Message In A Bottle

Or, Tales of the River Bank¹.

bottle on beachOne morning in the summer of 1979 Crotchety Young Man was on his way to work. At that time he was based in the Berkshire town of Reading and his route took him over the river Thames at Caversham Bridge. There were rather more people than usual in the streets heading towards the bridge that sunny day, many of them young, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and, seemingly, in high spirits. Where were they going, young Crotchety wondered? Were they students going to college? And why were they so enjoying their march through the wholly unexceptional streets of Reading at this early hour?

I began to wonder if I was witnessing an alien invasion. These creatures looked like humans but they seemed all too perfect. Then I began to notice that, as well as beads and bracelets, some of the invaders were decorated in badges. Actually, by and large, the girls wore the jewellery and the boys wore the badges. But the puzzling thing was that the badges were unappealing dark grey discs with white lettering spelling out ‘The Police’.

Crotchety was confused. Had the British police force updated their uniform? No, that couldn’t be right. Then the sleeping voice of reason woke up and yelled a silent, “Don’t be ridiculous!” in my inner ear. “The kids must be going to the rock festival”, it continued, “and ‘The Police’ must be the name of a band”. It was the only explanation that made any sense. But I’d never heard of that band. A sudden chill descended as I realised that I couldn’t have been more out of touch with current music trends if I had lived for many years on a desert island.

As we approached the bridge the music-loving aliens peeled off to the left heading down Richfield Avenue². Young Crotchety continued on over the bridge to the office, which was on the opposite side of the river, a few hundred yards downstream from the Festival site and just out of earshot of the bands. For the rest of that day ‘The Police’ kept cropping up – in conversation, on the news and on posters – the words mocking a Crotchety Man who, although still in his twenties, was no longer entitled to consider himself young.

the band

After that chastening experience Crotchety Man’s aural antennae became acutely sensitive to any mention of The Police. It turned out that things weren’t quite as bad as I had imagined. The Police had released a single, Roxanne, and the album, Outlandos d’Amour, the previous year but neither had made much of an impact on the charts until Roxanne was re-released in April 1979. It wasn’t until their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, was released a couple of months after that year’s Reading Festival that The Police became a household name.

Two of the singles taken from Reggatta de Blanc soon washed up on the shore of Crotchety’s Desert Island and have been carefully stored in the disc archive. I have chosen one of those, Message In A Bottle, for my Track of the Week³. That link is to the original version on the album. For those who like YouTube and/or live versions here’s Sting and his current band performing the song in 2017.

Notes

  1. Tales of the Riverbank was a British children’s T.V. programme originally broadcast in 1960. The first series used footage of live animals dubbed with human voices.
  2. The Reading Festival has been held at Little John’s Farm, Richfield Avenue since 1971.
  3. The other one is Walking On The Moon.

Whistle Down the Wind

girl + jesus

Hayley Mills and Alan Bates in Whistle Down the Wind

This week it was announced that Joan Baez is releasing a new album on 2nd March. Whistle Down the Wind will be her first new recording for a decade and its promotion marks the end of more than 50 years of touring for Baez.

The phrase, “whistle down the wind”, evokes a forlorn sense of helplessness as if the sound of your nervous whistling is being carried away on the breeze, betraying your presence to the spirits of the forest, both good and evil. But whistle you must because otherwise your feeble courage will melt away and your fate will be cast to the cold capricious wind.

Whistle Down the Wind was the title of a novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was published in 1959 and made into a film in 1961. The film starred the author’s daughter, Hayley Mills, and the British actor Alan Bates. In the story some children discover a bearded man hiding in their family’s barn. When the man exclaims, “Jesus Christ!”, the youngsters think he is telling them his name and that they are witnessing the Second Coming. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs and the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.

Tom Waits later used Whistle Down the Wind as the title for one of the tracks on his 1992 album Bone Machine. It is that song that Joan Baez has chosen as the title track of her forthcoming album. It is a simple folk song in a waltz time featuring folk guitars and a backing track with accordion, bass and drums. On this song Joan’s voice is sweet and satisfying but it has lost some of the characteristic lustre of her earlier work. As if to make up for that missing sparkle the Baez version of Whistle Down the Wind adds short strains of theremin notes, taking us into a mysterious world where gods and goblins determine our future, unswayed by any wishes of our own.

joan baez

The other important event in Crotchety Man’s week was the Third Age Orchestra’s Christmas/New Year ‘fuddle’, a social gathering in which we played a few songs before delving into a buffet to which we all contributed. In the rehearsal room everyone drifted around like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze, balancing paper plates and chatting amongst ourselves, until our leader called for our attention. “Pull a cracker”, she said, “and keep what you find inside”.

Bang, crack, snap went the party crackers. And soon we were all holding plastic whistles marked with a number between 1 and 8. Lining us up in whistle number order our maestro then called out numbers: 3, 2, 1, pause, 3, 2 … As each number was called the musician(s) with that number on their whistle blew hard and the air was filled with a laughable rendition of Three Blind Mice or Good King Wenceslas. Believe me, it’s a lot harder than you think to puff into a plastic tube in time with the conductor when you don’t know which tune has been chosen. Especially when you’re laughing at everyone else’s efforts! And, as most of us found out, it’s harder still to conduct such a performance. You may as well try and catch the whistling wind.

