I recently saw some of the new documentary film about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, which was interesting and enjoyable. Coincidentally, I was reminded of the fact that all four Beatles had memorable solo records in 1970-71: George with singles such as ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘What Is Life’, John and Yoko with ‘Power to the People’ and ‘Instant Karma’, Paul with ‘Another Day’, and Ringo with ‘It Don’t Come Easy’. I thought I would mention some songs by the group Badfinger who were signed to the Apple label. Few bands had such a tragic history, as a read of their Wikipedia page will make plain. If Badfinger are unknown to you, Beatles fans should try to listen to the songs ‘Come and Get It’ (their first hit, written by McCartney), ‘No Matter What’ and ‘Day After Day’, the latter two songs being superb variations on the late 60s Beatle sound. The vocal on ‘Day After Day’ (sung by Pete Ham?) is very McCartney and the slide guitar is very much in the Harrison mould (maybe it was Harrison?).
Badfinger’s other claim to songwriting fame is that they wrote ‘Without You’ which Harry Nilsson had a huge hit with. I know of few more revealing comparisons between an original and a cover version, in terms of changed harmony and arrangement and feel. The Badfinger version seems a bit ramshackle and would never have been as bit a hit, but has its charm and may appeal to those who think Harry’s version is over-dramatic and slick.
I also watched an interesting documentary on Simon and Garfunkel. Readers of my book Inside Classic Rock Tracks will know that I hold the heretical view that ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ is not as great a song as ‘America’. But the song that stood out in the film was ‘Only Living Boy In New York’. This is one of those songs which has a strange power which seems unaccountable given the relative simplicity and undramatic nature of its materials. Partly it is a classic example of the poetry of reverb – something which has been undervalued for a long while in popular music because there has been a fashion for in-your-face dry productions (a trend Fleet Foxes bucked to great success with their debut album). The other aspect is that it is a touching song about friendship rather than romantic love. Unlike ‘You Got A Friend’ (or ‘Bridge OTW’), there is no sense that the speaker is congratulating themselves for being A Friend You Can Depend On, which lends those songs a slight whiff of egoistic self-approval. Instead, it is almost as if the singer of ‘Only Living Boy’ seems touched and startled to discover how much this friendship meant and its value.
Meanwhile, in the world of orchestral sample libraries, the chaps over at Vienna Symphonic Library continue to perform wonders in the world of computer sample music for composers such as myself, having just released an upgraded version of their software Vienna Instruments Pro with its nifty ‘auto-humanize feature’ whereby you can deliberately add a hint of mis-tuning and mis-timing to make your sampled string quartet or orchestra sound more realistic. Fantastic stuff. If you visit their website they have music examples you can listen to, including an astonishing rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring using only orchestral samples.
Christmas is fast approaching. One of the pieces of music I save for December is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no.8. written when he was in his early 80s in about 1956. He added a number of bells, etc to his orchestra for this piece, making it great for winter, though it has no actual winter programme. It has many of the beauties of his music with a slightly unworldly twist here and there which is typical of his last two symphonies. I’m delighted to learn that a DVD of a performance of it from 1972 has just been released. Sir Adrian Boult was the conductor. I don’t know what the sound quality will be like but it should be worth a watch.
I’ve been enjoying the new Fleet Foxes album ‘Helplessness Blues’ and pleased they did not seek to overhaul their sound too much. This one sits well as a follow-up to the debut album of a few years ago, with more confidence in the arrangements and the recording. Quite apart from the musical trademarks of the songs, it is interesting how reverb plays an important role in their sound, lending ethereality to the signature vocal harmonies. This is noteworthy because for some years many popular recordings have gone for a very dry and airless production. I’ve always preferred something that suggested depth and distance.
I’ve also been listening to some early Elton John. Connecting with my previous post about SACD, I’ve now heard Elton’s Honky Chateau album on SACD and again the sound is a revelation. It’s available on amazon for very little at all. (There is also a Nick Drake SACD compilation that’s unexpectedly good considering that his mixes tend to have relatively few instruments in them, so you would think that they wouldn’t lend themselves to multi-channel.)
For songwriters the thing that strikes me most listening to Elton John again is the vital role that inversions play in his songs. He makes far more use of them than most guitarist songwriters (they’re easier to play on a piano). They occur more frequently in his songs and in a greater number of types. It is surprising how much emotional charge they carry in songs like ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, ‘Your Song’, ‘Into The Old Man’s Shoes’, and ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight.’ There’s also a feeling with the songs that they have a lot of music in them – by which I mean they don’t have any of the aura of laziness which I hear in a lot of post-2000 songwriting, where one short idea is deemed enough to carry most of the song and if you’re lucky you might get an 8-bar bridge.
Also on SACD I can recommend the new Stravinsky SACD of the Rite of Spring and Petrouchka on BIS by the Bergen Philharmonic. Incredible sound that lets you experience the genius of Stravinsky’s orchestrations.
… or to be precise, the Kensington Orchestra who, a couple of weeks ago, gave a terrific concert in London. What drew me was two of my favourite pieces of music unusually linked on the same bill: Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ and Vaughan Williams’ third symphony (‘Pastoral’), along with a short third piece I hadn’t heard before, Martinu’s ‘Memorial to Lidice’. The Martinu made an immediate impression – a colourful and humane work on a terrible historical subject (the Nazi eradication of the town of Lidice). Martinu’s star has been rising of recent years, and his sixth symphony is a firm favourite of mine. The Stravinsky piece may have a questionable grasp on what a purist would consider true symphonic form but what drive, colour, melody and invention! It is another example of how, despite his reputation as a dissonant and shocking modernist, Stravinsky’s music is full of intriguing melody. It was great to hear the Vaughan Williams live again – his pastoral symphony is one of the great works in any medium inspired by the First World War. Evidence again that his symphonic cycle is so remarkable – 9 symphonies that sound unmistakably his and yet each forges its own world. And you can pick them up in a box-set for about £20 these days. I should mention that a couple of Vaughan Williams previously unrecorded pieces are being released this year, including his choral setting of Swinburne’s poem ‘The Garden of Proserpine’ (published in 1866). I wrote something about it on the CD sleeve and also in the current issue of the RVW Society Journal.
I’ve noted also first reports of the new Fleet Foxes album. Their debut made a big impression and I’m looking forward to hearing the new music.
On the home front, I’ve completed a piano quartet of about 15 minutes, and unexpectedly sketched a violin sonata whilst working on something else entirely. Sometimes you just have to follow wherever the ideas lead.
It looks like the long article on ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is going to appear in two parts in the next two issues of the magazine Tight But Loose. See the tbl website for details of subscriptions, etc.
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