Before I get going, what does “Four nine nine” mean to you?
To me, “four nine nine” is just how you say (and spell) the digits 4, 9 and 9 again. But to TV advertising copywriters it is apparently how you say the number 499: “this solid oak table: just four nine nine”, while the caption on the screen reads £499. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Obviously: that would be “four hundred and ninety-nine pounds”.
999, however, can be said as “nine nine nine” when referring to the punk band from the mid 1970s – still recording and touring, I understand – who were fairly successful over a long period, but never gigantic. This was rather unfortunate, as they were no less talented than many of their contemporaries who fared considerably better. During the time that I had much interest in them they did not deviate much from the format and standard they set themselves, though they did seem to be more concerned with the notes in the songs on the later of the two albums I owned. The earlier one - 999 - featured the single Emergency, the title of which I thought was rather clever: how easily impressed I was. It was an angry record that Dad would have described as “shouty”. But by the time they got round to Concrete not only were there more tunes, but the band were actually singing them without losing the capacity to snarl. Try this one: Mercy Mercy, with a good twangy rhythm guitar sound supporting understated but effective lyrics.
And now I have delivered myself of that burning pedantry, let’s change the subject.
Thanks (yet again) to Dad, I have recently discovered Hippolyte et Aricie, the first of Rameau’s many operas, though not actually written until he was about 50. Quite simply, I am bowled over by its beauty. You can link to an entire performance, and if you have three hours’ leisure at any point I recommend it, though that is a disingenuous recommendation unsupported by personal experience: a series of car journeys over a couple of days have enabled me to hear the whole thing. If, however, you can’t rustle up that sort of spare time, just try this excerpt – Cruelle mère des amours - sung by Jessye Norman: melody, harmony, orchestration and performance combining to present a heart-stopping picture of melancholy.
Disappointingly, a list of Rameau’s operas on the internet’s sacred scrolls contains a number described as “lost”. How you can lose an opera is a mystery to me. They aren’t exactly small, are they? Not the sort of thing that might slip between the cushions – even if you happened to come from the sort of French baroque family rich enough to be able to afford cushions. Certainly there would be no inter-cushional gaps large enough to have lost any operas by Wagner, though I note that there are several on his list of stage works which are mentioned as “unperformed”, usually because no music had been written. I think they may be my favourites.
Hipployte et Aricie has a complicated plot – life, love, death and destiny involving the Greek hero Theseus and his son Hippolytus. (Most operas of that age, like much visual art, took classical or biblical themes: the skilled exponents used them to reveal ideas which on their own would have been preclusively vulgar and secular.) I haven’t checked whether it tallies with the ancient sources in its narrative, and I don’t suppose, anyway, that you could find two such sources that agreed in every detail. Not that I would know. (If you want to learn more about Theseus, I strongly recommend this marvellous stuff by The Dancing Professor. If you didn’t want to, read it anyway and you soon will.)
But actually, isn’t part of the point of myths and legends that they evolve – whether to make a better story, or to work better in a particular medium, or to serve a wider moral purpose? Take the golden fleece, for example: you know, the one that Jason recovered. As far as I can make out, the only detail on which sources seem to agree is that it came from a ram. I hold myself open to correction, but they seem to disagree even on where the ram came from. I bet there were people lined up in two camps, arguing on the one hand that its mother was Theophane, or on the other that it was Themisto, with probably a few more claiming that they are one and the same anyway. (My principal source - Jason and the Argonauts - is silent on the subject.)
In much the same way the release of the dreadful movie Troy (with its all-star miscast) had all sorts of people in high dudgeon telling anyone who would listen that it didn’t happen that way: Achilles never entered Troy, Agamemnon wasn’t killed there, and anyway what on earth did Brad Pitt think he was doing? (There’s an awful moment near the beginning when Achilles, having killed some great warrior or other, shouts out “Is there no one else?” And then, for dramatic effect – and I could feel it coming – he repeats it. I have a strong suspicion that the screenwriter had just seen Gladiator, and the moment where Maximus, having made short work of a series of opponents, asks the crowd “Are you not entertained?” And then, for dramatic effect, he repeats it. Like I did there.)
But Troy is just another re-telling, so I grit my teeth and allow its place in the evolution of legend, along with the TV movie that people didn’t notice at the same time – Helen of Troy*. The two movies are different in detail and characterisation (Achilles in the latter is less hero, more roughneck), but equally valid. After all, where is the rule that says that legends are fixed in the eras to which they refer? Even a fictional character whose invention we can be certain of can make the leap into legend at any time. Which brings me to – never far from my thoughts – Sherlock Holmes.
