Autopsy

face

Why did our relationship die?

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Fairport Convention gave their first performance at St. Michael’s Church Hall, Golders Green, London on 27th May 1967. To commemorate that occasion the band called their recent half studio, half live album, 50:50@50. The album was released earlier this year and the band is on tour in the UK right now. Crotchety Man discovered too late that they will be at Lowdham just 25 minutes drive from the Crotchety mansion this coming Wednesday. Sadly, that is the only venue that is already sold out.

I swear I heard a newly remastered version of Fairport‘s 1968 single, Meet On The Ledge, the other day and I had planned to feature that as my Track of the Week. The thing is, I can’t now find any evidence of its existence. I suspect it was on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music but a search on the BBC radio website didn’t pick it up. It’s not on Spotify, either. So, instead, I’ve chosen another Fairport song, Autopsy, from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

The Crotchety ears first heard Autopsy, I think, on the John Peel show shortly after the Unhalfbricking album was released. I was fascinated by the off-kilter rhythm, captivated by Sandy Denny’s voice and gripped by some of the saddest lyrics you will ever hear.

The song starts in 5/4, ambling along slowly like a ladybird with a missing leg wandering through the leaf litter. The guitars of Simon Nichol and Richard Thompson build a mournful backdrop and Sand Denny’s clear, pure voice oozes the sadness of a failed attempt to resuscitate a relationship that has died.

You must philosophise,
But why must you bore me to tears?

Ashley Hutchings’ electric bass and Dave Mattacks’ drums push on, right through the missing beat, as if five feet was the most natural arrangement, not only for the song but for all the Earth’s myriad forms of crawling life.

The ladybird sings about her mate, now a desiccated husk of his former self, trapped in a slough of despondency.

You spend all your time crying,
Crying the hours into years¹.

Her song then slips into a different gait. The fifth leg is stowed away under the wing casing and the creature steps on in 4/4 time, singing sweetly that they can still be friends.

Come, lend your time to me

When you look at me,
Don’t think you’re owning what you see.

The sting of this message is eased by the dock leaf balm of a heaven-sent guitar break. And then the ladybird releases her fifth leg and repeats her reasons for breaking up in 5/4 time again. What they had is broken but, strangely, not incomplete.

the band

Fairport Convention ca. 1970

My brother and I listened to the John Peel show every week in the late sixties and recorded large chunks of it on our dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder². For several weeks the 4 minute 20 second length of tape containing Autopsy passed the playback head as often as family protocols would allow.

This is one of my very favourite Fairport Convention songs. It deserves to be better known and better loved.

Notes

  1. A Google search for the lyrics throws up half a dozen sites, all with the same incorrect words for this line. The (presumably) correct lyrics are on this website, which is an homage to Sandy Denny, who wrote the song.
  2. On YouTube there’s a live session from John Peel’s radio show broadcast on 6th April 1969. This is probably the version I had on tape.

Magic

cards

I shall be away from the temptations of the blogging machine this weekend so, this week, the Crotchety notes will be published in advance of the usual Sunday date and may be somewhat staccato.

—–

For my Track of the Week I’ve chosen Magic by Bruce Springsteen. There’s no particular reason for this; it just struck me that an appreciation of “The Boss” is long overdue. Then again, I’m not the greatest Springsteen fan on this Earth. Although I’ve never heard a Springsteen track I didn’t like, his songs rarely ignite the flames of passion in me.

If the songs are not really that special what is it that makes Bruce Springsteen so popular? Well, for a start, he has gathered some fine musicians around him. He works hard, too. He has been writing songs, recording and gigging for more than 50 years. And a man who gives 4-hour concerts deserves our considerable respect. But, above all, he has an unparalleled rapport with his fans. He didn’t like being called The Boss at first; he was, and still is, just an ordinary Joe like you and me. What could be more endearing than that?

Springsteen’s success has given him many opportunities to influence public opinion and he has used them to promote a liberal political agenda both in his lyrics and in his ad hoc comments on stage. On the tour promoting the Magic album he introduced the title track like this:

We’re living in a sort of Orwellian time when what’s true can be made to seem like a lie and what’s a lie can be made to seem true. So the song’s really not about magic, it’s about tricks.”¹

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Magic has a simple folk song feel that appeals right across the spectrum of musical tastes. In the album version a violin and a mandolin add a bit of sparkle, too. There’s a subtle kind of magic in this song that grows on you the more you hear it. To the Crotchety ears it’s just as good as the singles on the album, Radio Nowhere and Girls In Their Summer Clothes. And that’s, surely, reason enough to air it here.

Notes

  1. You can hear that introduction in this YouTube video. That clip has some lovely violin playing but it ends far too abruptly.

