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.

Photograph

camera + woman

There has been an outbreak of man flu at Crotchety Mansions. In the interests of public safety Crotchety Man has cancelled all public engagements for the time being. A number of restrictions have been put in place on current activities, too. This Track of the Week was chosen simply because it was the stand-out track on my Release Radar this week  and R.E.M. have not featured in these pages before. It has been written without the benefit of research of any kind.

And now I’m taking my coughs, sniffles and shivers back to bed. Please send in the night nurse.

August & September

 

Donning his pith helmet and carrying his elephant gun Crotchety Man went out hunting for tracks on the theme of autumn. It proved to be a disappointing expedition. To my mind autumn is a gloriously uplifting time of year and yet all the songs relating to the third quarter of the calendar seem to be either quietly contemplative or downright gloomy. Autumn days are often wet and windy, and winter may be around the corner, but there’s nothing quite like the sun peeping through the trees when they are dressed in their soft leafy gowns of yellows, reds and browns.

band

So, yes, it was a disappointing trek through the sound jungle but I did bag one or two specimens for the trophy cabinet. Pride of place goes to August & September from the Mind Bomb album by The The. I thought I had three specimens of this particular song but the first turned out to be an imposter (and a rather drab one at that). Although it looks and sounds similar this is actually an entirely different species. It is, in fact a performance by Elbow – you can tell by the sparse production, muted colours and the distinctive Guy Garvey warbling.

I am rather more pleased with the two genuine The The individuals captured on this trip. The one below struts around in its cage bursting with energy, sending out booming calls and passionate songs. I think it is trying to attract a mate but in that it will be disappointed; both of my specimens are male.

The third of my August & September catches is, I think, the prettiest of the three. It was reared in a recording studio and it has all the signs of having been well looked after. It is rounded, but not obese; it’s plumage is bright and shiny. It has a calm and confident personality. This is the one I’d enter into the song equivalent of Crufts if such a competition were to take place. Just listen to Danny Thompson’s double bass and the dual clarinets complementing the piano and guitar work. Could a more delightful creature exist outside of heaven?

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 hollow 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.)

SaveSave

Love Rat

lovable rat

I first heard Sally Barker some time around 1990 when she was touring in support of her second album, This Rhythm Is Mine. Guest musicians on that album included Mary MacMaster¹ and Patsy Seddon, harpists from Scotland, who subsequently joined Sally and accordionist Karen Tweed to form the all-woman folk band The Poozies. If my memory serves me correctly the concert I attended at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Leicester, UK was billed as Sally Barker but all four of The Poozies were on stage.

I particularly remember that evening for a story told by Karen Tweed. The band had arranged to rehearse at Sally’s house out in the Leicestershire countryside, a place that Karen had never visited before. When she arrived Karen found a rambling house at the end of a long drive and surrounded by a large garden with lots of trees and bushes. She knew from the directions she had been given that this was the right place but, at first, it seemed deserted. Karen had to ring three times before anyone came to the door.

When the door opened a stranger stood there with an expression on her face that seemed to say “whoever you are, don’t bother me now”. Karen hesitantly explained who she was and why she was there and the woman at the door ushered her inside saying curtly, “Go and wait in the kitchen, we’re a bit busy right now”. Karen followed the pointing finger down the corridor and as she did so she noticed a flustered figure scurrying through the house. Some furtive words were exchanged in the next room but all Karen could make out was “we may have to call the police”.

Karen found the kitchen and waited. From time to time far off voices could be heard from the garden. They were calling out to each other and sounded worried. They were looking for something, something important or precious. No-one came to the kitchen. Karen could sense that some emergency had happened and might take some time to resolve. In the meantime she thought it best to stay out of the way and decided to make herself a cup of tea.

