4 Degrees

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Ten days ago Crotchety Man watched the awards ceremony for the 2016 Mercury Prize on the TV. The scheduling was confusing. At 7 o’clock there was a one-hour program on ‘the red button’ (a channel up in the six hundreds most easily found by clicking the red button on the TV remote) and this was followed by another one-hour slot on the primary BBC TV channel. As far as I could make out all twelve of the artists on the Mercury Prize shortlist would perform in the first hour and the awards ceremony itself would be covered in the second.

I have considerable respect for the Mercurys. Unlike the Brits, which are restricted to pop music, the Mercury Prize accepts nominations from a wide range of genres including pop, rock, folk, urban, dance, jazz, blues, electronica and classical. In practice, there have been no classical nominations since 2002 and there has only ever been one nomination for a heavy metal album. In spite of those omissions the Mercury Prize judges usually manage to pick an album by an artist that deserves greater recognition than they have so far received. Following that award is usually a good way for Crotchety Man to broaden his sonic horizons.

So, eager to hear a broad range of songs and hoping to stumble on something new and exciting, I sat down at 7 pm to be informed and entertained. This wasn’t completely new territory – I had already heard a few of the songs from the nominated albums – and I was soon building up a mental scoresheet. There were a couple of songs that weren’t to my taste but, with one exception, they all seemed worthy of the shortlist.

I am now going to break two rules of the Crotchety Man blog: I am going to mention what I would classify as a hip-hop song and I’m going to condemn it as worthless. (Don’t worry. This will be a small diversion. I shall be much more positive again shortly.)

The one track that should never have made the Mercury Prize TV show was something called Shutdown by a rapper called Spekta. When I heard it in that first hour I took an instant dislike to it. According to the TV presenter Shutdown is an example of Grime music which, I discovered recently, is not the same as hip-hop. Apparently, Grime is very popular in the clubs at the moment so, grudgingly, I reset the Crotchety Music Appreciation Meter and applied it to every detail of the song. Although I calibrated and re-calibrated my instruments I could not find any sign of quality music. It seemed to be nothing more than a strong beat and endless repetitions of the word ‘shutdown’.

At the end of the 7 o’clock programme, presented by Shaun Keveney (I think), we had only seen six of the twelve shortlisted artists. Switching over to BBC 1 I hoped we would now get to hear the other six. Disappointingly, the second hour featured exactly the same performances, only this time presented by Lauren Laverne. As the second show was supposed to be live I am at a loss to explain how they did that. Once again the Spekta song failed to register on the Appreciation Meter; the needle didn’t even tremble.

Finally, we came to the award itself. The Mercury Prize is given for the best album from the UK and Ireland released in the previous 12 months. There is only one award and the presentation is mercifully short. Jarvis Cocker teased the audience by saying that, in the end, the choice was between two ‘black stars’. This was obviously a reference to David Bowie’s Black Star and Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate. Black Star was the bookies favourite and Love and Hate was also regarded as a strong contender. A sense of relief washed over Crotchety Man. The Mercury Prize this year would be at least moderately well deserved.

In his award presentation speech Jarvis Cocker went on to say that, if David Bowie was looking down on the venue he would be delighted that the Mercury Prize for 2016 goes to … Spekta‘s Konnichiwa. And at that Crotchety Man became very crotchety indeed. “No, mate, David Bowie would not be at all pleased with that”, he spat at the TV. Dumbfounded and immobilised by the shock Crotchety Man sat through the cheers and the congratulations, half listened to the acceptance speech and suffered Shutdown for a third time in two hours as the credits rolled.

The judging panel clearly took leave of their senses this year. If they had chosen Bowie’s Black Star no-one would have been surprised and few would have been disappointed. If they wanted to show their appreciation for black artists they could have gone for Michael Kiwanuka or Laura Mvula. If they were looking for something a little out of the ordinary they could have chosen something by Bat for Lashes or The Comet Is Coming. There were some genuinely good albums on the shortlist. But Crotchety Man is not bitter. If you have been slighted, they say, “don’t get mad, get even”. In that spirit I shall do what I can to redress the balance by bringing to your attention another album on the shortlist, Hopelessness by Anohni.

