Sunday, 31 January 2016

which side are you on?

All them cowboys are old men
Longing for a mission once again
Gambling everything, boys we were fearless
Well we had the right stuff then

A regular early Friday evening will find me in my local, the Fludyer Arms* with my friend John mulling over the state of the World. Usually we talk about music. A fairly lengthy and animated discussion last Friday evening was about double albums and were they actually necessary? In truth, no they weren't really and were mainly useful as live albums. Still, the discussion reminded me of something I've been thinking about quite a lot recently.

The other week when Bowie died I wrote about what his early 1970s albums meant to me. During the process of writing that piece it occurred to me that we have lost, in part, the art of sequencing the two sides of albums. The point came up again during our discussion last week. Now, don't get me wrong, I know that it's important to sequence modern albums too especially the opening track. A good example is the new Show of Hands album where the song Breme Fell At Hastings features Historian Michael Wood speaking in Saxon and quite a stunning opening to a (great) album.

Anyway, it is also important to have a great last track to leave your audience with some emotional attachment to the experience. But back in the days when cds appeared and the record company executives rubbed their hands with glee at the thought of selling our record collections back to us this art of sequencing began to break down to a certain extent. When those greedy bastards same chaps realised by adding extras such as demos and live versions - and tracks that shouldn't have been released - things changed. There was also a lot of crap filler on albums that now lasted 70 minutes - hence why the discussion with John brought me back to this point. Vinyl records were at their best at about 14 minutes a side, hence Lowell George going to great pains to ensure that Little Feat albums only lasted exactly that amount of time. I mean I love Richard Thompson dearly but Psycho Street? Not his finest hour.

The power of the experience of listening to David Bowie's Hunky Dory is certainly diminished a little now when instead of the record ending with the strange chanting and madness of The Bewlay Brothers, the previously unreleased Bombers (surely an inferior song not deemed worthy of releasing nearly twenty years) bursts in. There are then another three demos and "alternative versions".

Let's look at that particular album as an example. The album opens with Changes - not only a great song but a truly great opening statement after the heavy metal of The Man Who Sold The World. Side one ends with Quicksand. Back when I were a lad, you then had to get up and turn the album over to listen to side two. Now, Biff Rose's Fill Your Heart isn't the best track on the album but at the time DB was still happy to record covers (something he did to excess on the rather woeful Pin-Ups album). It also set the tone for the second side which was mostly playful: a homage to Lou Reed, a rant at Dylan and a tribute to Andy Warhol. Then came the sheer weirdness of the aforementioned Bewlay Brothers which explored Bowie's fears about the insanity that haunted his mother's side of the family. His insane half-brother Terry was an important mentor in the nascent star's development. The nightmare world created by that track would stay with you for ages after listening to the whole album.

The world moved on and cds begat mp3s and the total fragmentation of the listening process. Many a slightly stoned listener had to drag themselves up out of their stupor to turn Dark Side Of The Moon over halfway whilst hoping someone would invent cds. I remember coming home very tired after a day at the factory in the late seventies and putting the second side of John Martyn's One World on and leaving the arm on the record up so it played continually (great live version of the final track Small Hours here). A great soporific track that aided my rest and helped me drift about in my head happily before the pub opened. Anyway, this fragmentation has meant that many people never listen to whole albums any more or only buy the tracks that they like. As I've always said, wouldn't it be great if you could buy a copy of CSNY's Deja Vu without the execrably twee Our House on? Time has not dimmed my view but at least I can create a playlist of the album without it on!

Many albums from the sixties and seventies were so well sequenced that listening on shuffle seems to be a crime. Steely Dan's wonderful Can't Buy A Thrill is a perfect example. The album kicks off with Do It Again - so good Michael Jackson plagiarized it - and the first side ends with (my all time favourite SD song) the wonderful latin rhythm of Only A Fool Would Say That. And when you turned the album over Reelin' In The Years burst out and had you dancing around your room. The last track is the rhapsodic Turn That Heartbeat Over Again and in between these two sides of sheer class you also got Dirty Work amongst other glories. Even Mike Oldfield had to work out how to start and end two sides of Tubular Bells which was obviously an album waiting for cds to be invented. I'm sure we can all name favourite albums and probably with some classic even remember the running orders.

I've tended to steer away here from concept albums and prog in particular. Four sides of ying-tong song twaddle from Yes? No thank you. However, the whole point here was to remind ourselves of that fine art of deciding the running order of what was essentially 30 minutes of fun. I've just looked at a couple of recent albums and I'm sure there's a lot of thought gone in to their running orders but I'm wondering if they would work as two sides of vinyl. I'm guessing that if the current trend for vinyl continues then perhaps marketing types will have to think about it more seriously again.

The cd re-issues of some of Bruce's finest still retain their two-sided running order

* Named after Sir Samuel Fludyer, the Lord Mayor of London in 1760 evidently.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

simple pleasures

As gentle tides go rolling by,
Along the salt sea strand
The colours blend and roll as one
Together in the sand.
And often do the winds entwine
Do send their distant call,
The quiet joys of brotherhood,
And love is lord of all.

