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Sgt Pepper at 50

I’ve been following recent coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love in general and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in particular. 1967 seems an awful long time ago now, not only chronologically but culturally. There is something archetypally magnetic about the Summer of Love, even when one rationally considers that if its idealism had been all that it has been made out to be it would not have foundered quite as soon as it did.

The BBC screened a good documentary last week with Howard Goodall providing the analysis – it was commendable in its focus on musical details of song composition or recording technique. I’ve enjoyed listening to the early takes featured as a companion disc to the CD of new stereo mixes. It is fascinating to listen in on the work-in-progress and marvel at what the Beatles were doing within the confines of 4-track recording. People who go for the full box-set which has much more of that stuff will be in for a treat.

The instrumental version of ‘Penny Lane’ shows the much-discussed influence of Pet Sounds on the Beatles, to the extent that at the earlier stages it could almost be a backing track for a Beach boys song. Those on-the-beat piano chords are typical of the way Brian Wilson had been writing songs. Had I time I would be tempted to write and record a Pet Sounds-style vocal and lyric over that backing track to see what that would be like.

It is great that almost all of the Beatles time in the recording studio has been preserved. Sadly this is not the case for many groups and hits of the 60s and 70s. Even major bands like The Who have lost multi-track recordings. I was once told an amusing if horrifying story about what happened to one multitrack of a very successful 70s rock band. The tape was stored on top of a Marshall 4×12 cabinet. When it was retrieved for a new mix the tape was discovered to be blank – the magnets in the speakers had wiped everything!

Sgt Pepper is an album I’ve always admired though it hasn’t been a particular favourite. But my recent listening to it and reflecting on the album’s spirit of adventure has made me like it rather more. It is worth mentioning in connection with its status as a work of musical art that it is the only rock album covered in Cambridge University Press’s excellent handbook series, among about two dozen classical milestones.

Music and novels

I’ve recently read a number of novels where classical music is a strong concern. Aside from their inherent interest, I am planning a course for the summer of 2018 that will cover a few of these novels and branch out to explore the music they mention.

Some years ago I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (a satire featuring rival composers) and  Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (features a string quartet). In the past few months I’ve read two novels about Shostakovich: Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (about the Seventh symphony and the siege of Leningrad). I’ve also read Natasha Solomons’ The Song Collector (which touches on folk song collecting and mid-C20th English music), Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.

The Barnes novel I recommend because the writing is concise and thoughtful, and effectively terrifying in places in evoking the horrible stresses of life in a totalitarian regime, though it relies so much on biography I’m not sure it qualifies as a novel at all. I think it was Barnes who wrote an interesting short story ‘Silence’ about Sibelius and the mystery of the Eighth symphony.

Powers’ Orfeo is, for all its faults, a must-read for anyone interested in music as a life-changing phenomenon which goes far beyond just entertainment. This novel is saturated with musical reference at every turn, whether at the small level of metaphor and simile, epigraphs and quotations, to substantial digressions on several famous pieces, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

Meanwhile Thomas Mann’s C20th landmark and lengthy music novel Doctor Faustus awaits …

Recent music I’ve enjoyed includes French songs from the late 1960s by Serge Gainsbourg, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa,  John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Rautavaara’s Scandi noir, with Angels

In recent years UK media have been celebrating so-called ‘Scandi-noir’ crime shows and fiction. As usual, this focus on Nordic countries hasn’t generally extended as far as music. I’ve been listening again recently to Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Finnish composer who died at the age of 87 at the end of July. According to Guy Rickards’ Guardian obituary he wrote eight symphonies, nine operas, 12 instrumental (and one choral) concertos, plus a wide variety of orchestral, chamber, instrumental, choral and vocal works.

He had an interesting development as a composer, gradually re-embracing tonal music in a neo-romantic style which by the end of the C20th made him Finland’s most well-known composer since Sibelius. There was a mystical side to his music and outlook, and references to angels occur in a number of his pieces (and this long before angels were made fashionable by New Age spirituality).

Like many, I discovered him through accidentally catching his Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) on the radio. This haunting 20 minute three-movement piece features the orchestra playing melancholic and reflective music over a tape of birds recorded at the Arctic Circle.  You can find it on a Naxos budget CD along with his Piano Concerto and Third Symphony. The symphony has long been a favourite of mine, sounding like a compressed Bruckner with strong Sibelian overtones. Initially I couldn’t make much of the Piano Concerto, but I’ve revisited it recently and now greatly enjoy it, and I can also recommend the first movement of his Symphony 1.

Discovering Rautavaara came at a significant moment for me, because it was a reassurance that my intended journey into C20th classical music would turn up many gems. And so it has proved over the past 18 years.

