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?

Raise High …

roof beam

I have a hard time finding a genre for Black Peaches, a band formed in 2014 by Rob Smoughton, the drummer with Hot Chip and Scritti Politti. On the band’s Facebook page they describe their music as Southern Boogie, Country-Soul, Disco-Rock and Jazz. That’s a combination the Crotchety Mind just can’t grok. To make things worse for the overheating grey cell circuits, in Black Peaches Smoughton doesn’t take the drummer’s seat at the back, he plays the role of guitarist and frontman.

On this occasion Wikipedia has been unable to supply the Medicinal Compound of moderately reliable information that the brain craves. There are no pages for Black Peaches, Rob Smoughton or Smoughton’s disco drummer alter ego, Grosvenor. Poor old Crotchety Man floundered around in cyberspace for a mind-numbingly long time until a  voice from a galaxy far, far away whispered in his ear, “use the source, Luke”.

She wasn’t speaking to me, of course, and I probably mis-heard the words but suddenly my course was clear. If Google can’t find it it’s not out there. I should stop hunting for verbal descriptions and go back to the primary source, the music. So, without further ado, here is the last track on their 2016 album, Get Down You Dirty Rascals. It’s called Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters¹. I’ll leave you to choose a genre.

“Raise high the roof beam, carpenters” is a quote from a fragment of verse by the ancient Greek poet, Sappho, and was used as the title of a J. D. Salinger novella. Whether the song was inspired by Sappho’s poetry or Salinger’s prose is unclear. Both the poet and the novelist write about a bridegroom, in Sappho’s account one who is “taller far than a tall man”. Presumably that is why the roof beams must be raised so high. But the song tells of a woman accused of witchcraft, bringing to mind the notorious Salem witch trials in Massachusetts at the end of the 17th century. I don’t remember a tall bridegroom in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the witch trials, but the songwriter may have had another connection in mind.

The Crucible was allegorical. It was intended as a warning about rampant McCarthyism in 1950s America. Perhaps the Black Peaches song is a comment on the modern world, too. The people of Salem were rent asunder by trumped up charges of devil worship and witchcraft. Is today’s world being torn apart by false accusations and religious fundamentalism? Do we believe the media are peddling “fake news” and the U.S. has been treated unfairly by the rest of the world or are these Trumped-up charges? Is this what Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters is trying to say?

the band

Black Peaches

Endnote

  1. YouTube carries a video of Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters, but it’s blocked in the UK. Here’s the link if you want to try it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jza_ufKRJbQ&index=5&list=PL3bIl3kHP7C2EOXmBAxkfmtvMy0Nt_iag.

Tea Time

mint tea

There are some funny names out there. In my Release Radar playlist this week there was a single called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 11.46.22 by a band called Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 10.41.48. I did listen to it and it’s OK but not up to Crotchety blogging standard. (For the incurably curious it’s on Spotify here.)

Curiosity then seized the helm of the mental ship and took me on a quest for a translation of those names or some snippet of information about the track or the band. But the mission foundered. I haven’t even been able to identify the script. It resembles the cursive writings from the Indian subcontinent (the electronic oracle suggests Tamil) but some of those symbols look suspiciously like glyphs that only electronic brains would recognise. And it’s not Tamil – I checked.

Fearing that mistress Curiosity was taking us to the sea of Shameless Publicity Stunt I wrested the wheel from her and set a course back to our home port. I could see we had ventured far into strange waters and the long voyage had made many of the crew weary. Then, just a few nautical miles homeward, another place to delight the flighty fancy of Miss Curiosity showed up on the radar screen. A thin band of land the inhabitants called FORQ and a sheltered bay named Thrēq offered the prospect of rest, recuperation and fresh supplies.

I remembered that another crew had encountered the natives of FORQ on an earlier expedition and by all accounts they were a friendly people. As we dropped the anchor in the calm water of the bay the late afternoon sun warmed our backs and as we lowered the dinghies to go ashore we could see about a dozen natives moving leisurely to and fro along the beach.

When we pulled the boats onto the sand the FORQers greeted us with warm smiles and beckoned us to join them. “Come”, said the chief, “It’s Tea Time and we have enough scones, jam, cream and delicious China tea for everyone”. “Of course, if you prefer Indian tea”, said the native girl coyly smoothing her pretty white waitress’s apron, “we have that, too”.

As we chatted over our tea and scones Big Chief Boiling Water told me that the country they ruled had allowed its name to be used by a four-piece band from New York City. The band was formed by Henry Hey (keyboards) and Michael League (bass guitar), subsequently adding Chris McQueen (guitars) and Jason “JT” Thomas (drums). All four have played with some fairly big names in the past: Hey with David Bowie, League and McQueen with Snarky Puppy and JT with D’Angelo. That’s an unlikely mix of influences resulting in one of those fuzzy, hard-to-define areas in the patchwork quilt of musical styles somewhere to the east of jazz fusion but not that far from soul and R&B. FORQ themselves describe their music as jazz/groove.