4 Degrees - Anohni

Although I had heard the name Anohni a couple of times on the radio and filed it away in the mental rolodex under “sounds like Nina Simone or Benjamin Clementine” I knew nothing about the artist. As you can tell from my comment I wasn’t even sure if the voice was male or female. A little Googling soon cleared that up. Anohni was born a boy and called Antony Hegarty (the Antony in Antony and the Johnsons) but from the age of 5 Antony knew she was a girl inside. Anohni is the name of the woman that little Antony grew up to be. There’s a wonderfully insightful article on Anohni in the Guardian that’s well worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

Anohni has described Hopelessness as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”. The teeth come in the form of protest songs. But it’s not the protest of Bob Dylan who stood aloof from the decaying society that he sang about so eloquently. It’s an altogether more anguished recognition that Anohni is herself part of the problems, complicit in the politics that allow wars to be waged and ecosystems to be destroyed.

All the songs rage and rail against the injustice and destruction that the human race is inflicting on itself. 4 Degrees is specifically about climate change. If we do nothing to prevent it the experts predict that the world will be 4° C warmer by the end of the century than it was in 2000. That’s a critical temperature rise. It may even be enough to tip the climate into a runaway greenhouse effect that will wipe most species off the face of the Earth. Most of us are doing little or nothing about it and for Anohni that’s as bad as deliberately setting fire to our precious planet.

It’s only four degrees, it’s only four degrees.
. . .
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.
. . .
I wanna see the fish go belly up in the seas.
. . .
I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees.

The music is equally apocalyptic. Drum machines crash and thunder; fire and brimstone blare out from synthesisers. The rocks are melting and the seas are roiling as if the Earth is being born again. And yet, some beauty survives. A celestial brass band blows huskily; orchestral strings float down from every corner of heaven. And the voice of God rumbles through the singer’s throat, neither male nor female, transcendent, breath-taking, enthralling.

4 Degrees - world water droplet

When Crotchety Man sat down to watch the Mercury Prize shows on TV he was hoping to be introduced to an album like Hopelessness. Something that doesn’t quite make the charts because it’s not the flavour of the month. Something with genuine musical merit. Anohni’s first solo album fits the bill perfectly. It would have been a worthy winner of the Mercury Prize. Ah, well, there’s always next year. If we haven’t fried the planet by then.

Lord Franklin

Lord Franklin - painting

At the end of the 15th century the colonial powers of Europe started to search for the Northwest Passage, a hypothetical sea route across North America that they hoped would be a profitable corridor between east and west to rival the mediaeval ‘silk road’ trade routes that connected the Mediterranean region with India and China. Many expeditions were mounted over the next two hundred years during which the majority of the Canadian arctic was explored and mapped, but the Northwest Passage remained elusive.

In 1845, with only some 500 km of the Canadian coastal region still uncharted, the British sent two ships under the overall command of Captain Sir John Franklin on a new expedition, confident that the Northwest Passage would be found. Together the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, carried 129 men and three years worth of provisions. Both ships had reinforced bows and were equipped with engines that drove a single propellor, enabling them to steam at 4 knots. They also had a primitive form of steam-powered central heating for the comfort of the crew. Franklin and his senior crew members were experienced polar explorers. No-one could say that the men were ill-equipped or ill-prepared.

The ships left England in May 1845 and were seen anchored in Baffin Bay in late July waiting for good conditions to continue their journey westward. Two years later, when no word had been heard from the explorers, Franklin’s wife, members of parliament and the British press urged the Admiralty to send out a search party. In the Spring of 1848 they sent three: one going north overland along the Mackenzie river to the coast, one by sea travelling west from the Atlantic and another sailing east from the Pacific. None of the search teams found any sign of Franklin, his crew or his ships.

The failure of the rescue missions only served to increase public interest in the fate of Franklin and his men. Ballads, including one called Lady Franklin’s Lament, became popular and many further privately-funded searches were made. In 1850 the remnants of a winter camp from 1845/6 were found on Beechey Island along with the graves of three of Franklin’s crew. Four years later John Rae, while surveying for the Hudson’s Bay Company, heard about a group of 35 – 40 white men who starved to death near the mouth of the Back River. Rae was able to buy from the local Inuit people artefacts later identified as belonging to members of Franklin’s expedition. Franklin and his men were officially declared ‘deceased in service’ on 31st March 1854.

Lady Franklin personally commissioned a further expedition. The schooner Fox, bought by public subscription and commanded by Francis McClintock, set sail from Aberdeen in August 1857. In May 1859 a sledge party sent out from the Fox found a cairn containing a piece of paper bearing two messages from the Franklin mission. The first was dated 28th May 1847. It noted that Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror had been stuck in ice off Beechey Island in the winter of 1845/6 and icebound again the following winter off King William Island. That first note ended “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.“. The second note, written in the margins of the first had an altogether more chilling message. Dated 25th April 1848 it reported that the two ships had been stuck in the ice for a year and a half. Twenty four of the officers and crew had died, including Franklin himself on 11th June 1847, and the ships had been abandoned three days earlier. The survivors planned to set out on foot the following day heading south towards the Back River.

