There was another fine radio 6 double bill of Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service and Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone to carry the listener through from afternoon into evening on Sunday, with excellent guests on both. Cocker’s show had a very definite Beat flavour, in anticipation of the imminent release of the film Howl, which centres around Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his infamous poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7th October 1955, and the prosecution for obscenity which was brought against its publishers, City Lights Books, two years later. We get to hear a brief extract of Ginsberg reading the first few lines of Howl from a recording of a broadcast on the San Francisco radio station KPFA at the time of the trial, beginning with the now canonical cry ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness’. Preceding this, there is an amusingly solemn and portentous prefatory speech by the announcer assuring us that, although the author himself has changed some of his language and further alterations have been made by the station in consideration of the sensibilities of an early evening listenership, the essence of the poem’s power and controversial impact has been retained. He goes on to cite William Carlos Williams’ defence of the poem and elucidation of its artistic merits in the even tones reserved for special pleading, making us feel as if we are hearing a courtroom disposition on behalf of the accused.
I grabbed my Portable Beat Reader off the shelves and followed the original text to see what had been altered. A ‘cock’ is excised (ouch!), as is, oddly enough, the word ‘heavenly’. How long the broadcast lasted, and how far it got into the poem I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be too long before it would be necessary for whole lines to disappear, as blunt Anglo-Saxon words and the acts and anatomies they allude to begin to proliferate. An interesting vowel-less spelling of the word ‘gyzym’, too, making it look as if it’s of Hungarian origin. Ginsberg is also heard at the start of the programme (just after the new PJ Harvey single) questioning the extent to which we can trust our senses and the mind’s interpretation of the impressions they receive, particularly whilst listening to a radio show, when what we are listening to is a series of electronic emissions which approximates the sound of a voice (in this instance the voice of Ginsberg, a dead man) but whose true nature is unverifiable. ‘Examine your senses’, he admonishes us.
Ginsberg and the Beats synthesized their own peculiarly American form of Buddhism, largely drawing on the Zen variety, but emphasizing its applicability to everyday life. They weren’t really the kind to retreat into a life of meditation and rigorously observed ritual. Traditional teachers would probably have considered them hopelessly undisciplined, although historically speaking, Zen monks themselves were capable of being a pretty wild bunch. The Beat mutation of Buddhist thought was later taught, along with creative writing, in a characteristically haphazard and makeshift fashion at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, more prosaically known as the Naropa Institute, which was founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg along with the poet Anne Waldman and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche was nobody’s idea of an unworldly, ascetic holy man, partaking freely in the temptations of the flesh and of the bottle. Marianne Faithfull sums up the scurrilous atmosphere of the place with an air of exasperated affection in her book Memories, Dreams and Reflections. It was, she says, ‘a nutty place run on exquisitely nutty lines and originally overseen by the Beat Holy Trinity: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso…The three of them at their most outrageous, and running a school! School for scandal – definitely!…Allen tried to seduce his students. It was just outrageous, the whole thing – but you would expect no less from the Beat academy of advanced underground studies’. Ginsberg clearly had no truck with the central Buddhist tenet of detaching oneself from the demands of the ego. Faithfull observes that ‘he really wanted to be more famous that anybody, more famous than the Stones, more famous than Dylan, more famous than Bono. He wanted rose petals thrown and trumpets blown wherever he walked!’
