Miss Fortune

Miss Fortune - roulette wheel

A friend of mine went to a posh party recently – dinner, dancing and hobnobbing with the great and the good. You could tell it was a really posh occasion because the guests were being formally announced. There was an aristocratic middle-aged couple and a young woman in the entrance when my friend arrived. “The Lord and Lady Luck and their daughter, Miss Fortune”, cried the doorman.

My friend then stepped forwarded and the doorman scrutinised his invitation. “I’m sorry, sir”, he said in a loud clear voice, “you have come to the wrong place. This is the debutante ball for Lady Penelope Fortescue-Chance. I think you will find the Waifs and Strays Orphanage Benefit Dance is in the East Wing”.

That introductory vignette is, of course, entirely fictitious. The real Miss Fortune is a single taken from The Coral‘s latest album, Distance Inbetween. Crotchety Man thinks of The Coral  as an indie rock band with pop and psychedelia influences. Some analysts would add folk, country and dub to the list but that suggests a wider range of styles than I can detect and hints at a level of originality that isn’t really there. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that The Coral write straight up, honest-to-goodness indie rock songs that deserve to feature on radio stations and playlists in every respectable corner of cyberspace. And Miss Fortune is an excellent example of their work. It rolls along happily like a bright steel ball on a roulette wheel, skipping and jumping from one number to another oblivious to the fervent prayers of the punters. When the ball finally comes to rest the roulette players may go away with a small fortune or take nothing home but tales of outrageous misfortune. It’s all the same to the wheel.

The Other Side

The Other Side - earthrise

Cast your mind back to December 1968. Apollo 8 was on the launchpad. No human being had ever been beyond Earth orbit. No astronaut had flown on the Saturn V launch vehicle before. There had been no less than three engine failures on the unmanned Apollo 6 mission earlier that year. Apollo 8 had been planned as a low Earth orbit mission to test the Lunar Module but the LM wasn’t ready and, to meet the deadline of sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had fundamentally redefined the mission’s objectives. If all went well Apollo 8 would take three men into orbit around the moon and bring them safely back to Earth. There had never been a more risky mission.

To make matters worse the flight programme required the Command/Service Module carrying the astronauts to fly behind the moon where it would be out of contact with Mission Control when it carried out Lunar Orbit Insertion, the crucial manoeuvre that would put the module and its crew into orbit around the moon. If the engines failed the capsule would fly out past the moon and into space. If the burn lasted too long they would plummet down and crash onto the surface of the moon.

Apollo 8 was launched at 12:51 UTC on 21st December 1968. 68 hours and 58 minutes later the orbiter capsule went behind the moon and Mission Control announced loss of signal. For the crew in their “tin can”, the technicians in the control room and millions of members of the public it was a time of almost unbearable tension. For those on the ground there was nothing to do but wait and hope.

The Other Side - band

PSB (J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth)

To commemorate this temporal void Public Service Broadcasting took recordings of the radio conversations between the Apollo 8 astronauts and Mission Control, added some electronic sounds and created a music track called The Other Side. They didn’t have to work too hard to capture the atmosphere in the control room – the tension is all there in the voice recordings.

Apollo 8, Houston, one minute to LOS. All systems go.

Houston, Apollo 8, 10 seconds to go, you’re go all the way.

Apollo 8, Houston, roger. Thanks a lot, troops. See you on the other side.

In real time there was then a 45 minute gap. On the album track this is compressed to around 10 seconds but the complete absence of voice radio traffic makes the soft thrumming of synth rhythms sound like a ticking grandfather clock in a dark and otherwise silent room. Tick, tock. Are they all right up there? Tick, tock. How can silence be so loud? Tick, tock, tick …

We’re standing by …

Apollo 8, Apollo 8, this is Houston, Houston, over.

Roger Houston, we read you loud and clear. How do you read us?

And with that message from the Apollo 8 commander there is an audible sigh of relief from the flight controllers, the synthesisers swell, joyful guitar playing celebrates success and the music reaches a crescendo. It all works beautifully. Crotchety Man salutes the way Pubic Service Broadcasting have made some excellent music from an extended period of silent waiting.

The Apollo 8 mission was the first time a human had seen the full round Earth from space, the first time human eyes had seen the far side of the moon and the first time an astronaut could see the Earth rising above the horizon of the moon. The image at the top of this post is part of the Earthrise photo taken by Will Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 8. That picture is believed to have inspired the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970. Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. That is something well worth commemorating and Public Service Broadcasting have given us a fitting memorial.

Let Them Eat Chaos

Let Them Eat Chaos - Kate

Years ago now Crotchety Man was watching a documentary about old sitcoms on the BBC. The discussion turned to The Good Life, a TV series about a cheap plastic toy designer, Tom Good, who gives up his well-paid but unfulfilling job to turn his suburban house into a small-holding and become entirely self-sufficient. Needless to say this presented quite a few practical difficulties, difficulties that the programme makers exploited with hilarious results.

