I Promise

hands

Radiohead have always had many influences. A band that tips its hat to Pink Floyd, Siouxie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Miles Davis, Aphex Twin, krautrock bands and 20th century classical music (among others) is bound to have developed a somewhat idiosyncratic style. And they are always experimenting. That gives their album catalogue something of a patchy feel. It’s not that their style has been changing, it’s more that Radiohead is a chimeric beast with a coat of many colours, like a tortoiseshell cat.

The end result is always interesting and often surprising but sometimes it misses the bullseye of that direct connection to the soul that some more conventional bands seem to be able to hit unerringly time after time. Yes, sometimes they’re a little off-target. And then they give us I Promise.

My Track of the Week is a single taken from Radiohead‘s latest album, OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 2017, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album OK Computer. The new release contains remastered versions of the tracks on the original album, some B-sides and three previously unreleased tracks: I Promise, Lift and Man of War. The 2017 album was released on digital channels just two days ago.

I Promise is the simplest of songs. A strummed acoustic guitar, a snare drum ticking out a 3-3-2 beat like a tipsy metronome and a sweet male voice singing a delicate tune. A bass guitar adds depth and a light veneer of strings provides the finishing touch. For almost four minutes there is no change of key or rhythm or tempo, just a subtle crescendo and an instrumental break that repeats the verse. And every line of the lyrics ends “I promise”. But so deliciously sweet is the song that those four minutes pass in an instant. There is no time to get bored. This time Radiohead have really hit the bullseye.

I won’t run away no more. I promise.

Even when you lock me out. I promise.

Even when the ship is wrecked. I promise.

Thom Yorke

Thom Yorke of Radiohead

If you still haven’t heard this track, listen now. You will find it is absolutely lovely. I promise.

Hall of Fame

museum

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio

Delving blindfold into the laundry basket of titles earmarked for Track of the Week today the hand of fate picked out Hall of Fame by The Script. Sometimes choosing a song is the difficult bit; this time it’s what to write. You see, there’s not much to say about this single except that it’s a straightforward pop/rock song with a catchy tune, a lively beat and a light seasoning of rap. So let’s just listen …

Here’s the official video:

The message, of course, is that anyone and everyone can be great if they want it enough. Dedication and hard work will, eventually, get you to the top. That’s an inspiring idea, but (spoiler alert) it’s a lie. How many names are there in the Hall of Fame? Only a few. And there are many, many more wannabes out there. The numbers don’t lie. It’s not just lack of ambition that keeps us from becoming the greatest, it’s a weakness of mind or body that no amount of blood, sweat and tears can fix.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Crotchety Man will never play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Segovia, nor will he ever find words as moving and poetic as Shakespeare no matter how many blog posts he writes. But we can all make our own contributions to this world and, if we keep working at it, we can almost always get better at whatever we choose to do.

Sometimes the guitarist’s fingers stumble on the frets or the writer’s well of words runs dry. That’s when a song like Hall of Fame becomes invaluable. It lifts the spirits, injects fresh energy into the limbs and provides a new impetus for living life. We may not all have a place in a Hall of Fame but there is always something worth doing. So let’s do it!

the band

The Script – Mark Sheehan, Danny O’Donoghue, Glen Power

A Few Dry Facts

  • The Script are an Irish band, formed in 2001. They are: Danny O’Donoghue (vocals, keyboards), Mark Sheehan (guitar) and Glen Power (drums).
  • Hall of Fame is a single taken from their third album, #3, released in 2012. It reached no. 1 on the pop charts in Ireland, in the UK and on the Billboard Euro Digital Songs chart in the US.
  • The latest album by The Script is No Sound Without Silence (2014).

Oczy Mlody

eyes

The title of this post is not quite gibberish. The words are Polish. Individually they mean ‘eyes’ and ‘young’. Unfortunately, ‘oczy’ is feminine plural and ‘mlody’ is masculine singular. And, to make matters worse, the words are in the wrong order for the phrase ‘young eyes’. Not that this bothers The Flaming Lips who chose this as the title of their latest album more for the sound of the words than their meaning. Whether they had an English or Polish pronunciation in mind, though, I cannot say.¹

The Crotchety brain cells contain very little information on The Flaming Lips; all factual statements here are taken from their Wikipedia page. (You have been warned.) The Old Man’s ears, though, have met one or two of The Flaming Lips‘ tracks on the BBC 6 Music radio station and the Music Appreciation Meter has swung over into the light green section: pleasing, interesting, different.