A strange winter indeed. Storms lash the coasts, apocalyptic floods take out major towns and one small Welsh village gets 85 consecutive days of rain. Meanwhile, over here on the east coast it's been a bit breezy occasionally.

Yesterday the sun shone brightly and the winds dropped from forty mph to about ten and it seemed too good not to go for a stroll. Get out there and walk along the beach. I wandered down to the beach and turned to the east and started off briskly with any breeze behind me and gently pushing me along. Along the way there were a few fishermen, quite a few dog-walkers and one beachcomber hoping for treasure but just finding old tin cans by the looks of it.

It only takes about twenty five minutes to get up to the little hamlet (long legs) and it was far too early to entertain the idea of going to the pub for lunch. So, I crossed the path and walked along by the River Deben towards the Kingsfleet. Supposedly, this was part of an important Medieval port called Goseford and ships were sent off from here at the start of the Hundred Years War. By now the path was becoming increasingly muddy. I stopped to chat with an elderly couple* - newcomers to the area - and they warned me of the path. Actually I didn't think it was that bad but they also told me about seeing lots of geese. As I wandered along with the fields on my left and the creeks and mudflats to my left, the noise became noticeable and the fields seemed to be covered with these honking hooligans. In the distance a woman walking her dog must have spooked them as they rose up almost as one. The sky was filled with low flying greylag geese and for a moment it was all very exciting as they were only a few feet above me. They circled round then came and settled back in to the field after a few minutes.

I walked on and saw a couple of redshanks snuffling about in a creek, then turned back towards the way I'd come. And then from behind heard me I heard a real raspy croak that seemed near and from something quite big. To my pleasure, an egret had got spooked and flew off in alarm nearer to where the redshanks were foraging. I managed to take a couple of shots just as the geese flew up in alarm again overhead. But with a phone for a camera I only really had a white blur to show for my troubles. I wandered back towards where it had landed but it flew off another few feet so it was still too difficult to get much of a shot. Just above me a cormorant flew over which I watched for awhile with my binoculars and it flew further over the river towards Bawdsey and the sea beyond. I guess it was in the same frame of mind as me. It was looking for fish for its dinner. I only had to go to the fishmonger's shed, though, the poor bugger had to dive for his.

So I bought some alien looking fish which looked so weird and beautiful that I had to have them. There were only three and as that was how many I needed it just had to be. When I got these Gurnard I realised that I had no idea what to do with them but a quick Google came up with a Hugh Dick Furry-Whittington recipe, he of the River Cottage, and much hilarity ensued as the family wrestled with them to take the bones out and remove their heads. Mrs Dave reckons that looking at them from the underside made them look like the face-hugger from Alien.

A pint of Suffolk's finest and a decent sandwich whilst I completed a crossword in the local hostelry later and I was ready to yomp back home. Facing the breeze and with the sun having moved on a bit so I wasn't blinded I worked up a fine head of steam home. I thought afterwards that I would have killed to have spent a day like that when I was young. I had winter fields and woodlands to walk around but not the sea and rivers. The bird life was fine when I was a kid but having the chance to see such things that I still find exciting made it a good day.

And that's the point really. I haven't written this to gloat because I don't go to work any more. I guess I just wanted to revel in taking simple pleasures and still being able to get excited by the natural world, much as I did when I were a nipper. I love the American expression, "Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you" and that's how it is. Today wasn't so wonderful what with a leaking toilet and irritable boiler syndrome but at least I can think back to the sheer joy I felt yesterday.

* I mean they are old enough to be drawing a State pension not just stopped working and collecting a teacher's pension. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

just a mortal with potential of a superman

don't believe in yourself 
don't deceive with belief
knowledge comes with death's release

Along with many others I awoke to a news item on Monday morning that took me a few moments to make sense of. The alarm radio comes on at seven but for some reason it isn't exactly seven - the clock isn't quite in step with reality. So what I heard seemed like an article about David Bowie's new album.

The phrase, "this comes as a major loss for music" shook me out of my stupor. Hang on, he's only just released an album on the previous Friday! What's going on?

Bowie's death appears to have had a huge impact publicly which means that his life had a huge impact on many. People from all sorts of different walks of life. The media jumped on anyone and everyone to see what Bowie meant to them. Yesterday on Today the Thought for the Day was about Bowie rather than that other well-known spaceman that seems to have had an impact. The latter one didn't have outrageous dress sense and didn't play guitar either. Probably didn't wear makeup either but most pictures do show him in a Man's frock though. The Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to have got the two of them a bit mixed up. Obviously I couldn't give a flying one about what politicians think about Bowie - certainly not the likes of Cameron or Blair - but what it all comes down to is that everyone seems to have had their David Bowie.