Men Singing

choir

Back in September 2015 the Crotchety Man blog carried a brief review of the Free Henry Fool EP. At the time I said I would be exploring more of their work “very soon”. Being an honest, upright citizen and a man of my word I did, indeed, do a little research and added their 2001 album, Henry Fool, to my collection soon after. The 16 tracks on that eponymous album didn’t disappoint and I put it down for an Album of the Month slot. Unfortunately, though, the Henry Fool album is not available on Spotify and YouTube was banished from these pages back then¹. Consequently, the Fool was unceremoniously kicked into the long grass bearing the label “requires further research”.

Talking of long grass… There’s a primitive tribe of pygmys living in deepest darkest Africa where the grass grows tall and strong. Anthropologists call them the Fukawi. Sightings of the Fukawi are extremely rare. They shun modern society and hide in the undergrowth when strangers approach. Occasionally, though, a small head has been glimpsed as one of the tribe’s lookouts jumps high in the air to see above the green fronds and tassel heads of the indigenous vegetation. All that is known about them is their tribal name which comes from their piercing cry of “We’re the Fukawi!”².

Like those Fukawi lookouts Henry Fool pops up into view once in a while. I spotted his proud head again recently and it reminded me that a full album review is long overdue. So, here are a few words about the band’s second album, Men Singing, which (as you will have gathered from the active link) is on Spotify.

cover

Artwork from the Men Singing album cover

Let’s start with the track listing, which is:

  1. Everyone in Sweden
  2. Man Singing
  3. My Favourite Zombie Dream
  4. Chic Hippo

That looks awfully short. A mere pygmy of an album. But the first and last tracks are over 13 minutes long and the two 6 minute tracks in the middle take the total time up to just over 40 minutes. Not the most generous of offerings by today’s standards but enough to stop the buyer from feeling short changed.

Everyone in Sweden is a longer version of the first track on the free EP. It rocks along contentedly, harking back to the carefree Canterbury scene of the seventies: early Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North. If you believe the stereotypes everyone in Sweden is supposed to be this laid back except, perhaps, for the odd angst-ridden detective in a thick knitted sweater. It’s a track for chilling out but it rewards more focused listening, too.

Next up is the not-quite-title-track, Man Singing. This is ambient flute and synthesiser music embellished with crisp percussion, solid bass and gritty guitar. We may still be in Sweden but there’s a deeper, more serious side to the detective story now. Perhaps there is more to the plot than we imagined but there are no words to unravel the mystery – in spite of the title, this is another instrumental.

At this point a dark figure comes shambling over the horizon. He shuffles uncertainly towards us under a lowering sky. Brief flashes of light illuminate his face against the distant hills. His eyes and mouth are moving but his features are horrifyingly devoid of life. Our canine companions shrink away and cower in the shadows. Behind him more half-dead bodies lurch along as if towed in his wake. The air is full of eerie sounds. Is this zombie music? It does wander rather aimlessly and seems to have been drained of the melody of life. No, I have to confess, this is not my favourite zombie soundtrack.

When we finally wake from the nightmare we are treated to a violin serenade over a characteristically gentle Henry Fool backing track. It is morning but we are still sleepy and not yet ready to face the day. The violin poses an idle question and it is answered by a saxophone. An organ joins in the conversation and then a guitar. One by one the instruments murmur disconnected thoughts as our mind drifts somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. This close to slumber even the lumbering of a hippo seems chic. And we wish we could stay like this forever.

henry fool

Henry Fool

So that’s Men Singing. Four tracks, ironically none of them with vocals. Ambient, Canterbury scene, progressive rock and jazz blended into a smooth and satisfying package. The zombies may lack a little vitality but overall this is a fine album that fully deserves to be the current Album of the Month.

Notes

  1. It looks as though all the tracks on the Henry Fool album are in the YouTube topic here.
  2. There is some dispute among the experts about the language being used here.

Oh Woman, Oh Man

tryptich

Dan Rothman, Hannah Reid, Dominic Major

Inspiration comes from many places, some familiar, others less so. It lurks in bushes where it can’t be seen and it hides in plain sight among the ordinary, every day objects of our humdrum lives. We may have passed this way many times before but our blinkered eyes missed the beauty of the city park and gazed past the crowd of jostling commuters never seeing the grace in their movements or the kindness in their faces. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, we see it and it brings joy to our hearts.

So it was on Tuesday, 2nd May as the Crotchety Couple sat watching the TV show Later… With Jools Holland. We had watched his live show many times before. It is the very definition of eclectic, featuring bands and solo artists from right across the modern music spectrum. Indeed, its span is so broad that you’d think no viewer could possibly like more than one or two of the songs in any given episode. And yet almost every performance has something to offer: a beautiful voice, perhaps, or stunning instrumental skills. That, of course, is why we and many other music fans watch it.

