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Heading for the light: a word about Supergroups

May 20, 2013

Now where was I? Well, I’ll tell you: I was Under Pressure, All Shook Up, in Darkness, but now I’m Heading for the light.

OK, that’s a touch melodramatic and not strictly accurate, but I quite liked writing it so I shall leave it be. It was the means, really to get to the third- and fourth-named of those songs, the former from the Human League’s classic album Dare;  the latter an optimistic track from the Travelling Wilburys’ first album (not their second album: Travelling Wilburys vol 3), accurately expressing something of my personal situation just now. But the reason for mentioning it is not to found an excuse to get all personal and describe what will not interest you; rather the opposite. Let’s just say that it’s part of the back story to a piece which, as always, starts with the music.

The Travelling Wilburys really were a supergroup. No, let’s be more emphatic: if there were ever a collection of artists deserved to be capitalised, emboldened and italicised, it’s the Travelling Wilburys: they were a Supergroup. Five major music stars, with nothing to prove to anyone, combining their talents apparently because they felt like it. By “major star” I mean, of course, that I had heard of them before. When I looked at the The Place Where All Things May Be Learned I found all-too-many examples of supergroup who just don’t seem to count, either as a super assembly or as an assembly of supers. I could go on about that but I’d only reveal my own ignorance, so we’ll change tack, pausing only to tip our hats to the first genuine Supergroup, who were so super that they didn’t even bother to give themselves a name. A casual and unplanned jam session by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Elvis was dubbed The Million Dollar Quartet in a newspaper the following day, by which time the group had gone their separate ways without once mentioning musical differences. The session was recorded, but the recordings weren’t very good; I think the occasion was more about the moment than the music. So instead of linking to it, I’m cheating, and linking to a promotional performance given by the cast of the modern musical Million Dollar Quartet. It’s a great homage to the original artists and their music, a tradition stretching back much longer than the 1960s.

Caroline sent me a text two days ago advising me to listen to At the Indie Disco by The Divine Comedy, whom I’ve admired for years. One feature of the song certain to appeal to me is the various approving references to bands and singers that I used to listen to (when I was too uncool to go to indie discos). It does seem right for musicians to acknowledge their musical forebears; but it can go too far. Dad lent me a copy of Palestrina, a 1917 opera by Hans Pfitzner about the 16th Century Italian composer. Had you heard of Pfitzner before now? No, neither had I. And do you think you’ll hear of him again? Well it won’t be from me. The opera is slow, ponderous and indigestible. At least the first hour or so is; I gave up after that.

For a total change of subject I’m going to turn to Rameau. I borrowed another of his operas from Dad a couple of weeks ago: Platée. (I realise it must seem to some as if I’m always borrowing from Dad’s collection. Let me assure you: I do give them back.) Platée is a mannered, comic opera (or ballet bouffon, in its original presentation) which was popular during Rameau’s lifetime, but some of the jokes have not worn well. There are hints of pantomime: Platée herself – an unattractive nymph who believes herself beloved of Jupiter (a deception he practises as part of a trick he is playing on Juno) – is written for a male voice. There is the regular use of what I think of as vocal slapstick – the repetition of single syllables in a sort of “ka-ka-ka-ka” way, for, er, comic effect. But on the plus side, even though Rameau’s power is really at its greatest in his dramatic works, the music is rich and textured and has real bite. Try this extract; I don’t know much about the performance from which it is taken, but the photos suggest an interesting production.

Rameau was a close contemporary of Bach and Handel, and while he was doing his stuff in France, they were equally (if not more) prolific in Germany and Britain. Which gets me thinking about Handel’s Foundling Anthem, written by Handel in support of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury (like Messiah, another charity concert) and led to annual concerts given there. The performance we saw last year was really rather a special event.The_Foundling_Hospital_a_birds_eye_view_1753_engraving_by_T.Bowles_after_L.P.Boitard__Coram_in_the_care_of_the_Foundling_MuseumFor one thing, the music is of the first order. For another, it took place in the beautiful Foundling Museum. And for another, brother Richard was directing and playing, and sister-in-law Maddie was singing. How cool was that? Just so you can have a flavour of it, here is The charitable shall be had in everlasting remembrance. Imagine listening to that 250 years ago. If they’d had stadium rock venues in 18th Century Europe, Handel would have filled them, without question.

Bach, Handel and Rameau. Add Mozart (through a time warp) – and that would be a supergroup.

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