Tom and his wife, Barbara, were played by Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal and they were the most lovable couple ever invented for the TV. Tom was full of clever ideas that never went according to plan but he pursued them with unquenchable passion and faced every difficulty with unshakeable good humour. Barbara loved him for that, supported him in everything he did and comforted him when things went wrong. Together they navigated life’s ups and downs with warm cuddles and silly jokes. The characters were so real and the acting so natural that it was hard to know whether you were watching Briers and Kendal, the actors, or Tom and Barbara, the characters they were playing.

In the documentary a long-time fan of The Good Life paid tribute to the programme and the actors saying, “I’m still in love with Felicity Kendal”. With that, deep within Crotchety Man, the clapper of a big brass bell swung, metal struck metal and the ring of truth resounded through his being. There are no better words to express the relationship between the young Mr. Crotchety and a warm, fun, desirable, but fictitious and therefore unattainable vision of womanhood on the TV screen. That fan and I had both fallen in love with a beautiful illusion.

Some three weeks ago Crotchety Man fell in love again. This time the object of his affections was the poet, Kate Tempest. Now, I’m not particularly interested in poetry on the whole, especially that of old school poets like Byron, Keats and Tennyson. It’s where song lyrics become poetic that I start to take notice. Artists such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are the poets that stir my bones and tickle my flesh. There are some poets on the fringes of the music business that are interesting, too: Roger McGough, John Cooper Clarke and Ian McMillan spring to mind. Kate Tempest belongs in that hinterland. She is undoubtedly a poet but she often works with musicians and she released her Let Them Eat Chaos album on 7th October.

Let me say straight away that Let Them Eat Chaos is not about the music; it’s all about the words. Well, no, that does a disservice to Kate and her band. While the focus is clearly on the wordplay this is a piece of performance art in which words, music and visual aspects all contribute to the whole. So, uniquely on the Crotchety Man blog, I invite you to watch the video of Kate’s live performance for the BBC. As usual I am assuming that the video on YouTube constitutes a violation of copyright but watch it anyway – it’s an experience not to be missed. (For viewers in the UK it’s legally available on the iPlayer for another week or so.)

Kate Tempest is a poet in the modern style. She writes about the issues of the day: everything from global warming and the banking crisis to employment, drugs and the gentrification of the suburbs. She comes across as the unremarkable girl next door but still manages to tackle these topics with intelligence and wit. Although she is now 30 she looks much younger and her delivery appeals to a young audience. The rhythm of her poetry fully justifies the ‘rap’ label but it’s white girl rap, articulate, insightful and relevant to all of us, not just a badge of honour for black guys.

We are still mythical;
we are still
permanently trapped
somewhere between the heroic and the pitiful.

Let Them Eat Chaos is a portrait of seven people on the same city street. Those seven people and only those seven people are awake at 4:18 in the morning. Each track on the album draws another part of the street or paints another character onto the sonic canvas. There are goalposts painted on that green garage door. Esther has just come home after a night shift as a care worker. Bradley has all the benefits of a good job but doesn’t feel fulfilled and can’t understand why.

Each track is a poem complete in itself. And each poem is stitched onto a flowing, rhythmic sheet of sound to form a larger work. Synthesisers and drums march us forward while keyboard motifs add light and colour. Sometimes we pause and take stock. Then the beat rouses us again and propels us on down the street. Another door, another sleepless character.

Three weeks ago, as I watched Performance Live: Kate Tempest, I fell in love with the young poet for the same reason I loved Felicity Kendal playing Barbara Good. Kate is intelligent, warm and talented. But above all she has the confidence to be herself. Kate Tempest doesn’t hide behind an invented persona; the performance poet on stage is the same girl you might meet on the street. Of course, I’ve never met her but I admire her honesty and her talent. Life will always be Good while there are artists like Kate Tempest around.

Peaches En Regalia

Peaches En Regalia - in a bowl

Peaches En Regalia is the perfect radio theme tune. It’s instrumental music of indeterminable genre, of unspecified length and quite undemanding of the listener. It could be the background music for a speaker introducing a programme on the fine arts, history, politics or religion. For those potentially serious subjects it would set a light-hearted tone, inviting the listeners to sit back in their armchairs and prepare to be entertained as well as educated. In fact, it would be the perfect introduction to the Crotchety Man radio show, if such a thing was ever to come about.

Peaches is a single taken from Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album of 1969. Zappa’s use of the then advanced recording technique of multi-tracking and messing about with the tape speeds makes it hard to unravel the instrumentation at first. It is basically a piece for keyboards and horns that swings along like an early nineteenth century dandy out for a foppish stroll. But, listen carefully, and you will hear flutes, saxophones and clarinets singing the jolly tune while processed bass guitar and percussion provide effortless momentum.

