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.

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.

No Reason

It’s a bright, but frosty morning here in the East Midlands region of the UK – a day in which the rising sun should be welcomed by peeping out from the bedclothes with a sleepy smile and snuggling down for another twenty minutes while the central heating chases away the overnight chill. It’s Sunday. There’s no reason to get up early.

No Reason is an ease-into-the-day track from Bonobo‘s latest album, Migration, which was only released earlier this month. The track and the album are, of course, new to Crotchety Man. The artist is new to me, too. In fact, even the words for the genres associated with Bonobo‘s music are new to me. I have tagged No Reason as ‘ambient’, ‘chillwave’, ‘electronic’ and ‘trip hop’ because those terms are all associated with the artist and they seem to fit the song. But I may be using them inappropriately.

bonobo, live

Bonobo is the stage name of Simon Green, a Brit now living in Los Angeles and most often described as a DJ. He seems to have emerged from the electronica and dance scene of the 80s and 90s, first as a DJ and then as a musician and producer.

Now, back in the dim dark days of Crotchety Man’s youth a DJ was just a guy who played records, usually 45 rpm singles, and his only creative input was in his announcements of the song title and artist. When some idiots started deliberately scratching the discs and driving the turntables with their fingers Crotchety Man turned his ears the other way. Yes, it did allow the DJs greater scope for artistic expression but their creations were poison to the sacred art of music making. To me, the sound of a diamond-tipped needle scraping over the much softer grooves of a vinyl record constitutes cruel and degrading behaviour and, as such, is banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It damages the records and it tortures the listener.

My antagonism towards those first ‘creative’ DJs meant that I have been almost oblivious to the way the role of the DJ has evolved. Until very recently I was only dimly aware of DJ consoles: the specialist equipment that allows a DJ to mix music from vinyl discs, CDs and computers, to change the speed of one track to match the beat of another, and to add electronic effects. Over the years DJs have become more and more like producers and their work has, finally, become a truly creative art. It is no longer an insult for me to label someone a DJ.

There was another reason the Crotchety ears were deaf to the work of the early DJs. Their habitat was the clubs and the discos where young people went to dance, the girls to look pretty and the boys to impress. In those dimly lit halls a strong beat was essential and the DJs knew it. The trouble was they took it too far. When all you can hear is booming bass, thudding drumbeats and pulsing electronics you lose the music. I like to hear a tune as well as a rhythm, harmonies as well as a beat. Dance music has its place, I suppose, but there’s no place for it in the Crotchety collection.

Bonobo, though, is not a boom and thud merchant. There is neither ‘DnB’ nor ‘dance’ in the tag list. His music sits comfortably at the beat end of ‘ambient’. No Reason is a good example of Bonobo‘s general style but it’s atypical in that it features a guest vocalist (Nick Murphy, fka Chet Faker), who does a rather good job on this track. At the end of a long day it works on the brain the way a massage works on the body, easing away the stiffness and gently untangling the Gordian knots of frustrated ambition. And it works equally well at daybreak, too, to shake off the fog of sleep and prepare us for another day.

Postscript

No Reason is available as a free download here. Migration is currently at number 5 on the UK album charts.

The Curse of Blondie

I think I’m slowly getting the hang of this Internet thing. It seems to have all the information you could ever want (and a lot more besides) but to find what you’re looking for you have to know where to look. I’ve searched for Blondie’s eighth album, The Curse of Blondie, on streaming sites in the past and drawn a blank but my more advanced search technique has finally come up trumps. Here it is on YouTube.

Well, actually, this compilation has the right tracks, in the right order, but track 2, Good Boys, is blocked in the UK and track 8 is a live version of End to End. Why most of Blondie’s recordings are available on Spotify (and elsewhere, I assume) but not this particular album is a mystery to me. I guess it’s cursed.

Let’s see if we can lift the spell.

