Strange Angels

Crotchety Man has been on holiday – one week in Devon with the missus and a tottery old man I call Dad. The weekly blog for 3rd September was written in advance, the draft was called up on the phone as we sat in the holiday cottage watching the rain stream down the windows and the Publish button was clicked there. It must have worked because something on Hotel California appeared in these pages that very day.

Returning home, the usual schedule was resumed for a San Francisco Drive last Sunday. And then, as I welcomed the start of a new working week on Monday, my thoughts turned to the Album of the Month for September. It’s good to know there are people out there tapping frantically on computer keyboards, manufacturing consumer goods and transporting things from one side of the globe to the other, thus keeping the economy going so that I can spend my state-provided pension being frivolous and enjoying myself.

But, I digress. The self-appointed Crotchety Boss wanted an Album of the Month blog on his desk by close of business Thursday. What was I going to write? That stifling black cloud of blogger’s block descended ominously for a moment and then, suddenly, it evaporated. I had already decided on the album; I had made a note of it before going away. Sure enough, my list of candidate albums had an entry for this month, but reading it just filled me with dismay. “Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels”, it said. And a thoroughly confused inner voice replied, “Huh?, Who? What?”.

portrait

Laurie Anderson

The Crotchety mind felt as though it had fallen into a swollen, swirling river but, after a few seconds of intense effort, it found an overhead branch and grabbed it with both hands. Before going away I had been reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper entitled “50 amazing albums you’ve probably never heard“; the album on my list must have been one of those. Sure enough, album number 19 in that newspaper article was Strange Angels by Laurie Anderson.

So I had the album but I still had no idea who Laurie Anderson is/was or what Strange Angels sounds like. I had pulled myself out of the River of Confusion but I was not yet out of the Woods of Ignorance.

Sitting on the river bank the ignoramus made a plan: step 1, listen again to the music, for it must have had some remarkable quality to be on the list; step 2, search for Laurie Anderson online and see what comes up; step 3, write down a few pertinent facts and try to describe what it is that makes Strange Angels worthy of the Crotchety Readers’ time. It was a good plan. Following it my Mind and I would force a path through the Woods to the scrubland of Superficial Knowledge and there the travellers would erect a marker, a post that will show others the way.

album cover

So I listened. At first there seemed to be nothing at all remarkable about the music. The album opens with the title track, which is a fairly ordinary pop song – pleasant enough but certainly not something that warrants The Telegraph‘s ‘amazing’ tag. Then again, there’s an unusual selection of instruments – you don’t hear castanets very often in pop songs – and there’s an intriguing quality to Laurie Anderson’s voice that makes you wonder what the rest of the album has in store.

Track 2 is anything but ordinary. Called Monkey’s Paw it sounds as though it has been excised from Paul Simon’s Graceland and given a growling, half-spoken commentary warning that no good will come from our attempts to bend Mother Nature to our will.

Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw.

The instruments swing like a monkey in the trees; the words carry a profound and disturbing message. There is a depth to this album that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

As each song passes you become aware of ever more variety. Sometimes the singer’s voice swoops and trills, sometimes it grumbles. One song has Andean pipes, another features a harmonium; there are bongos, horns, drum machines and synthesisers. And the songs grow on you. By track 6, the funky Beautiful Red Dress, Crotchety Man’s ignorance was flowing away faster than the River of Confusion. There really is something precious glinting just beyond the thinning Wood.

As I listened I kept hearing echoes of other musicians: Liz Fraser’s passionate voice, the ominous atmosphere of a Nick Cave composition, words from a Sally Barker song. It struck me that Strange Angels is a collage of musical fragments, fragments assembled so artfully that they create a wholly different work in which the individual pieces lose their identity. It is, I think, as much a tribute to the session musicians and producers as it is to the songwriting and the headline artist.

The album ends with the hypnotic Hiawatha which ambles through the Old West, accompanied by Native Americans and the occasional howling wolf, for nearly seven minutes. It is a timeless, wandering piece that fades into the sunset much too soon leaving this old timer hankering for more. Here it is on YouTube where an early fade reduces it to 5:24:

The enlightened Crotchety Mind had left behind the Woods of Ignorance and it was time to take step 2, an expedition into the scrub of Superficial Knowledge.

Upon opening Laurie Anderson’s Wikipedia page it is immediately obvious that she is a complex and interesting character. She is described there as “an American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director whose work spans performance art, pop music, and multimedia projects”. The key word, here, is ‘artist’. Strange Angels is a work of art; that it is delivered through the medium of music is incidental. And music is only one string to Anderson’s bow¹. She has also worked as an illustrator, art critic, film maker and performance artist.

