Saturday, 29 June 2013

Richard Matheson



Richard Matheson, who died earlier this week, began his life as a writer with stories sold to the thriving SF and fantasy magazine market in the post-war period. His first published work was Born of Man and Woman, appropriately enough, which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1950. Many of these short stories were later gathered together in the numbered series of Shock collections, whose 70s paperback editions had particularly lurid pulp covers which belied the quality of their contents. Which wasn’t to say that Matheson didn’t sometimes resort to slick fantasy plots which revolved around last minute revelations turning everything topsy-turvy: the desolate alien planet is really a post-apocalyptic earth, the beautiful woman has been an android all along, what was assumed to be heaven is really hell, and so on. But these cheap (albeit often rather effective) devices were generally an incidental way of rounding off the story with a memorable flourish. The true substance lay in their psychological portraits of characters confronting a universe which is beyond their comprehension or control.


Matheson is probably more widely known for his work in film and television, which he began to concentrate on from the late 50s onwards. Nevertheless, the written word was always at the heart of his screenwriting. Many of the original scripts he produced were actually adaptations of previously published novels. This was the case with The Incredible Shrinking Man, his 1956 novel, which was filmed the following year from his script. It displayed many of the preoccupations and concerns which would characterise his work over the following decades. The protagonist begins steadily to diminish in stature after being dusted by a cloud of atomic radiation. The use of radiation as a catalyst for his condition is in some ways nothing more than a casual, plot device of its time, used to explain away all manner of transformations and monstrosities. But the anxieties and fears which run through Matheson’s stories reflect an underlying unease trembling beneath the affluent surface of the Cold War America of the 50s and 60s, with the bomb as the everpresent threat hanging Damoclean above everyone’s head. We experience his existential angst via his narration of his inner thoughts. He becomes increasingly isolated in the world. In one particularly touching sequence, he makes temporary friends with a midget from a travelling circus whom he meets whilst going on a night walk through the local park. But soon he has begun to recede from her too, and is left all the more lonely. The shrinking man is also driven to question his, and by extension humanity’s place in the universe. He has constantly to adjust to the changing nature of his relationship to his surroundings. These remain largely domestic throughout, but the family home becomes an environment as alien as any distant planet. The everyday made strange and frightening is another Matheson trait. The way in which the domestic environment becomes a comfortless, alienating and increasingly dangerous prison for the shrinking man can also be seen as an externalisation of mental disintegration. SF and fantasy is a great way in which to make the metaphorical real, to create solid manifestations of inner demons and subconscious fears. Matheson’s isolated characters are frequently taken to be delusional or mentally unbalanced. His famous Twilight Zone story Nightmare at 20,000 Feet features William Shatner as a nervous and twitchy (he was always good in such roles) airline passenger who has just recovered from a breakdown which occurred on a previous flight. This proves an added complication when he begins to see a gremlin scuttling about on the storm-lashed wing of the plane. If it would be difficult to credit someone babbling about an inhuman creature tampering with the engines in mid-flight, this goes double for someone with a known history of mental illness. Shatner’s character realises this, and from then on is another of Matheson’s characters who must face the incursion of the strange into the everyday alone.



The domestic setting of The Incredible Shrinking Man also reflects a certain amount of gender anxiety. The protagonist is confined to the home, where his wife increasingly towers over him. Matheson uses the fantastic to reflect social changes and the tensions which they create. There are broader Darwinian fears, too, as he ceases to be the dominant species in the food chain, eyed up first by the family cat and then by the scurrying spider in the basement into which he falls. A lengthy sequence details how he uses his brains to defeat the spider, which is now a deadly predator far too powerful and quick for him to escape without the use of all his native intelligence. The ending demonstrates an abiding spiritual side to Matheson’s work. As the shrinking man diminishes to the point of invisibility, he climbs out of the basement and enters the garden. He begins to contemplate the universe from the atomic scale, a recessive vastness as awe-inspiring as any cosmic distances. There is a persistence of consciousness as he effectively leaves the human world, however, and he talks of merging with creation, still a part of its fabric (this comes with a certain amount of Godly rhetoric, de rigeur for the climax of 50s SF films, although at least there are no Biblical quotations). Matheson would remain fascinated with this idea of the persistence of consciousness. The journey into an afterlife was central to his 1978 novel What Dreams May Come, turned into a film in 1995. Somewhere in Time, the 1980 film which he adapted from his 1975 novel Bid Time Return also re-united its time-crossed lovers beyond death.