It sounds like the sort of place that Kerouac, who despised the celebrity he had thrust upon him, would have absolutely loathed. He was an essentially shy and reserved man who summoned up the wildness required of him in the wake of On The Road’s huge success, its distillation of the Beat essence, from the bottom of a bottle. Jarvis played a recording of Kerouac reading The Sounds of the Universe Coming In Through My Window. This comes from his long prose poem (though Kerouac would have probably preferred that it be referred to simply as a poem) Old Angel Midnight, written between 1956-9. It was originally entitled Lucien Midnight, but Kerouac’s friend Lucien Carr for some reason failed to take this dedication as a compliment and objected to the use of his name. Kerouac tries to capture the mercurial nature of the associative flow and spontaneous connections sparking through the mind. He draws on the sounds drifting through his window (which is in this case in the house of his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, in Mill Valley, California) to launch his imagination out into the world. The mind encompasses the universe, spanning immensities of scale from great to small, crossing time and space and switching effortlessly between the real and the imaginary. Kerouac sees, in his mind’s eye, the ants mining sap on the tree outside his room before deciding that, since they are still, grazing like cows, they must be aphids with ‘bottomless bellies which for all I know are bigger than the bellies of the universe beyond’. This is one of Kerouac’s explicitly Buddhist poems, with references to bodhidharma travelling to the east, and all the weave of imaginative impressions spun out from an alert awareness that the sensory imprint of each moment is nothing but an insubstantial and impermanent projection upon the ‘crystal void’. The reading ends with an exhaled ‘wow’, an expression of wonder at the teeming fullness of the world, and of the mind which can perceive and connect it all.
The recording was originally released on a 1959 LP called Poetry for the Beat Generation, made with renowned jazz producer Bob Thiele (he would later work on the classic John Coltrane Quartet recordings on Impulse Records). The pianist was Steve Allen, who had suggested combining Kerouac’s words with music after hearing him read during a fairly disastrous residency at the Village Vanguard (another Coltrane connection there) and ended up getting the gig himself. Allen would later invite Kerouac onto his immensely popular TV show in November 1959. Footage of this appearance bookends Richard Lerner’s 1986 documentary What Happened to Kerouac?, and offers a rare and valuable insight into the writer’s true nature. Jack looks nervous and ill at ease in his jacket and open-necked shirt, drumming his fingers on Allen’s piano lid as he provides brief, mumbled responses to his questions. Allen once more provides sensitive and unobtrusive piano accompaniments as Kerouac reads from his prose, a folding together of the final paragraph of On The Road with what is apparently an introductory passage from Visions of Cody. This introductory passage, with its beatific revelation instructing Jack’s fictional alter ego to ‘go moan for man’ is one of the most frequently heard pieces of Kerouac’s writing, liable to turn up in any documentary about him or the Beats, and has come to be seen as the perfect preface to On The Road. It’s strange, then, that its provenance is so hard to pin down. Gerald Nicosia, in his Kerouac biography Memory Babe, claims that ‘Jack actually read a medley of the conclusions of both books’. But the passage he reads is certainly not part of the conclusion of the edition of Visions of Cody which I’ve got. It sounds more like a self-explicatory introduction, but again, it’s not one which is included in my copy. The introduction to that is provided by Allen Ginsberg. Wherever it’s from, Kerouac reads it beautifully and it dovetails perfectly with the final paragraph of On The Road, with his delivery of the line ‘and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?’ particularly sticking in my mind. Jack stretches and syncopates the syllables of the final word of his most famous book, the name of its hero and idol, Dean Mo-ri-ar-ty, bringing the whole thing to an end like the roll and crash of cymbal and drum which serves as a concluding punctuation to a lengthy jazz improvisation. Jack then promptly dashed off into the wings of the theatre where his nerves got the better of him and he was copiously sick.
