a trip down to look at the fair,
When I arrived I found nobody there.

The rides are deserted. All is quiet. Everything is still. Nervously she looks around and suddenly the silence is shattered by the screech of the dodgems, the rumble of the waltzers, the wheezing drone of the fairground organs. Lights blaze and the fair is full of people, all staring at her. She screams and closes her eyes to shut out the chaos and cacophony. As she struggles to control her rising panic the gentle glockenspiel theme returns and is accompanied by a delicate jazzy piano interlude. In her mind the girl tries to make sense of what she has seen. She went to the fair, but nobody was there. Nobody was there …

Scheherazade - vultureTrack two is a majestic prog rock song about how people in high places look down on the rest of us, waiting for any chance to profit from the misfortunes of their underlings. It’s called The Vultures Fly High. This is a composition for a 5-piece rock band. No orchestra, no choir; just the usual keyboards, guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It’s a song for a large theatre or open-air arena. Keyboards and bass fill the space with energy, the vocals urge the audience to sing along and the indignant sentiment is one everybody can share. But take heart. Those at the top today will be toppled tomorrow and the once mighty will feel the sharp beak and talons of the new vultures tearing into their soft white flesh.

Sometimes it looks as though we lose,
But then in time the finger points at them,
The next in line.

Scheherazade - ocean gypsy

The first side of the album closes with Ocean Gypsy, a heart-wrenching lament for a lost soul. The words are poetic with all the allure and ambiguity that comes from allusions to older literature. I like the interpretation by Waffles McCoy (on song meanings.com) in which he says “this song tells the tale of someone who gives so much of herself to another that her own essence is eventually lost”. The lyrics remind us of ancient myths in which the sun and moon would be lovers but are doomed never to feel each other’s touch, one trapped in the night, the other confined to the day. As befits such a tragic tale the music is full of synthesiser chords lapping on a sandy beach, guitar runs rippling over pebbles and vocal harmonies whispering with the wind. It is a truly beautiful song.

Scheherazade - song of

On the album’s second side there is the Song of Scheherazade in which Renaissance tell the framing story for the collection of middle-eastern folk tales, One Thousand And One Nights. Set in an unspecified country centuries past it tells of a Sultan who discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. In his fury and humiliation he has her executed and, believing that all women are equally deceitful, he vows to take a new wife every day. The Sultan instructs his vizier to select a virgin from among his people for each new bride and, having spent the night with her, he has her beheaded before she can dishonour him, as his first wife had done.

This continues until the only marriageable woman left is the vizier’s own daughter Scheherazade. In spite of the vizier’s pleas to spare his daughter the Sultan insists that Scheherazade should be his next bride. Scheherazade consoles her distraught father, telling him that she is not afraid and hinting that she will not die when the dawn comes the morning after the wedding.

The wedding ceremony takes place, as arranged, and that night Scheherazade draws on her knowledge of myths, legends and traditional stories to entertain her king and pass the long hours until daybreak. The Sultan is utterly enthralled by Scheherazade’s tale of great princes, precious talismans and magical rings. When dawn breaks and the story is still unfinished the king postpones Scheherazade’s execution for one day so that he may hear how it ends. The next night Scheherazade finishes the tale and starts another. The Sultan finds the new story just as fascinating as the last and it, too, remains unfinished when the sun comes up again. So the Sultan postpones the execution one more day.

Scheherazade continues telling her exotic tales, the ending untold at dawn, for a thousand nights. Finally, when the Sultan asks for another bedtime story, Scheherazade tells him that she has no more. By this time, though, the Sultan has fallen deeply in love with the vizier’s daughter and he publicly recants his pledge to execute his wives.

Scheherazade - faces

It is an epic tale and ideally suited to the symphonic rock format that Renaissance do so well. For this track the band is augmented by a full orchestra and they use it to transform their rock opera into a classical choral work. It could have been done with synthesisers but, in 1975 when the album was recorded, an orchestra provided more scope for variety of sound and texture.