Perhaps Matheson’s best known novel is I Am Legend, first published in 1954. It’s a rationalised fantasy, positing a world ravaged by a pandemic which has seemingly infected everyone but the protagonist, the first person narrator of the story. The disease with which humanity is infected brings with it many of the symptoms associated with the vampire of gothic fiction. These are all given biological or psychological explanations. Matheson was essentially bringing the monsters of the Romantic period into the godless modern age or scientific rationalism. His vampires are the precursors of the zombies which have now overrun horror cinema. But whereas zombies are reductive lumps of ambulatory meat, his creatures remain human, something which the protagonist of I Am Legend is forced to recognise in the end. He is another of Matheson’s lonely men, wandering the crumbling city streets alone in the daylight, holing up in his bunker before they emerge at nighfall. It’s a novel which has proved irresistible to Hollywood, but thus far they have flunked it. The first adaptation, Last Man on Earth (1964), was initially scripted by Matheson, but was altered so much that he all but disowned it. He was none too keen on The Omega Man (1971) either, although it has its moments, and is the best of the three. The 2007 film uses the original title, but is largely an excuse for cgi backdrops of a ruined and overgrown New York and plentiful zombie shoots. Matheson would bring the old monsters into blinking into the modern world once more in his two Kolchak the Night Stalker TV movies. These featured an investigative reporter stumbling across the supernatural in the brightly lit world of Chicago; in the first case a vampire, and the second an immortal murderer who keeps himself alive with human blood. Of course, no-one believes the slightly shifty Kolchak, and although he defeats the forces of darkness, his stories never see the light of day. The Legend of Hell House (1973), adapted from his 1971 novel Hell House, is also a rationalised fantasy, with Roddy McDowell’s scientist conducting empirical experiments to reveal the secrets of a haunted house.


Matheson translated the work or other writers’ work for the screen as well as his own. Night of the Eagle (1961) is a particularly fine adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel of campus rivalry manifested through the witchcraft practised by faculty wives to promote the careers of their husbands. It’s another story in which gender anxieties are central. Peter Wyngarde’s professor’s horror at the idea of the supernatural being real is as much to do with his disbelief in the notion that his wife could have had anything to do with his success as it is with the disruption of his rigidly held rationalist worldview. The script was a collaboration with Charles Beaumont, who was something of a fellow spirit. Both wrote some of the most memorable Twilight Zone stories, which were generally suffused with paranoia and psychological terror. They both also wrote the scripts for Roger Corman’s series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Matheson wrote the original run, beginning with House of Usher in 1960, followed by The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), the compendium Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963). These allowed his literary side to come out, and he provided some wonderful dialogue and dramatic setpieces for genre veterans like Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. He also demonstrated a fine sense of comedy and the absurd in the hilarious wine-tasting scene in the Black Cat segment of Tales of Terror, in which the florid language of Vincent Price’s oenophile is contrasted by Peter Lorre’s more basic guzzler’s vocabulary; and in the voluble titular bird of the Raven, and its climactic magicians’ duel between Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It’s particularly nice to see Boris showing a lighter side here.

Wine-tasting duel - Tales of Terror
My favourite Matheson moments come in his Twilight Zone stories, however, which for me are the best distillations of his dark art. This is horror which makes an impact on an existential as much as a visceral level. Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet is oft cited as the classical Twilight Zone story, but there are Matheson gems scattered throughout the five series aired between 1959 and 1964. Shatner stars again in Nick of Time as a young newlywed man who stops off at a diner with his new bride. He becomes obsessed with the novelty fortune telling machine at his table, which dispenses cards with aphoristic insights which seem to voice his inner thoughts. It’s a perfect expression of the underlying self-doubt which plagues someone who’s just setting out on an entirely new course in his life. Third from the Sun is a good encapsulation of Cold War anxieties, as two families of scientists involved in a rocket programme look to the future and find it to be short-lived as the world plummets headlong towards apocalyptic conflict. They steal the rocket and escape from what seems to be contemporary America. Of course, you guessed it, the planet they’ve identified as their new home is…Earth. The story nevertheless is a strongly and sympathetically observed depiction of common fears at the time. Little Girl Lost anticipates Poltergeist in its tale of the young daughter of an ordinary American family who falls through into some noplace dimension from which her frightened voice can be heard in her bedroom. Another tale of domestic fears, its atmosphere is notably enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant score. A World of Difference is a psychological tale in which a man’s ordinary day’s work at the office is suddenly disrupted by the cry ‘cut’, at which point he discovers that his whole life is nothing more than a film script, his office prop flats. It’s a plot which makes manifest the protagonist’s alienation from his own routine existence, the feeling that he’s not altogether present in his own life.

