Love

poster

This week I thought I’d pick the Lana Del Rey song, Video Games, off the pending pile but, after some background listening, I’ve realised that just about any Lana Del Rey song will do. That’s the thing with this singer; all her songs are gorgeous but they all sound much the same. So, for my Track of the Week, I’ve plumped for a recent single with a rather nice video instead. It’s called Love.

According to the ‘Net Love was originally going to be called Young And In Love which, surely, would have been a better title. Have you tried searching a music catalogue for songs by putting “love” into the search box? Actually, you might be surprised to know that the top hit on iTunes and Spotify right now is this Lana Del Rey song. Although I don’t suppose that will be the case in a year’s time.

Love was released on 18th February ahead of the new album which is due sometime later this year. Musically it falls into the ‘baroque pop’ category: a lush backing track behind a soulful singer. In overall feel Love reminds me of Don’t Stop Believin’, the Journey song that tells of ‘a singer in a smoky room’. And that seems appropriate because ‘smoky’ describes Lana’s rich low voice really well.

Love‘s lyrics hark back to 50’s and 60’s America when the Dukes of Hazzard would go cruising in a beat up Dodge Charger getting into all sorts of scrapes and having the time of their lives. There’s a whole new generation of young bucks (and does) out there today but they’re still just cruising aimlessly and looking for fun. The present day Dukes are listening to sixties vintage songs on the car stereo, too, but now those songs are beamed down from satellites. That, for Lana Del Rey, is all rather confusing but in the end she concludes that it doesn’t matter because

… its enough to be young and in love.

in a hat

Lana Del Rey

I may be a Crotchety Old Man now but I can still remember being young and in love. And that should be enough for anyone. In fact, I’d settle for just being young again. (I’ll pause here for everybody to say a sympathetic ‘Ah’.) If you like sixties music and are fortunate to be young and in love Lana Del Rey’s current single will surely resonate with you. If you remember times like that Love will take you back to those happy times. And if you haven’t found love yet you can still enjoy the Marilyn Monroe of singing voices and that song called, simply, Love.

Where’s the Revolution?

flower bomb

There has been a sea-change in politics recently: Britain is leaving the EU, right-wing ‘populist’ parties have been gaining support across Europe and America has an inward-looking, protectionist president. All the economics experts said Britain will be worse off if it leaves the EU but the people feared immigrants were stealing their jobs and destroying the British way of life. Similar sentiments have boosted the profiles of far right politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. And, as for Trump, he only has to tweet the blame on Muslims, Mexicans or spy agencies to bolster support for his conservative administration; no evidence, it seems, is required to back up his claims.

This seismic shift to the right doesn’t please everyone. It doesn’t please Crotchety Man and it doesn’t please Depeche Mode if their current single, Where’s the Revolution, is anything to go by. Why are we so ready to blame the other guy for our problems? Are ‘they’ really at fault? Wouldn’t we do the same in their situation? Sometimes I want to stand up and shout to the electorate, “No, you fools, you’re wrong”. I hope that many others share my frustration and despair. I hope that together we will soon rise up and drown out the voices of ignorance and hatred. I dream of an unstoppable tide of inclusiveness and friendship that will sweep away the selfishness that I see all around me. But the revolution doesn’t come.

Come on, people, you’re letting me down.

Martin Gore’s lyrics express my feelings perfectly. The sombre tones of Dave Gahan’s voice put the message across with a reflective Angostura bitterness. The dual keyboards of Andy Fletcher and Martin Gore pulse threateningly, driving the point home beat by electronic beat. Those three preachers are tapping into an underground well of opposition to the new world order. And the waters are rising fast.

Depeche Mode were one of the defining bands of the synth pop and new wave era in the eighties. But their star did not fade when the music-buying public moved on to rap and house music. The band released 13 studio albums between 1981 and 2013, all of them reaching the top 10 in the UK album chart. Where’s the Revolution is a single taken from their fourteenth album, Spirit, which was released just two days ago. The album as a whole is quite dark – positively gloomy in places – but there are plenty of bright sparks to keep the listener interested and the single has made an immediate impact on the radio over here in the UK. There’s a full review of the album here on Pitchfork.

Depeche Mode Press Event In Milan

Depeche Mode, 2016

So, readers, are you with us? Shall we answer the question that Depeche Mode have posed? I say the revolution is just around the corner and it lies in the hearts and minds of all who think for themselves and love humanity. Its soldiers are those who get their news from reliable sources and reject ‘alternative facts’. Its armies are those who see all nations as our brothers, sisters and friends, not our enemies. Its impetus comes from those who keep pushing on the revolving door of political opinion. It just needs to turn one more revolution. Words are our only weapons; it’s time to speak up and be counted.