Some of the things that people “know” about Holmes owe little to Arthur Conan Doyle. The deerstalker, for example, and the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” cannot be found in the stories, but they have become part of his persona as he outgrew the pages in which he appeared. Even his “arch-enemy” Professor Moriarty was really a cameo created by Doyle in order to kill Holmes off, and then hardly referred to outside the two short stories in which his death and resurrection are dealt with. And yet Moriarty stands as a study in evil whose impact is out all proportion to the space he occupies in the Holmes canon. Macavity, T.S. Eliot’s mystery cat, is described in terms directly borrowed from Doyle – including the phrase “the Napoleon of Crime”.
One of the more out of the way things that I possess is a boxed set of a series of Russian-made movies – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson - given to me by a Russian friend. They are as much true developments of Holmes as anything with Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett; atmospheric and witty while still making the adjustments that writers feel they need to make in order to communicate best with their audience.
Two or three stories are conflated, settings changed and so on – details which are entirely acceptable but go on to get bedded down in how the stories will be retold in future. The subtitles might have been better researched, though. My Russian is 30 years unpractised, and was never up to much anyway, so I’m not able to judge how literally accurate the subtitles were. But someone should perhaps have checked the original story to avoid “speckled band” being rendered as “motley ribbon.” There is a tremendous and perfectly apt theme tune, though…
I haven’t watched them all yet, and although none of the original stories feature the supervillain, I hope that there will be an encounter with Professor Moriarsky.
* (Here is where I point out that Helen of Troy is also a track from the new album by Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark, the recently reformed new romantic legends, whom I am going to see in concert next week. That’s serendipity for you).
Not the movie. If that’s what you wanted, look away now.
Listening to, and writing about, Pluto the other day, set me thinking about the Moon.
Now let me stop you before you stop me: there is a world – make that a solar system – of difference between Pluto and the Moon. But my mind, operating at something like C, made the whole Pluto-Planet-Space-Moon connection before you could blink. And of course, in musical terms, once you reach the moon the sky’s the limit.
Right, let that be an end of astronomical punning, unless the temptation becomes irresistible. Let’s get to where I was going, which was, in the first place, The Waterboys The Whole of the Moon. This is a great, great song, saying so much that I can’t say about imagination. If you check out a certain online encyclopaedia, you will see various mutually contradictory claims as to what it is actually about, but for me it is a celebration of the places you can visit in your head, and the heights your mind can reach: “I wandered out in the world for years: you just stayed in your room. I saw the crescent: you saw the whole of the moon.” Rather like Helen Reddy’s creepy Angie Baby - I picture a person whose reality is internal rather than external, but has more emotional experience than they could acquire by living in the real world. Seeing the whole of the moon is only a physical impossibility; imagination doesn’t have that limitation.
Next stop: Moonlight Shadow by Mike Oldfield. I’ve always liked this, but have not the slightest idea what it means: the connection between the title and the lyrics is at best obscure. It contains the inexcusably tautologous line “4 a.m. in the morning” which I find disproportionately annoying, even to the extent that if I am singing along I miss that line out. But it does feature Maggie Reilly on lead vocals, which is an adornment to any song (including Rain & Dole & Tea, a track on Fire and Water by Dave Greenfield and J J Burnel, in an out-of-Stranglers excursion).
Moonlight Shadow, although incomprehensible, still feels more aligned with the romantic, mysterious view of matters lunar that has provided cheap evocative fodder for poets and musicians for as long as poets and musicians have needed something to evoke. Take Debussy’s endlessly popular Au Clair de la Lune, for example, haunting and restful at the same time, which both creates an ambience and then goes further and allows you to paint your own picture inside it.
Perhaps less moving but nevertheless pretty is the Victorian parlour song - The Moon hath raised her Lamp above sung on this link by Peter Dawson and Ernest Pike. This recording was made sometime before 1936 – an unremarkable deduction, given the year of Pike’s death. A few years, at least, before Glenn Miller recorded Moonlight Serenade, the obligatory soundtrack to any wartime film dance scenes (ideally the instrumental version). But if you wish to touch the heart of that someone special, I recommend Moonlight Becomes You, and if you can replicate Bing Crosby’s style so much the better. Ok, so the opening couplet is a little forced: Moonlight becomes you, it goes with your hair/You certainly know the right things to wear. Stick to that, though, and avoid my Dad’s adaptation which replaced hair/wear with feet/eat, somehow failing to impress Mum in the process. Personally, if I’m trying to get on the right side of Mrs simonsometimessays, I am more likely to propose a short walk Under the Moon of Love accompanied (not literally) by Showaddywaddy.