As Karen started to search for mugs and tea she thought she heard a scratching noise from one of the floor-level cupboards. The building was probably an old farmhouse and she imagined the kitchen might be home to mice or even rats. Nervously, Karen opened the cupboard and a little girl’s face peered up at her. “Hello”, said Karen, “what are you doing in there?”. But the girl said nothing. Karen explained that she plays the accordion and she had come for a rehearsal. “Shhsh”, whispered the girl, “they’ll hear us”.

Puzzled, Karen asked the little girl why she was whispering and if she knew what was going on – what were they looking for out in the garden? “Shhsh”, said the little girl again, “They’re looking for me!”.

Sally

It was an enjoyable concert. Sally Barker writes unusually original songs and she has a warm, distinctive, soulful voice. The other musicians were faultless – I was particularly impressed with Karen Tweed’s accordion playing. So, yes, readers, I bought the CD. Although I didn’t know it at the time guests on This Rhythm Is Mine include some of the most respected musicians on the folk circuit: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg and Danny Thompson to name but three. If that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

From 1995 to 2006 Sally Barker put the music business on hold while she had two children and then cared for her husband who became ill with cancer and died in 2003. In 2007 Sally rejoined The Poozies and in 2013 she relaunched her solo career. The following year she became a contestant on the BBC talent show, The Voice, in which she finished in joint second place. As a result, according to her website, “Sally’s album ‘Another Train’ featured in the official indie charts and ‘ebayers’ were asking in excess of £100 for 2nd hand Barker LPs and CDs!”. That’s quite a comeback.

Sally Barker’s latest album, Ghost Girl, was released earlier this year but it’s not on Spotify² so I’ve chosen her Love Rat EP from 2015 as my Album of the Month. Here’s a live version of the title track. Listen to the words.

Did a chill run up your spine at the one minute mark? No? Then perhaps you’d prefer the studio version with drums, bass, organ and slide guitar supporting Sally’s vocals. (The link above is to the full band recording on Spotify.)

In addition to the title track the EP contains three original songs (Jealous Bones, Kissing a Stranger, Heart & the Shell) and two covers (Walk On By, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood). The covers are done in typical Sally Barker style; either you like them or you don’t. For me, nobody beats the original Dionne Warwick version of Walk On By, but Sally Barker’s take is pretty good, too. I do like Heart & the Shell, though. It’s one of those songs that has all the wrong characteristics for my taste: a folksy waltz, country-tinged slide guitar, not much of a tune. And yet, Sally Barker’s voice burrows under the skin and the poetry of the words sinks deep.

On the whole Sally Barker is an acquired taste. She’s no rocker and her mix of folk with a little bit of country and a soupçon of jazz will never appeal to everyone. She has a really good voice, though, and I’ll leave you with another live video that I think illustrates her talent. Anyone who can do justice to a song made famous by Sandy Denny must have something to blog about.

Notes

  1. Mary MacMaster was also mentioned in my earlier blog about the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra, a very different sort of music.
  2. There is a video of the title track on YouTube performed live as a solo piece but I don’t know if that’s representative of the album.

Hall of Fame

museum

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio

Delving blindfold into the laundry basket of titles earmarked for Track of the Week today the hand of fate picked out Hall of Fame by The Script. Sometimes choosing a song is the difficult bit; this time it’s what to write. You see, there’s not much to say about this single except that it’s a straightforward pop/rock song with a catchy tune, a lively beat and a light seasoning of rap. So let’s just listen …

Here’s the official video:

The message, of course, is that anyone and everyone can be great if they want it enough. Dedication and hard work will, eventually, get you to the top. That’s an inspiring idea, but (spoiler alert) it’s a lie. How many names are there in the Hall of Fame? Only a few. And there are many, many more wannabes out there. The numbers don’t lie. It’s not just lack of ambition that keeps us from becoming the greatest, it’s a weakness of mind or body that no amount of blood, sweat and tears can fix.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Crotchety Man will never play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix or Segovia, nor will he ever find words as moving and poetic as Shakespeare no matter how many blog posts he writes. But we can all make our own contributions to this world and, if we keep working at it, we can almost always get better at whatever we choose to do.