Jarvis’ special guest on the Sunday Service was Michael Horovitz, the poet and performer (and much more), who had known Ginsberg and others of the Beats. He is a very loquacious man; as Jarvis observes, ‘Michael certainly knows how to talk’. What he has to say is interesting and engaging and put across with forceful eloquence and sincerity, drawing on a wealth of experience, so it’s well worth allowing him his verbal head of steam. It has to be said that, on the evidence of the track played during the recorded interview by Horovitz’s William Blake Klezmatrix Band (Blake and klezmer, a strange hybrid), his singing doesn’t quite match up to his conversational skills. In this, he follows in Ginsberg’s footsteps in his rather painful attempts to record Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Ginsberg’s own description of Horovitz painted him as ‘a cockney Albionic new Jerusalem jazz generation sensitive bard’. This was later slightly revised, the ‘cockney’ being replaced by ‘experimental’ after it was pointed out to him that Horovitz was born in Frankfurt, the child of German Jewish parents who fled from the Nazis and ended up in London. The spirit of William Blake which Ginsberg invokes in his description is accurate enough, however. I spotted the anthology Children of Albion which Horovitz edited in 1969 in a charity shop the other day, and the ecstatic figure of Blake’s Glad Day blazed forth from its cover. Flicking through its contents, I did recall why I’d given my copy away some years before. It’s very much a product of its time, filled more with declamatory gestures of rebellion than works of real substance. As he was for Ginsberg, Blake was both artistic model and guide for Horovitz, sometimes in an almost literal sense. Talking of how he decided to become an artist, he recalls that ‘Blake said to me ‘start your own renaissance’’, as if it were a word of advice from a friendly uncle. Horovitz took his advice, and in 1959 founded New Departures magazine, which published much innovatory poetry and prose, including the first publication in England of extracts from William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
Horovitz puts the controversy surrounding Howl and other Beat writings (and indeed the beatnik as a social type) into the context of the fear-filled atmosphere of the cold war and the aggressive conformity which it encouraged. The 1955 Howl reading at the Six Gallery was like the Old Testament turned on its head, he says, a new Jeremiad for the fallen modern world. He also points out that, as with any trial of a literary or artistic work for obscenity, whether it be The Rainbow, Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Naked Lunch, it provided massive publicity and was ultimately great for business, as the frequently shown footage of queues of furtive fans of literature waiting to buy their copies of Lady Chatterley from opportunistic streetside vendors vividly illustrates. Today, such publicity-generating controversy tends to be inbuilt by canny marketing departments, taking Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, for which it was essentially the content and subject, as their shining example.
Horovitz was instrumental in organising the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in June 1965, which brought together Beats such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg alongside English and European poets and the Russian Andrei Vosnesensky. In the event, the hall was packed to capacity and the evening was seen by many in retrospect as a precursor to the flowering of the English underground during the Summer of Love. Such is its semi-legendary status that a whole host of people lay claim to have been behind the idea. Michael Horovitz, interviewed by Jonathan Green for his book Days In The Life: Voices From The English Underground 1961-1971, states that ‘in 1965 I met with Ginsberg and (Alexander) Trocchi in Better Books (Barry Miles’ alternative London bookshop) and we hatched this plot to hire the Albert Hall and have a big poetry reading. I was very much involved in the setting up of the Albert Hall gig…I had arranged Ginsberg’s first reading at the ICA in May 1965 and that was very successful…We decided to have a bigger reading, and Ginsberg said, ‘yes, let’s bring together you English assholes.’ There was a lot of conflict and Ginsberg somewhat resented the fact that we’d made our own scene and worked differently and he was rather competitive. But essentially he wanted to bring everything together and we planned this big thing in the Albert Hall’.
Michael Horovitz at the Albert Hall in 1965The event was filmed by Peter Whitehead, and later released under the title Wholly Communion (now available on the bfi disc Peter Whitehead in the Sixties). It’s an interesting document, even though it’s not a very good film. Whitehead was using a camera with which he had no experience, and the film cartridges kept jamming, with the result that he missed significant portions of the evening. He also discovered that he hadn’t picked up any sound, a fairly significant failure for a recording of a poetry reading. Fortunately, the BBC had made their own recording and he was able to get hold of this and synchronise it with his footage. And there is Michael Horovitz, looking just the part in his stripy beatnik t-shirt. As if to underline the misapprehension behind the popular stereotype of the Beats as wild young kids out for crazy kicks, Ginsberg and Corso turned up in respectable jackets and ties. Horovitz read a pacifist, anti-bomb poem which reflected his involvement with CND, reaching out to the audience and asking them to join with him to ‘combat the darkness loud,/Drown the bloom bomb flight of bombers’ night/Unmourned mortality of a mushroom shroud’.