I’m not sure how well this fits, but I’ll mention it anyway: Haydn’s comic opera - Il Mondo della Luna – about an elaborate trick which depends on the innocence of a simpleton as to the nature of the moon, based on a story by Goldoni (whose huge success with The Servant of Two Masters is recreated in the modern adaptation - One Man, Two Guvnors). Haydn apparently wrote 15 or more operas, which is a fairly healthy output, especially when you consider it alongside over 100 symphonies and numerous other works. The operatic output is of the quality that Haydn consistently achieved, but he inevitably suffers by comparison with his contemporary, Mozart. The music is good but not truly memorable, where 30 years later it might have been differently positioned for posterity. Nevertheless, the Overture to Il Mondo della Luna is worth a listen, and demonstrates the skill in orchestral composition in which Haydn is an acknowledged master. But to suggest that he can hold a candle to Mozart is, as Bruno Mars might say, mere Moonshine.
I think I’ll leave it there. I want to get this posted before sunset.
Another quick post today – 20 minutes maximum – to keep my hand in, so to speak. But I hadn’t intended to do so: what prompted me was reaching for something to listen to while I was doing something much more mundane and domestic.
In fact, what I came upon was an old recording of Concerto pour une voix, by the contemporary French composer Saint-Preux. This is a curious but lovely piece, featuring an orchestra and a voice, but no words: just a series of “ba-da-ba” variations. It’s by an equally curious and I suspect deliberately enigmatic character. Naturally, he has a website, a page devoted to him in the online almanac, and to judge from his discography a fairly modest output for someone who has been composing for over 40 years. But he has/had a talent for melody and harmony, even if there are not too many hugely different ideas in it.
The first Saint-Preux record that I came across was my sister Anne-Marie’s, though I may be wrong, and it belonged to my brother Chris. What I’m sure of is that it was acquired on a French exchange school visit – one of those where the pupils from an English school hosted their counterparts from a French school for a fortnight, and vice versa. I was so struck by the record that when, a few years later, I went on an exchange trip myself I sought out a record shop to see what else could be found.
The family I visited lived in Toulon, and for a 17-year old and rather gauche boy it was a big adventure to get the train south through France on my own. Michel and his family made me very welcome – more so, I think, than I did when it was time to reciprocate. They took me caving, we spent a few days in the French Alps, and paid a visit to St Tropez – about which all I then knew was that it was the place where girls went topless on the beach (and indeed they did). All in all, a satisfactory experience: Summer in the South of France, with my own room in a sort of basement annexe, where I could smoke freely (such a liberty), and excellent food and drink. Musically, too, the trip was a success.
I remember buying Saint-Preux’s Passion for Anne-Marie, though I don’t know what became of it. Either he never took off in the UK, or for some other reason he was not selling his records here – but it isn’t easy to get physical recordings of his music. CDs are either prohibitively expensive imports, or “currently unavailable”. There are, happily, more digital downloads accessible.
His style, it seems to me, would not be out of place in a moody 60s or 70s movie. It has as much in common with Michel Legrand (the guy who wrote Windmills of Your Mind) as with more classical composers. Perhaps it’s a connection that is only made in my head, but I always think next of L’Oiseau, from the children’s tv show Belle and Sébastien. Not to be confused with Belle and Sebastien, the latter-day rock band who know how to Write about Love.
I’m not sure I’ve reached a conclusion, but I never said I was going to. In any event, your 20 minutes – or is it mine? – is up. I suggest that you reach for your lava lamp, and give Saint-Preux a psychedelic whirl.
The title of this post comes from the opening line of the Tom Paxton song, The Last Thing on My Mind – sung on this version by The Seekers. I’ve known this since I was very young, but I’m not sure whose version I know. It’s been covered many times over the years, but when I looked for the link, I couldn’t find the one that seemed to trip the switch. I also found 2 different songs with the same name, a pop standard by Bananarama and a well performed duet by Ronan Keating (with LeAnn Rimes) respectively. There’s nothing new under the sun, I guess – not even song titles.
But to the Paxton song: I like the Seekers’ version, because it does allow the music to shine as well as the words. And before I move on, I will also share with you the link to Nana Mouskouri’s version – and that is not something I ever imagined doing when I first began this blog. Listening to it a few moments ago, once I had learnt to shut out the intrusion of the interjected backing vocals I could appreciate it as a truly melodic performance, with due attention to pitch and diction, floated on a pure and sweet voice. What’s not to like? And given that Nana Mouskouri is one of the best-selling singers of all time it will presumably not be difficult to find support for that view. Strictly mainstream and folk-rooted, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Music doesn’t have to be edgy or progressive to be worthwhile; there is value in artists consolidating the territory that boundary-pushers have gained. Mainstream - in other words, popular – music has provided the base from which innovators have pushed on. I’m all for mainstream, as you can see. Except Strauss waltzes, which happily are easily avoided.
Now, where was I?
