Starless

starless night

For those who are unfamiliar with the British folk music scene The Unthanks are a five-piece folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank. The band was formed in 2004 as an all female group called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. After lineup changes that brought Adrian McNally into the band as pianist, arranger, producer and manager the name was shortened to The Unthanks.

They perform mainly traditional English folk songs. The credits for their second album, The Bairns, list Rachel’s contributions as voice, cello, ukulele and feet, the latter being a reference to the sound of clog dancing which formed part of their live act. So, you see, we are deep in folk music country here, but The Unthanks frequently flirt with other musical genres, too, and that is what qualifies them for inclusion in the Crotchety Man pages.

rachel & becky

Rachel and Becky Unthank

For my Track of the Week I have chosen Starless from The Unthank‘s 2011 album Last.

A gentle violin and piano introduction leads into a haunting trumpet melody. Reflected in the trumpet’s shining brass we see a dark brooding landscape lit only by the faint glow of moonbeams filtering through a charcoal sky. Any stars have been suffocated under a thick blanket of low cloud. The night cloaks the scene in a bible black shroud. On the Earthly plane we are alone; in spirit we share this god-forsaken place with the ghost of a brass band soloist.

As if wakened by the trumpeter’s song the black treacle voices of the Unthank sisters take up the story. Somewhere beyond the horizon a brilliant sun is setting but it is hidden by a curtain of doubt and despair.

Sundown dazzling day
Gold through my eyes
But my eyes turned within
Only see
Starless and bible black

Spectral figures drift across our vision and the soulful sounds of a chamber orchestra emphasise the bleakness of our inward gaze. Listen. That is the sound of Churchill’s black dog stalking the night.

The Unthanks have taken a modern folk song and given it a wonderfully atmospheric orchestral arrangement. Or so it would seem. But Starless was not conceived as a folk song. It was originally intended as the title track of King Crimson‘s Starless and Bible Black album released in March 1974.

The lyrics and melody were written by John Wetton, King Crimson‘s then bassist, but Robert Fripp and Bill Bruford didn’t like it and the title was used for an unrelated instrumental on that album. When the original song was subsequently revised and revived for King Crimson‘s next album, Red, it was given the shorter title of Starless. By this time David Cross had left the band and the melody that he would have played on his electric violin was switched to Robert Fripp’s guitar. Even in 1974, several decades before The Unthanks rearranged it again, the melody line had jumped like a dancing will-o’-the-wisp from one instrument to another.

Starless is still performed by King Crimson. In their hands it is a sweeping progressive rock track with passages in 13/4 and 13/8 time. Here’s a live version from 2015 that is included on their latest album Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind. It still has that haunting melody but this rendition builds to a frantic climax propelled irresistibly forward by KC’s three drummers. Watch and marvel!

Whichever way you slice it, orchestral folk or progressive rock, Starless is a truly great track that will haunt you long after Hallowe’en. There is no trick. It is a treat to be savoured. Especially when the black dog comes stalking and dark thoughts rise from the mists of the subconscious monkey mind.

A Lady of a Certain Age

judy dench

Judy Dench, ageing gracefully

We are in classic Track of the Week territory today. A Lady of a Certain Age is a song by The Divine Comedy, a band that wouldn’t normally qualify for inclusion in these pages. But this track manages to avoid the flimsy fluff of the Comedy‘s pure pop songs and gives us what The Guardian’s reviewer described as a “quietly devastating” comment on womanhood, class and growing old.

Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon

Musically, A Lady of a Certain Age, has a simple charm. It is a song for a folk singer with an acoustic guitar, embellished with gently pulsing accordion and urgent, rippling strings. But the brightest jewels this lady wears are in Neil Hannon’s sharp-edged lyrics.

Scaling the dizzy heights of high society,
Armed only with a cheque book and a family tree.

The story has only just begun but already we can see it will end in tragedy. Behind the lady’s back Peter Sarstedt is asking Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? and Bob Dylan is composing Like A Rolling Stone.

You chased the sun around the Côte d’Azur
Until the light of youth became obscure
And left you on your own and in the shade,
An English lady of a certain age.

That chorus leaves us with a feeling of sad inevitability but little sympathy for a woman who made the most of her beauty and wealth while she could, never thinking about what the future might bring. But the loss of her youthful looks was only the start of her misfortune.

Your husband’s heart gave out one Christmas Day,
He left the villa to his mistress in Marseilles

Life can be cruel, sometimes. To the ageing lady this must have felt as though her diamond necklace had tightened around her throat, the sparkling ice turning to sharp saw blade tips tearing at her skin and ripping her last vestiges of dignity to shreds. We can but pity her now.