Lord Franklin - renbourn

Pentangle’s version of Lady Franklin’s Lament is called simply Lord Franklin. At first it seems to tell of a sailor who dreams about the Franklin expedition and its hardships. The last verse, though, is told from the perspective of the grieving Lady Franklin.

And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I’d cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live

Lord Franklin was recorded for Pentangle’s 1970 album Cruel Sister. To a casual listener it sounds like a solo performance by John Renbourn – just a folk guitarist singing a sad song. But, in the background, Bert Jansch’s concertina wheezes ruefully, bringing to mind the chill winds and icy wastes of the artic. And, after a couple of verses, Jacqui McShee’s voice rises in the distance like the keening of herring gulls. There’s no bass and there are no drums. The landscape has no pulse; only the wind moves in this desolate place.

Lord Franklin - sonar

Sonar image of HMS Terror

A number of scientific excavations took place in the twentieth century. These concluded that Franklin’s men died of hypothermia, malnutrition, lead poisoning and disease. In 2014 a sonar sweep discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus and just a few days ago, on 12th September 2016, another sonar research team announced the discovery of HMS Terror. The story of Lord Franklin’s ill-fated expedition has, finally, come to an end.

Bundles

Bundles - yarn

Bundles of
Unpredictable
Notes
Define the
Lasting
Essence of
Soft Machine

For my money Soft Machine were at their best around 1975/6. It was a time when founding member Mike Ratledge was fading out¹ and Karl Jenkins was taking over the reins as band leader and main composer. They released two studio albums in this period, Bundles and Softs. These were the first Soft Machine albums to feature guitars, provided by Alan Holdsworth on Bundles and John Etheridge on Softs. Mike Ratledge contributed his jazz fusion keyboards, Karl Jenkins added saxophone, oboe and further keyboards, Roy Babbington was on electric bass and John Marshall wielded the drum sticks.

They were all brilliant musicians then and, as far as I know, they are all still making music. Certainly, Etheridge, Babbington and Marshall are still performing. Along with Theo Travis on saxophone, flute and keyboards they are the current line-up of Soft Machine and that band has a short tour in the UK this autumn. Crotchety Man has booked for their gig in Derby on 25th November and I’m making Bundles my Album of the Month for September 2016.

Bundles - band 2016

Soft Machine, 2016

One of the distinctive features of Soft Machine‘s recordings in the Ratledge era was the fusion of separate themes into longer pieces somewhat akin to movements in classical symphonies. Bundles holds to that tradition with a 5-part, 19 minute opening salvo called Hazard Profile. In a live show each section would run into the next, the transition marked only by a change of tempo, a change of key or the introduction of a new melody. On the album each section is a separate track but there are no gaps between them.

So, is Hazard Profile one piece or five? Well, Part 1 is a romping rock track, Part 2 (Toccatina) is a piece for romantic piano and classical guitar, Part 3 is a 30 second electric guitar bridge to the slow, genre-defying bass and guitar riff of Part 4, and Part 5 features the frantic, pulsing guitar and synthesised horns of mainstream jazz/rock fusion. The parts could hardly be more different. And yet each has been seamlessly sewn onto the next and at the end of Part 5 we come full circle to reprise the theme of Part 1. Let’s call it a suite. And sweet it is to my ears.

Side one of the album ends with Gone Sailing, a short guitar étude reminiscent of Steve Howe of Yes or Steve Hackett from Genesis. Just under one minute of delightful picking and ringing harmonics.

The title track kicks off side two with jazz/rock Bruford style. Alan Holdsworth’s guitar frolics over undulating bass, the percussion skips over solid organ chords and the various parts are neatly tied together to form a pretty little bundle. But a plaything only holds a child’s interest for a short time and, soon, Bundles morphs into Land of the Bag Snake, another jazz/rock fusion track, this time one with an easy groove.

Next comes a pair of Mike Ratledge compositions, The Man Who Waved At Trains and Peff. These both have a vintage Soft Machine feel. Lots of piano/organ and Karl Jenkins’ oboe filling the slot formerly occupied by Elton Dean’s saxophones, while the bass riffs and rumbles and the drums clatter away busily. Peff, in particular, has some quacking oboe. (Sorry about that, but it really does sound like a duck in a karaoke booth at times.)