The Curse of Blondie got mixed reviews when it came out in 2003 and on first listen that’s understandable. There are two tracks on The Curse that would work really well on any of Blondie‘s early albums; they are: Good Boys (the only single), and End To End, which has already featured on the Crotchety Man blog. Some of the other songs are also in the  typical Blondie pop/rock style (Undone, Golden Rod, for example) and those, too, are likely to go down well with Blondie album collectors. Then there are several tracks that explore rather different territory: rap-style vocals in Shakedown, a reggae Background Melody, the electronica/dance tracks Hello Joe and The Tingler. Although Blondie had used these styles before some of their fans didn’t appreciate it.

And then The Curse has some real surprises. Songs of Love is a romantic ballad embellished with some saxophone licks. Magic (Asadoya Yunta) is a traditional Japanese folk song. And most unsettling of all, Desire Brings Me Back mainly consists of honking saxophones over thudding tribal drums. None of those is exactly guaranteed to appeal to the average pop/rock enthusiast and even dyed-in-the-wool Blondie devotees might struggle with them.

Blondie, 1977

Blondie, 1977

The Curse is an album on which the band deliberately ventures off the charts, to places where mythical creatures live and the maps say only, “here be dragons”. But baby dragons are such cute animals and, trained right, they can make wonderful pets. You just need to get to know them.

So, lets spin the album again.

It’s true that Shakedown has rap-style vocals but the basic track has all the hallmarks of classic Blondie singles. It may not be a top ten song but it’s eminently listenable and I’m sure it would go down well in the clubs. The reggae beat of Background Melody actually lifts the song from mediocre to pretty good; well worth its place on the album. Even the two tracks I labelled electronica/dance sound more like classic Blondie tracks given a DJ mix than something spawned in the dark shadows of gangland America.

Blondie 2011

Blondie, 2011

The Curse is a Blondie album with rather more variety than fans and critics were used to and Crotchety Man applauds them for that. There is one dud track – the honking saxes on Desire Brings Me Back are just an awful noise – but everything else works extremely well. Of course, the album doesn’t have as many chart hits as Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat but it’s a very worthy addition to the Blondie canon which seems to have been forgotten by record stores and streaming sites. Or does the Crotchety Man’s online search technique still need to be improved?

The Other Side

The Other Side - earthrise

Cast your mind back to December 1968. Apollo 8 was on the launchpad. No human being had ever been beyond Earth orbit. No astronaut had flown on the Saturn V launch vehicle before. There had been no less than three engine failures on the unmanned Apollo 6 mission earlier that year. Apollo 8 had been planned as a low Earth orbit mission to test the Lunar Module but the LM wasn’t ready and, to meet the deadline of sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had fundamentally redefined the mission’s objectives. If all went well Apollo 8 would take three men into orbit around the moon and bring them safely back to Earth. There had never been a more risky mission.

To make matters worse the flight programme required the Command/Service Module carrying the astronauts to fly behind the moon where it would be out of contact with Mission Control when it carried out Lunar Orbit Insertion, the crucial manoeuvre that would put the module and its crew into orbit around the moon. If the engines failed the capsule would fly out past the moon and into space. If the burn lasted too long they would plummet down and crash onto the surface of the moon.

Apollo 8 was launched at 12:51 UTC on 21st December 1968. 68 hours and 58 minutes later the orbiter capsule went behind the moon and Mission Control announced loss of signal. For the crew in their “tin can”, the technicians in the control room and millions of members of the public it was a time of almost unbearable tension. For those on the ground there was nothing to do but wait and hope.

The Other Side - band

PSB (J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth)

To commemorate this temporal void Public Service Broadcasting took recordings of the radio conversations between the Apollo 8 astronauts and Mission Control, added some electronic sounds and created a music track called The Other Side. They didn’t have to work too hard to capture the atmosphere in the control room – the tension is all there in the voice recordings.

Apollo 8, Houston, one minute to LOS. All systems go.

Houston, Apollo 8, 10 seconds to go, you’re go all the way.