We probably all have lessons learnt too late to avoid consequences which are sad or bad. If we are lucky, however, we get another crack at it and can avoid repeating those consequences. As a wise man once said: people who don’t learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it. Or something like that, anyway. I have many such lessons, first among which is not to ignore warnings. When friends and family say that I need to make adjustments in my life and seek assistance – for my own good or theirs – I know now to listen to them. I’m not going to go into particulars: my own troubles are not so very shameful but, frankly, need more explanation than I can bear to give or than I could expect to interest anybody who isn’t under an obligation to care. Suffice to say that I have been tempted to crawl back into the dark room that I wrote about a while ago, only not on this occasion in a sort of post-adolescent ecstasy of self-discovery. But that would be hardly be sensible, and unlike Bob Seger, I’m glad I know now what I didn’t know then. And I hope I can make more use of it than the caged bird in Aesop’s fable.
Do you know that line in Against the Wind - “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then”? According to Seger, he wasn’t sure that the line made sense, but was persuaded to leave it in and it became a sort of mantra for the regrets of lost naïveté. It’s an understandable if indulgent perspective, but personally I’m no longer young enough to want to be naïve. I’ve always looked forward to the onset of wisdom – it is perhaps inevitable that it never arrives quite in time to be of greatest use. So when tribulation arrives that I don’t feel equipped to manage, the discomfort of not knowing which way to turn eventually becomes like flailing around in quicksand. The older one gets the more disempowering that can be.
Enough of that, however. Getting older is generally not so bad. It doesn’t dull the senses – not the ones that matter, anyway. We’re still the same emotional beings, just as capable of love, distress, anger and joy. Perhaps the excitement of novelty gives way somewhat to the relish of memory but as The Beautiful South point out in Prettiest Eyes, that’s not incompatible with having and sharing finer feelings. The song is slightly macabre in parts, but in a significant year for the very lovely Mrs simonssometimessays and me, it expresses well what I feel and what I will be looking forward to after sixty 25th of Decembers, a decade or so down the line.
Another lesson that came too late: the discovery of Pluto. I wondered what Holst felt, more than 20 years after the premiere of The Planets, on learning that his orchestral suite was astronomically incomplete? His outward reaction was to ignore it, as he felt that The Planets was already a distraction from his other works. Inwardly he must have been well and truly hacked off. And I suspect that his spirit will have been floating wherever spirits float loudly shouting “I told you so” when Pluto was declassified as a planet in 2006. Indeed, and in particular, I think that he will have been blowing an ethereal raspberry in the direction of Colin Matthews, who in 2000 wrote a movement to append to The Planets entitled Pluto, The Renewer. Listen carefully, now, because Pluto is a long way away, and most of this piece is very quiet…
Thank you for your attention. I hope you learnt something today.
Sometimes, if someone has happened to learn my age, they observe enviously that it must be great to have been a child of the Sixties. Well, perhaps. But though technically – which is to say literally – that is what I am, when the decade ended I was still in short trousers, some years short of the age at which I believe we are culturally most open and inclined to explore. So the backdrop to my cultural formation was not a Sixties tapestry. To be born while the Beatles were number 1 with I Want to Hold your Hand* was neither portentous nor influential, but a coincidence. I feel no special connection with the Beatles – or with Sixties music as a whole.
It’s a little embarrassing in some ways, but I have to own up: in pop terms I’m a Seventies boy; and my relationship with Sixties music is one of discovery – I keep stumbling against stuff that makes me wish I were ten years older and had felt its impact when it was new.
So the other day we were watching The Boat that Rocked, which has one of the most fantastic soundtracks of any modern movie. All from the Sixties, and most of it of a calibre which has endured for nearly 50 years. One song, a 1967 classic, is Procul Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. You know it. Of course you do, but it will bear another listen, and those seven minutes of your life will not be wasted. The link I’ve given you is a brilliant live version.
It seems a pity that the song was the subject of litigation over the writing credits. It was not until 2009 that the House of Lords ruled definitively on the royalties due to Matthew Fisher, who had not originally been credited. Artistically, I can see where he was coming from – if I’d co-written something that magnificent I would want people to know it.
Why mention that? Because Mrs simonsometimessays once did some design work for Matthew Fisher, and the song always places her front and centre of my thoughts. It’s mid-scale vicarious name-dropping, admittedly, but I’m proud of that one.
Speaking of Mrs sss, I am a little concerned. Have I given the impression that she is a shadowy creature who stalks the halls in my small patch of the blogosphere? Let me simply refute that, though without saying much more, as she is a modest soul and not among the most active in the ether. Indeed, she may never read these lines.
Which by word association alone leads me to something else: “Nay if you read this line remember not/The hand that writ it…”, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71. (You have two choices now – link to this site where all the sonnets are set out and nicely considered, or scroll down.) This is easily my favourite sonnet and, fortunately for me, has inspired many composers and songwriters to make good music.