Sometimes the guitarist’s fingers stumble on the frets or the writer’s well of words runs dry. That’s when a song like Hall of Fame becomes invaluable. It lifts the spirits, injects fresh energy into the limbs and provides a new impetus for living life. We may not all have a place in a Hall of Fame but there is always something worth doing. So let’s do it!

the band

The Script – Mark Sheehan, Danny O’Donoghue, Glen Power

A Few Dry Facts

  • The Script are an Irish band, formed in 2001. They are: Danny O’Donoghue (vocals, keyboards), Mark Sheehan (guitar) and Glen Power (drums).
  • Hall of Fame is a single taken from their third album, #3, released in 2012. It reached no. 1 on the pop charts in Ireland, in the UK and on the Billboard Euro Digital Songs chart in the US.
  • The latest album by The Script is No Sound Without Silence (2014).

Oh Woman, Oh Man

tryptich

Dan Rothman, Hannah Reid, Dominic Major

Inspiration comes from many places, some familiar, others less so. It lurks in bushes where it can’t be seen and it hides in plain sight among the ordinary, every day objects of our humdrum lives. We may have passed this way many times before but our blinkered eyes missed the beauty of the city park and gazed past the crowd of jostling commuters never seeing the grace in their movements or the kindness in their faces. Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, we see it and it brings joy to our hearts.

So it was on Tuesday, 2nd May as the Crotchety Couple sat watching the TV show Later… With Jools Holland. We had watched his live show many times before. It is the very definition of eclectic, featuring bands and solo artists from right across the modern music spectrum. Indeed, its span is so broad that you’d think no viewer could possibly like more than one or two of the songs in any given episode. And yet almost every performance has something to offer: a beautiful voice, perhaps, or stunning instrumental skills. That, of course, is why we and many other music fans watch it.

The set list for that early May broadcast went like this: Blondie (still making good pop/rock songs), Future Islands (distinctive indie pop from Baltimore), Mabel (Londoner singing RnB-tinged pop), Orchestra Baobab (Afro-Cuban band from Senegal), London Grammar (indie pop trio), Binker and Moses (sax and drums jazz duo). As usual every one of those acts was worth listening to but the one that crept out from behind the bushes to surprise us and, ultimately, inspired this post was London Grammar‘s. Here is their live rendition of Big Picture from their new album Truth Is A Beautiful Thing which is due for release on 9th June.

London Grammar may be new to Crotchety Man readers. They are Hannah Reid (vocals), Dan Rothman (guitar) and Dominic “Dot” Major (keyboards, drums).

Hannah and Dan met at Nottingham university in 2009; the following year Dot joined them and the band was christened “London Grammar”. After completing their university courses in 2011 the trio moved to London and started playing in local bars. It wasn’t long before they came to the attention of the record companies and by the end of 2012 they were ready to launch their careers as professional musicians. They posted their song Hey Now on YouTube in December 2012, released the EP Metal & Dust in February 2013 and followed it with their first full album, If You Wait, in September that same year. The album reached no. 2 on both the UK and Aussie album charts.

London Grammar‘s music is ethereal, melancholy, beguiling indie pop. Hannah’s voice has been accurately described as ‘brooding’, ’emotive’ and ‘folky’. Or, as one reviewer put it, “as if she honed her craft singing amidst the gardens of Lothlorien”. Dan’s guitar and Dot’s keyboards & drums build a foundation of understated electronic sounds that both complement Hannah’s voice and add subtle decorative features in a way that only modern electronic instruments can. To see what I mean listen to my Track of the Week, Oh Woman, Oh Man, another song from Truth Is A Beautiful Thing.

For those of you in the UK the episode of Jools’ TV programme featuring London Grammar is available on the BBC’s iPlayer service for another 18 days. You might like to root around in it for your own inspiration. And if your good lady steals the remote and switches over to the Eurovision Song Contest I’ll forgive you for an exasperated, “Oh Woman! Oh, Man!”.