Monday, September 29, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (II)

Let's Have Another One! (at 'The Queen Victoria'): a typical sing-song at a London local (BBC Radio Enterprises)
Don't be a Billy no mates; ditch 'er indoors, grab your weasel and stoat, and leg it down the boozer for a right old knees-up! There are a number of reasons why you could buy this LP (an on-the-spot recording of the clientele (or denizens, depending on your opinion) of a Sarf London tavern belting out standard London pub tunes, which vary from the well-known to the very obscure) which I have listed below (and one wonders which applies to Noel Dunne, 6 Pearse Square, Dublin 2, who bought this record in 1972, or so the back cover informs me?).
1) You are a social or cultural historian fascinated by the vernacular music of London in the middle of the last century. Or you are a filmmaker or author creating a gritty narrative of depression and hardship in 1960s Bermondsey, and want to get the ambience exactly right.
2) You're an experimental composer who makes extensive use of samples, and you could use some of the songs recorded here in a composition (a soundscape, even) combining traditional singsong with electronic shrieks and gurgles, thus making a serious and profound statement about the disappearance of such community-based local activities under the blaring white noise of global consumerism (or something...)
3) You are a member of the Billy Burnham, or Harry Hudson, fan club (both of whom feature prominently here). In fairness, the sleeve does mention that Harry Hudson and his Melody Men made 'hundreds of gramophone records'. I imagine that you'd spent a lengthy and unprofitable time searching for them today, though... (not that I've tried, I hasten to add.)
4) Songs like 'Lily of Laguna', 'Down by the Old Bull and Bush', and 'I'm a Bermondsey Girl' really mean something to you. Or you used to drink in the Queen Victoria in the sixties. Or you enjoy unspeakable versions of 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling'.
5) You have two turntables and a copy of The Sound of Airplanes at War, which includes actual recordings of the bombing of London in the Blitz. At midnight you can light a gas lamp, pop open a bottle of Spitfire, put on both records, and pretend you're a time traveller who's at a singsong in an air-raid shelter.
6) You wish to use it as a burglar alarm. When out of your house, put this record on quite loud, and passing burglars with think that a crowd of well 'ard Cockney geezers are within, having a party. They will therefore tiptoe quietly by rather than risk being beaten to death with lengths of pickled eel. Of course, if the record skips it could cause suspicion, as the supposed partygoers repeat "doing the Lambeth [click!] ... doing the Lambeth [click!] ... doing the Lambeth [click!] ... doing the Lambeth [click!] ... doing the Lambeth [click!] ... doing the Lambeth [click!] ... " ad nauseum.
7) You anticipate that at some point in your life you will be held hostage by a aging London gangster who escaped from Wormwood Scrubs by punching though a steel door with his fists of Cockney fury and is on the run in Ireland. But, as Savage Ron is about to duct-tape you and yours to a chair, you put on this record, and his battered, brutish face softens. A single tear hovers in the corner of his murderous eye as he is transported back to his childhood, to when his dear old mum would kick him down the stairs while singing 'Knees Up, Mother Brown'. Didn't I have my first pint of real ale to this song when I was a nipper, he'll cry! This one reminds me of when me and Reggie the Bastard fed Bert Egg (we called him Pickled Egg! Har har har!) through his own mincing machine for not paying us sixpence in protection, he'll chortle! He may continue in this vein for many hours, listening to the LP over and over, then steal your car but leave you and yours unharmed. Whether this is preferable to him killing you is a moot point. Keep pickled onions and bottles of London Pride handy.
8) Like me, you found the cover irresistible. The damage to the image above can be explained by the fact that, while I was listening to the LP, its cover was carried out into the garden by my dog and torn into several large chunks in a fit of anti-singsong fervour. Thankfully I rescued it from his jaws before absolute destruction was visited upon it; I hope it wasn't valuable, as an eBay description of "vinyl in very good condition; sleeve with large rips, sections missing, and canine teethmarks" won't increase my chances of flogging it for a fortune if it's rare. It shows a middle-aged gentleman with a bowler hat obviously entering into the spirit of the event with gusto, with mouth wide open and eyes closed. This has the unfortunate effect of making it seem as if someone's just skewered his kidneys with a knitting needle, or that an alien (no doubt from a dubious meat pie) is about to erupt forth from his distended gut and slaughter the pub's customers. Perhaps he's having a heart attack brought on by an overdose of gin and physical contact with his dancing partner, or by the fact that he's wearing an overcoat in a crowded pub while singing and dancing. I'm also amused by the chap with the cigarette in the background who's eyeing up the cameraman, as if for two guineas he'll come charging over and batter him senseless, while his mate says "leave it out, 'Arry, 'e's not worth it!"
9) You collect all BBC LPs, regardless of content, for reasons known only to yourself.
You may ask, at this point, why I bought it. Curiosity, primarily; aligned with the fact that I found the cover amusing, I used to live in a flat that had similar wallpaper as depicted in the background of the bar, and it was only 50c. I imagine that the kind of entertainment it captures, which had extensive Music Hall antecedents, has, for better or for worse, largely disappeared from the pub scene that kept it alive, and for that reason alone it's worth having. I hope any Londoners will forgive the blatant stereotyping above; I lived in the East End of London for a while myself and do love the place, for all its faults.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Worth Seeking (I)