Rock-Ola Rainbow now available

One of my songs ‘Rock-Ola Rainbow’ is now downloadable from amazon.com as an mp3. It is taken from a forthcoming album called ‘Rock-Ola Blue’. Here is the link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rock-Ola-Rainbow/dp/B01LX6LFXM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1475510751&sr=8-1&keywords=Rock-Ola+Rainbow

I hope you like it.

 

Postcard from Berlin

At the end of last week I was in Berlin for four days. It is a very stimulating city with an extraordinary recent history. C21st Berlin is a place of great energy looking to the future. Unexpectedly, I had two memorable musical experiences while I was there.

The first was seeing the new Beatles film Eight Days A Week which narrates their career as a touring band. It opens with wonderfully vivid colour footage of them playing in England in winter 1963 and goes through to the final concert at Candlestick Park and the retreat to the studio in 1966. The film didn’t tell me anything new about this story, but it offers much visually and in terms of restored audio. There was a bonus film of 30 minutes from Shea Stadium. The older I get the more extraordinary it seems that there once was a time when the Beatles were a recording band, writing songs the world had not heard, and also that McCartney and Lennon once shared a stage.

The film’s release is accompanied by a CD Live at the Hollywood Bowl. I never bought the 1977 vinyl release of this music, and so it was all fresh. This version brings out what great rock’n’roll vocalists both John and Paul were.

The second musical experience in Berlin was hearing the US composer John Adams conduct two of his own works at the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a striking modern concert hall and the orchestra sounded great. The second work was a German premiere, Scherazade.2 whose anti-patriarchal programme I whole-heartedly agreed with. The music had many enchanting and lyrical passages, with Adams making use of the cimbalom – hot often heard in orchestral music. I thought it too long by about 10 minutes (it lasted almost 50). It is difficult to sustain an enchanted, lyrical mood without strong melody and mostly here by texture. I also heard some Sibelius quotes which were curious; I’d like to know how intentional they were. Adams describes it as a ‘dramatic symphony’ but I feel four-movement violin concerto is closer.

So, the Beatles and John Adams in successive nights out.

My other remaster purchase has been the upgraded Led Zeppelin at the BBC. I first heard some of these radio broadcasts on bootleg back in the early 1980s and welcomed the original double CD release some years back, but regretted the omission of an explosive ‘What Is And What Should Never Be’ from the 1971 in concert. That is now present on this 3-CD version, which captures Zep full of youthful energy.

September return

My first post in awhile. Since I last wrote I’ve had six weeks of busy teaching – I taught three courses on the Oxford Experience – British Popular Music 1963-73 excluding the Beatles, Symbolist to Modernist 1880-1930 which includes Sibelius and Nielsen, and the Battle of Britain; I also taught a three-week version of Symbolist to Modernist which gave me time to look at some Modernist texts and music, bringing in Stravinsky, for example. With my friend Roger Dalrymple I also played two sets of guitar songs for the Oxford Experience.

My book Chord Master’s revised edition is now out. Among the revisions were an expansion of the musical examples for the benefit of beginners. This came out of my guitar teaching experience, where I have noted that not everyone can manage standard open chord shapes which we take for granted.

I look forward to seeing the new Beatles’ film Eight Days A Week, especially as I will be teaching my course on the Beatles at the Oxford Experience in 2017.

I’ve been enjoying a double CD (Brilliant Classics 95221) of classical guitar pieces by the Polish composer Alexander Tansman (1897-1986). His music has been recorded more in the past fifteen years or so and I discovered him via his symphonies on Chandos, especially no 7 which is close to Stravinsky’s sound-world albeit with a slightly lighter and more lyrical aspect. The guitar pieces sound very fresh and full of strong melodies and interesting harmonies.

During the period from April to mid-June I spent much time preparing three albums of songs for release. This comprises some 54 songs. I was interrupted in finishing the artwork for the covers by the summer school teaching.  One of the tracks ‘Rock-Ola Rainbow’ will be available at amazon.com in a few weeks.

 

egafm

In the meantime I have posted one of the out-takes onto http://www.soundcloud.com where my other music is online to hear. I hope you enjoy this light-hearted song, looking back on a time when electric guitars were hip new technology and also its reminiscence of what it feels like to stare in music shop windows wishing you could afford one …

 

 

Visions of box-sets

It’s amazing how the time goes. Several months have passed since I last blogged. I’m pleased to report that I have been busy with my own music, transferring four-track and eight-track recordings from cassettes and reel-to-reel onto the Tascam DP32SD. I have had some problems with the infamous ‘sticky shed’ syndrome, where tape reels start to break down. I have tried baking a few using a food dehumidifier with a good temperature control but with limited results. I seem to have about half a dozen reels which are not going to be of any use. Fortunately, I already have some stereo mixes for the songs on those reels.