Whenever I hear Peaches En Regalia it makes me smile. This is feel-good music at its very best. If Lily the Pink‘s medicinal compound isn’t working for you, if you’re feeling glum and Don’t Worry, Be Happy doesn’t pick you up, if the fates are against you today and Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life fails to sooth your angst, try the Peaches En Regalia. That will do the trick. I give you my personal guarantee.

Blind Faith

Blind Faith - cartoon

Regular readers of the Crotchety Man blog may have picked up that I hold a non-religious view of the world. I’m a humanist – one who believes that there is probably no god and we must, therefore, base our moral code on being nice to one another. I came to this way of thinking because it’s so difficult to be sure about … well, anything. Descartes had it right when he said “I think, therefore, I am”. Everything else could be just an illusion. The one thing that annoys me more than any other is certainty in the absence of evidence – blind faith. It doesn’t matter what your belief is, if there is no evidence to support it you have no right to believe it. And even if there is some evidence you could still be wrong.

So, if I’m so antagonistic about it, why am I writing about blind faith? Well, for a start, it’s not the unjustified (and unjustifiable) convictions of religious fanatics that I’m referring to here, it’s the one and only album by the first ‘supergroup’, Blind Faith. The band deserves a slot in these pages simply because I can give a first hand account of their first public performance at the free rock concert in Hyde Park, London on 7th June 1969. (See this post on my Stoney Fish Tales blog for a personal story about that day.) But the main reason for writing about Blind Faith is that it’s a darn good album.

Blind Faith - personnel

Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Ric Grech, Steve Winwood

There are six tracks on the Blind Faith album. The first is nearly 9 minutes long, the next four are a more radio-friendly length (3, 4 or 5 minutes) and the last is a 15 minute excuse for individual members of the band to demonstrate their improvisational skills. All of the first five songs would make excellent singles (with some judicious trimming in the case of the 8 minute 48 seconds of Had To Cry Today). Just looking at the track titles kicks Crotchety Man’s mental jukebox into life: Can’t Find My Way Home, Well All Right, Presence of the Lord, Sea of Joy – they come over the psychic streaming service one after another as if God has made a celestial playlist and is proving to me that He really does exist.

Not that I’d take any notice of an old man with a beard and long white hair, dressed in a flowing robe and sitting on a throne in the clouds. The music may be heavenly but it’s not truly divine. Still, to show there are no hard feelings, here’s Eric Clapton’s composition Presence of the Lord as a representative sample of the songs on the Blind Faith album. It is, as you can guess from the title, a testimony of faith in the Christian god. I don’t agree with the sentiment but Eric is entitled to his view and I can’t be too dogmatic – after all, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, he just might be right.

This video is actually a clip taken from a film of the Hyde Park concert released on DVD in 2006. (The full concert can be found here if you have an hour to spare and your conscience lets you ignore the copyright notice on the DVD.) Presence of the Lord is a slow, bluesy track that suits the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums combination that gives Blind Faith their distinctive sound – a relaxing accompaniment to a sunny day in the park. On the album there’s some nice piano work instead of Steve Winwood’s organ used in the live performance.

Of the remaining tracks my favourite is Sea of Joy. It’s a Steve Winwood composition with a jaunty guitar/bass hook and some soulful violin playing by Ric Grech. This is a song that can spin in my head for days and never grow stale.

The lyrics are, frankly, quite odd. What are we to make of “Is it just a thorn between my eyes?”, I wonder? And what’s a thorn got to do with a sea of joy, anyway? But it really doesn’t matter when the music is so enticing.

I suppose I should mention the controversial album cover. It features a topless, pubescent girl with luxurious hair holding a model of a futuristic aircraft/spaceship. In some places it was regarded as inappropriate and banned; the album was issued with an alternative cover in those regions.

Blind Faith - cover
The image was created by Bob Seidermann, a photographer friend of Eric Clapton’s, and was supposed to represent innocence bearing the ultimate technological achievements of humanity. In Bob’s words, “The space ship would be the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the girl, the fruit of the tree of life”. He titled the artwork “Blind Faith” and the band took its name from that. I can’t imagine any other band has been nameless until the cover of their first album provided the inspiration they needed. But it’s so hard to know these things.

I’m sure the Blind Faith album is familiar to most readers of the Crotchety Man blog but my advice to anyone who hasn’t dipped their toes into the sea of joy on it is this: don’t take my word for it; faith is not enough; gather the evidence for yourself; listen to the album and form your own opinion; then, whether or not you agree with me that this is a jewel of artistic achievement, you can never be accused of being blind to the sparse but exquisite fruits of the first supergroup.