Iannis Xenakis may have been the finest electronic composer of the twentieth century, and the following is an astonishing, unsettling, and beautiful piece of work. It's also the sort of thing that will never, ever get played on Lyric FM at lunchtime! So grab that ol' volume knob, turn it up to 11 (especially if you're in a shared office and intensely dislike your co-workers), and enjoy.

This Week's Blinding Thought (I)

The following is an excerpt taken from William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy, published in 1821. The book is a guide to sensible and industrious rural living for “the Labouring Classes of the Kingdom”, and contains information on brewing your own beer, baking bread, and raising livestock. Some of it is quite interesting, especially as we face in very uncertain times; we could all need to be producing our own food soon enough! It also includes some amusing diatribes about things the author disapproves of, such as tea, potatoes, and the Irish. The following are extracts from his opinions on tea, and I’ll post more if the mood takes me. After waxing lyrical about the positive qualities of beer, he states (the italics are the author’s):
The drink which has come to supply the place of beer has, in general, been tea. It is notorious that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves. It is, in fact, a weaker kind of laudanum, which enlivens for the moment and deadens afterwards. At any rate it communicates no strength to the body; it does not in any degree assist in affording what labour demands. It is, then, of no use
I view the tea drinking as a destroyer of health, an enfeebler of the frame, an engenderer of effeminacy and laziness, a debaucher of youth, and a maker of misery in old age … It deducts from the means of replenishing the belly and covering the back. Hence succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking of the fire-side, a lurking in the bed, and, in short, all the characteristics of idleness, for which, in this case, real want of strength furnishes an apology. The tea-drinking fills the public house, makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does no less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the tea-table is no bad preparatory school for the brothel … The girl that has been brought up merely to boil the tea-kettle, and to assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to fix his affections upon her.
You know, I think he was brewing up a mug of rich, steaming truth right there. And here in 2008, 187 years later, we can see how his urgent warning really made a difference.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town"! (I)

There's a scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan where his character makes a list based on things that make life worth living, which, as I recall, includes Louis Armstrong's Potato Head Blues; Groucho Marx; Frank Sinatra; a still life by Cézanne; Marlon Brando; and Tracy's face (Tracy being the young student he's dating, something that seems a lot more unsettling now then when the film first emerged). Or, alernatively, there's a scene in The Simpsons where Homer hears a song by waitress Lurleen Lumpkin and blurts out the title of this post. As a person living in Ireland who's spends a lot of his time feeling isolated and depressed, living and working in a place where there's not a single person with whom I can share my love of art and the eccentric, and who never want to discuss anything except television, gossip, and sportsportsportsportsport every bloody minute of the day, it becomes absolutely imperative to remember that there are inspiring, beautiful, life-affirming things out there, things that bring a smile to my face when I hear them. I'd like to share with you some of those which have meant something to me, if I may.
First up is a relatively recent discovery: the strange and wonderful piano music of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, a turn-of-the-(last)-century Russian composer who was of a mystical bent (he believed the Apocalypse was imminent, and that his final piece, Mysterium, would bring it about; perhaps thankfully, it was never completed). He claimed to be synaesthetic and may have been crazy, but was also a genius whose work is somewhat overlooked today. (In addition, he possessed a truly awesome moustache and has an asteroid named after him, Asteroid 6549 Skryabin.) The following is one of his final pieces, played by the great Vladimir Horowitz.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (I)

