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.

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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Hotel California

hotel

I love a good story. It might be an adventure story, a whodunnit or a sci-fi epic. Whatever the format there’s always the urge to read on because you never know what will happen next. It might be in a novel or on a movie screen or, sometimes, in a song. That’s what we have with Hotel California, the Eagles best known and most popular single from their 1976 album of the same name.

Eagles

After a gentle guitar introduction this tale starts, like all good stories do, with a wholly unremarkable scene. The narrator is driving down a road in the Californian desert. The light is fading and he is getting weary when he sees the welcoming lights of a hotel up ahead. We, the listeners, know he is going to stop at that hotel. We know something is going to happen there, something that will delight or horrify us, but we don’t know which.

The band slips into an easy groove as the driver pulls into the parking lot and walks a little stiffly into the lobby. There is no clue yet to what will befall him.

He is welcomed by a woman with an air of mystery about her. She has a lovely face but there is something in her eyes that sounds a warning bell, a reverberation from deep within our hero’s ancestral memory. “This could be Heaven or this could be Hell”, he thinks as he fills in the check-in form. But that would be an old and hackneyed story either way. As listeners, we expect something more subtle, more surprising, more thrilling.

The creature with an angel’s face and a devil’s eyes lights a candle and shows him to his room. A candle? Surely they must have electric lights in this modern, up-market hotel. Is the candle just to provide soft lighting for the guests or is the story teller hinting at occult ceremonies behind closed doors? The traveller is too tired to notice this anomaly but in the corridor ahead he hears voices that seem to say, “Welcome to the Hotel California”. “Such a lovely place”, murmur the odd numbered rooms on his left. “Such a lovely face”, whisper the even ones on the right.

The picture fades into another scene. It is a hot and sticky evening. The hotel lights are low, shadows flit across the courtyard where some of the guests are dancing languidly. It could be the next day or it could be that same night. The dancers look strangely insubstantial in the half-light. Perhaps they are ghosts, perhaps it’s all a dream. As the camera zooms in it becomes clear that the figures on the dance floor are all carrying old psychological burdens. Some dance to remember; some dance to forget.

Our lonesome traveller tosses and turns in the night. Above the backbeat groove the electric guitars are now crying with emotional pain. And there are those voices again. “Welcome to the Hotel California”, they sing. “Such a lovely place. Such a lovely face.”

Suddenly the focus sharpens and the surroundings become frighteningly real. There are mirrors on the ceiling, the glass bright and smooth. There’s pink champagne on ice in a shiny metal bucket on a side table. The trappings of luxury and wealth are everywhere. And the devil lady is explaining why everyone is here. “We are all prisoners”, she says, “of our own device”.

Just then the traveller catches a glimpse of a table set for a feast. A dozen stainless steel knives stab the meat but the diners just can’t kill the beast. How long has the once weary motorist been here? A day? A lifetime? He finds himself running for the door, desperate to escape from this life of excess and debauchery and get back to the world he came from. In the lobby the night man tells him to relax. “You can check out any time you like”, he says, “but you can never leave”.

And with that chilling message the guitars of Don Felder and Joe Walsh provide a two-part eulogy for lost innocence that doubles as a warning to those who believe that wealth is the only measure of success. That, they seem to say, is how you become trapped in an ever-tightening spiral of greed from which there is no escape.

Hotel California is a great story. It is also a great record. The single topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977 and has gone on to notch up sales in the U.S. earning it Gold certification for the 45 rpm single and Platinum for downloads. More significantly, I think, Hotel California makes it onto a number of Greatest Songs lists: it’s number 49 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, for example, and listed on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. Even that undersells the song  in my opinion and that’s a rather sad story.

Sailor’s Tale

dream

A desert is not just a place; it’s also a time. The summer time in the northern hemisphere is often a desert for music lovers. In the summer not much is released and anything that does see the light of day is mostly old and often bedraggled: covers, remasters, demos, out-takes. But there is a little life in the desert. A cactus blooms here, a lizard suns itself on a rock over there. You have to look hard for it, of course. But it is there.