Fend for Yourself

Fend for Yourself - camp fire

Back in June the Crotchety Man blog carried a review of Magnolia, which was then the most recent album by The Pineapple Thief. I gave it a rating of 3.5 out of 5 but reserved the right to adjust that as I got to know it better. Over the last few months, though, it has become clear that I didn’t really do justice to that album. Whenever a track from Magnolia has come up in the all-songs-shuffle test it has always been an unexpected delight. So, when The Pineapple Thief released another album in August, the Crotchety ears were called on to analyse and assess that new offering.

The new album is called Your Wilderness and it compares very favourably with Magnolia. It’s a little less varied than the previous album but the melodies are just as sweet, the keyboards every bit as luscious and there’s some magical pattering percussion from guest drummer Gavin Harrison (of Porcupine Tree and King Crimson). As a taster for the new album I’ve chosen Fend for Yourself as my Track of the Week.

Actually, either of the two singles from the album (In Exile, No Man’s Land) would have given a better impression of the album as a whole. Fend for Yourself is one of the slower tracks and at 3 minutes 43 seconds it is the shortest of them all. But I couldn’t resist the mellow tones of John Helliwell’s clarinet as it takes up the tune and flutters over gentle piano chords.

In the song an icy emptiness has been overlaid with suppressed bitterness.

Go fend for yourself.
You will find me frozen in stone.
With a whisper you had flown
And never looked back.

This verse is sung twice but that’s all the lyrics there are. That first line seems peculiarly weak, as if it has been sanitised for public performances. Or perhaps the singer’s primitive, instinctive expression of anger has been censored by a higher brain function. And yet the instruments construct a comforting cocoon of sound that puts sweetness in the bitter cup and stirs it with a spoon. Sugar and cream in a dark roast coffee. Delicious and stimulating.

Fend for Yourself - Bruce Soord

Bruce Soord of The Pineapple Thief

I think it is their ability to blend the textures and timbres of different instruments that gives The Pineapple Thief their unique appeal. In my Magnolia review I picked out the sound of a muted trumpet for special mention and it is the wooden, reedy sound of the clarinet that makes Fend for Yourself stand out.

The more I listen to this band the more I like them. So I’m going to take this opportunity to raise Magnolia to 4.5 on the Crotchety Appreciation Scale and heartily recommend Your Wilderness. If Fend for Yourself works for you so, too, will the rest of the album.

Down River

Down River - painting

Here’s a Track of the Week from the guilty pleasures vault. It’s old, it’s simple and it’s of a genre you might call folk/pop. But don’t turn the web page just yet. Like many folk songs it’s a sad song; like most pop songs it’s easy on the ear. But it binds the listener to the torturer’s rack, ratcheting up the tension until the tendons tear and the ache of loneliness snaps into anguished loss.

Down River - the rack

The narrator has been banged up in jail. Shortly after his release he bumps into Rosie, once his girl. She doesn’t recognise him for a moment. The rack wheel turns and the ratchet clicks once. It’s been a long three years. Time goes slow when you’re down river, locked away. But he still remembers the tune they used to sing together. As he recalls too many sleepless, loveless nights the ratchet clicks again.

He asks her why she didn’t write. She avoids his eyes as she says she had to mind her dad. They both know it’s just an excuse. The ratchet clicks. “But, just a line, babe?”, he pleads. She will have to tell him the truth. “Do you remember Ben?”, she asks. Of course he does, he and Ben went right through school together. And now Rosie is shacked up with Ben.

With that the ratchet clicks once more and his tortured body breaks. But he can not let her see his pain. If she could see the black chasm that has opened up in his soul she would be hurt, too. She would feel guilty about abandoning him to a cold concrete cell, ashamed that she hadn’t had the courage to tell him she had moved on. She doesn’t deserve that burden. It’s all his fault and he still loves her.

A few unguarded words spill from his lips. “Well, he’s a good man, Rosie. Hold him tight as you can.” And then the singer summons all his mental strength to build a wall between them, a barrier to hide him from her, to protect her from the sight of a man broken by his own thoughtlessness and stupidity. His goodbye sticks in his throat and as he walks away the pain, finally, overwhelms him.

. . .

Now listen to David Ackles as he tells the story in his 1968 single, Down River.

For many years Down River was Crotchety Man’s all time favourite song. The opening piano chords suggest a mood of quiet nostalgia. Almost immediately the vocals begin to tell a story. A bass guitar pushes forward, bubbling and bouncing a little too boisterously for comfort. There’s some light percussion but it’s so far down in the mix that the kit might have been in an adjacent studio. Slowly the story unfolds and, as it does, the tension builds. When the song reaches its climax and the emotional wave breaks a soft organ swell provides the pathos usually supplied by a string section. Then, in its wake, guitar notes polished smooth by electronic effects duet with an effervescent organ line, gradually fading away as the salt water hisses on the sand, retreats and fades away.

I still love this song. Although it’s filed away in a secret vault I really don’t feel guilty about it at all.