Try this, for example: a setting by Hubert Parry, better known for writing the music to go with Jerusalem; or this haunting piece by Thy Fickle Destiny accompanying a somewhat dramatic reading. And the sonnet features in a wonderful enterprise undertaken last year, making modern songs from some of the sonnets, played on period instruments. Here’s the soundcloud of three of them. I’m waiting for the CD to arrive.
Naturally, Shakespeare has attracted composers of all types, and in every language. No doubt there are dissertations, theses, books and libraries full of expert analysis of this phenomenon by musicologists, and probably an equivalent corpus of work by literary scholars. I’m neither of those – I’m just happy to listen to some of the results, especially those in opera and song. Thus Verdi’s Otello, and the aria Niun mi tema which is worth hearing for the music more than for its fidelity to Shakespeare, or this really lovely excerpt from The Tempest, a modern opera by Joe St. Johanser
From there it is but a hop and a step to Eighties/Nineties band Shakespears Sister. Never mind where they got the name – it’s an honourable chain of cultural references which you can discover for yourself from the repository of all known wisdom – just note the spelling. Although it was originally written like that by mistake, it seems very appropriate given the inconsistency with which WS used to spell his own name. It may be slightly cheesy, but their most well-known song Stay seems a good one to send out to the far-from-ethereal Mrs sss, whether she’s reading this or not. After all, I wouldn’t want her to become Someone Else’s Girl.
And that feels like a good place to stop.
* I have to admit that I was torn: I wandered the web to find a good link to I want to hold your hand. And I nearly chose this version - a totally different cover by T V Carpio from the movie Across the Universe. I really like the rather melancholy take on it, and the gentle pump of the bass
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.
I asked Vicky to name a favourite song that came straight into her head, and she came up with Beyoncé - Crazy in Love. I wasn’t certain I knew it, but the words seemed familiar. I got it wrong – the song I thought it was going to be (which does feature that phrase) turned out to be Alphabeat’s Boyfriend. (If you like that, incidentally, try 10,000 Nights for just pure pop fun.) Caroline – one of the two people chiefly responsible for my continuing musical education – handed Alphabeat up to me.
Hand-me-up music is something I touched on a while back, but I was engaged in such epic activity at the time that I didn’t really accord it its due measure of importance. It’s worth returning to. A simple enough concept, obviously: this is music which I hear via my children or their friends. Not just, however, because I walk past their rooms and am vaguely attracted by the sounds emanating therefrom but because they have chosen to share it with me. It validates the times when I have made them listen to the music that I have grown up with.
As a parent, I always wanted to share what I love about literature, art, music (and cricket) with my children; passing on the things you value is the greatest inheritance you can give. It’s rewarding when they seem to embrace at least some of it. This is very exciting, and leads to some surprises – not least because the traffic isn’t always in the direction I expect. For example, I would have expected that William Byrd was my thing more than theirs – but it was Caroline who went to see Stile Antico sing, and subsequently gave me a recording which included their performance of Tollite Portas. And it was with Fiona that I went to see a local performance of Cosi Fan Tutte, which despite the occasional wince at the state of the translation was a treat that we enjoyed equally. And it’s one to hand on to you as well – the meltingly beautiful trio Soave il Vento showing that Mozart’s ensemble writing really is without equal.
It’s a huge compliment both that they think their rather cranky parent is worth involving in their own musical universes, and that they still seem to want to hang out in his. Now they are grown up the dynamic between us has become one of mutual education and opportunity; the older I get the more I have to learn, and what a pleasant prospect that is.
Anyway, back to the plot. I followed a link to Crazy in Love and recognised it within the first second. Of course I did – it’s been a huge hit, with an opening brass motif that flicks from B Flat to G and back again with an almost anthemic statement of intent: this song is going to get in your head. I left it playing, and opened another tab to look for something else; then switched back after a couple of minutes to find that Ms Knowles had changed outfits. The video producers, clearly briefed to present Beyoncé to best advantage, had decided that “business casual” was probably not the look to go for. I guess they know their business.
Beyoncé Knowles – I think she’s better off without the surname. This may be because being British and over, well, over it anyway, I feel it goes more naturally with Tony (a Boltonian snooker player long past his best) or Nick (modern DIY idol and presenter of forgettable TV quiz shows). Beyoncé is Destiny’s Child: I believe (and hope) that she is unrelated to the other worthies I have named.
On a certain website which, in the brief papal interregnum, was the only infallible source available*, I saw it confirmed that she is indeed known mononymously as Beyoncé. That word was a joy to behold. Mononymously: what a treat!