The set list for that early May broadcast went like this: Blondie (still making good pop/rock songs), Future Islands (distinctive indie pop from Baltimore), Mabel (Londoner singing RnB-tinged pop), Orchestra Baobab (Afro-Cuban band from Senegal), London Grammar (indie pop trio), Binker and Moses (sax and drums jazz duo). As usual every one of those acts was worth listening to but the one that crept out from behind the bushes to surprise us and, ultimately, inspired this post was London Grammar‘s. Here is their live rendition of Big Picture from their new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing which is due for release on 9th June.

London Grammar may be new to Crotchety Man readers. They are Hannah Reid (vocals), Dan Rothman (guitar) and Dominic “Dot” Major (keyboards, drums).

Hannah and Dan met at Nottingham university in 2009; the following year Dot joined them and the band was christened “London Grammar”. After completing their university courses in 2011 the trio moved to London and started playing in local bars. It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of the record companies and by the end of 2012 they were ready to launch their careers as professional musicians. They posted their song Hey Now on YouTube in December 2012, released the EP Metal & Dust in February 2013 and followed it with their first full album, If You Wait, in September that same year. The album reached no. 2 on both the UK and Aussie album charts.

London Grammar‘s music is ethereal, melancholy, beguiling indie pop. Hannah’s voice has been accurately described as ‘brooding’, ’emotive’ and ‘folky’. Or, as one reviewer put it, “as if she honed her craft singing amidst the gardens of Lothlorien”. Dan’s guitar and Dot’s keyboards & drums build a foundation of understated electronic sounds that both complement Hannah’s voice and add subtle decorative features in a way that only modern electronic instruments can. To see what I mean listen to my Track of the Week, Oh Woman, Oh Man, another song from Truth Is A Beautiful Thing.

For those of you in the UK the episode of Jools’ TV programme featuring London Grammar is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service for another 18 days. You might like to root around in it for your own inspiration. And if your good lady steals the remote and switches over to the Eurovision Song Contest I’ll forgive you for an exasperated, “Oh Woman! Oh, Man!”.

Fine Time

time expired

A song from 1988 appeared again on the Crotchety Early Warning Station’s radar screen a few days ago and it reminded me of the 7″ singles I used to have. Although I spent my formative years in the days when sales of singles far outstripped those of albums I only accumulated about a dozen of them. I preferred albums for two reasons: if I liked one song by a particular artist I probably liked their other material, too, and with albums you get more boom-bang-a-bang for your buck. So my singles were exceptional songs by artists sitting somewhere outside Crotchety Man’s fuzzy comfort zone.

To give you an idea of what I mean here’s a list of the 7″ singles I can remember buying:

  • Goin’ Back by Dusty Springfield
  • Maggie May by Rod Stewart
  • Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel
  • Time of the Season by The Zombies
  • Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones
  • Wherever I Lay My Hat by Paul Young
  • Down River by David Ackles
  • Fernando by ABBA
  • Wheels of Fire by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity

In those days of boyhood and adolescence the coppers in my pocket were reserved for the paradigm shift of prog rock from bands like Genesis, Yes, King Crimson and Soft Machine. I did have one Stones compilation LP and in my adult years I added Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water to the collection but those other artists couldn’t generate the level of excitement necessary for the Crotchety Lad to stump up the cash for an album.

And then, as you must have guessed by now, there was also Fine Time by Yazz. That’s Yazz the female English pop singer, not Yazz the male American rapper (about whom I know only that Google can’t distinguish him from her). To call Yazz a pop singer is, perhaps, a little misleading. She had four top twenty singles in the UK in the very late eighties but they owed more to the dance music of the period than to traditional pop. It was, in fact, the UK variant of the ‘house’ music that originated at the Warehouse disco/dance club in Chicago. And that explains why Crotchety Man was never likely to buy a Yazz album.

No, there was never going to be any ‘house’ in the Crotchety house. And yet there’s something utterly fascinating about Fine Time. It kicks off with the rattle of a snare drum, a slow, deep, funky bass line and some sweet soulful vocalisations. Even before any proper words have been sung your ears are hooked on the textures and the reggae-like beat from an electronic organ. There’s a story to be told and you wait eagerly for it to start.

The first verse tells us that Yazz loves her man and then, without skipping a beat, we hear an aching pain in the chorus:

Oh, this is a fine time to change your mind … I can’t go on without your love.

Her voice is clear and expressive. The notes are true, the intonation controlled. She doesn’t scream, she doesn’t curse, she just sings her heart out. And all the while there’s that slow funky bass and the insistent organ stabbing chords into the air. There’s another verse and a lovely little sax break; the mix is perfect. Yazz uses the full range of her voice to give vent to her feelings: sadness, regret, a little guilt, perhaps. It may qualify as ‘house’ music but it is still an essential item for the Crotchety singles collection.