Apollo 8, Houston, roger. Thanks a lot, troops. See you on the other side.

In real time there was then a 45 minute gap. On the album track this is compressed to around 10 seconds but the complete absence of voice radio traffic makes the soft thrumming of synth rhythms sound like a ticking grandfather clock in a dark and otherwise silent room. Tick, tock. Are they all right up there? Tick, tock. How can silence be so loud? Tick, tock, tick …

We’re standing by …

Apollo 8, Apollo 8, this is Houston, Houston, over.

Roger Houston, we read you loud and clear. How do you read us?

And with that message from the Apollo 8 commander there is an audible sigh of relief from the flight controllers, the synthesisers swell, joyful guitar playing celebrates success and the music reaches a crescendo. It all works beautifully. Crotchety Man salutes the way Pubic Service Broadcasting have made some excellent music from an extended period of silent waiting.

The Apollo 8 mission was the first time a human had seen the full round Earth from space, the first time human eyes had seen the far side of the moon and the first time an astronaut could see the Earth rising above the horizon of the moon. The image at the top of this post is part of the Earthrise photo taken by Will Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 8. That picture is believed to have inspired the first celebration of Earth Day in 1970. Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. That is something well worth commemorating and Public Service Broadcasting have given us a fitting memorial.

4 Degrees

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Ten days ago Crotchety Man watched the awards ceremony for the 2016 Mercury Prize on the TV. The scheduling was confusing. At 7 o’clock there was a one-hour program on ‘the red button’ (a channel up in the six hundreds most easily found by clicking the red button on the TV remote) and this was followed by another one-hour slot on the primary BBC TV channel. As far as I could make out all twelve of the artists on the Mercury Prize shortlist would perform in the first hour and the awards ceremony itself would be covered in the second.

I have considerable respect for the Mercurys. Unlike the Brits, which are restricted to pop music, the Mercury Prize accepts nominations from a wide range of genres including pop, rock, folk, urban, dance, jazz, blues, electronica and classical. In practice, there have been no classical nominations since 2002 and there has only ever been one nomination for a heavy metal album. In spite of those omissions the Mercury Prize judges usually manage to pick an album by an artist that deserves greater recognition than they have so far received. Following that award is usually a good way for Crotchety Man to broaden his sonic horizons.

So, eager to hear a broad range of songs and hoping to stumble on something new and exciting, I sat down at 7 pm to be informed and entertained. This wasn’t completely new territory – I had already heard a few of the songs from the nominated albums – and I was soon building up a mental scoresheet. There were a couple of songs that weren’t to my taste but, with one exception, they all seemed worthy of the shortlist.

I am now going to break two rules of the Crotchety Man blog: I am going to mention what I would classify as a hip-hop song and I’m going to condemn it as worthless. (Don’t worry. This will be a small diversion. I shall be much more positive again shortly.)

The one track that should never have made the Mercury Prize TV show was something called Shutdown by a rapper called Spekta. When I heard it in that first hour I took an instant dislike to it. According to the TV presenter Shutdown is an example of Grime music which, I discovered recently, is not the same as hip-hop. Apparently, Grime is very popular in the clubs at the moment so, grudgingly, I reset the Crotchety Music Appreciation Meter and applied it to every detail of the song. Although I calibrated and re-calibrated my instruments I could not find any sign of quality music. It seemed to be nothing more than a strong beat and endless repetitions of the word ‘shutdown’.

At the end of the 7 o’clock programme, presented by Shaun Keveney (I think), we had only seen six of the twelve shortlisted artists. Switching over to BBC 1 I hoped we would now get to hear the other six. Disappointingly, the second hour featured exactly the same performances, only this time presented by Lauren Laverne. As the second show was supposed to be live I am at a loss to explain how they did that. Once again the Spekta song failed to register on the Appreciation Meter; the needle didn’t even tremble.