The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky was present in the hall, and was referred to by several performers. He had been highly thought of in his home country, but had somehow attracted the opprobrium of Khruschev, who graduated from rubbishing his work to publicly denouncing him as a ‘pervert’ in 1962. He served as an emblematic victim of repressive forces for the English and American poets, and their passing inclusion of him as martyr figure in their politically inflected work probably did him few favours in the long term. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in the opening poem of the evening, says ‘I am waiting for Voznesensky to turn on with us and speak love tonight’. He would wait in vain. Allen Ginsberg later drunkenly invites him to take the stage, asking ‘Andrei, would you like to read?’ The camera catches him in the front row of seats, looking a little awkward and embarrassed by all this loud attention. He had no intention of taking part in what was, in truth, a fairly shambolic, poorly organised and utterly chaotic affair.
Alexander Trocchi draws on his pipe while Allen Ginsberg chantsOpinions as to the importance of the evening vary wildly. Some ascribed significance to the very fact that so many supposedly like-minded people had come together to fill this large establishment hall (home of Rule Britannia and the last night of the proms), although a BBC report on a slow new night may have done as much as any underground network in gathering this capacity crowd. Jim Haynes, who went on to become a prominent figure in underground circles, recalls in Days In The Life how ‘everybody said the same thing: ‘God, I didn’t know we were so many.’ It was a realisation that ‘God, I thought it was just me and a few friends, but this many…’ This was the revelation of the evening. There were lots of people out there like us’. But as for the actual poetry, Barry Miles, who ran the Better Books alternative bookshop at the time and is another claimant for prime organising force behind the evening, speaks for many when he says (again in Days In The Life) that ‘the reading itself, despite all the publicity, was a dreadful reading. It was one of the worst poetry readings ever. Ginsberg was very upset by it…The audience was restless, they couldn’t hear what was happening properly. Voznesensky refused to read. Things were so chaotic and he didn’t want to be associated with it’. The evening was compered by Alexander Trocchi, conducting proceedings with his pipe, the curls of smoke from which added to the thick miasma fugging up the hall. According to Miles, he combined such homely narcotics with a good strong dose of heroin. Indeed, everyone seemed to be on something that evening, between them amassing an extensive cross-section of the drugs which were available at the time.
Gregory Corso read lifelessly from a sheaf of papers clutched in his hand, barely looking up for even the briefest moment of audience contact. The Austrian performer Ernst Jandl provided an interlude of enjoyable dada theatre with his absurd sound poems, including a riotous rendition of Kurt Schwitters’ Fury of Sneezing. Harry Fainlight added a dissenting voice to the general aura of simplistic political diatribe, preaching to a self-satisfied choir. His poem Spider forensically detailed a horrific drug-induced descent into hallucinatory nightmare, foretelling the downward direction many involved in the underground would take in the sordid, declining years of the decade. This intensely individual voice did not go down well with the audience, however. It was not telling them what they wanted to hear. His fellow performer, the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog (high on mescaline) rudely interrupts him with a loud chant of ‘love, love..’. Fainlight gently dismisses him as a ‘loveable idiot’, with the emphasis on the latter quality, but from the reaction of the audience, it’s idiocy that they respond to more than poetry. He tries to pick up his rhythm once more, but the moment is gone. Iain Sinclair, in Lights Out For The Territory, describes how ‘the British Poetry Renaissance…was visibly launched…with much of the huge audience barracking Harry Fainlight’s hallucinogenic epic, The Spider, while signalling their approval for the simplistic formulations of Adrian Mitchell. What they wanted, as ever, was a protest prom. Poetry as CND sloganeering’.