I’m currently working on polishing a group of about 32 songs which I wrote and recorded around 1997-98 under the name of Rumble Strip. I discovered later that there is, or was, a band called The Rumble Strips, so I may have to use a different name for public release. These songs are mostly uptempo rock numbers with plenty of guitar. I drew on my love of T Rex for these, so if you like the glam/cosmic/wierd/guitar riffery and groove of that band you’ll like these. I’ve recently found a patch within a multi-fx unit which does a great job at capturing Marc Bolan’s guitar tone on tracks like ‘The Slider’.

I’m doing various new overdubs on these songs, partly to fill in the arrangements where I had originally just run out of tracks on the 8-track tape, and also doubling parts where the sound quality on the original has lost its sparkle due to age. I’m currently planning to write some new ones and group the songs into three conventional-length albums of about 40-45 minutes each. All the copying and recording is being done at 24-bit/48khz.

Eventually this is leading hopefully to a box-set in which I will gather together several hundred songs.

Perhaps this is a good moment to remind readers of this blog that my album of finger-pick guitar instrumentals Atlantic Canticles is available for purchase from amazon.com.

Otherwise I’m currently reading a new book on Nick Drake published by Reverb which looks at the theme of Englishness in his music and reception. This week I’m giving a lecture/ talk on conflict and resolution in the symphony, so I’ve been listening to Shostakovich 5 and 7 amongst others and will at some point be reading Julian Barnes’ novel about the composer. I can also recommend Roderick Williams’ re-imaging of William Byrd’s C16th choral work Ave Verum Corpus. I heard this on the radio yesterday morning and its amazing harmonies caught my ear. Wow, I thought, that’s pretty far-out for Byrd, as one chord dissonantly slid over another … was he really doing things like that 400 years ago!? And then came the announcement that it was a re-working by a contemporary composer. It’s available on CD and I’ll be getting a copy.

Smashing and not so smashing

Last week watching a BBC2 TV programme about what Britain was like in the 1960s for an average family I was confronted by the horrible spectacle of the featured Mum, Dad and two children smashing up an old upright piano. The programme claimed that this was the era when the home piano was replaced by the TV set. Archive film showed people smashing up a piano. This archive film – ghastly enough – was adequate for making the point. But that wasn’t enough for the producers who required the family to act this out and smash up the piano outside their house. The word ‘philistine’ has not yet outlived its usefulness.

I was genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction I felt to this. The next day I found myself reflecting on why. It felt like an act of cultural barbarism. The piano is a symbol of several centuries of Western music – both its own repertoire and that of all the composers who have created orchestral music on its magic keys. Symbolically, to smash one up is to reject all that beauty and all the music that still waits within those keys, and to delude oneself into thinking that you are superior for doing it.

This made me think also about the role of destruction in rock music in the past. As a teenager I saw film footage of the Who smashing up instruments and of course Hendrix at Monterey setting fire to a Strat in 1967. These were presented as though they were artistic acts of merit to which I should give my approval. Talking heads on current rock documentaries are still doing it. But even as a teenager I felt uncomfortable and not at all thrilled or excited by these spectacles, and they seem utterly tawdry now.

I remember reading that Ravi Shankar, the Indian master of the sitar, who was at Monterey, was horrified by this destruction of the musician’s creative tool by musicians. For him, it was almost a kind of blasphemy against the spirit of music.

It is telling also that Pennebaker’s film of Hendrix captures the expressions of women in the audience, and they too look disturbed and not at all excited. That too is revealing about something ugly in the dark side of the Sixties.

An act of guitar-smashing also has featured in my thoughts in my writing and research of a book about Marc Bolan. In April 1971, on a tour of the US, he threw his valuable Les Paul across a stage in a fit of frustration and broke the neck. This act was not a calculated piece of stage performance but a genuine loss of self-control. It revealed his inner turmoil and a kind of loss of a state of musical grace.

Marc Bolan had only owned the guitar for about a year and when he first got it he described it as ‘the love of his life’ … which is probably a suitable transition to wish everyone a happy valentine’s day with the love of your life – strings attached or no strings attached ….

Underarm Recording Studios

A couple of weeks ago I invested in a new piece of musical equipment: a Tascam DP32SD recorder:tascam dp32sd

Tascam have been making portastudios for several decades now, in varying sizes. The portastudio brought multi-track recording within the reach of amateur songwriters and musicians, and became a useful tool for professionals to make demos of ideas prior to recording a single or album in a fully-equipped studio.

It is a remarkable unit, and measures only 13 inches by 20. It does multi-track recording (up to 32 tracks it seems) and also has some useful effects processing built-in, including reverb, compression, and eq. You can make a recording, mix it down and make a master file all within the Tascam. In the past these tasks often involved separate hardware.