A quick exploration of the band’s recent body of work looked very promising and caused the oxytocin² level in old Crotchety’s blood to rise far enough to trigger the purchase of Oczy Mlody, my Album of the Month for June 2017.

band

So who, then, are The Flaming Lips? They were formed in Oklahoma in 1983. Wikipedia doesn’t say what kind of music they played in those days, just that they were Wayne Coyne (guitar), his brother Mark (lead vocals), Michael Ivins (bass) and Dave Kotska (drums). That seems all very ordinary but there was probably more to it than that. By the time of their fourth album, In A Priest Driven Ambulance (1989), Wikipedia notes that “their previous experiments in tape loops and effects were given a more prominent role”.

Wayne Coyne and Michael Ivins have remained with the band since its inception but on Oczy Mlody keyboards and electronic effects dominate the sound. Coyne himself is credited with contributing vocals, keyboards, theremin and guitar; Ivins has added keyboards and vocals to his bass playing; Stephen Drozd, who joined in 1991, supplies guitars, keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. Recent albums also feature Derek Brown, Jake Ingalls and Matt Duckworth who all tickle the mock ivory keys from time to time. And Nick Ley provides percussion and samples. If you’ve been counting that means that six of the seven band members play keyboards and the seventh augments the mix with sampled sounds.

lips aflame

And that’s not all that’s weird about The Flaming Lips. You may have noticed already a certain tongue-tingling piquancy in the album titles. Of their fourteen main studio albums only Embryonic has a fairly predictable title. The others include things like Hit To Death In The Future Head and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Then there are collaborations that have produced The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and White Dwarfs with Henry Rollins and Peaches Doing The Dark Side of the Moon, which is a cover of the famous Pink Floyd album.

But there’s yet more weirdness. In 2011 The Flaming Lips announced that they would be releasing a new song every month of the year. The first of these was released that February as 12 separate YouTube clips that had to be played simultaneously; it was called Two Blobs Fucking. In March they released the Gummy Song Skull EP, “a seven-pound skull made of gummy bear material with a gummy brain, which contained a flashdrive with 4 songs on them”. They went one better in June by releasing “a live-in-studio recording of the band’s 1999 album The Soft Bulletin which was on a flash drive embedded in a marijuana-flavored brain inside a strawberry flavored gummy skull”. Then, in September, they released a six-hour song in a special package and at midnight on the last day of October a 24-hour song, 7 Skies H3, was made available on a special website.

That’s enough weirdness to fry the internal organs of the more squeamish listeners out there. 7 Skies H3 exists as a standard-length album on Spotify but I haven’t listened to it and I have no intention of hunting down those flash-drive packages. So I can’t offer much comfort if you’ve been subjected to any of those and you’re feeling a little nauseous now. But there is comfort in the more conventional Oczy Mlody.

album banner

There are twelve tracks on the Oczy Mlody album:

  1. Oczy Mlody
  2. How??
  3. There Should Be Unicorns
  4. Sunrise (Eyes of the Young)
  5. Nigdy Nie (Never No)
  6. Galaxy I Sink
  7. One Night While Hunting for Faeries and Witches and Wizards to Kill
  8. Do Glowy
  9. Listening to the Frogs with Demon Eyes
  10. The Castle
  11. Almost Home (Blisko Domu)
  12. We A Family

Several of those titles were inspired by a Polish translation of Erskine Caldwell’s Close to Home, titled Blisko Domu. Track 4 suggests that the album title was intended to mean “Eyes of the Young” (which Wikipedia says would be “Oczy młodych” in grammatically correct Polish). For completeness, track 8’s title translates back to English as “To Head”.

We can see in those track titles a playfulness bordering on the psychotic but fear not – if there is a theme it is one of seeing the world through a child’s eyes. Yes, there really should be unicorns, ones with purple eyes … if you’re a child. And who hasn’t been out hunting for faeries and witches and wizards to kill in the dark woods where you played as a small boy?³

unicorn

The title track is an instrumental that takes us into the play den with a simple melody and the deep rumbling sounds of quaking hills. A strange beast lets out a cry but it is far away and we are safe in here for now.