Public therapiesFainlight was a man of fragile mental health who was left visibly shaken by the treatment meted out to him. It can’t have helped that it was all memorialised on film. Peter Whitehead also spends a good deal of time focussing on a young woman sitting on the stage (there are, of course, no women actually performing from the stage). She waves her arms in the air, picking pieces of foliage from an adjacent plant to hold above her head. Seemingly an archetypal flower child, she is in fact a patient from Villa 21, the ‘experimental’ unit for young schizophrenics set up by David Cooper. Cooper was the author of The Death of the Family and a progenitor, along with RD Laing, of the anti-psychiatry movement. This essentially blended psychiatric practice with Marxism, with an added touch of the mysticism prevalent in the era. It saw madness as being a reaction to the insanity of society and its demands as much as a personal or inherent dysfunction. Madness could also be an experience from which the sufferer could learn, and Cooper and Laing felt that it was therefore advantageous to guide its progress through to a natural conclusion, which would herald genuine healing and rebirth. The removal of barriers between patient and psychiatrist, dismantling any relationships of power and authority, was facilitated by the setting up of communes in which both lived side by side: Cooper’s Villa 21 and RD Laing’s Kingsley Hall, which effectively formed alternative family homes. It was all very much of its time, although the organisation which Laing helped to set up in 1965, The Philadelphia Association, is still in existence. Both Cooper and Laing accrued the uncomfortable gravitas and authority of gurus.
The presence of their patients at the Albert Hall related to long-standing poetic notions, dating back to the Romantic period, of madness as a visionary state, providing heightened insight into the true nature of reality. It’s a naturally occurring form of the ‘derangement of the senses’ sought by Rimbaud and his spiritual descendants. It’s a dangerously romanticised view of mental illness. It’s a terrifying experience, destructive to the people who suffer from it and those around them and requiring sensitive and responsive care. Eric Marquis’ 1968 film Time Out of Mind, included in the bfi Shadows of Progress box set, and originally addressed to medical practitioners, provides an intense and unflinching insight into the experience of mental illness. It portrays three imaginary cases, opening with an elderly woman self-harming in a public toilet, an almost unbearable scene which is hard to watch (and which earned the box set its 15 certificate). We witness an ordinary family man experiencing an overwhelming panic attack whilst shopping in a supermarket with his wife. And a young woman, living at home with her overbearing mother, suffering from everyday feelings of depression and lack of self-worth. Alternative approaches to these cases are depicted, both good and bad, and emphasis is placed upon the need for GPs to make meaningful contact with these people, to allow them to express themselves and gradually get to the root of their problems, It’s a small step forward, addressing some of the objections of the anti-psychiatry movement, although the fact that the film is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company might seem to confirm their worst fears. The girl on stage at the Albert Hall, on the other hand, had (according to the interview with Peter Whitehead on the bfi disc) been given a dose of LSD as part of her treatment. It’s a huge betrayal of trust, and makes Cooper seem, rather than the ‘visionary’ which Whitehead proclaims him, a dangerous cult leader imposing his beliefs on his followers. His ‘experiments’ are as controlling and potentially harmful in their own way as the treatments meted out in mental hospitals at the time whose barbarity he rightly denounces.
Allen Ginsberg - Poetry with an Old Testament touchAllen Ginsberg is clearly the star of the show, the one they’ve all been waiting for. The third member of Marianne’s ‘Beat Holy Trinity’, William Burroughs, had not been present, but a recording had been played over the loudspeaker system. By this time, however, Ginsberg had supped rather too freely of the poet’s bowl of wine and God knows what else, and was heavily and clumsily intoxicated. His performance is enjoyable to watch at first as he waves his arms and shakes his fists in an animated fashion, pointing with the accusatory zeal of an Old Testament prophet. But his words are slurred and as the initial excitement of his sheer presence wears off, he comes to appear more like a street corner ranter, a dishevelled bum pouring forth the troubled contents of his head (a very beat character, in fact). By the end of the film, he seems bewildered, not sure of what to do next, and as the camera mercifully runs out once more, he is heard scrabbling about on the floor (as we are told by Whitehead) whining ‘my poetry book – where’s my poetry book?’ These are the last lines of Wholly Communion, and they serve perfectly to sum up the event. Unsurprisingly, Ginsberg was unhappy with the entire evening, and with the subsequent film.