The album then gives us Four Gongs Two Drums, which delivers exactly what it says on the tin. It’s fairly short as album tracks go, 2 minutes 31 seconds, but in the wrong hands that could easily be too long for a drum solo. John Marshall, though, is one of only a handful of percussionists who can pull it off. He uses tunable drums to vary the pitch almost like a wah-wah pedal and never settles into a predictable beat. This track raises the role of the drum kit way beyond that of a metronome. As percussion pieces go this is the pinnacle.

The last track on Bundles is the ethereal The Floating World. It ambles along contentedly as if we are following a great airship that hovers just above our heads, guided gently downwind by brightly coloured birds tugging on flimsy guy ropes. There is the sound of flutes and recorders on the breeze as the ship, its feathered crew and our party of charmed children are led off into the land of the elves and the fairies.

Bundles - animusic

Animusic – Fiber Bundles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6r4pAqOBDY)

Soft Machine is one of the very few well-known bands that Crotchety Man has seen live more than once. (The others are King Crimson, twice, and Pink Floyd one-and-a-bit times².) They are also the only band in Crotchety Man’s unreservedly recommended list to be playing essentially the same material now as they were when I first saw them 45 years ago. (Gulp! That’s a frighteningly long time ago.) Perhaps it’s true what they say: good musicians never die, they just decompose.

Notes

  1. That’s no reflection on Mike Ratledge he was and is a very fine keyboards player.
  2. It was the end of an open-air concert, we were cold, wet and miserable, and not even the headline act had the power to keep us there a while longer. Of course, I wish we had stayed now.

‘Cause I’m A Man

'Cause I'm A Man - video still

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

John Gray

Sometimes it seems that men and women come from different planets. Men are tough and strong; women are comparatively fragile and weak, both physically and mentally. Men are insensitive; women are warm and caring. When they are angry men are physically aggressive whereas women are devious and unforgiving. These differences are often exaggerated but there is at least a grain of truth in them. The stereotypes are not completely wrong.

Human personality traits are thought to arise from a mixture of genetics and upbringing in proportions that are difficult to pin down. But, whatever the cause, being male makes you manly in a way you can not control. Tame Impala‘s song ‘Cause I’m A Man recognises the failings of the male gender and offers them as part of an apology for unintentionally hurting his girl.

Saying sorry ain’t as good as saying why
. . .
I have a conscience and it’s never fooled
But it’s prone to be overruled
. . .
Cause I’m a man, woman
Don’t always think before I do

The lyrics are unusually clear and penetrating for a pop/rock song but it’s the music that tickles the ears. ‘Cause I’m A Man is a slow electronic dance track with a deep bass and a dreamy vocal line. It’s getting late, the wedding disco DJ has taken the tempo right down, the multi-coloured lights are sweeping lazily across the floor and a few couples are swaying to their own private rhythm, drifting in and out of sync with the music. The effect is quite hypnotic.

'Cause I'm A Man - band

Tame Impala

‘Cause I’m A Man is a single taken from Tame Impala‘s latest album, Currents. Tame Impala is almost synonymous with Kevin Parker, an Australian musician and producer. Although there are five guys in the band it is exclusively a vehicle for presenting Kevin’s compositions in live settings. The studio albums, including Currents, are written, performed and produced by Kevin himself using guitars, synthesisers and drum machines.

Crotchety Man has always liked Tame Impala tracks when they come on the radio but, strangely, I find their songs soon grow stale when I listen to an album. Perhaps the radio picked the best bits. Or perhaps Tame Impala needs to be taken in small doses. I don’t know. In any case, with that caveat, I am happy to make ‘Cause I’m A Man my latest Track of the Week.

Local Boy …

Local Boy - title art

It’s funny, sometimes, how one thing leads to another.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

When I was a boy my dad became interested in photography. He had a Pentax single lens reflex camera that took 35mm film. There were no digital cameras then, of course. He would put a blackout curtain over the kitchen window to create a makeshift darkroom where he would develop and print his own black and white photographs.

It was a mysterious process. First, he placed the camera and a cylindrical black plastic canister called the developing tank into a thick black cloth bag. Inserting his hands through specially provided light-proof arm holes he performed some complex manipulation. At this stage he would sometimes mutter strange incantations like “Oops!”, “Damn!” or “Blast!”. Then, like a magician, he would remove his hands, open the bag and reveal an empty camera. The film had disappeared into the developing tank. It was magic!