Although Song of Scheherazade is divided into nine sections it is really a single piece of music. Of those nine sections four are songs and five are instrumentals. One of the songs is a story within a story – a love poem that Scheherazade told to the Sultan – echoing the multi-layered structure of the original One Thousand And One Nights collection. That short song stands out as exceptionally warm and life-affirming. The other songs tell of the Sultan’s bitterness, Scheherazade’s courage and story-telling skill, and the people’s joy when the Sultan announces an end to the killings. The instrumental passages tie the songs together seamlessly and build a tapestry into which the fabulous tale is woven.

Scheherazade bewitched him with songs of jewelled keys …
Told him tales of sultans and talismans and rings.
A thousand and one nights she sang to entertain her king.

Scheherazade, Scheherazade, Scheherazade!

In the end, is Scheherazade and Other Stories classical or rock? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is both. It certainly has the power and punch of a rock music track. And it has the elegance and grace of classical works, too. So, who cares how we label it. It’s rollicking great music; let’s just enjoy it.

Big Yellow Taxi

Big Yellow Taxi - taxi

It’s been a rather miserable summer in the UK so far. Here in the middle of England there’s hardly been a day when it didn’t rain or at least threaten to. There have been sunny periods, too, but I’ve lost count of the times we planned to go out for the day and at the last minute changed our minds because of the weather. Then the other day the grey skies cleared, the sun came out and we ventured out to explore Felley Priory Gardens.

It was a rather half-hearted adventure. Felley is only about 45 minutes from our house and the gardens are small as visitor attractions go. Still, we had an appetising lunch in the café, strolled across the lawns, admired the herbaceous borders, sniffed the roses and gazed out over the pond to the green fields beyond. The birds were singing overhead and the bees were busy in the flower beds. It was good to be out in the sun and the fresh country air.

The following morning the sun was shining again, a butterfly flitted across our back lawn and a honey bee danced over our rather soggy flower beds. A line from a familiar song ran through my head.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!

It is, of course, from Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and for a moment that song felt like a celebration of summer rather than a lament for the precious things we have lost. I was struck by the curious disconnect between the cheerful, up-beat music and the stark bitterness of the words. I guess there in my own garden I had caught some of the jarring incongruity that hit Joni when she looked out from her hotel window and saw the beautiful green Hawaiian mountains in the distance juxtaposed against the seemingly endless parking lot below.

Big Yellow Taxi - with guitar

This most famous of Joni Mitchell songs has been given a sparse production. There’s little more than Joni’s acoustic guitar and light playful voice. But a sprinkling of bongos gives it an almost Caribbean calypso feel and backing vocals add a sixties doo-wop effervescence. It’s the sound of sweetness and sunshine. The lyrics, though, are much darker. The first three words generate instant outrage in anyone with a soul: “They paved paradise”. And they did it, she says, to make that most ugly of modern inventions, a parking lot.

The song goes on to mourn the disappearance of far too many of the world’s trees and to protest about the over-use of pesticides that are poisoning the birds, the bees and, if we are not careful, ourselves. Then it moves on from the plight of the natural environment to the much more personal pain of losing of a loved one in the line that gives the song its title:

A big yellow taxi took away my old man.

That can be interpreted in several ways but there’s no denying that Big Yellow Taxi is a cry of pain and disbelief at man’s selfishness and folly. And yet, there is no sense of despair – the song is much too exuberant for that – and it ends with a musical romp as Joni’s voice leaps up an octave and plunges two octaves down before she giggles over the last fading chords. Perhaps the all too tragic message is the stronger for being wrapped in the clothes of a comedy.

Lady Rachel

Lady Rachel - with candle

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us.

There’s a fine line, sometimes, between a curious dream and a terrifying nightmare. The flimsy tissue-paper barrier between benign and malignant worlds, between the familiar and the unknown, is conjured up perfectly for us by Kevin Ayers in his song Lady Rachel.

At first it could be a lullaby. A gentle strumming of electric guitar leads into a flute motif – soft, familiar sounds for a baby in the cradle. But soon boisterous brass instruments add an incongruous flourish and the feeling of familiarity evaporates; we have entered a curious realm. Kevin’s deep baritone voice begins to sing of a lady carrying a candle up the stairs. It must be night and a time long ago.