Matheson displayed his comical side once again in Once Upon A Time, in which he gave Buster Keaton the chance to show off a few routines, old and new, in his role as a nineteenth century janitor who inadvertently dons a time-travelling helmet which plunges him into the present day. And When The Sky Opened is a genuinely unsettling metaphysical horror story, seen from the point of view of one of three astronauts returning to earth from a pioneering rocket launch into deep space. They have no recollection of what went on up there, and then one of them simply vanishes. But this is no ordinary disappearance. He has ceased to exist, at this or any point in time. Newspaper headlines now report that tow astronauts went into space, and no-one can recall the colleague about whom our protagonist makes increasingly frantic enquiries. When the second astronaut suffers a similar fate, he is left alone, the sole witness to a reality which is being systematically edited. He realises that he will be the next to be erased by whatever force has been set in motion. We never discover the nature of that force – no trite revelations here, just an acknowledgement that there are vast and unknowable mechanisms at work in the universe, in the face of which human lives count for very little.

Lee Marvin in android drag - Steel
In Steel, Lee Marvin plays a boxing promoter in a future world (1974!) in which fighting has been abolished. The sport continues with android combatants, however, and it is one of these that he carts around the country on Greyhound buses, his weary mechanic in tow. Their machine is an obsolete model which has long seen better days. It pops a spring and gives up the ghost before the fight is about to begin. Marvin’s character, a sweaty, desperate hustler who’s fallen well behind the game, decides to take to the ring himself rather than forfeit the money. Inevitably, he takes a bloody pounding from the dispassionate machine he faces, and gets roundly booed for putting up such a poor show. Collapsing onto the floor of the ‘workshop’ changing rooms, he sends the mechanic out to get the money, and has to accept, through bloodied teeth, when he comes back with just half. It’s a compellingly bleak tale of human beings struggling to survive at the bottom of the heap, unable to adjust to a mechanised world which has made them redundant. Marvin’s heroic if foolhardy stand goes entirely unnoticed, and he leaves town completely humiliated, but still determined to carry on with his pitifully outmoded fighter, Battling Maxo. Rod Serling’s customary summation reads the story as a parable of the indomitable human spirit. That seems a hopelessly optimistic interpretation of this sombre and downbeat tale.

Howling into the storm - Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet has been mentioned already. But what a masterpiece of pacing and sustained tension it is. Set within a claustrophobic environment, the interior of a small plane, it slowly builds up from initial glimpses of the gremlin to Shatner’s character’s realisation that he alone can act to save the plane and everyone in it. To do so he must behave in a way which will make everyone think he has lost his mind once more. The story reaches its climax as he is sucked out of the emergency exit window, tenuously harnessed by his safety belt, and faces the beast which slowly stalks towards him along the wing in the howling rain. The camera focuses in on his screaming face as he aims his wild shots with the gun he has lifted from a security guard – a moment of cathartic intensity as he is loosed from the confines of the plane and from his artificially maintained façade of calm sanity. It’s not difficult to see how this particular story has lodged in the minds of so many who have seen it over the years. It was inevitable that it would be one of the episodes chosen for the anthology film made in the 1980s. Matheson would enjoy pushing Shatner to the edge again in the Star Trek episode which he wrote, The Enemy Within. Kirk's personality is sheared off into two distinct entities when the transporter goes awry - a good Kirk and a bad one. Perhaps he realised that Shatner was at his best when playing neurotic or psychotic characters.

Night Call derives from an early short story published in 1953, Long Distance Call, and expands upon it to produce an emotionally draining tale which once again makes maximal use of a confined space. An old woman, Miss Keene, house and wheelchair-bound, receives a phone call in the middle of a storm-tossed night, and is plagued by further calls thereafter. The caller on the other end of the line is initially inaudible, but soon begins to emit pained groans, and then an effortful ‘hello (spelled out ‘h-e-l-l-o’ in the story), as if he has not uttered words for a very long time and is unused to their sounds. Miss Keene, who has been persistently calling the exchange about her nuisance calls, is finally informed that a team has come to repair the storm-damaged line near her home. She couldn’t have been receiving any calls, they tell her. The line has come down – over the cemetery. In the Twilight Zone episode, we go on to discover that the lines are grounded in the grave of her fiancé, who had died many years ago as a result of her negligent driving. She had been a domineering companion, controlling his simple and passive soul. She realises that it was him who had been trying to get through to her on the phone, and wills him to call her again. But she had told him to let her be, and he once more obeys her command, leaving her alone and desolate in her remote house. The Twilight Zone version has a powerful emotional charge. But it does lack the kick of the original story’s final line, in which the anonymous graveyard caller rings again and says ‘hello, Miss Elva. I’ll be right over’.