Over recent years during Bowie's absence (and now we know why) I and one or two friends have been bemused by loving parodies of him by the likes of Stella Street and Flight of the Conchords. However, I've never stopped listening to him as quite a few of his albums are on my iPod and, for some reason, tracks from the bootleg Live Santa Monica 1972 regularly play on Shuffle. The point I made above about everyone having their own Bowie is what strikes a chord with me mostly. Because his work has spanned six decades and he seems, by his own admission, to have had ADHD his output was huge. If you didn't like an album, don'y worry another one will be on the way soon.

My David Bowie existed around the time the sixties became the seventies. As a Film Studies teacher I have taught students that the sixties didn't really end until about 1973, which is why The Wicker Man is seen as a sixties film. I had bought Space Oddity* as a single in 1969. Being only thirteen I wasn't totally impressed with the album and, in truth, it was another year or two before I started buying whole albums. I still remember hearing discussions on Radio 1 about his next album, The Man Who Sold The World, but the music seemed aggressive and rather unusual. Although I knew it was exciting, being a shy young lad in an all boy's school I didn't buy it due to the cover most likely. Another year or so down the line I bought the American import as the cover although not as good seemed a better bet. My parents thought I was strange enough without making them think I was turning into Stevenage's answer to the Danish Girl! By then, Bowie had recorded both Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust albums pretty well back-to-back. Appearing on Whistle Test on 8th February 1972 - the day before my 16th birthday - Bowie and the Spiders performed Queen Bitch and Five Years. Notice please, this performance was a full five months before his iconic performance of Starman on TOTP. In truth, the appearance on the latter show was shocking and exciting but for many of us, we had already been prepared for it!

I remember being away on holiday in Poole in Dorset during that summer when the tickets for the Rainbow show were advertised. In those days you either had to queue up for a ticket or phone to book one and send a postal order (!) to cover the cost of the ticket and postage. So there I was standing in a red telephone kiosk outside the caravan site earnestly hoping I would get a ticket for my only ever live Bowie gig. I sent my £1.50 (plus p&p) off and was lucky enough to see the second night of the two Rainbow concerts. Believe it or not, Roxy Music were the support band. As I was in the third row I guess I got very lucky.

The gig was fantastic. The solo opening act, one Lloyd Watson went on to play in a band with Roxy's lead guitarist so maybe it was worth him being there. I was never a big fan of Roxy Music but at least I got to see them with Eno. Bowie had the Spiders backing him with Procol Harum's keyboard player Matthew Fisher as well. The mime artist Lindsey Kemp fluttered around on stage whilst the band played. If you only know him as the landlord in Wicker Man, he also taught Kate Bush to flutter about too.

From the set list of the gig you can see that essentially it was made up of David Bowie, The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory and Ziggy  and a few covers. The short acoustic set of Space Oddity, Andy Warhol (both played playfully by Bowie and Mick Ronson) and the solo My Death were my favourite part of the gig. Bowie's performance of Jacque Brel's My Death** stays with me to this day. It was astonishing and, of course, it is the song and performance I think of now when thinking of him. The depth and power in Bowie's voice was also there occasionally on part of Diamond Dogs - I love Sweet Thing - but it was always controlled. During all the reports and having read several articles this week, very few have mentioned much about what a great singer he could be.

I have been to some amazing concerts in my life but this one still stands the test of time.

Over the following few years Bowie released Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs but gradually my interest started to wane just as the World woke up to his latent fuss. I remember sitting in a crowded room with a group of others, mostly older than me, listening to David Live. We had been to the pub and came back for coffee and other refreshments. It was there in Zouk Delors' room where I realised that I had lost interest. I thought it was a terrible recording and I have never ever listened to it again. I picked up on Diamond Dogs and occasionally over the years I have bought other albums - ...hours is a favourite of Bowie's later years. I bought Bowie at the Beeb in 2000 because it was essentially an alternative version of my David Bowie.

So there we have it. Bowie produced a major part of the soundtrack to my teens. For a few years he could do no wrong. As the World caught up, and this week shows how much of the World caught up over the years, my interests changed and I went looking for pots of gold at the ends of other rainbows.

When I was thinking of writing about Bowie I was going to write about one of his songs. I may do that tomorrow. However, yesterday's Thought for the Day on Radio 4 got me thinking - probably not in the way the speaker expected - about the different Bowies. I haven't talked about personas and characters we all know about those. Maybe your Bowie was one of those characters. My Bowie was an outsider one who seems to have been instrumental in bringing many outsiders in from the cold. He made me feel that being a bit of a loner, feeling a bit different was okay. And please, no matter what is said, David Bowie wasn't really an alien from another planet. Perhaps he was an alien but from this planet.

I guess any of us who care will be thinking about who our personal Bowie was and what he meant to us. It doesn't matter if it was just one single or an album track. Maybe it was Ashes to Ashes. Whatever or more to the point, whoever your personal Bowie was I hope you take some time to listen again to what it was that touched you.

Something kind of hit me today
I looked at you and wondered
If you saw things my way
People will hold us to blame
It hit me today, it hit me today

* The b-side was a far superior version of The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud which appears on the album.
** Sorry, it's not as good a version (and it isn't entirely solo) but you get the idea.