Our increasingly confident explorer made two surprising discoveries on this particular expedition. The first was that Laurie Anderson had a number two hit in the UK charts in 1981. Was the Crotchety Mind asleep that year? Or had it just forgotten the name of a one-hit wonder? Listening to O Superman, the track in question, quickly eliminated the latter possibility. It is one of the most distinctive, surprising and unforgettable songs ever to have graced the charts. Borrowing words from Le Cid, an opera by Jules Massenet, it is over eight minutes of multi-tracked, half-spoken, heavily processed chanting and electronic organ, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler’s idiosyncratic warblings. Here’s the official video:

The popularity of that single is inexplicable. I have seen reports that it was used as the introductory music for a program on Capital Radio and that many listeners contacted the radio station to ask what it was. I have also heard that John Peel promoted it on his radio show. That may all be true but the support of a local radio station and an off-piste show on national radio isn’t enough to explain its success to my satisfaction. Still, it provides a welcome stimulation for the ears and the intellect and it brought Laurie Anderson to the attention of those of us well outside the orbit of performance art.

The second surprise my exploring Mind discovered was that Laurie Anderson hooked up with Lou Reed in 1992 and they were married from 2008 until his death in 2013. Now that makes sense. Those two strong, creative characters would either clash violently or build an unbreakable bond. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, when the interviewer asked what it was like to be a widow, Anderson replied that she thought of Lou Reed as more of a partner than a husband (although he was that, too) and that he is always with her.

We paused then as we contemplated step 3 of the plan. Slowly we began to gather stones from the River of Confusion, building a cairn to mark the path. A fallen tree was dragged from the Woods of Ignorance and from it we fashioned a sturdy post, painted with arrows pointing to Laurie Anderson and her Strange Angels. And we have now committed these words to the blogosphere, providing another pointer to a road less travelled and music heard unjustifiably rarely.

Note

  1. Laurie Anderson was, initially, trained in violin and sculpture. She invented the tape-bow violin in which recorded magnetic tape replaces the horsehair of a violin bow and sound is produced as the bow is drawn across a tape head in the bridge.

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.

Brass In Pocket

money

There’s been a deliberate focus on new songs recently on Crotchety Man so I think it’s now time to remember an old favourite. Brass In Pocket was the first big hit for The Pretenders in January 1980. Chrissie Hynde never liked the song but the public loved it and she still plays it when she’s touring with the current line-up of the band. Here’s a live version from 2009:

This is a rock song for the pop/rock charts but The Pretenders have always been influenced by a wide variety of styles. Their Wikipedia page mentions connections with all the following artists/bands: The Clash, The Damned, Motörhead, Big Country, P-Funk, Eurythmics, Haircut 100, The Smiths, The The, Simple Minds, Sonny and Cher, UB40, Katydids, Blondie, Damon Albarn, Tom Jones, Emmylou Harris and Stevie Nicks¹. Admittedly some of those connections are distinctly tenuous but it illustrates why it would be wrong to confine The Pretenders to a single pigeonhole in the dovecote of musical styles.

Chrissie Hynde came from Akron, Ohio, moved to the UK in 1973 and formed The Pretenders in 1978. They were always Chrissie’s band. She wrote the songs (sometimes collaborating with other band members), provided the distinctive lead vocals and, most importantly, gave the band their striking, macho image. She was a young, attractive and stylish woman, but she had ‘balls’ and the guys couldn’t resist her.

Strangely, though, Brass In Pocket betrays an unlikely diffidence. The song starts confidently enough. The singer has everything she needs: there’s money in her pocket, there’s courage in her heart and she’s feeling inventive today. Tonight she will use her arms, her style, her imagination to make the boy she fancies notice her. But why is she saying this to herself? Is it because she has tried before only for him to look right through her? Or is it because this is false courage and she needs those words to calm her nerves and give her the confidence she is still trying to find?² The song doesn’t say.

the pretenders

Two of the original members of The Pretenders died in the early eighties³ leaving only Chrissie Hynde herself and the drummer, Martin Chambers, to carry the name through to the present day. The latest Pretenders album, Alone, was released last year and it’s pretty good. The tone has mellowed since the early days of the band but don’t let that put you off. If you like Brass In Pocket the recent album is well worth a spin.

Notes

  1. There are several more artist/band connections on Chrissie Hynde’s own Wikipedia page, including: Frank Sinatra, The Sex Pistols, Curved Air, The Specials, Ringo Starr and The Kinks.
  2. The official video suggests the brave words will be in vain.
  3. In both cases the deaths were drug related.

Redemption Song

quotation

I realised the other day that I have sinned. This blog has no mention of Bob Marley! Fortunately, it’s Easter and Jesus died to redeem us of our sins (or so the Christian Church would have us believe). So, by way of penitence, I have chosen Redemption Song as my Track of the Week.