Come on, people, we can do better than this. Stop letting me down; join the liberal revolution. Together we can turn the tide again.

Moroccan Roll

khobz

Brand X are back. And how!

Here’s a splendid live version of Malaga Virgen from their 1977 album Moroccan Roll. This was recorded just a few months ago on the band’s reunion tour of the US.

If that performance doesn’t leave you panting with excitement and aghast with admiration I’ll … I’ll … errm … I’ll eat a Moroccan Roll and post the video on YouTube to prove it.

Strangely, although Brand X has been mentioned a few times in these pages before, so far none of their music has been featured here. To right that unforgivable wrong I’m making Moroccan Roll my Album of the Month.

According to AllMusic and Spotify, which quote identical biographies, Brand X was formed in 1975 by Phil Collins (the drummer with Genesis) and John Goodsall (the guitarist with Atomic Rooster) as a side project. The other members of the original band were keyboard player Robin Lumley and bassist Percy Jones. That line-up released their debut album, Unorthodox Behaviour, in 1976 and, after adding Morris Pert on percussion, followed it with Moroccan Roll a year later. Those first two albums are still, arguably, their best.

Judging by the album and track titles those guys must have had a lot of fun. Here’s the track listing for Moroccan Roll:

  1. Sun In The Night
  2. Why Should I Lend You Mine (When You’ve Broken Yours Off Already) …
  3. … Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine After All
  4. Hate Zone
  5. Collapsar
  6. Disco Suicide
  7. Orbits
  8. Malaga Virgen
  9. Macrocosm

Of course, you can’t judge a piece of music by its title any more than you can judge an album by its cover art. And that’s probably just as well because the cover for the CD re-issue of Moroccan Roll has the kind of glaring spelling error that once prompted journalists on other newspapers to re-title The Guardian “The Grauniad”. The most northwestern country of Africa is spelt with one ‘r’ and two ‘c’s, not as the CD artwork has it, “Morrocan Roll”. I suppose that might be deliberate, a way to emphasise the pun – “more rock and roll” does have two ‘r’s and one ‘c’ – but I’ve not seen that justification offered and the correct spelling has been used in everything else I have read.

Anyone at all familiar with Brand X will know that they are no rock ‘n roll band. They were among the pioneers of the jazz/rock fusion genre, the first blacksmiths heating jazz licks almost to melting point and hammering out a new type of horseshoe on an anvil of solid rock.

band in 1977

Brand X, 1977 – Pert, Collins, Goodsall, Lumley, Jones

Moroccan Roll is as good an example of that craft as any but it’s not all hammer and sweat. Sun In The Night, for example, is a laid back, world music song, the only one on the album that has words. Unfortunately for English speakers those words are in a language from the Indian sub-continent. Wikipedia says it’s Sanskrit; Google Translate thinks it’s Hindi and provides an English ‘translation’ identical to the incomprehensible original. This site is more informative but it still reads like a typical Eastern mantra, more mystical than enlightening. But no matter, it’s a good tune and John Goodsall’s sitar whisks us away to India, enveloping us in the spirits of Shiva and Vishnu.

The next two tracks are both credited to Phil Collins. Why Should I Lend You Mine picks up the beat for a while and we enter the heart of jazz fusion territory. The listener’s attention flicks between the instruments as they inject their individual contribution to the piece: five parts, each of them and none of them foremost. That is the hallmark of great bands. Then the beat dies away and we find ourselves cradled gently in the arms of the gods once again. This time, though, it is the gods of the Western traditions that comfort and protect us. Almost as soon as Why Should I Lend You Mine has faded away Maybe I’ll Lend You Mine After All filters through cotton wool earplugs to form a fitting coda to the previous track.

After that good deed of altruistic lending there’s a complete change of mood. A short drum solo takes us into John Goodsall’s Hate Zone. The synthesiser wails, the guitar rants, the bass grumbles irritably and the drums are definitely asking for trouble. Our gang of football hooligans has come face to face with the opposition. Both sides are throwing insults and violence is brewing. But soon the simmering hatred burns itself out, the crowds dissipate and everyone goes home fairly quietly. We should have thumped them (both on and off the pitch), but this blood-chilling music more than makes up for the disappointing draw.

Next up it’s Robin Lumley’s turn in the composer’s chair. Collapsar is an ethereal keyboard and electronics interlude that neatly rounds off side 1 of the vinyl release. When we flip the disc we are greeted with rippling piano sounds underpinning a soft fusion track that shows Brand X at their very best. This one even has some vocals picking out a simple tune with La La syllables. (Actually, it sounds more like Na Na, but La La reads better. :-)) Why it’s called Disco Suicide I can’t imagine; it’s no dance track and it has a joie de vivre that is the complete opposite of suicidal despair. Perhaps that’s the point – to play it in a disco might well lead to the DJ’s predictable murder on the dance floor.