Mononymity puts Beyoncé in the same bracket as Madonna, Slash, Bono… the list is small but select. (I wonder if The Edge can be included? It may be that the definite article counts as the first element in a polynym.) Somehow, and belatedly, I feel a sense of distinction conferred on this blog by my own mononymous moniker…
Go on: as Destiny’s Child would have it, Say my name. And how’s that for a neat finish?
*That is a joke.
Laura’s leaving England soon. Now, if she should happen to read these lines she need not be concerned that this is about to be a gushing or effusive wringing of hands: this is not the place. I mention the fact because, in keeping with the principles* of this blog, the music suggested by what’s going on around me is at its heart, and Laura’s imminent departure is one of those things going on.
So, I mention her again, and it is only a short step from there to The Gothic Archies’ Smile! No One Cares How You Feel. Laura introduced me to that a while back and I will associate her with it from now on. It isn’t necessarily the best song with the word “Smile” in the title, but it may be the bluntest. Whether or not it was the writer’s intention to do so, it made me laugh. And in these modern times, songs about smiling and laughter are meant to be ironic, aren’t they? I don’t think they are supposed actually to make you, er, smile or laugh. Take Lily Allen’s Smile, or The Killers Smile Like You Mean It and you’ll see what I mean. Latter-day sophistication dictated that sometime after Morecambe and Wise invited us to Bring Me Sunshine in your smile (not an original for them, I know) we stopped taking such things literally.
Roll back nearly a century, and you’ll reach a music-hall song called The Laughing Policeman - undoubtedly a song about laughing intended to provoke laughter. Try it, and see what happens. According to the fount of all knowledge, the song has its origins in the late Victorian era, when they really knew how to do in-your-face comedy and folk knew when to guffaw. If a TV sitcom recording were attended by English Victorians, there would be no need for a warm-up artist or for the person on the sidelines holding up a card to ensure a sufficiency of spontaneous tittering.
In fact, so ready were Victorians (by reputation, anyway) to emote in all directions that they had a stack of songs, plays and poems written for the purpose. In a single evening, round the parlour pianoforte or at the music hall, a willing audience could be reduced to raucous laughter, moved to tears (The Picture with its Face Turned to the Wall), stirred to patriotism (The Deathless Army**), inspired to religious fervour (The Lost Chord) or roused to anger by the right song. The result? Lots of pretty and predictable tunes, but – frankly – a dearth of truly great ones. Victorian England, I’m afraid to say, was not a great place for musical development.
Those songs are largely mushy, sentimental, melodramatic and shallow. Nevertheless I have a weakness for them, and know the words to what may be an embarrassing number. Indeed it is a family weakness, and although Mum and Dad do not have a parlour, they do have a have music room where any combination of family members is likely to be found attempting to recreate what amounts to Victorian karaoke.
Recordings of many of them are hard to find – I struggled to locate even the two links above – because they are not really very memorable. But they were the pop songs of the time, and there is a direct parallel between them and the mass of ordinary, formulaic music that swamps the airwaves. But among them there are a few gems.
On a bigger scale, operas and operettas appealed to the same mawkish inclinations, and suffered thereby from the same superficiality. They, too, have their counterparts: in forgettable mediocre 20th century stage and screen musicals. Even the best of Gilbert and Sullivan is most aptly described in terms such as “charming” or “delightful”, suggesting something short of the emotional charge you associate with Beethoven or Schubert. It was a source of great frustration to Sir Arthur Sullivan – who, coincidentally, wrote The Lost Chord – that he could never really shake off the reputation as a light composer. He wanted to be known for his more serious works, and there is some decent stuff among it – such as his Festival Te Deum – but not enough to get him onto an A-List of 19th century composers.
This is all very much in my mind, having been to see Mum and Dad yesterday. To give me something to listen to in the car on the way back, Dad selected a CD of an 1840s opera by Michael William Balfe – The Bohemian Girl. It was a bullseye for the times. Much like a modern musical it has one stand-out and beautiful aria – a true rose amongst thorns: I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls. That took on a life of its own and regularly appeared as part of Dame Joan Sutherland’s recital repertoire, reviving and guaranteeing its popularity late into the 20th century.
How did I get on to that? I’ve almost talked myself into wishing Laura a Victorian-style tear-stained farewell, which was not the idea at all. “Cheers, and good luck.” – That’s much more 21st Century.
And finally, if you were worried about where that Lost Chord had got to, worry no more. Jimmy Durante Found It - and this did make me laugh.
*Yes – principles. Had you not noticed?
** Don’t believe the pictures in the link – this is not a WWI song.
This week I am going to get things going with a little Rossini – a duet from the lovely opera Le Comte Ory.
I saw it first at English National Opera when I was 10 – the first opera I had seen, though Mum and Dad had been taking me to classical concerts for some years already.
The image being pushed here is of a small boy presented appropriately to the occasion – tidy hair, clean shirt and polished shoes – sitting quietly and enjoying his musical education and perhaps the treat of a glass of lemonade at the interval.
