Tomorrow I shall start my course for Oxford University’s Oxford Experience summer school on the Beatles, Popular Music, and 1960s Britain. It will be good to experience the uplifting energy of their music, which I haven’t listened to much probably since the last time I did the course in 2010. I have a soft spot for their early original songs (1963-65) in particular. It was a memorably spine-tingling moment a number of years back seeing the Bootleg Beatles do an immaculate version of ‘This Boy’ live. Looking back at early live footage, such as the US tour of early 1964, I’m struck always by two things: first, the overwhelming impression of some collective landslide of feeling which seems far more than what is generated at a typical successful rock gig … something beyond entertainment; second, the touching vision of the emotional bonds between the Fab Four as they sailed the good ship Beatledom through the force 10 gale of the zeitgeist. Despite all that has happened since, and despite the digital revolutions, I feel we have not yet escaped the ‘event horizon’ of the 1960s (I don’t mean that metaphor negatively).
I read recently that The Who plan a 5.1 release of Quadrophenia – that’s great news (see my earlier posts about SACD and 5.1).
Since I last wrote, the music world has lost Amy Winehouse. I was never particularly aware of her, but I will confess that ‘Love Is A Losing Game’ seems a brilliant re-creation of a 1960s torch-ballad, full of dark-blue-lit syncopations and tearful pauses, as though some lost Burt Bacharach song had turned up.
Meanwhile the BBC Proms have provided some great music as ever (including an interesting performance of Sibelius 7) and I am excited about having finally got a foothold on Valentin Silvestrov’s 5th Symphony. When I first tried this single 45-minute piece a year or so ago I couldn’t relate to what it was doing, but a few more undistracted listens on headphones (eyes shut!) have revealed some wonderful melodic sequences aside from the angrier dissonant outbreaks. Maybe they are in post-modern quotation marks … but who cares? One passage is reminiscent of John Barry … and that’s always fine by me.
Sorry not to have posted recently. Since June I’ve been preparing for my annual teaching stint on The Oxford Experience, a five-week programme run by the International Section of Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Last week was the first teaching week and I have five different courses to deliver. One has a musical theme: The Beatles and 1960s Britain. This week it’s Shakespeare’s Late Romances, and one of the extras I like to put in is some examples of musical settings of the songs which occur in those plays, as well as directing my students to larger works such as the two suites which Sibelius wrote for The Tempest.
On the composition front I managed in late May-mid June to write an 11-minute piece for string orchestra called ‘The High Oaks (Threnody)’.
I’ve been giving some thought to starting work on a new book at the end of the summer.
Otherwise, I’ve been revisiting some of the songs of Marc Bolan (1968-71). Some of the articles I’ve written about his songwriting and guitar-playing have been pasted up online by others. I may put revised versions on this site eventually. This was in part set off by the fact that a week or so ago it was 40 years since T.Rex’s ‘Get It On’ was a UK no.1 and Marc Bolan appeared on TOTP with a black Les Paul Custom. Earlier in the year Gibson finally produced a signature Marc Bolan Les Paul in what they termed a ‘Bolan Chablis’ (orange-amber wood) finish. I can remember suggesting such a guitar to the head of Gibson in London about ten years ago. At the time he was sceptical that there would be enough interest – but it has happened. Sadly, the guitar Gibson issued is a bit of a hybrid – based on the fact that in the spring of 1971 in the U.S. in a fit of frustration Bolan threw the Les Paul and snapped its neck off. For some reason a black Les Paul neck was then fitted to the guitar, so that looked at from the back you have a cherry-red body and a black neck. So the Gibson guitar doesn’t match the one with which Bolan is pictured on the cover of the 1970 T.Rex album.
More on Bolan anon …