Horovitz carried the spirit of the International Poetry Incarnation forward, keeping the faith but with better background organisation. He puts together regular Poetry Olympics events, which form time to time re-occupy the Albert Hall. He talks of the current photographic exhibition of the Beats at the National Theatre, and laments their physical deterioration, their youthful vitality sapped and withered by their addictions of choice. He quotes the short poem of an older and wiser Ginsberg, a concise, personalised variant of the three ages of man, titled Maturity, which was included in Horovitz’ POP (Poetry Olympics Party) anthology: Young I drank beer and vomited green bile/Older I drank wine and vomited blood red/Now I vomit AIR’. Horovitz signs off on an optimistic note, taking courage in the resurgence of resistance and opposition to the forces of entrenched power, loudly declaring that this time ‘with luck the Blue Meanies will be overcome forever!’
Following straight of from the Sunday Service, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone hosted Julian House and Jim Jupp of Ghost Box records as guests. They talked about the re-release of the first two full length Ghost Box LPs, Belbury Poly’s The Willows and The Focus Group’s Sketches and Spells, and about the wider Ghost Box aesthetic. This is partly a matter of design (House is also a professional graphic designer). The Willows and Sketches and Spells, for example, both echo the look of old Penguin paperbacks, the former with the blue of the ‘Pelican’ non-fiction titles and the latter the orange of the literary fiction line. Subsequent releases by The Advisory Circle (Mind How You Go) and Belbury Poly (The Owl’s Map) followed this through with the green of the crime fiction titles and the brown of the classics. You can see more about the design history of Penguin paperbacks, focussing on the changes to the cover of 1984, in the last of the BBC4 series The Beauty of Books. The Ghost Box aesthetic extends beyond graphic design, however, and into the fictional world which Jupp and House and their fellow artists have created around their work. This draws heavily on memories of library music, TV and film, and English psychedelia from the 60s and 70s (and the unearthed artefacts themselves).
Jupp and House talk about extending this world beyond the recordings which they release. They have made films (or audio visual modules as they like to call them in true Open University style) such as the Winter Sun Wavelengths collage used as the backdrop (or centrepiece) for Broadcast performances. There are also the Belbury Youth Club nights, which celebrate their influences with projections of old TV series (the one in Birmingham last year showed the mystical coming of age tale Penda’s Fen), DJ sets and assorted spontaneous activities. Another evening is promised later in the year (maybe) in Brighton. They also created an edition of an imaginary journal called Folklore and Mathematics, which was sent out with some early mailings of CDs. Julian and Jim dream of setting a TV drama in the Ghost Box world, probably somewhere in the vicinity of their country town of Belbury and its surrounds. Lets hope these dreams are one day realised. It would be great to see their kingdom (although it would probably be more appropriate to think of it as a small county) expand into other areas. Indeed, they discuss the ways in which the Ghost Box aesthetic has found expression in unusual and unexpected forms, citing the comedy series Look Around You and The Family Examiner. Look Around You derives much of its humour from the painstaking reproduction of the style and content of Open University and Tomorrow’s World programmes, before making surreal departures from the sense of familiarity this induces: an ornithological interlude observes a burglar alarm constructed by a crow beside its nest from string and milk bottle tops; a space mission is on its way to Mars in order, for reasons never explained, to destroy the planet; and a mysterious disease known as ‘cobbles’, which turns its victims skin into rock but does, as a side effect, give them the power of flight, is examined. The latter could happily takes its place in Jeff Vandermeer’s anthology The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. The music in both series of Look Around You, from the self-styled Gelg, would easily fit into the Ghost Box catalogue.