Raven

Aurora 1 - Hi Res.jpg

The rain clouds have blown over and the rainbows have faded away. Neil Ardley’s bright kaleidoscopic colours have dissipated leaving only black, white and 50/50 shades of grey. These are the colours of penguin suits and polar landscapes but for this Track of the Week we are in temperate regions much closer to Crotchety Man’s green and pleasant homeland. Today we are going to focus on the black feathers of a Manchester Raven.

Although the colours have gone and the ad hoc collection of musicians has been replaced by a piano-led trio the overall feel of the music on all of GoGo Penguin‘s albums is quite similar to Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows. It’s a kind of jazz that sits outside the primary sub-genres of mainstream, trad and bebop. Chamber jazz is the best description I can find. It has more in common with modern classical music than the blues or the shock and awe of experimental and free jazz. In short, it is some of the most listenable jazz you could ever hope to hear.

Raven is a track from GoGo Penguin‘s fourth album, A Humdrum Star, which is due to be released on 9th February. While googling for headline images I came across this link to a YouTube video of the track, but it’s not available here. I suspect it’s just a placeholder for when the album is released but the video may not exist at all so I’m embedding a Spotify player link instead.

GoGo Penguin is new to Crotchety Man; the three-headed beast waddled over the cyberspace horizon here just two weeks ago. They are Chris Illingworth (piano), Nick Blacka (double bass) and Rob Turner (drums). The band is based in Manchester, a UK city with two famous football clubs and a thriving modern music scene, but there is also a French connection. They are signed to Blue Note Records (France) and that publishing company seems to provide the official GoGo Penguin website. That, presumably, explains why the legal notices on the home page of this British band are in French.

GGP have released three albums to date: Fanfares (2012), V2.0 (2014) and Man Made Object (2016). All three are excellent. (V2.0 was one of four Mercury Prize albums of the year in 2014.) There is little to choose between the compositions on those albums but the maturity and confidence of the performances has improved steadily with each release. If A Humdrum Star continues this progression it will be a very fine album indeed.

GoGo Penguin start a world tour in February taking in the UK, mainland Europe, Japan and the U.S. Of the four UK dates two are already sold out but you can still catch them in Brighton on 7th February or at the Roundhouse, London the day after.

the band

GoGo Penguin – Nick Blacka, Rob Turner, Chris Illingworth

Raven is the first single to be released from the forthcoming album and it provides as good an introduction to GGP‘s music as any. The rhythm section scuds along like fluffy white clouds blown on the wind while the piano swoops and soars with the irrepressible joie de vivre of a bird on the wing in the early Spring. If, like me, you found 2017 endlessly depressing, Raven is the perfect way to dispel the black clouds and get the new year off to a flying start.

Come, fly with me and the Raven.

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from  Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.

dots

The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.

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Now We Are Three

sophisticated boy

– – – – – – – –

A prisoner breaks out of jail. He runs down the street shouting “I’m free! I’m free!”. A small boy is unimpressed. “So what?” he calls, “I’m four”.

– – – – – – – –

The Crotchety Man blog is (very nearly) three years old now and, like the boy in the photo, I like to think it has developed a charming veneer of sophistication. Underneath, of course, there is still an immature personality, nicely exemplified here by a three-year-old’s sense of humour.

In 2017 this blog has taken second fiddle to the guitar. The gnarled fingers of old Crotchety Man have been contorted into strange shapes, stretched over the fretboard and pressed onto hard metal strings for up to an hour at a time most days in a partially successful attempt to create pleasing sounds. I have also spent many long hours playing with a musical score editor called MuseScore, creating and editing scores for the local U3A orchestra.

Those times have been ‘borrowed’ from the research budget for Band/Artist of the Year blog posts, which have been notable these last twelve months for their complete absence. I know I should be managing my time more effectively but there are so many other distractions these days.

The Track of the Week and Album of the Month counts were also slightly below target in 2017 but the blame for that rests squarely with a (probably viral) infection that struck poor old Crotchety Man shortly before Christmas. It didn’t help that the central heating boiler chose that very moment to give up the ghost. The maintenance company made us wait a week before fixing the boiler and two days later, like a crotchety 3-year old, it threw another tantrum leaving us with cold radiators over the two days of Christmas itself. For too long it seemed that bad luck and trouble were my only friend.

On a more positive note the site’s follower count has risen to 56, although some of those were fleeting visitors and others were disguised attempts to sell pills and other medications.

Some highlights of 2017 were given in the recent New Year Honours post and the annual summary tables can be found here as a PDF document (with all the links).

Finally, let me wish all my readers a Happy New Year. May your vinyl, CD and digital music collections grow fat, may your hi-fi systems continue to faithfully reproduce those recorded sounds and may your ears be sharp, free of wax and undamaged by live bands who turn the volume knobs way too high.

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