Wednesday, 20 November 2013

the electric muse

I dreaded walking where there was no path
And pressed with cautious tread the meadow swath
And always turned to look with wary eye
And always feared the owner coming by;
Yet everything about where I had gone
Appeared so beautiful I ventured on
And when I gained the road where all are free
I fancied every stranger frowned at me
And every kinder look appeared to say
"You've been on trespass in your walk today."
I've often thought, the day appeared so fine,
How beautiful if such a place were mine;
But, having naught, I never feel alone
And cannot use another's as my own.

I can't quite remember when, but some time earlier in the week a thought came and lingered. Maybe it was because of a piece of music - it often is. I think, perhaps, that it was A Lincolnshire Posy, the Percy Grainger suite arranged and played by the Home Service on their Alright Jack album. Maybe it's the centenary celebrations for Benjamin Britten that fills our local papers.

Having done my teenage service in the early 1970s, I discovered music that really moved me and meant something to me somewhere around the 1969/70 meridian. The standing joke at school was that I was obsessed with the band Genesis, not long out of the cloistered realm of Charterhouse School themselves. And, truth to tell, I was. I'm not sure why - can any of us know why we become obsessed with any particular thing? Especially music. But there it was.

Somewhere around the tender age of some fifteen summers I went to see them in their early days - this was just after the release of Trespass but they had already brought in Steve Hackett and Phil Collins - at the New Resurrection Club in Hitchin. This was a weekly gig above a sewing shop a bus ride away from my home. It was cheap and cheerful but provided me with some wonderful memories. I could also get served at the bar and actually drink beer - this may have had something to do with my happy memories of the place, of course! But, what, I wondered (back in paragraph one) was it that lead me to my love of folk music? Was it something to do with the sounds I was hearing? Was it the mixture of acoustic and electric instruments that somehow fused rock music and the more pastoral atmosphere that 12 string guitars and flutes added to that overall mix?

For a while, the strange storytelling of Peter Gabriel, both lyrically and in between songs, held me spellbound and I saw the band many times live. After all, the 50p circuit allowed us access to many original bands - many of who became famous later. When Gabriel left the band my interest in them waned. Somehow my musical interests that had been awakened and had lead me to watch many "Progressive" Rock bands - and, of course, collect their albums - began to wane too. By now, of course, I was in my later teens and had been ignominiously asked to leave my alma mater. Whilst my interests in Prog bands dissipated somewhat, new music began to hold my interest.

I have no qualms about admitting that at this time in my life - 1973 - albums such as Tubular Bells held my interest. I know, I know, but we lived in much more impoverished times. But what really excited me was the discovery of The History of Fairport Convention. This was an album that looked fabulous - it seemed sepia and had a Pete Frame family tree for its cover! - and suddenly lit up my life more than anything since Trespass. Given that there were so few albums released compared to today, we tended to, in those days buy what we could afford when we could afford them. At the back of my pile of albums was a strange double lp that had been released by Island Records as a composite sampler of their acts. It held a strange charm over me. I thought that it was a some sort of message from another planet, to be honest. However, suddenly I realised that at least one of the songs on The History of Fairport Convention reminded me of Bumpers, the Island sampler. And there it was*. The discovery of the FC album allowed me into yet another whole new world, but not only that, the wonderful songs that had haunted me like arcane messages from elsewhere suddenly became more available - Nick Drake, Sandy Denny (via Fotheringay - ah! The Sea), Traffic et al. Acoustic/electric music that spoke to me in hushed whispers and drew me in to other worlds.

Now, when I listen to Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock or say, the Grainger suite by the Home Service I can be easily transported back to those times. More innocent times, of course. But still, I wondered, what was it that drew me towards such sounds rather than the more obvious stuff that many of my contemporaries were drawn to?

Whilst the atmospheric sounds of acoustic 12 string guitars laying down a background for melodic overdriven guitars and the rise and fall of mellotrons and the woodier timbres of the cellos and violas mixed in with the irresistable pull of acoustic six-string guitars humming and buzzing somehow drew me in; something else was there. Ah! It was the story. Peter Gabriel's eccentric ramblings and quasi-Classical allusions (pretentious, I'm aware - it was the early 70s) gave way to the timeless stories of the old ways that folk song offered. By now I had read Thomas Hardy amongst all the Penguin Classics and felt drawn to the disappearing world that he, Lawrence and Flora Thompson spoke about.

Now as I hold my beautiful Fylde acoustic guitar or strum disconsolately my Fender Stratocaster and attempt to recall the glory days of youth when I could jot down wondrous stories with a semblance of a tune, I am reminded of how words, sounds and atmosphere excited me and made me want to create something of my own. I know there are some youngsters out there that are discovering wonderful music and stories that will drive them on. I'm sure they're out there.

Over the last few days I have been forced into a situation where I very much doubt that the sort of kids that are put in front of me have any such interests and seem unlikely to discover the worlds that require an effort to explore beyond quick flicking of their thumbs. I'm not finding it in their books or any dialogues I have with them. I sincerely hope that this is confined to the far eastern reaches of East Anglia and that some of these kids will discover that there are worlds out there to be discovered that don't demand digital equipment to conjure them - a song, poem, story or the sound of a few instruments will hopefully stir a few of them up.

Without even that, they're lost.  Some of the most enduring creations have come from simple tools - paper, pen, pencil etc. Maybe an acoustic guitar or squeezebox. As we face an uncertain future - one where even having access to regular electricity could become a class issue, then hopes, fears and storytelling are needed more than ever. The games industry isn't creating anything like what's needed.

In Mali, the desert blues of bands such as Tinariwen and Tamikrest developed out of adversity - a story for another day - but it will be a shame if it takes that amount of hardship to create a new era of storytelling that doesn't rely on thousands of pounds worth of computer development and a ready-created so-called "reality" to allow some begrudged suggestion of a possible storyline. The books I'm marking currently aren't really making me feel too optimistic at the moment.

* Walk Awhile by Fairport, if you must ask.


Andy Wright said...

Well said Dave. Despite occasional forays in to music recorded by Genesis,VDGG and Audience (to name but a few) these days my preferred listening almost always includes FC,Steve Ashley et al.(That and a little Gregorian Chant,when the mood takes me). Sadly you paint a rather depressing picture of the future......but I do understand why.

Dave Leeke said...

Hi Andy,

I guess it's the time of year: Autumn tends to make me melancholy.

The truth is, posts like these never quite go the way you think they will - the original post was going to explore more the love of pastoral music in a much more succinct and erudite manner! I think that as a "writer" I still tend to bend with the wind. Great for trees, not so good for commentators!