On a bookshelf in my Mum and Dad’s house there are a number of family photographs. Mum says that when she’s talking to any of her children on the phone she likes to sit where she can see them, which is a rather touching thought. So although I don’t have a great fondness for the photo of me taken seven or eight years ago, I’m quite happy that they have it.
(As it happens, it is the same picture with which colleagues decided to adorn coffee-mugs a few years ago: stretching someone’s face round crockery does not improve the looks. Mum calls it my “smiley picture” – cue the Romanian singer Smiley’s Dream Girl: quite a nice song; Smiley is a sort of Enrique Iglesias for Eastern Europe. Don’t ask me how I know this one.)
A couple of weeks ago Mum found another smiley photo, this time of a chubby toddler sitting at the front of a group of three children. It’s an affectionate picture, typical of the ones that Mum and Dad have preserved and which surface from time to time. Indeed, to track my life by Mum and Dad’s photo albums, you’d think that butter had never, ever melted in my mouth.
There is, therefore, no picture of me at the age of 14 or 15, sitting in my cousin Ray’s bedroom, listening for the first time to Curfew - a harsh, loud and discordant track from The Stranglers’ album Black and White. That was the moment at which I discovered punk, and though I can’t be precise about the date I have the clearest memory of the occasion and the impact it had. If Mum and Dad had realised what was happening, and the “noises” they were to endure in the years that followed, I’m sure they’d have bundled me in the car and whisked me back to the safety of their record-player at the double.
I was a little young to be a proper punk, and always a year or two behind the curve (a situation which has not changed in the 35 years since). My first steps into this odd and outré world rather resembled that toddler’s early attempts at self-propulsion: cautious but excited, wondering at the new things ranged out in front of me, and constantly stumbling or going the wrong way.
I’ve mentioned before that there is music in the family DNA, and if such is the case then punk rock is that part of the sequence unique to me. This was the first time that I had, musically, gone my own way. I got a little over-enthusiastic, reasoning that because some punk rock was good – in that it could stand up as music as well as being a social statement – therefore all punk must be equally good. As a result, even though there is some genuine rubbish in my cabinet that I never listen to, it stays there because it is part of the ramshackle record of my “rebellion”. (One of my favourites is the frenetic Where’s Captain Kirk by the oddly-named Spizzenergi – a collective that reinvented themselves several times with different variants of the name.)
A short digression: while thinking about all this quite a number of songs came into my head. While all are appropriate, none of them would be my records of choice by the artists in question. So:
- Instead of Theatre of Hate’s Rebel without a Brain I give you Do You Believe in the Westworld?
- You can have David Bowie’s Wild is the Wind (still fairly apt), as opposed to Rebel Rebel, which is not Bowie’s finest moment. I don’t warm to repetition without variation – which is one of the reasons that I am not the biggest admirer of Springsteen. But having said that, I love The River – a double album which I owned at university, loved, lent to a friend and never saw again; I had bought it on the strength of hearing Point Blank in a cab. Now I can feel an online shopping trip coming on.
- Rather than Rockabilly Rebel by Matchbox, I shall link to nothing by Matchbox.
The spirit of departure in which I explored punk neither kept me from continuing to find inspiration in the genres in which my education lay, nor stopped me discovering new music in those genres. Indeed, if anything, my taste is far more catholic and informed. Several decades later, I am still delighted to go to ENO, and my enjoyment if anything is greater: less worried (perforce) about the state of my hair, and with a little sense of residual rebelliousness turning up in jeans and trainers. But that neatly combed ten year old would never, 30 years on, have found Janacek’s extraordinary Glagolitic Mass if he had not first recognised the marvels of dissonance in punk.
All-told, it’s not much of a revolution to look at, but in my head those few minutes listening to Ray’s newly-bought LP were transformational. I wonder if he even remembers.
On those mornings when (like Bill Evans) I’m Up with the Lark and wish to avoid the dire consequences of disturbing Mrs simonsometimessays before she has hit Snooze on the phone alarm for the third time, I head for the front bathroom of the sss abode. There, while shaving (if the mood takes me) and showering, I am at my most suggestible. The physical routine takes no thought at all, leaving my mind – which has a different daily trajectory full operation – to do its own thing. At the front of my brain there is enough of superficial consciousness to ensure that I don’t brush my teeth with a razor or apply shampoo to the face-flannel (not 100% successful on the second one, sadly); at the back, where the complicated, free-form matter that is about me buzzes around, unpredictable things happen.
(To me, anatomy and phrenology are things to be heard of, rather than understood. Good for crosswords, general knowledge quizzes and bluffing. So you’ll understand that my representation of front brain/back brain activity is not intended to suggest actual knowledge.)