We can not see the lady’s face as she  goes into the upstairs room. We can not discern her demeanour as the door closes behind her. But it’s a door with no handle. Is she trapped, locked in by her evil uncle? Has she bolted herself in against the creatures of the night? Or is she at the mercy of whoever or whatever may come, unable to secure the door against intruders? Kevin only tells us that she says a prayer …

And then in her bed clothes she hides.

The brass section provides a bellicose accompaniment again and the flute trills away while the narrator’s voice continues …

Now she’s safe from the darkness,
She’s safe from its clutch.
Now nothing can harm her, at least not very much.

As the guitar strumming continues an organ wheezes ominously and the bass pounds slowly like the tolling of a funeral bell awakening the fear of a little girl deep within a woman’s breast. Lying there awake she is safe but what will sleep bring?

What will you dream of tonight, Lady Rachel?
What will you dream of tonight?

The dream, when it comes, is strange, as all dreams are. To the sound of strings, Lady Rachel climbs up a hill and is handed a parcel. Inside the parcel she finds a castle. The drawbridge is open and a voice from the water says, “Welcome my daughter. We’ve all been expecting you to come.” Kevin doesn’t tell us whether Rachel finds this frightening or just weird. Perhaps the Lady crosses the drawbridge, enters the keep, lights a candle and climbs the stairs to her bedroom to start the whole sequence again. Perhaps it’s all a dream.

Who will you dream of tonight, Lady Rachel?
Who will you dream of tonight?

Maria Browne

Maria Browne - remember

It was the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme the other day. The battle lasted the best part of 5 months. 20,000 men died on the first day; one million were killed or injured all together. It is difficult to imagine how we can inflict such misery on ourselves and yet there was no strategic alternative for either side. And the Somme is now regarded as the tipping point that eventually led to the collapse of the German forces in 1918 and the end of the first World War.

Maria Browne - mourning

Maria Browne is a young girl. Her daddy was killed in the war and she doesn’t know why. Between the nightmares she tries but she just can’t understand.

Tell me, how loud can you scream?

Maria Browne lost the love of her life to a strange land.
Maria Browne doesn’t know what they’re fighting for.

Maria Browne is a single from the recently released Patchwork album by a band called The Clear. Until this week Crotchety Man had never heard of The Clear but that song stood out when I heard it on the radio (the RadMac show, naturally) and prompted me to investigate. They are Chris Damms, Bryan Day and Jules Duffey. Between them they play guitars and keyboards, and they all sing. Although they describe their music as West Coast pop it’s not the fun, fun, fun of the Beach Boys; it’s much closer to the folk-inflected sunshine pop of The Mamas and the Papas.

West Coast pop is never going to have top billing on the Crotchety Man blog. On the whole it’s far too bland and predictable for this blogger’s ears. But sometimes, just once in a while, one of those ‘nice’ songs creeps under the wire and infiltrates Crotchety Man’s fortified camp. Songs like Good Vibrations and Sloop John B by the Beach Boys and Monday, Monday by The Mamas and the Papas did that in the sixties. Maria Browne has tunnelled in to join them this week.

An investigation into the causes of this breach in our defences is under way but several factors have already been identified.

There are the mellow tones of the folk guitar introduction, recalling early Simon and Garfunkel tracks. There’s the gently rocking rhythm of the bass and drums that, like a pocket watch swinging on a chain before your eyes, eases you into a hypnotic trance. And there are the vocal harmonies that seep deep inside like a hot honey drink. Then, of course, the lyrics tell a powerful and poignant story. And, finally, there is the intriguing emphasis on the first syllable of ‘Maria’ making it sound like a truncated ‘Marion’ – a secret weapon that pricks the brain and tricks the mind into focusing all its attention on the song.

Maria Browne - the clear

The addled Crotchety brain spent a long time trying to decide whether Maria Browne deserved a Track of the Week slot in these pages. On musical merit I’m still undecided but it follows on so naturally from last week’s post (I Vow To Thee My Country) and fits the theme of remembrance so well that it seemed more than just appropriate. And when I saw that one of the other tracks on the Patchwork album is called The Planets the hand of fate was undeniable. A double link from the last post to this. If these songs were on The Chain Radcliffe and Maconie would be proud of me.