Memories of Steam (A Collection of Steam Locomotive Stereophonic Recordings, recorded and compiled by Kenneth Granville Attwood) (Hallmark, 1970)
I must admit that when I purchased this LP for 50p in a flea market in Leeds (least romantic of cities!), it was definitely in the spirit of contemptuous curiosity towards this strange novelty. I chortled to myself: "What kind of acne-splattered, anorak-shrouded, thick-rimmed-spectacle-wearing obsessive trainspotter would fork out money for an entire record of steam engine noises?" My amusement was heightened by the snoringly detailed liner notes, which act as a stage-by-stage guide to the sounds heard on each of the 19 tracks ("Shortly after leaving, 70013 develops a leaky cylinder gland... with steam bursting out of the open cylinder drain valves, [the train] heads towards the points adjacent to the engineman's bothy... 44709 passes with a squeaking noise from the valve motion..." and so forth). I brought it back with me when I returned to Dublin and promptly forgot about it entirely, neglecting to play it even once. Only comparatively recently, when I was in the process of shifting my records out of the barely-believable chaos of my attic, did I come upon it again and, in a fit of joie de vivre, hurled it onto the turntable and actually listened to it from start to finish. And I'm delighted to say that it's bloody brilliant, and anyone with the slightest enthusiasm for contemporary composition, electronica, sound art, or (of course) trains, will definitely get a kick out of it.
Firstly, I suppose I should apologise to the imaginary trainspotter whom I so cruelly maligned above. Whilst it is certainly true that the hobby does attract a rather strange, geeky, and fixated class of person, I can genuinely understand why someone would fall in love with these remarkable machines. There is something wonderfully evocative about the sound of a steam engine as it trundles along, redolent with tradition and possibility, and it must be a glorious (if leisurely) way to traverse the countryside on a fine day. And many of those who sneer at trainspotters are the sort who'd waste a whole afternoon in a pub swilling lager and gassing on interminably, for hours, about football or golf, without realising they're indulging in the same nitpicking and obsessive behaviour, just on a different subject.
Personally, I've always loved the experience of travelling by train, especially through a dense and grimy metropolis (ah, the trains in London! Pulling into St. Pancra's after passing the huge gas towers and crumbling brick buildings! The wonderful sounds of the tube train as you travel out to the East End! The not-quite-so-wonderful odours and inexplicable stains on the seats! That fabulous moment as the train leaves the bowels of the city and goes overground! [Continues droning on like this for several minutes...]) But even for someone who hasn't the slightest affinity for the locomotive and its evocative quality, these pieces are still fascinating. They are like miniature compositions - sound paintings (if you like) - utilising a whole array of dissonant sounds which are echoed in a lot of contemporary experimental music and should have an immediate appeal to anyone who, like me, has a deep and abiding passion for seriously horrible noise. The thumping, insistent piston rhythms as the trains gather speed would certainly strike a chord with any fan of the odder reaches of dance music and electronica (I'm thinking of Autechre or Squarepusher in particular) but can equally be seen as an inspiration, in part, for the machine-like beats of music like funk and techno, which came out of a heavily urbanised and mechanised environment. The metallic clonks, groans, scrapes, and shrieks, often startling abstract and grating, as the trains pull into stations (their leaky cylinder glands protesting!) are not a million miles from the musical landscapes created by such giants as Karlheinz Stockhausen (check out Mikrophone I to see what I mean). And one can easily imagine free jazz and Improv titans like Evan Parker or Anthony Braxton pitting their saxes against these sounds to create a stormy, bracing, and exhilarating noise (in fact, it seems right up Braxton's alley, considering some of his more unusual projects; Composition 500 for contrabass clarinet and steam engine, anyone? It would sound awesome!) Credit must go to KG Attwood here, whose choice of tracks seems to betray an aesthetic as well as a scientific intent; if one listens to them simply as abstract sounds they come across as Cageian "compositions" of remarkable, if unintentional, charm and intelligence. (By contrast, I have a different LP of train sounds recorded in the 1940s which is much more pedestrian and dreary, and demonstrates the discernment shown here.) I can't imagine ever buying another LP like this - two is quite enough! - but I can picture myself dusting it off every now and again and listening with genuine pleasure. It's certainly more stimulating, and the sounds more agreeable to my ear, than, say, pompous buffoons like U2, and definitely worth 50p!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Trinity of Inconveniences