While wandering in the wilderness last week, hidden among the sparse brown shoots of desiccated emails, something caught my eye. Was that a scorpion scuttling across the parched earth? No, it was a link to a recent performance of Sailor’s Tale from a King Crimson concert held way down south, down Mexico way. Fortunately for the sailor it wasn’t situated out in the arid wastelands where only ships of the desert can sail, it was in the Teatro Metropolitan, Mexico City.

And fortunately for Crotchety Man it turned out to be a rousing rendition, an excellent recording and, best of all, a free download. A 30 second snippet is available from this page on the DGM Live website and the free download can be found by following the Purchase Show link. (I suspect you have to register with DGM Live to get it.)

the band

King Crimson in Mexico City, July 2017

Sailor’s Tale was originally released as a track on the Islands album of 1971. It made an instant impact on me when I first heard it. Tang ti tang ti tang tang tang sang the cymbals, locking into a triple-time beat. Duum duum dum dum dum the bass responded, joining them in lockstep. Then came electronic sounds blurting out a slow melody with a buzzy organ pipe texture. The beat was irresistible, the tune urged us to hum along and the first minute promised something special, perhaps extraordinary, to come.

At around 1:30 the opening theme builds to a climax and a wild saxophone blares out like a half-strangled mother goose screaming at her goslings to stay away from the weir where the currents are strong and they have been forbidden to go. She scolds them for a full minute and, as she does so, we realise that some of that electronic buzz comes from Bob Fripp’s effect-laden guitar.

Once the goslings are safe the Sailor’s Tale settles back into an easy rhythm with the bass providing the sparse tune of deeper water. As we drift along another danger soon becomes apparent. A tone-deaf youth who has never touched a guitar is flailing at its loose strings. The water is getting faster. It rushes over the stones in the river bed. There are rapids ahead. Is this music or just the discordant noise of white water?

Soon we are spinning out of control, hurtling towards the waterfall. At 4:30 we plunge over the edge. We are falling. Falling. A mellotron sings as if to welcome us to heaven and, as we crash into the foaming surf at the bottom, the spotty youth jangles the guitar strings again as if to say, “I warned you”. It is the last thing we hear as the waters close over us and we lose consciousness.

The Sailor’s Tale must have been a tragedy.

Here’s a YouTube video of the track from the 1971 album. It has all the drama of my little story but it doesn’t quite have the sonic punch that modern recording techniques can achieve. If you can listen to the live version from the Mexico concert on 14th July 2017 it will reward your efforts.

Blowin’ Free

smoke ring

Crotchety Man was always small in stature. He came from small stock. Even his surname is thought to have come from the French for ‘low’. (The Norman Conqueror throws a long shadow in these parts.) Small he was, but not stunted – more pigmy than masai, more hobbit than dwarf, everything in proportion. Inside that small frame was a keen intellect and a determination not to be pushed around. There was just enough fire in his belly to avoid being picked on at school; there were softer targets for the bullies and practical jokers.

The little man could stand up for himself but he was socially inept. He was a nice kid who had no idea how to make friends. Did he feel inferior because he was physically small? That might have been part of it but there was a deeper flaw, too. To him people were a mystery. All around him boys and girls would chatter amongst themselves never saying anything important, never saying anything particularly interesting. Why would they do that? It made no sense. And yet, that’s what friends did.

The mystery was still unsolved by the time Crotchety Man, now officially an adult, went to university. For a guy who doesn’t know how to make friends being plunged into a whole new social environment is frightening. And Oxford colleges had their own peculiar slant on life. There was a new social etiquette to become familiar with. They called it ‘tradition’ but it was more a way of differentiating themselves from the less gifted, ordinary townsfolk going about their business in the city in which the college buildings were immersed like currants in a fruit cake. The distinction between ‘town’ and ‘gown’ was very real.