Both the Spotify link (above) and the YouTube video are of the version performed with Marley’s band, the Wailers. It’s not as well known as the solo version but I like the fuller sound and the reggae beat.

Redemption Song is a protest against slavery and racial discrimination. Like all protest songs its appeal lies as much in the sentiments expressed in the lyrics as in the music itself. The first few words transport us back in time and across the oceans to Africa:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I.
Sold I to the merchant ships …

Sold into slavery, yes, but the singer remains defiant and determined to fight for justice and freedom. It’s a message, the song says, that is just as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century. It calls on us to join those fighting to make the black man the equal of the white-skinned.

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
. . .
Won’t you help to sing
These songs of freedom?

Redemption Song was written around 1979 when protests against apartheid in South Africa were becoming violent and racial inequality in the U.S., although illegal since the Civil Rights Act of 1968, lingered on in insidious ways. The fight was not yet over and Marley adapted the words of the early activist, Marcus Garvey, from a 1937 speech:

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.

To a black man in the 1970s these are stirring words. The first step towards freedom from oppression, it says, is to believe you deserve to shake off the white man’s yoke, to believe you really are his equal. It’s not the poetry of Bob Dylan but there’s a passion and authenticity in those lines that resonates with civil rights supporters across the globe – and that’s nearly all of us in these enlightened days. It is that sense of historical injustice, I think, that has made Redemption Song one of Bob Marley’s most popular songs.

Musically, Redemption Song is a simple folk tune with the flavour of a spiritual. It was originally released on the Uprising album and as a single in 1980. On the album it was performed as an acoustic ballad – just Bob Marley and his guitar – with none of the reggae beat for which he is famous. The single included a rendition by the whole band, this time in reggae style, and that second version also appears on the 2001 re-release of Uprising.

head and colours

A song from the Uprising album about redemption seems particularly appropriate at this Easter time when many people believe that Jesus died for us and rose again. I may not share those beliefs but I hope you will all forgive me for taking so long to mention the foremost of reggae artists, Bob Marley, and his call for political change, Redemption Song.

Sledgehammer

Sledgehammer - scrat

Now, where did I put that sledgehammer?

There are at least three well-known songs called Sledgehammer. Top of the Spotify list is one by Fifth Harmony, a five-piece all-female vocal group that came together when the girls entered the X Factor competition individually in 2012. As Fifth Harmony they came third and third is where Crotchety Man places their fairly ordinary pop/dance Sledgehammer. If you have seen Star Trek Beyond you will have heard a bigger and better Sledgehammer. That one is an epic ballad sung by Rihanna and she does a rather good job of it. But the best Sledgehammer, in my opinion, is the one by Peter Gabriel.

The Gabriel Sledgehammer is a pop/dance track the way old man Crotchety likes it. It’s one of those funky soulful songs that makes you want to stomp your feet to the beat, but unlike a lot of modern pop music it also has a catchy tune, some intriguing synthesised sounds and a great production. It’s an irresistible combination that took it to the number one slot in Canada and the U.S. and number 4 in the U.K. in 1986.

The single release was accompanied by a brilliant video featuring animation by Aardman Animations (Nick Park’s outfit that created the Wallace and Gromit animated films). It won  no less than nine of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, more than any other video, and may still be the most viewed MTV video of all time. Here’s the obligatory YouTube link:

There’s an even sharper, crisper version of this video on Peter Gabriel’s website here.

They say you shouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut but Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel, has tried everything else. Perhaps Peter Gabriel will take pity on the poor unfortunate creature and lend him his nut cracker extraordinaire.

China In Your Hand

China In Your Hand - cup

Back in 1987 I was a freelance software developer. In the autumn of that year I was working on a contract at offices some 15 miles from Leicester where I lived then, driving north up the A46 in the mornings. It was an easy journey. The road was fairly straight and not too busy. And it wound through some pleasant countryside. As commutes go it was about as good as it gets.

One bright and unseasonably warm October morning, with my mind on autopilot, the car radio began to play pizzicato strings, spitting out the notes like orange pips, as if to say, “Wake up, this is interesting”. As I retuned my ears the violins were joined by grand piano chords and then a woman’s voice began to sing a gentle accompaniment to my rural journey. Soon the sound swelled in a dramatic crescendo as if the low autumn sun had peeped out from a cloud and spread a golden glow across the hills.

Don’t push too hard,
Your dreams are china in your hand.

Suddenly, my routine journey had been transformed into a relaxing road trip and that ordinary working day now felt like a holiday.

Over the next few weeks China In Your Hand was played a lot on the radio. It spent five weeks at number one on the UK singles chart and was almost guaranteed to grace the airwaves during my 35 minute drive to work. I got to know that song very well, singing along to it in the car. It became my anthem of the road.