Then comes a remembered warning, a warning that came too late or wasn’t listened to. How could I make you see what was happening? How could I make you understand? I was just a kid with a toy gun.

Back when we were young,
we killed everyone
if they fucked with us.

We were young with a ray gun.

I tried to tell you but I don’t know how.

Look! There’s a unicorn. I told you they exist. It has purple eyes just like I said, not green eyes. Mama says they shit everywhere. And the moon. The moon is in a very red orange state. Let’s leave it like that for at least three hours hovering just above the horizon. Oh, but I’m so sleepy now …

Sunrise brings a light and joyful tune shot through with deep ripples of sadness. “The sun rises and sets on a world full of gladness, but how can I be glad when my father is dead?”, the singer asks. How? Just look at the sun on the water, look at the pretty flowers, look at all those people having fun. No matter how bad things get the sunshine will soon wash away your tears. That’s what the music says. And the singer wants to believe it.

It’s time for a break. Nigdy Nie is an 80’s-style synthesiser, fuzzy bass and drum machine instrumental with caramel vocals. It sounds a little dated but a change of atmosphere helps the lungs to breathe and refreshes us before a scheduled trip to a galaxy far far away.

The journey is accompanied by disembodied voices singing to a bolero beat. Some slack strings pling unmusically. An orchestral interlude brings relief from the tedium for a while before sinking away down a black hole, leaving us moving tunelessly onward again through the vastness of space. The galaxy called I Sink is a god-forsaken place.

The next stop is a dramatic world with the sound of erupting volcanoes and bubbling mud geysers. This is our hunting ground. Faeries and witches and wizards beware! You can’t hide in these forests. Orion is coming for you. Alien sounds are all around but the hunter whistles nonchalantly as he prowls through the starlit night.

In a clearing a native girl dances. The moon is up now, glowing bright. A spider drops from a silver willow tree and the girl, still prancing, shakes it off her hair. A dozen eyes watch from the shadows. Bells chime. The dance ends and ghostly voices announce the approach of a burning dawn sun.

As the orange sun pumps heat into the land the plants begin to sweat, warm steam rising from their pores. A chorus of demon frogs croak at each other in the half-light. Why do their eyes bulge so alarmingly? Have they seen the shadow of death in the eyes of the hunted? Or is it their own peril that they fear?

The morning mist clears slowly to reveal a fairy castle floating like a ship in the low cloud. And above it flies a dragon carrying a beautiful princess. But the castle is in ruins and the princess mourns her love who is buried beneath the fallen stones.

Her eyes were butterflies.
Her smile was a rainbow.
Her hair was sunbeam waves.
Her face was a fairy tale.

Now, our journey is nearly at an end. We are almost home. We sing as our horse gallops across familiar meadows. The song is ancient, the words are mysterious, but the tune spurs us on. “The word has become the deed. The insect crawls out on the leaf. The leaf falls into the fire.” Perhaps a student of myths and legends can interpret those lyrics but that will keep for another day.

Finally, we are reunited with our loved ones. We are a family again and we gather round the open fire to drink a toast or two, swap stories and sing old songs. This is a neat and fitting end to the Oczy Mlody album.

dark side

Overall The Flaming Lips have given us an album notable more for its tones and textures than its melodies, harmonies or rhythms. They make good use of the electric and electronic instruments at their disposal and, seen through the eyes of the young, it works well. This old gentleman, though, may be a little harder to please. I’ll give it a rating of 3.9  out of 5 (worth buying but doesn’t quite deliver all that it could).

Notes

  1. Google translate will speak the Polish for you. To me it sounds like someone saying “orcher morder” with a mouthful of gobstoppers.
  2. Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone”.
  3. Girls can join in, too. Just don’t get all soppy and sentimental, that’s all!

Doctor Who

12 Doctors

The First Doctor has been characterised as a crotchety old man but he was so much more, displaying childish delight, great charm, enormous warmth and a wonderful sense of mischief during his many adventures through time and space.