You will not be surprised to hear that the Crotchety student felt very much a cultural outsider for the four years he studied biochemistry at Keble College. When details of the 1972¹ College Ball were announced he was both excited and terrified. Oxford college balls were, and still are, grand affairs. Keble was founded in 1870 and, because college balls were not held every year, there had not yet been one to celebrate the centenary. The coming ball was going to put that right and it would be especially grand.

The little Crotchety man read the details in horror. One night in June the college would be swarming with men in dinner jackets and black ties and women in ball gowns and jewellery, all drinking, joking and having fun right outside my room overlooking the quad. It would be impossible to ignore and hell to sit through. The solution, of course, was for Cinderella to go to the ball. But the tickets were priced far beyond the empty pockets of a lad subsisting on a student grant. Besides, big boisterous occasions like that were well beyond his meagre social skills, those in his small circle of acquaintances declined to go and, worst of all, he had no lady friend to take. How would you feel as a little man on his own in the midst of all that merriment? It was a recipe for complete humiliation.

argus

1972 was the year that Wishbone Ash released their most successful album, Argus, and were at the peak of their career. How the Keble Summer Ball organisers managed to book the Ash to headline the event I will never know, but they did. “Poor little Crotchety will go to the ball”, he thought to himself. But the problems seemed insurmountable and soon all the tickets were sold.

Those few students who had rooms in college but were not going to the ball presented an obvious problem for the authorities. To ensure there were no gatecrashers the students were required to remain in their rooms for the duration of the festivities. It felt like house arrest … with added mental torture in the form of distant loud rock music filtered through walls and doorways so that it boomed unmusically and fought with the dissonant sounds of the baying mob on the lawns below. This must have been how General Noriega felt when U.S. forces bombarded his last refuge with loud music in December 1989. Noriega surrendered after a few weeks; Crotchety Man only had to suffer for one night.

band, recent

Wishbone Ash, circa 2009

In spite of all this Crotchety Man bears no malice towards Wishbone Ash. The band has undergone many changes of personnel since 1972 but they are still going. I dare say the current line-up is effectively a tribute band for the heady days of the early seventies but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and I shall probably go and see them when they come to The Flowerpot in Derby this November. In the meantime I shall remember fondly the twin lead guitars, vocal harmonies and fluid bass lines of one of the best rock bands around in my student days.

The Wishbone Ash brand of rock was both melodious and thoughtful, as if blending a little folk and a smidgen of progressive into good old fashioned guitar-based rock. For my Track of the Week I give you Blowin’ Free from the Argus album of 1972. Here’s a live version from, I think, 2009.

Notes

  1. I think it was 1972. It couldn’t have been earlier because I was at Keble from autumn 1971 to summer 1975. It might have been later but that seems unlikely.

Making Plans for Nigel

Picture of Redcar steel works. Looking along the coast from Redcar beach, towards the steelworks and South Gare at mouth of the River Tees.  The steelworks at Redcar has the largest blast furnace in Europe and dominates this stretch of coastline.

Looking along the coast from Redcar beach towards the steelworks at the mouth of the River Tees.

At the end of the seventies Crotchety Man was writing software for the new ironworks being built for British Steel at Redcar on the north east coast of England. The music charts were a strange mix of pop and punk, either anodyne mush or raw, abrasive sounds that grated like a pumice stone rubbed over tender skin. There was almost nothing of any interest to the Man in those pre-crotchety days. Occasionally, though, a ray of light would slice through the dark sound clouds bringing hope for a sonically brighter future. One of those bright flashes was XTC’s Making Plans for Nigel.