[This was written sometime over the last winter, when the events therein (only slightly fictionalised) actually happened. Having a fondness towards it, I decided to use this little vignette to launch my tiny paper boat of a blog out into the choppy, turbulent ocean of the internet. "God speed, little doodle..." as Ned Flanders once said.]
As I lie here in bed vilely hungover, my body swathed in a tangle of duvets and maintained at a comfortable temperature by an electric blanket, with only my head (the sole part of my purulent anatomy above the covers) prey to the biting chill that infects my house, I’m musing on the way that setbacks, like stooges and Christian gods, seem to have a fondness for the number three, as I was visited last week by a tiresome and entirely unwanted Trinity of Inconveniences.
The first of these was the reason for the appalling cold permeating my abode, rendering it vital for the continuation of good health to wear a thick jacket and woolly hat indoors, and is down to the eccentric nature of my heating system. A black, toad-like stove squats in the fireplace of my living room; stuffed with turf, coal, paper, sticks, and whatever else can be jammed through its grate, it produces a Satanic Mill’s worth of incandescent heat which, in addition to heating my scrawny, deckchair frame, is distributed by a tangle of copper pipes to the most remote radiator in the house, thus providing universal well-being and toastiness. But, I hear you cry: surely the immense heat will, if unchecked, cause your pipes to explode, threatening the integrity of both house and human? You may have visions of me, smouldering, stunned, and with a copper pipe driven through my head, being dragged from the flaming wreckage of my house by my faithful Hound and falling to my knees on the wet grass, screaming “Nooooo!” at the unfeeling stars! This is where the circulating pump makes its appearance. This noble device, fitted to the pipes, monitors their temperature and, when the critical level is approached, sluices cooling water through the whole system, thereby averting disaster! Hurrah!
Unfortunately for me, however, this integral component had burned out. And not only that, but there appeared to be a blockage somewhere in the labyrinth of pipes, and a Handyman was required. So, through the intermediary of the Ear Trumpet, one was called. Two days later he arrived, examined the offending parts, muttered something about a New Part, ten minutes’ work, it’ll be grand, and then disappeared, both out the front door and, although I wasn’t to know it at the time, out of my life. This latter fact only became apparent as repeated phone calls determined that he was definitely coming out on Tuesday, then Thursday, then first thing Saturday, bit of a backlog, you know, then he was ill, then he’d been abducted by aliens who brought him to the mind-shattering central chaos at the heart of the universe masked by the name Azathoth, then he’d been out digging a hole in his garden and plummeted through the Earth’s crust into a night-black cavern where vast, slimy beasts fought the dreadful spider-people across the millennia, but once he’d found the Red Jewel of Sgdhki’fgh and brought peace to the Underworld, he’d be right out to fix my pump. Meanwhile, I was left sitting in my kitchen warming my hands on the grill of the oven, freezing, bereft of energy and laughter, and wishing that I still drank so I could dissolve my ennui in a gallon of cask-strength single malt whiskey.
It was at this point that the second of my Trinity of Inconveniences came a-knockin’ on my back door. As I was stomping around my glacially chilled house cursing the worthless Handyman who’d abandoned me to my fate, I decided that the only way to improve my spirits, in lieu of actual, bottled spirits, was to get upon the internet and ejaculate my boiling rage out into cyberspace. Yea, for online ranting will solve all ills! That’s when I discovered that my computer, gateway (or prophylactic, depending on your perspective) to the rest of the world, had developed some weird hard-drive lurgy and was defiantly refusing to turn on. No amount of pressing buttons, fiddling with tangles of cables, or shouting improbable obscenities could summon forth even a flicker of computer life. After many minutes of this, I was reduced to maudlin pleading, like a heroin addict begging for a fix, but the curséd thing just sat there like a plastic turnip. The tears were freezing solid on my pockmarked cheeks as I digested this second setback: no heat, and now no blogging (or podcasts, shopping, facsimiles of the Utrecht Psalter, or the myriad of other services which makes the internet a sanity sustainer out here in the depths of rural Ireland).
There was only one thing for it, one course of action compatible with honour. I savagely wiped the tears from my eyes, strode purposely into the kitchen and grabbed my car keys, put on my drinking hat (a stove-pipe affair set at a jaunty angle) and my curry-eating trousers (a multi-coloured hippie-ish garment chosen because even the most virulent turmeric stain is invisible on its polychromatic surface), then headed out to my velocipede with one thing on my mind: motor to the nearest town, find a cheap curry house with a liquor license, and spend the evening getting totally bladdered while stuffing my béal with spicy food. With luck, the resulting internal warmth, combined with alcoholic numbness, would tide me over until heat and technology were restored to my horrible hovel. Having an alcohol problem means that I rarely drink, but it was, after all, a crisis.
At this point, seated in my car and dreaming about that first piquant bite, I met the third malignant performer in the little Trinity of Inconveniences that had chosen to descend on me. My car, when started, was producing a whirring, grinding noise deep within its bowels, similar to someone dragging an iron bar along a set of metal railings. I rang a mechanic of my acquaintance, describing to him this problem, and he chortled and said those most dreaded of words: “Well, it doesn’t sound good…” I was ordered not to drive anywhere until he’d had a thorough look at it, so I hung up, leaving him rubbing his hands together and chuckling at his imminent acquisition of the few remaining coins in my dusty and pitiful savings account. I stamped back into the house, dragged out an ancient bottle of gin from the back of my press (hurling anything in the way over my shoulder in a frenzy), and then, without tonic, lemon, or any of the accoutrements of civilized drinking, I got completely slaughtered, slugging the foul liquid from a pint glass while watching Lucio Fulci zombie movies (the uncut versions) and simultaneously listening to earsplitting noise music on the stereo. Sometimes it’s the only way to cope.