In that bathroom there appeared a few days ago* an interesting plastic container labelled My Coconut Island - Body Scrub. It’s not mine, and I mention it not for the possible benefits of product placement but because it has brought to mind a 1975 song - Barbados by Typically Tropical. The premise is of a London bus driver returning to his native Barbados on a Coconut Airways flight. It’s a sweet and bouncy song, though probably contains too many stereotypes to get past a savvy record executive these days. Still, I prefer it to the 1999 revision - Ibiza - by Vengaboys (is it really ok to rhyme “Ibiza” with “pizza”??). I’ve never been to Ibiza, and nor does that song much tempt me to do so.
I have, however, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of my brother Chris**, been to Barbados, where the sort of holiday normally beyond the means of this branch of the sss’s was enjoyed by a dozen of us across three generations.
Chris is a few years older than me: a big brother to revere when I was small, and that reverence has not lessened through adult life. He was always cool. He owned The War of the Worlds earlier than anyone I knew, and a Rolling Stones compilation almost before the Stones had enough songs to compile and Jagger had lost his looks. If he’s wondering where that record is, by the way – I have it safe. 19th Nervous Breakdown - it doesn’t need an excuse.
Among the many wonderful memories of that fortnight – swimming with turtles from a catamaran, my parents having their photo taken with a recently replaced British Prime Minister, bathing from a private beach, and worshipping at the statue of Gary Sobers in Bridgetown – is the Crop-Over carnival. An event in two parts, each celebrating the finish of the harvest with enthusiasm equal in measure if different in style: the joyful parade of the united church communities singing and dancing their thanks with chaste exuberance, followed by the lines of colourful costumes and sexy rhythmic swaying of the secular contingent. The tunes were the same, though the words didn’t have quite so many references to Jesus. Visitors to the carnival – as we conspicuously were – made easy targets for the raunchy, thrusting moves with plenty of body contact which (I believe) would cost extra at certain clubs in London.
It’s a far cry from the scene outside our window this morning. Frost which has settled overnight is slowly fading, and in the air is the hint of snow with flakes so few and falling so slowly that you feel that you could catch them one by one.
As often happens on a Saturday if I have woken up too soon and am thinking too hard about things that should have been kept to Friday, I lay claim to the dining table for an hour or so and tap away at something such as this, with calming music playing in the room around me. Today it’s Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light: A Requiem. There’s a whole CD to listen to there – your sample is Lead Kindly Light. If you feel inclined to explore the requiem further – and I think you should – you’ll find The Lord is my Shepherd will repay the effort (and be perhaps familiar).
I often find it settling to listen to a requiem. Although some are fretful and restless (the well-known Dies Irae from Verdi’s setting, for example) and worry about death and judgement, others concentrate musically on rest and peace. Fauré’s is the one I reach for first as a rule.
But let’s return to that another day; right now my mood has moved on a little, and my thoughts are troubled only by the breakfast dilemma: Porridge or Toast?
I’ve just this minute discovered that the vocalist of Streetband – the perpetrators of that peculiar late 70s song – was Paul Young. I don’t know how I feel about that, except that is has decided me in favour of porridge. Honestly. As it says in the Benjamin Calypso from Joseph: honest as coconuts – before they have been savagely rendered into toiletries for the masochistic.
- *Other members of the sss outfit may assert that it had been there for a long time, proving what they regularly say about my powers of observation. I can only point out that it would be unkind of them to spoil the narrative.
- ** For “Chris” read “Chris and Maura”.
Another quick post. It’s the end of Shrove Tuesday. The internet has been so awash with images of pancakes that were we being monitored by aliens in space they might well deduce that Earth’s dominant life-form is flat, roughly circular, and has creamy brown skin with a slightly bobbly texture. But other than the fact that as the day has progressed these images have had a distracting effect which has increased in mouthwateriness, I find that I have nothing whatever to say about pancakes.
While I type, Mrs simonsometimessays is whipping up a few of said delicacies, and for the next five minutes you have my undivided attention.
Shrove Tuesday. I was at an embarrassingly advanced age before I realised that Shrove Tuesday and Mardi Gras were one and the same thing. Raised a Catholic (about which I have no hang-ups) I associated the day with pancakes (well, naturally) and the arrival of Lent. It was Paul Simon’s song - Take me to the Mardi Gras – that was to blame. It taught me not about a forthcoming period of fasting and solemnity, but about a rather cool party that I’d like to go to when I grew older. I’d still like to.
It’s the last day until Easter on which the word Alleluia is uttered in Catholic services. And so, in order that you don’t run short of alleluias, I offer:
Why make a choice? Take both with my compliments. And with the observation that lemon juice and maple syrup is a surprisingly toothsome combination. Worth the wait.