My software contract ended after a few months and my work took me elsewhere. Then, another ten years on, the Crotchety Couple moved 100 miles away to York and we rarely used the A46 until we moved back to Leicestershire in 2015. In the meantime the stretch of the A46 that took me to work in 1987 has been completely rebuilt. What was a single-carriageway road following the course of the Roman Fosse Way is now a “high quality grade-separated dual-carriageway” making it a fast and effective route between Leicester and Lincoln.

Last week the Crochetys took a day trip to Doddington Hall to see the gardens and sculpture exhibition. The Hall is just outside the city of Lincoln and the A46 takes us almost door to door. Although the road looks completely different now, driving north along it that morning still reminded me of the day in 1987 when I heard China In Your Hand for the first time. A song that stays with you that long is surely worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

China In Your Hand - frankenstein

As is often the case Crotchety Man was never able to make out all of the words and it was only when researching the song for this post that I finally discovered what it’s about. The phrase “china in your hand” suggests a precious fragility and “don’t push too hard” is clearly a plea to be careful. But what is it that we hold? What will shatter like a porcelain teacup if we drop it?

In fact, the song refers to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, in which the brilliant science student Victor Frankenstein succeeds in creating a living being from non-living material. But the beautiful creature that Victor had envisaged turns out to be a hideous  monster who is repulsed by his own appearance and rejected by all those who meet him. In his anguish the monster kills Victor’s brother and his bride-to-be. It is a classic story of a man blind to the consequences of his dreams. As the song puts it:

Your dreams are china in your hand.
Don’t wish too hard
Because they may come true

I have no qualms adding China In Your Hand to the track-of-the-week list but I’m afraid I am unable to recommend anything else by T’Pau. I have listened to the first six tracks from their Heart and Soul – The Very Best of T’Pau album and that was as much anodyne pop as I could stomach in one helping. If that is the very best they can do Crotchety Man will be looking elsewhere for fulfilment of his dreams. You never know, though, if I wish hard enough my dreams just might come true one day.

Golden Brown

Golden Brown - seventies

The Stranglers were formed when punk was sweeping away the bland and sickly sweet pop groups of the early seventies. They toured with the American punk band, The Ramones, and regarded themselves as part of the punk scene. But they were never a punk band.

Originally called The Guildford Stranglers the band was assembled in 1974 by Jet Black (real name Brian Duffy), a successful business man and jazz drummer. Unlike many of the punk bands The Stranglers were all accomplished musicians. Jean-Jaques Burnel moved to bass after learning classical guitar. Hugh Cornwell started as a blues guitarist and switched back to the guitar after playing bass with folk guitarist Richard Thompson. Dave Greenfield, who joined them in 1975, was a pianist with a progressive rock band.

Let’s pause for a moment here. That last paragraph mentions jazz, punk, classical, blues, folk and progressive rock. With all those obvious influences The Stranglers was never going to be just another punk band. A betting man would have put good money on a short life and a spectacular firework finale for that band as artistic tension mounted to an explosive climax. But they would have lost their stake. The Stranglers are still going. Hugh Cornwell left in 1990 to pursue a solo career; Jet Black, now 77 years old, is not well enough to perform at live events; but the band is touring the UK this summer and also has a couple of gigs scheduled in Belgium and the Netherlands.

The secret to The Stranglers longevity, I suspect, is that the band members have unusually broad tastes and an easy, laissez-faire attitude to life. Their music evolved over the years from strident, intelligent rock delivered with a punkish sneer to more refined and more melodic songs straddling the boundary between rock and pop.

Golden Brown - noughties

Golden Brown is a fine example of those more mellow, less aggressive compositions. It grabs your attention immediately with its lilting waltz-time harpsichord and synthesiser introduction and then slaps you in the face with a 4-beat bar. “Listen up!”, it seems to say, “I’ve got something to tell you”. And then Hugh Cornwell’s storyteller voice comes in with a soothing vision of suntanned skin and soft pillows.

Golden brown, texture like sun,
Lays me down, with my mind she runs

Never a frown with golden brown.

The tale unfolds in a steady 3-time, allowing the listener to slide back into a comfortable sleepiness before the second verse introduces a sense of pleasurable entrapment.

On her ship, tied to the mast,
To distant lands,
Takes both my hands,
Never a frown with golden brown.

She is taking us on a journey. We are powerless. And it’s wonderful. The jolt of the 4-beat bar rouses us again before another verse. Then a melodic guitar break adds the music of the spheres for our listening pleasure. We have arrived in a golden honey heaven, a caramel taste on my tongue, a chocolate glaze on her soft sweet lips. For a few moments Shangri-La is real but it soon begins to fade away. As the scene dissolves and vanishes the angel choir sings softly …

Never a frown with golden brown.

Never a frown with golden brown.

Never a frown with golden brown.

 Golden Brown - beyonce