I don’t remember what reminded me of Fine Time. I might have heard it on the radio or it might have come up on a website or playlist. It can be no coincidence, though, that Yazz songs are in the media again now.

After 1989 Yazz only recorded sporadically. In the 90s several singles were released and two albums were recorded but never released. After re-evaluating her life at the end of that decade she decided to “turn her life over to Christ”. Yazz now lives in Spain and uses her music to spread the Christian message in prisons, clubs, churches and schools. Her official website announced a new project just a week ago. She is working on her first “worship tracks” CD, which will be released in the autumn. A free download of one of the new tracks is available from http://www.yazzmusic.co.uk/index.php; I haven’t taken up the offer.

Summertime

sing it!

Porgy and Bess, 2014

After childhood and adulthood there is a third age of man, an age in which the ignorance and naivety of youth have evaporated, the responsibilities of work and parenthood have been largely left behind and we are free to use our time-ripened talents in any way we choose.

In affluent countries with modern healthcare the number of third-agers is increasing rapidly; in the UK nearly a quarter of the population is now over 60. In recognition of this untapped pool of knowledge, skills and experience a UK version of the University of the Third Age was founded in 1982. There are now 1000 independent U3A organisations in the UK all affiliated to the Third Age Trust, a national charity, and with links to many other U3As across the globe. Unlike the Université du Troisième Âge in France, whose individual groups were guided by their local university, the UK U3As are entirely independent of academic institutions, relying instead on their members to provide education in its widest sense.

The Crotchety Couple joined our local Charnwood U3A last year. With over 80 interest groups covering the whole gamut of arts, sciences and leisure activities there’s something for almost every third-ager still active in mind and body. There were two music-related groups last summer: Classical Music Enjoyment and Singing for Pleasure. Neither of those piqued Crotchety Man’s interest enough to join. Then, in September, a proposal for a Making Music group appeared in the newsletter and the glowing coals in Crotchety’s musical grate were fanned with the bellows of enthusiasm once more. Eyes aflame he fired off an email expressing his interest.

not us

No, this is not the U3A group.

For various health and personal reasons the Making Music group took a while to come together. We met for the first time on 9th March and had our first rehearsal two weeks later. As you can imagine we are a somewhat motley crew. The instrument list goes like this: several recorders, flute, clarinet, trombone, piano, guitar, bass guitar and African drum/percussion. Almost everyone had played a bit a long time ago and is now very rusty. We needed something to play that was both simple and familiar. Our leader selected a couple of show tunes for us to try and something vaguely resembling music issued from our tubes and strings. Well, it was a start.

In my case it wasn’t clear which instrument I should play. I had been taught to play the clarinet at school but switched to bass guitar when I went to university. Over the years I have also owned an electronic organ, a semi-acoustic guitar, a piano and an electric piano all of which I messed around with but never seriously tried to play. The organ and piano went to better homes decades ago. The guitar, bass, amp, speakers and electric piano spent 17 years gathering dust in a back room. Before moving house in 2015 I sold all instruments and equipment except the electric piano (which, you remember, I can’t play). So the question was: should I learn to play the one instrument I still own or borrow something from our leader’s collection acquired over many years of teaching music?

At the first rehearsal we had a pianist who, though hesitant, far surpassed my own abilities. A borrowed acoustic guitar seemed to offer the best opportunity for me to contribute and I strummed it as best I could. I had to miss rehearsal 2 (for a funeral) and by rehearsal 3 another five songs had been added to the group’s repertoire. One of the new songs was that perennial favourite, Summertime, from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. That’s a song composed in 1934, well outside the qualifying period for this blog, but it’s a classic and I’m featuring a relatively recent version by Rick Wakeman, whose latest album, Piano Portraits, includes this rather nice arrangement for solo piano.

There are three more reasons for choosing this version of Summertime as my Track of the Week: Rick Wakeman is currently touring in Italy and will bring his Piano Portraits show to UK venues later this month¹; Rick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last week as a member of Yes; at 67 Rick is well into his third age and his piano playing reminds me why I could never be anything more than a moderately enthusiastic amateur musician (on any instrument).

Now I must go and practice my new electro-acoustic guitar and see if I can play the chords for the U3A group’s arrangement of Summertime. Let’s see … Am, E7, Am, E7 … Oops! That Dm always catches me out. OK, once more from the top. 1, 2, 3, and …

Notes

  1. I shall be getting tickets for the performance at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester on 17th June, I hope.
  2. According to Wikipedia there are over 25,000 recordings of Summertime and there’s a fairly comprehensive selection of them on this website dedicated to the song. Rick’s version, though, seems to be missing.