Originally, the various stages of making a recording were represented by individual physical units: a recording device (magnetic tape once, then digital hard drive, and now SD micro cards in the DP32), a mixing desk, a number of sound processors such as a reverb / delay, compression, etc, and a second recorder on which to capture the stereo mix. In the domestic audio market the decades have seen increasing miniaturisation. I got this Tascam to create space in my music room and to have a recorder with minimal setting up, since creative time is hard to find. It’s early days with the Tascam but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how straight-forward the basic operations seem to be.

The acquisition has brought back fond memories of my purchase back in the late 1980s of one of Tascam’s first such recorders – the Porta One:

Tascam Porta One

This analogue recorder taught many people the basics of recording. It only recorded four tracks onto a cassette tape, so the sound quality was not great (the DP32SD can record at 24bit / 48khz – better than CD quality). It was possible to make a basic guitar band demo by recording drums and rhythm guitar, then bass guitar, on tracks 1-3. The drums and bass could be bounced onto track 4, freeing 1 and 3. A second guitar could go on track 3 and a vocal on track 1. When the recording was mixed down into stereo that meant there would be a guitar on left and right and everything else in the middle. The limits of four-track recording meant you had to be disciplined about making creative decisions that could not be fixed later. And the cost? In the late 80s this tape cassette portastudio would cost what in today’s money would be about £1000. The Tascam DP32SD can be found for about a third of that!

About a strange young man named Bowie …

I hope everyone had a good holiday break and I send best wishes for 2016.

January has recently developed a habit of springing nasty surprises, and did it again this year with the death of David Bowie. I’ve been reflecting on this event and the response to it. Bowie has had a lot of coverage and I think on the whole this is merited. It is hard to think of a comparably major figure in British popular music from the late 60s / 70s who could compare in terms of influence. I’m not sure that the emphasis in his career on image and necessary reinvention has always been a good thing for popular music as music, but it has certainly had an impact.

For a few years in the early to mid-70s he made a lot of music I really enjoyed and most of it still sounds great.  The songwriting on Hunky Dory is agile and intelligent (the title of this blog alludes to the LP’s song for Dylan); Ziggy Stardust was a blast; and Aladdin Sane a heady cocktail of apocalypse and decadence. There were some great singles too, such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’. I was too much into rock music at that time to have much sympathy for his swerve into plastic soul on Young Americans, but liked ‘Golden Years’ and very much ‘TVC15’. Much later I properly got into Station To Station. The Berlin period didn’t connect and neither did much of his music in the 80s, though ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was compelling in its haunting revisiting of Major Tom (and who could resist that sardonic, knowing voice answering the lead vocal at various points?).

Bowie was not a one-man band and some of his achievement depends upon the contributions of others. Mention should be made of the wonderful guitar riffs and tone that Mick Ronson brought to Bowie’s music. Even after all these years there is something still exciting about strapping on a Les Paul, clicking on the right distortion, and attacking the guitar parts on  ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’ and ‘Jean Genie’. Dirty sweet glam riffola. I think also of producer Tony Visconti’s input.

Three other songs I’d mention: I’ve always loved the early ‘Letter For Hermione’. ‘All The Young Dudes’ is a song which brilliantly captures the generational divide between the 60s and the 70s the way ‘My Generation’, ‘Satisfaction’, ‘San Francisco’ did in their time. One of Bowie’s greatest moments as a lyricist is the lines: ‘Well my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones / We never got off on that revolution stuff / What a drag … too many snags …’ The division runs right through the family.

One thing that I have not seen written about is that in 1972-73 rock critics were actually divided about Bowie specifically and glam rock generally. Some of them felt that this was a betrayal of the counter-cultural force of rock music. Glam was too show-bizzy and trivial and apolitical. The authenticity of rock was being undermined by artifice, by dressing-up, by pretence. You can see how a figure like Bowie pretending to be Ziggy Stardust would be a nexus point for this argument. Of course with hindsight we can see that certain aspects of glam were political, just in a different arena to the one the hippies had focused on.

The out-pouring of emotion for Bowie from those old enough to remember those days is also clearly about the way it reminds them (us) of our mortality. This generation has clung more to youth than early ones, and has had this reinforced partly by the recycling of albums from that era, and also by living in a culture in which youth remains everything. There is no counterbalancing force celebrating the second half of life. To us it feels as though there is something fundamentally wrong with a universe in which Bowie is not physically present. And we feel this at present even if he has meant little to us musically for a very long time.

I’ve left one song unmentioned, one which I blogged about in 2013: ‘Where Are We Now’. Much of what I’ve felt this week I felt on its release. Ironically, it is wonderfully authentic in its evocation of personal memories for Bowie and has a haunting video with it.

 

 

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