Ghost Box isn’t entirely fixated on the 60s and 70s, however. The associative literature which they draw attention to comes from before that era of hazy childhood memory. There is a continuity with post-war and indeed pre-war English culture, a sense of a deep rooted sense of place over which recent memory is only the latest thin layer. Hence the juxtaposition of modernist post-war architecture, ‘the Polytechnic College, Public Library and the striking Common Fellowship Church’, with ancient megalithic sites, Iron Age hill forts, Saxon churches, medieval market halls and baroque follies outlined in the tourist ‘guide book’ to Belbury which forms the booklet of The Owl’s Map. The name Belbury is taken from CS Lewis’ 1945 novel That Hideous Strength, the third of his Out of the Silent Planet SF trilogy, which confronts those who hold a rational and modern world view with re-awakened occult and spiritual forces, all against the background of an English village. The Willows in its turn is a title borrowed form Algernon Blackwood’s classic 1907 supernatural tale. Stuart Maconie writes about Ghost Box in his exploration of Middle England, Adventures on the High Teas, locating them within the context of supernatural writers such as MR James and Robert Aickman, and of the Ghost Stories for Christmas TV adaptations of James and Dickens directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark in the 70s. ‘The contemporary English label Ghost Box’, he writes, ‘attempts to recreate what we might call this Middle English strangeness in sound, the sound of partially remembered school science programmes, Public Information Films, radio call signs, long-forgotten advertising jingles’.
In the interview, phrases such as ‘menace and wrongness’ and ‘creepy and malevolent’ are used. But it would be wrong to suggest that all is shadowy and sinister in the Ghost Box world. Trish Keenan summed up the benevolent side of their sound in the Broadcast ‘Invisible Jukebox’ interview in the September 2005 issue of The Wire (number 259), responding to the Focus Group track they’d just been played (You Do Not See Me from Hey Let Loose Your Love) and the kind of music from the 60s and 70s which informed it. ‘It’s the way they make you feel’, she said. ‘You can’t ignore that really nice feeling. I remember Georgy Girl uses a Tom Dissevelt track at the beginning – back to that thing about kids playing and pretending to be things in space – and when you see that you can’t ignore that lovely feeling that you get. And I think that’s what Julian likes, that kind of memory music’. There’s plenty of Ghost Box music which gives me that lovely feeling. Farmer’s Angle from The Willows and Salty Sun Tales from the Focus Group’s We Are All Pan’s People are both breezily cheerful. The sublime Hocusing for Beginners from the Advisory Circle’s Other Channels is almost painfully evocative of an unreachable past, blurring out of focus and receding until it becomes entirely unrecoverable. Admittedly, this achingly beautiful piece immediately follows the utterly terrifying invocations of Eyes Which Are Swelling, a track so disturbing I hesitated before including it on my Halloween compilation this year. From An Ancient Star, the most recent Belbury Poly LP (although another is promised later in the year) is full of warm analogue melodies which could comfortably accompany the adventures of children’s lunchtime TV characters through bright and colourful landscapes.
Stuart inevitably brings up the subject of Trish’s recent passing, and Julian re-iterates how hard it has hit them all. He points out the extent to which his career, both as graphic designer, musician and label co-director, had run in parallel with that of Broadcast, and how much of an influence they were on him. James Cargill made the same point in The Wire jukebox interview, pointing out that ‘his first sleeve was our first single, so we both started out at exactly the same time’. He goes on to repay the compliment relating to their mutual influencing of each other, granting that ‘the music we got into when we started Broadcast, a lot of it was Julian’s records. He’s the king’. Long may he reign.
Finally, it was great to hear new tracks from forthcoming records by The Unthanks and Trembling Bells. Jarvis Cocker ended his show with a slow-building song shot through with the ever-exquisite harmonies of the Unthank sisters, whilst Stuart was effusive in his excitement at the prospect of new Trembling Bells material (as was I), playing the wild and slightly unhinged Otley Rock Oracle. Both groups will be playing in what promises to be a fantastic evening’s music. They’re travelling down to the South West later this month, playing at the Phoenix in Exeter (hooray) on the 19th , and the Arnolfini in Bristol on the 21st.