But the trick was only just beginning. Next, the magician would pour a powerful potion called ‘developer’ into the developing tank, seal it and gently tip and turn it for exactly three minutes¹. Then the developer was tipped out and a ‘stopper’ solution poured in. Tip and turn a while. Replace the stopper solution with ‘fixer’. Tip and turn a while. And finally, wash thoroughly with water and hang up the strip of negatives to dry.

Once dry the negatives had to be printed. The strip of film was placed in an ‘enlarger’ which shone a strong white light down through a negative onto a sheet of photographic paper underneath. The enlarger was adjusted to illuminate an area about the size of a postcard, the photo-sensitive paper put in place and the lamp switched on for some 20 – 30 seconds or so. (The timing at this stage was usually done by guesswork but further attempts could be made if the first was either much too dark or much too light.) Then the exposed paper went through a four-stage process that mirrors that of the film: developer, stopper, fixer and washes. Take it from me, there’s something mesmerising about watching a picture slowly appear on a sheet of plain white paper.

Much later, when I was a grown up holiday snapper, I became frustrated with the small size and poor quality of the photos I was taking with my cheap point-and-shoot camera. So, in the Spring of 1980, on the strength of unanimous positive reviews in the photography magazines, I bought my first 35mm SLR camera, a Canon AE-1. I know it was 1980 because the lens cap proudly announced that it was the official camera of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

That camera gave me sterling service for more than 25 years but eventually, as digital cameras became popular, 35mm film became increasingly difficult to find². It was 2006 and time to enter the digital age. Sticking with the Canon brand I bought an EOS 350D, a model that was on offer because, as I soon discovered, it was about to be superseded. I think the old AE-1 is still in the loft and fully functional although the battery cover is cracked and the case is disintegrating.

The EOS 350D is also in perfect working order as far as I can tell. However, over the last six months there have been two cases of shots that are pure white and I was beginning to suspect that the memory card was failing. If you mention the Canon EOS 350D to a sales assistant in a camera shop these days they will go all misty eyed and start reminiscing about the great pioneers of the photographic age. Canon stopped producing that model more than a decade ago; to them it’s practically an antique. More importantly, though, it uses Compact Flash memory cards, a form that is still available online but no longer stocked by most camera retailers.

Was it worth getting a new CF card, I wondered, or should I move with the times and swap the 350D for a more up to date model? It’s silly, I know, but I felt I was being left behind by technology, an also-ran in the race to be faster, stronger, better. Anyway, the village show is coming up soon and I want to enter a really good picture in the photography category this time. (The judges were unimpressed last year.) The signs were auspicious; the time seemed right. So I am now the proud owner of a Canon 100D, entry level but bang up to date, 18 megapixel camera.

For the want of a memory card £363 was lost from the bank balance. But that’s progress, right?

Local Boy - stereophonics

As this is a music blog I suppose there ought to be something here about sound as well as vision. A quick search through Crotchety Man’s digital music collection threw up two tracks fitting the theme of photography. One was Nickelback’s Photograph and the other was Stereophonics’ Local Boy In The Photograph. I’ve chosen the latter as my Track of the Week.

Stereophonics is one of those bands that seem to make strong records without ever quite ringing the bell on the fairground strength-o-meter. On the Crotchety Man rating they reach the line marked “compilation album essential, further albums unnecessary”. Note the word ‘essential’; there are several songs on their 2008 Decade In The Sun compilation album that I wouldn’t be without.

Local Boy counts as essential. It’s a typical Stereophonics rock track with a good tune but it stands out because of the story behind it. The band’s singer and lead guitarist, Kelly Jones, saw a newspaper story about Paul David Boggis, a lad he once played football with. The article reported that Boggis’ died after being struck by a train and Kelly wrote the song in response to this tragedy.

He’ll always be twenty three
Yet the train runs on and on
Past the place they found his clothing.

There’s both sadness and a realisation that life must and does go on. Although we have no hard evidence it seems likely that Boggis’ death was suicide, which adds to the sense of loss for those who knew him and touches everyone who reads the story. When one thing leads to another sometimes a little good comes from the bad. In this case, an untimely death inspired a really good song.

Notes

  1. Actually I don’t remember how long the film was supposed to be in the developer  and, anyway, I think it depends on the temperature. Certainly, a thermometer was involved.
  2. Digital photography is also much cheaper and perfect copies come for free.