XTC were known as a punk band but their music was too melodic and too intelligent to sit comfortably with the snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans at the core of the punk community. When they came to my attention in the early eighties they seemed to be the harbingers of a new style of music, a style that was more mature and less angry than punk but whose final shape was still uncertain. They were an intermediate form in the evolutionary tree, neither ancestral punk nor one of the new wave species that were shortly to replace them. Taking my cue from Wikipedia I’ve tagged them ‘art punk’.

During my second stint on the Redcar site posters appeared around the town advertising an XTC concert at the Coatham Bowl, the only music venue east of the big industrial town of Middlesbrough. From there you could see the gasometers and blast furnace of the ironworks across the curve of a small bay, much as it looks in the photo above. We passed close by the Bowl every day on our daily drive from our digs to the site offices where we worked and frequented the pubs a stone’s throw away in the sleepy seaside town of Redcar. This small, out of the way venue didn’t usually attract big name bands and tickets were always very reasonably priced. As concert halls go it couldn’t have been more convenient or better value for money.

I considered getting a ticket for the XTC concert for several days. I’d only heard a couple of their songs, which I liked, but they were supposed to be a punk band, which wouldn’t have been to my taste. And they might attract those snarling, sneering, spiky-haired hooligans I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Then, one day, I stopped and read one of the posters properly. The concert had been ten days ago!

band

Ever since then I’ve wondered what I missed. Yesterday I finally decided to do something about it. Doing the usual superficial online research threw up some interesting connections, but let’s get the basics out of the way first. The original members of the band were Andy Partridge (guitar, vocals), Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), Terry Chambers (drums) and Barry Andrews (keyboards). Partridge wrote about two thirds of the songs and Moulding provided the rest.

XTC was formed in 1976, signed to Virgin in 1977 and put out two albums (White Music, Go 2) before Barry Andrews left to join Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in 1979¹. Andrews was replaced by guitarist Dave Gregory and the band’s material moved from punk-influenced glam rock towards a more traditional rock format. XTC’s third album, Drums and Wires, was recorded in 1979 using the services of Steve Lillywhite and Hugh Padgham, the producer and engineer for Genesis and Peter Gabriel’s solo work². It was this album that spawned the single, Making Plans for Nigel, which reached number 17 on the UK pop chart.

The song grabs your attention immediately with phased drums, a pulsing bass riff and guitar chords that seem to poke a punkish sneer at conventional society. When the vocals come in there is heavy irony in the words.

We’re only making plans for Nigel.
We only want what’s best for him.

That first line says it all. Nigel’s parents have his life mapped out: a steady job, marriage to a nice girl, a house in the suburbs not far from them, two lovely children for their grandparents to dote on. And when anyone asks whether their boy might have other ideas they dismiss the question with “we’re only making plans”. Nigel doesn’t have to take his parents’ advice but, of course, they know best and they would be so upset if he didn’t want their help.

He has a future in British Steel.

If young Nigel says he’s happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy,
He must be happy in his work.

The Redcar software project was huge. It must have run for 5 or 6 years; I personally spent a total of three years there in two stints. At its peak there were nearly thirty programmers on site, mostly young, all male and all a long way from home. During that period four of our team married local girls and there were two near misses³. One of my friends left the software company to join British Steel, get married and settle in Middlesbrough.

As it turned out, a career in British Steel wouldn’t have been the well-paid comfortable job that Nigel’s parents had in mind. In the seventies the British Steel Corporation was state owned and running at a loss to provide employment in depressed areas of Britain. In 1988 the corporation was privatised and underwent radical restructuring resulting in the loss of many thousands of jobs. Although the steel industry became much more efficient market forces continued to exert severe pressure on the company and that led to a long series of site closures. The Redcar site was shut down in 2015.

Don’t tell Nigel, but a declining industry is not a happy place to be.

Notes and Miscellanies

  1. That’s interesting connection number 1.
  2. And that’s number 2.
  3. I was myself one of those near misses.
  4. For another anecdote from my Redcar days see this post.
  5. There’s an amusing piece about the name Nigel in this Guardian article.

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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.

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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.