Deep into side 2 we come to Percy Jones’ personal contribution. In Orbits Percy flies us around the fingerboard of his fretless bass in a solo demonstration of his unparalleled flair and technique. And as an encore he uses all his talents in his own composition, the Malaga Virgen that we met in the video at the start of this post. (“Malaga Virgen”, by the way, is a Spanish dessert wine.)

The album finishes with the third of John Goodsall’s pieces. Called Macrocosm, it’s another whole band celebration of the fusion genre – intricate, uplifting, a showcase for the individual skills of the musicians and a fine example of an ensemble that is more than the sum of its parts.

I should mention the part that Morris Pert plays on Moroccan Roll and I can do no better than to quote Wikipedia, which says:

percussion and a vast number of bits and things that he hit while the tape was running, including: The QE2, Idi Amin, and undiscovered parts of Scotland

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And, finally, here are a couple of quotes from the two founding members of Brand X that are currently on their Reunion Tour:

John Goodsall: “It’s a better version now. We’re all a lot more experienced – a lot more skilled… And that goes for every one of us.”

Percy Jones: “This music takes us back to a certain space – which was really cool. I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel that feeling again – and yet here it is!”

They really are back. And better than ever.

Acknowledgements

The photos in the slideshow are taken from an excellent review of the show at the Iridium in New York City on 3rd January 2017.

Cantorum

penguin choir

This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.

musicians

Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.

In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.

Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.

In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.

Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?

What Now My Love?

face

Rules, they say, are made to be broken. My self-imposed timeline for this blog is supposed to start at 1963 but this week I’ve chosen to go back a little further. My Track of the Week is a song that caught my attention before I realised that an indelible streak of music flows in my veins. The original was composed and sung by the Frenchman, Gilbert Bécaud, and it was called Et Maintenant. But the recording I heard in 1962 was an English version sung by Shirley Bassey, the Welsh singer of pop standards and show tunes.

Shirley Bassey is best known for her powerful renditions of the theme tunes from the James Bond movies Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and Moonraker. In the U.S. she is something of a one-hit wonder, Goldfinger being her only single to break the top 40 in the Billboard Hot 100. Her live shows there, though, regularly sold out and over here in the UK she was one of the most popular female vocalists of the last half of the 20th century.

shirley

Back in 1962 most popular music fell into the easy listening bins in record shops, a genre that roused unvoiced contempt in the music appreciation section of the Crotchety Lad’s immature brain. What Now My Love could easily be dismissed as just another of those songs for the hotel lobby, a backdrop for check-ins and rendezvous, a mood-maker designed to dispel anxiety and add a little humanity to the mechanical operation of the robot they call the hotel clerk. It has been recorded by over 150 different artists and almost all the names I recognise are those old-contemptible easy listening crooners and their orchestras. And that’s odd because there’s nothing at all ‘easy’ about this song.

The lyrics of What Now My Love read like a suicide note. Here is a woman who has lost everything she held dear. Her love has left her and with him went all her hopes and dreams. Her world has been turned upside down; her life has no meaning any more; she has been stripped of her heart and soul. No-one would care if she should die. That’s hardly the message a hotel manager would want to be giving his guests.

Apart from the Shirley Bassey version all the covers I have heard use an instrumental arrangement more suited to the hotel lobby (or, in some cases, the hotel lift) than the high drama of a woman about to throw herself off a lofty parapet. It’s as if the scene is too starkly terrifying to show directly; we must avert our eyes, looking on only in Perseus’ reflective shield lest we become petrified victims ourselves. In that hotel entrance the TV is showing a film, a tacky drama in which a distraught woman teeters on the brink. But we just know a superhero will swoop down to save her – just after the advertising break – because it’s that kind of movie.

In contrast to all those ordinary covers that tell the story from a safe distance and filtered through a camera lens Shirley Bassey stands right there in that lobby and assails us with such power and emotion that we are rooted to the spot, turned to stone by Medusa’s evil stare.

What now my love?
Now that you’ve left me.
How can I live through another day?

As she sings the ominous rhythm of the bolero marches on towards the final tragic climax.

What now my love?
Now there is nothing.
Only my last goodbye.

And, with that, the orchestra builds to a thunderous crescendo, those final words rip the heavens apart and the song ends with a sickening crash of drums and cymbals. No good samaritan talked her down. No superhero saved her. Her spirit was already broken and now her body is, too.

There are decent versions of this song by Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand and Roy Orbison, to mention just three, but nobody does it like Dame Shirley Bassey. The power and passion of her voice caught the imagination of the young Crotchety Man in 1962 and I have never forgotten it. That’s reason enough to break an arbitrary cut-off rule.