– A quote from the BBC website

It seems my secret identity has been revealed. Yes, Crotchety Man is The Doctor and he returned to his Earthly home, Cardiff (Caerdydd), last week for a few days. Well, when I say ‘returned’ it’s actually the first time I’ve been to Cardiff but, because time isn’t linear, I was able to see lots of artefacts from my future visits. It’s always nice to see a little of your own future – it’s one of the perks of being a Time Lord.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Back home in the Tardis it struck me that the best TV programs always have good theme tunes and the time had come to feature the Doctor Who theme on my music blog. But that presented a dilemma. Many versions of the track have been recorded and used in the TV broadcasts – Spotify has at least 5. There’s the original 1963 version, composed by Ron Grainer and realised by Delia Derbyshire using analogue electronics and tape recorders. Then there are versions from 1967, 1980, 1986 and 1987 just from the album Doctor Who – The 50th Anniversary Collection (Original Television Soundtrack). The Internet also mentions later arrangements by Murray Gold from 2005, 2007 and 2010. Then there have been a number of cover versions, including one by Pink Floyd¹, apparently.

Do I need to say anything about the tune itself? Its first incarnation was, of course, one of the very first successful examples of electronic music. It pulses and whoops like a time machine spinning out of control, cascading through the universe as it heads for an unknown, but inevitably perilous, destination. In the eighties the tune was given a digital synthesiser makeover that to my (admittedly alien) mind sounds mechanical and colourless. Its regenerations in the 21st century introduced orchestral sounds, while keeping the electronic swoosh as the little blue police box rips through time and space.

The primordial life force of the original had returned but I was still unsure whether to select the analogue electronica of the first series or the orchestral grandeur of the post-millennium runs. The solution, when it came to me, was simple.

While swirling absentmindedly across the fabric of space/time the Tardis stalled on a video that stitches together some 16 different versions of the Doctor Who theme dating from 1963 to the present day. I don’t need to choose; you can have them all. Here they are – over 37 minutes of a short composition that originally ran for 2:21, with details of the composer/arranger and dates of the TV episodes that used it. A bit repetitive for the average music lover, perhaps, but a treasure for Whovians across the galaxies.

Notes

  1. I can only find a 33 second YouTube clip to verify that. It’s from a live show; as far as I know Pink Floyd never released it.
  2. There are some photos from the Cardiff trip here.

Walk On Gilded Splinters

shattered

In 1968 the Broadway musical Hair opened in London’s West End. It caused quite a stir in the British news media. It was praised for its songs and production but there was some vehement criticism, too, mainly for the 20 second scene in which the actors stood naked on the stage.

Hair  was a story about a group of hippies living in New York and their struggle to break free from the stultifying conservative society they were brought up in. The publicity material used colourful, psychedelic images hinting at sex, drugs and debauchery. There was one particularly striking picture of a young Afro-haired black girl on all the posters. That girl was member of the cast, Marsha Hunt. Although Marsha only had two lines of dialogue she became the face (and hair) of the show.

Marsha

Marsha Hunt ca. 1968

In the wake of the musical in 1969 Marsha Hunt released a cover of the Dr. John song I Walk On Guilded Splinters. It’s a menacing song full of mystery and voodoo. Here’s a YouTube clip of the original from the album Gris Gris.

The Dr. John version contains a high proportion of undecipherable lyrics and rolls on for nearly eight minutes. Marsha Hunt’s single has a slightly different title, dropping the ‘I’ and using the more usual spelling of ‘gilded’. It also omits the unintelligible Creole verses and cuts the song to the radio-friendly length of 3:30 without losing any of the spine-tingling sense of dark forces barely under control. Both versions are well worth a listen.

There have been several other covers of Gilded Splinters, too, including ones by Cher, Paul Weller, the Allman Brothers Band, Humble Pie and a guy called Johnny Jenkins. None of those match the power and spookiness of the first two releases from Dr. John and Marsha Hunt.

Come, walk with me back to the sixties, but watch where you’re putting your bare feet – those nasty splinters sparkle and shine but they’ll get under the skin if you don’t tread carefully.

End Notes

  1. Marsha Hunt married Mike Ratledge (of Soft Machine) in 1967. The marriage has never been dissolved but they only spent two months together.
  2. Mick Jagger dated Marsha Hunt for a while and they have a daughter, Karis.
  3. Marsha Hunt’s version of Walk On Gilded Splinters reached number 46 on the UK pop charts in 1969.
  4. Crotchety Man saw Hair for the first and only time during its revival in London; that must have been in 2010. It was a great show. And for a man who doesn’t like musicals that’s a rare compliment.