Our waitress turned out to be the chief’s eldest daughter, Sweet Sugar Lump, and she informed us that FORQ‘s latest album takes its title from the bay where the ship’s crew were enjoying the hospitality provided by the local inhabitants. One of the tracks on that album even celebrates the traditional pastime of taking afternoon tea under the shade of the beach umbrellas. It’s a relaxing holiday groove that brings to mind the genteel gatherings in nineteenth century English country gardens when polite conversation rarely strayed beyond the topics of the weather, the roses or the antics of Mrs. Slocum’s pussycat. It was a time of tranquility and innocence, when an unintended double entendre might be erased with a hasty, “More tea, vicar?”.

Sitting there in the glow of the sun a cup of Jasmine tea had the invigorating effect of an exotic cocktail. Or perhaps it was the musical accompaniment that soothed the brow and restored our vigour. Or was there something in the water? Whatever it was the ship’s crew slept soundly on the soft sand that night.

the band

FORQ – June 2015

In the morning the beach was deserted. The tables and chairs, the umbrellas and all the paraphernalia of the previous day’s tea party were gone. There was not so much as a footprint in the sand to show that yesterday’s festivities had been more than mere illusion. But real it must have been. Because everything we had of value had also vanished. Our plundering hosts had even taken our boats. No wonder that accursed tribe are called the FORQers.

Footnotes

  1. FORQ‘s third album, Thrēq, was released on 4th August 2017.
  2. The band has just finished a tour of North America. A European tour is scheduled to start in the autumn; the only confirmed date so far is Dublin, 17th October 2017.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain)

umbrella

It’s been a typical British summer this year. Anchored in the Atlantic Ocean just off the western edge of mainland Europe these islands get weather that is politely called ‘changeable’. In Ireland they have a saying: if you can see the hills, rain is coming; if not … it’s raining already.

A little farther east, in England, we tend to be plagued with showers. No matter how bright and sunny it is when you wake up in the morning by the time you’ve got dressed, had breakfast and stepped outside your front door the clouds are gathering. And if you are fool enough to pack a picnic and drive out into the countryside you can be sure the heavens will open just as you take the first bite of Mama’s delicious home-baked pork pie. Nothing dampens the spirits quite like eating soggy pastry and limp lettuce in the back seat of the car while peering through rain-spattered, steamed up windows, believe me.

Of course, to experience the full horror of the British weather you need to go camping. Just booking for a three-day music festival puts cloudy skies in the calendar and packing the tent guarantees a downpour on day one. The Glastonbury festival is renowned for muddy fields, but the show does (usually) go on¹. The recent Y Not festival, however, was curtailed for safety reasons because of what the organisers termed “exceptionally bad weather” – as if heavy rain is unusual in that part of the country².

While Crotchety Man waits for the increasingly rare warm, dry summer day he is reminded that Turin Brakes found the answer to inclement weather back in 2003.

Take the pain killer, cycle on your bicycle, leave all this misery behind.

Quite how they thought getting on a bike would let you outrun the storm clouds I’m not sure but at least a large dose of analgesic pills would counteract the ache in the legs as you struggle up those endless English hills.

Pain Killer (Summer Rain) was a single from Turin Brakes‘ 2003 album Ether Song. The single reached number 5 on the UK chart and the album was certified gold four days after its release.

band

Turin Brakes – Olly, Gale, Rob, Eddie

Turin Brakes was founded in 1999 by two guitarists whose names have quintessential English connotations. Oliver (Olly) Knights’ name takes us into the world of Arthur King of Camelot, Merlin the wizard, and a band of noble swordsmen pledged to fight for the king³. His partner in song has Iranian/Armenian ancestry, which accounts for the very un-English surname of Paridjanian, but his first name is perfect for a music festival in the green and pleasant lands of England: it is (hang on to your hats) Gale.

These days Turin Brakes has four members: in addition to Olly and Gale there’s Rob Allum (drums) and Eddie Myer (bass). They play a kind of folk/rock/indie blend that falls easy on the ear. It’s not the most exciting of sounds but it’s pleasant enough to engage casual listeners right across the popular music spectrum. Try it. Take the pain killer they offer and enjoy the summer. And, remember, you can go dri-cycling even in the rain.

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Notes

  1. As far as I know Glastonbury has never been cancelled because of rain. It does have fallow years, though, when no festival is organised.
  2. It isn’t.
  3. What’s the collective noun for a group of knights? A round? A table? A Keira?

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.