Finally, we came to the award itself. The Mercury Prize is given for the best album from the UK and Ireland released in the previous 12 months. There is only one award and the presentation is mercifully short. Jarvis Cocker teased the audience by saying that, in the end, the choice was between two ‘black stars’. This was obviously a reference to David Bowie’s Black Star and Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate. Black Star was the bookies favourite and Love and Hate was also regarded as a strong contender. A sense of relief washed over Crotchety Man. The Mercury Prize this year would be at least moderately well deserved.

In his award presentation speech Jarvis Cocker went on to say that, if David Bowie was looking down on the venue he would be delighted that the Mercury Prize for 2016 goes to … Spekta‘s Konnichiwa. And at that Crotchety Man became very crotchety indeed. “No, mate, David Bowie would not be at all pleased with that”, he spat at the TV. Dumbfounded and immobilised by the shock Crotchety Man sat through the cheers and the congratulations, half listened to the acceptance speech and suffered Shutdown for a third time in two hours as the credits rolled.

The judging panel clearly took leave of their senses this year. If they had chosen Bowie’s Black Star no-one would have been surprised and few would have been disappointed. If they wanted to show their appreciation for black artists they could have gone for Michael Kiwanuka or Laura Mvula. If they were looking for something a little out of the ordinary they could have chosen something by Bat for Lashes or The Comet Is Coming. There were some genuinely good albums on the shortlist. But Crotchety Man is not bitter. If you have been slighted, they say, “don’t get mad, get even”. In that spirit I shall do what I can to redress the balance by bringing to your attention another album on the shortlist, Hopelessness by Anohni.

4 Degrees - Anohni

Although I had heard the name Anohni a couple of times on the radio and filed it away in the mental rolodex under “sounds like Nina Simone or Benjamin Clementine” I knew nothing about the artist. As you can tell from my comment I wasn’t even sure if the voice was male or female. A little Googling soon cleared that up. Anohni was born a boy and called Antony Hegarty (the Antony in Antony and the Johnsons) but from the age of 5 Antony knew she was a girl inside. Anohni is the name of the woman that little Antony grew up to be. There’s a wonderfully insightful article on Anohni in the Guardian that’s well worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

Anohni has described Hopelessness as “an electronic record with some sharp teeth”. The teeth come in the form of protest songs. But it’s not the protest of Bob Dylan who stood aloof from the decaying society that he sang about so eloquently. It’s an altogether more anguished recognition that Anohni is herself part of the problems, complicit in the politics that allow wars to be waged and ecosystems to be destroyed.

All the songs rage and rail against the injustice and destruction that the human race is inflicting on itself. 4 Degrees is specifically about climate change. If we do nothing to prevent it the experts predict that the world will be 4° C warmer by the end of the century than it was in 2000. That’s a critical temperature rise. It may even be enough to tip the climate into a runaway greenhouse effect that will wipe most species off the face of the Earth. Most of us are doing little or nothing about it and for Anohni that’s as bad as deliberately setting fire to our precious planet.

It’s only four degrees, it’s only four degrees.
. . .
I wanna see this world, I wanna see it boil.
. . .
I wanna see the fish go belly up in the seas.
. . .
I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze
I wanna see the animals die in the trees.

The music is equally apocalyptic. Drum machines crash and thunder; fire and brimstone blare out from synthesisers. The rocks are melting and the seas are roiling as if the Earth is being born again. And yet, some beauty survives. A celestial brass band blows huskily; orchestral strings float down from every corner of heaven. And the voice of God rumbles through the singer’s throat, neither male nor female, transcendent, breath-taking, enthralling.

4 Degrees - world water droplet

When Crotchety Man sat down to watch the Mercury Prize shows on TV he was hoping to be introduced to an album like Hopelessness. Something that doesn’t quite make the charts because it’s not the flavour of the month. Something with genuine musical merit. Anohni’s first solo album fits the bill perfectly. It would have been a worthy winner of the Mercury Prize. Ah, well, there’s always next year. If we haven’t fried the planet by then.