Background Notes

  1. Outside music circles “The Divine Comedy” refers to a long narrative poem by Dante Alighieri written between 1308 and 1320. It tells the story of Dante’s journey up through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise, and is regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature.
  2. The band, The Divine Comedy, was formed in 1989 as a three-piece: Neil Hannon, John McCullagh and Kevin Traynor. A fourth member, John Allen, joined in 1991 but the band split in 1993. Hannon revived the name later that year using a fluid mix of permanent band members, collaborators and session musicians. In effect, The Divine Comedy is Neil Hannon’s musical persona.
  3. Hannon writes the songs, sings and plays guitar, bass and keyboards. I read somewhere that, on one of his albums, he played all the instruments apart from the drums and the orchestral instruments. Unfortunately, I can’t find the reference now. 😦
  4. Hannon composed the theme tunes for the TV programmes Father Ted and The IT Crowd. He also sang on the soundtrack for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and on a Doctor Who CD.
  5. A Lady of a Certain Age is from The Divine Comedy‘s ninth studio album, Victory for the Comic Muse. The title is a quote from the book, A Room With A View, but it harks back to the band’s first album, Fanfare for the Comic Muse.
  6. Victory for the Comic Muse was unusual in that it was recorded in just 2 weeks, using a minimum of overdubs. Hannon had a cold for some of this time, which perhaps accounts for him sounding uncannily like John Grant on A Lady of a Certain Age. (And all the better for it, I think.)

Nights In White Satin

Nights In White Satin (forest)

There was a special offer on the Web: all six of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2015 for just £30 (in hardback). Mrs. Crotchety and I agreed that this was too good to miss and soon a courier delivered them to our humble home.

Choosing the smallest and shortest of them, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, Crotchety Man sat on the sofa and started to read. By the end of the following day I had finished the book. I hadn’t done much else but that was OK; nothing particular needed to be done and reading good books is one of the things I’d always planned to do in my retirement.

It’s an unusual novel about a new kind of anthropologist employed to help corporations analyse their markets and governments understand their citizens so that they can do better what large organisations do. That sounds dry but the central character’s laissez-faire approach to life takes us on one long flight of fancy, always showing us a fresh and stimulating perspective on the minutiae of everyday life. If, like me, you’re an escapist at heart it’s an enjoyable read.

As perhaps you can tell, some of Tom McCarthy’s writing style has (temporarily, I’m sure) rubbed off on me. The title of his book also inspired me in my choice of Track of the Week. This time it’s Nights In White Satin by the Moody Blues.

Nights In White SatinAs far as I can tell from material easily accessible on the Web, Nights In White Satin was originally written as a simple song but was first recorded for the Moody Blues’ second album, Days Of Future Passed. The record company had asked the band to record a rock version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony but were persuaded to make an album of Moody Blues original material (in a classical style) instead. The result was an oil-and-water emulsion of corny sixties pop songs floating within a lush orchestral fluid.

On the album, Nights In White Satin is the last track and it includes a three minute orchestral epilogue during which a poem is recited. This makes for a pleasing and natural end to the album but wouldn’t make sense for a single. Wikipedia says the album track was first edited down from 7 minutes 26 seconds to a brutal 3:06 and then, more sensitively, to 4:26, which is by far the best known version.

Nights In White Satin starts with simple guitar chords, light drum strokes, a prominent bass line and lyrical vocals. “Nights in white satin, never reaching the end…”, sings the voice enigmatically. Satin dress? Satin sheets? Questions bubble up and reverberate through our heads. Never ending nights? Or is there something else that remains out of reach, beyond our grasp? The voice is passionate, lonely, aching. “Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send”. There’s a longing here, a longing for something impossible.

Electronic strings bring added pathos. “Beauty I’d always missed with these eyes before”, sings the voice, as if he is at fault. “Just what the truth is I can’t say any more”. The music swells to a crescendo. “‘Cause I love you…”. The drums pound and a choir of angels echoes the singers anguish. “Yes, I love you. Oh, how I love you!”, he cries. And the angels cry, too.

The drums crash to a cathartic climax and give way to a mellow, soothing flute over picked acoustic guitar. The haunting Mellotron strings return for another verse, another episode of exquisite pain; the angel choir sings again and the song comes to another thundering climax before fading to a peaceful, satisfying end.

The single was a top 20 hit when it was first released in 1967 and even more successful when it was re-released in 1972 (no. 9 in the UK and no. 2 on the US Billboard charts). Since then it has become an essential component of every pop music collection covering the period and has been recorded by numerous other artists: Elkie Brooks, Il Divo, Eric Burdon and Nancy Sinatra, for example.

Nights In White Satin sits comfortably on easy listening and pop/classical crossover compilations but the album it comes from is regarded as a precursor to progressive rock, with its mix of styles and use of a Mellotron to create a wide, orchestral soundscape. Days of Future Passed didn’t quite succeed in blending contrasting styles but it did lay the foundation for others to do so and it spawned one of the most enduring singles of the sixties: Nights In White Satin, a most worthy addition to the Crotchety Man Track of the Week collection.

[There’s a YouTube video of an excellent live performance here.]