A Glorious Dawn

Crotchety Man was brought up in a semi-religious environment: born in a (largely) Christian country, educated in Church of England schools, singing in the church choir, but growing up in a family for whom religion was essentially irrelevant. I was immersed in Christianity but not a part of it. Given no guidance I was left to find my own way, to develop my own philosophy, to choose my own religion or none.

Sermons and Bible readings in church and Religious Instruction lessons at school provided me with a reasonably good understanding of Christianity. I found some of it compelling: love thy neighbour, for example. But I never found a reason to accept the Christian God. “Does God exist?” was a question with no satisfactory answer. Both “yes” and “no” make perfect sense and there is no objective way of deciding between the two.

A Glorious Dawn - BHA LogoSo I adopted Christian morals, which I saw as universal, but rejected the idea of a supernatural being. It wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I stumbled on the website for the British Humanist Association and discovered not only that my approach to life is shared by many others but that it has a name: Humanism.

The website listed some of its more well-known members, which included many eminent scientists, comedians and public figures – people I already deeply respected for their intellect and ethical values. I had found my moral niche and I joined the organisation immediately.

The BHA publishes an email newsletter with links to other resources, including a closely associated website called Humanist Life. There, back in 2012, I found a “Songs for a Humanist” playlist and in the list there was a YouTube video that featured Carl Sagan, an astrophysicist and science populariser most famous for the American TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. (For British readers, Sagan was the U.S. equivalent of professor Brian Cox.)

Curiosity piqued, I played the YouTube video. It starts with a few self-deprecating words from Carl Sagan over some gentle notes from an electric piano. “I’m not very good at singing songs but, er, here’s a try.” Sagan then starts to make some peculiar noises: “Whoop, awww; whoop, awww, awww…”. You have to agree him; he’s really not very good at singing. Then you realise his voice has been sampled and is being played as a rhythmic base for the ambient piano music. And it’s a catchy piece.

A Glorious Dawn - Carl Sagan

The voice continues. It is Carl Sagan speaking but the video maker has adjusted the pitch of the sampled speech to make a tune that fits this original composition. It’s a manufactured singing voice and it’s inviting us to make an apple pie.

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch
You must first invent the universe.

The video is a lesson in cosmology (space is filled with a network of wormholes), a hymn to the human race (the first moment in human history when we are … visiting other worlds) and an ode to the universe (The Cosmos is full … of the awesome machinery of nature).

The piano is joined by electronic drums and deep, rippling synthesiser notes creating a big, spacious soundscape.

A Glorious Dawn - Eye

Looking up from the Earth, in the night sky we see the myriad stars of the Milky Way and beyond them the unimaginable vastness of space with its countless galaxies stretching 13.8 billion light years away. Human beings are only just beginning to explore it and there are untold wonders waiting to be found.

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean;
Recently we’ve waded a little way out
And the water seems inviting.

The video is called A Glorious Dawn. It was created in 2009 by John D Boswell, a composer of electronic music and a highly accomplished constructor of video mash-ups. This particular video (according to Wikipedia) notched up a million views in its first six weeks and was one of the top-rated videos of all time. YouTube is currently showing 9,988,235 views.

A Glorious Dawn - John D Boswell

John D Boswell

A Glorious Dawn is one of a series of videos on science topics that form part of John D Boswell’s Symphony of Science project, which is available from his website on a pay-what-you-like basis as either videos or music tracks. All the Symphony of Science pieces are worth listening to. As an album of ambient electronic music it stands up well in comparison to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Pink Floyd’s Endless River. I often played it at work when there was a lot of background noise and I wanted to concentrate.

The words are those of eminent scientists: Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, Robert Winston, David Attenborough and others. If you listen to the lyrics they will take you on a journey through many areas of science: fundamental physics, cosmology, biology and evolution. A Humanist Life can take you to strange and wonderful places.