The amazing Agnes Moorehead in The Invaders
My favourite of Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone stories is The Invaders. It’s a bold and stark drama which is almost entirely free of dialogue, and is a one-hander. As such, it’s the purest expression of his lonely person theme. It’s set in a remote farmhouse inhabited by a solitary, independent woman. On one calm, still night a spaceship crash lands onto her roof. It’s a small vessel, a classic 50s saucer. In fact, it’s the model used in Forbidden Planet, a film whose props and sets turn up in several Twilight Zone episodes (Robbie the Robot even makes a special guest appearance in one). The story details the woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to fight off the tiny invaders, robotic figures which sting her with burning ray guns, stab at her with her own kitchen knives, and burn entrance holes in the wainscoting like mice. Matheson’s economical script benefits immensely from an extraordinary, bravura performance by Agnes Moorehead, who makes us feel the bewilderment and escalating desperation of this beleaguered but strong and indefatigable woman. Jerry Goldsmith’s score also ratchets up the tension throughout, and he is wise enough to know when silence is more effective than any sound. In the end, the woman climbs up on to the roof and smashes the miniature spaceship with an axe. We feel a sense of triumph before hearing the distress call emanating from the wrecked vessel, announcing the disastrous termination of the mission. The menacing little robots are given ordinary human names. The camera pans around and, yes, the insignia reads USAF Probe. It’s an Earth ship which has found itself on a planet of giants. But it has been pre-emptively aggressive and belligerent, assaulting a lone woman in her home. There’s a definite anti-militaristic slant here, and we can feel no sympathy for the tiny people whatsoever as they face their end so far from home. This is a daring and brilliantly sustained piece of minimalist storytelling. It anticipates the similarly concise and single-minded Duel (1971), Stephen Spielberg’s early TV film which was based on a Richard Matheson short story.

I watched Steel, Night Call, Nightmare at 20, 000 Feet and The Invaders last night as a tribute to Richard Matheson. What a treat it was. There’s no better way to remember his singular talent, so go out and find them now.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Gwyneth Herbert, Fiona Bevan and Nancy Elizabeth at the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter


There were two excellent gigs at the Exeter Phoenix Arts Centre last week, featuring three fine female singers, each with their own distinctive voice and songwriting style. On Thursday, Fiona Bevan was introduced by headliner Gwyneth Herbert, who declared that she had fallen in love with her the first time she saw her perform. It soon became apparent why. Her songs were filled with a natural joie de vivre, even when they entertained an element of heartbreak (as in the wittily titled Dial D for Denial). Poppy and eminently hummable, they nevertheless had real substance, and bore the stamp of lived experience sincerely expressed, without straying into Joni or Janis (Ian) confessional territory (a territory I’m always happy to venture into, I should add). She accompanied herself with simple but deft and surely strummed and plucked chords on a nylon-strung classical guitar. She did pick up the ukelele at one point, its happily chugging chordlets providing the perfect complement to her smiling presence, whilst studiously avoiding any nodding and winking Formbyisms. Cradling such a tiny instrument emphasised her tall frame, which was topped by a coronal bubble of hair worthy of Marlene in Blonde Venus. This alternately absorbed the radiance of the stage spotlights, becoming a varicoloured stellar beacon, or provided a retinal after-image silhouette hovering before the backdrop. Her voice was lilting, light and honeyed, with a jazzy, Billy or Ella vibrato leaving the end of each line lingering in weightless suspension in the air, as if she were cherishing the shape and sound of her words. Vocalise syllables were effortlessly overlaid in the upper range, seemingly for the sheer joy of it, and further demonstrated her versatility and assurance without being in any way showy. Alone in front of the untenanted array of instruments waiting for the full band to come, she nonetheless commanded the attention of the audience, and had them spellbound throughout.

Fiona Bevan
Fiona returned to her centre stage spot for Gwyneth Herbert’s performance of The Sea Cabinet, a suite of songs commissioned by Snape Maltings and inspired by a residence along the exposed and windswept Eastern coastline of Suffolk. Herbert’s seasongs are part of a noble lineage. Snape Maltings was converted into a concert hall in the 1960s under the guidance of Benjamin Britten to house the expanding festival based in nearby Aldeburgh which he had instigated in 1948. Britten’s own music had been inspired by the coastline here, and the sea and local landscape is a dominant presence in his best known opera, Peter Grimes. There are faint echoes of the moods painted in the Four Sea Interludes extracted from that opera in some of her settings, from the pizzicato pointillism of Sunday Morning (heard in Drip and Fishguard Ladies) and the sparse evocation of empty expanses of space in Dawn (which she depicts in her own song interludes).

Gwyneth’s songs were akin to short stories, depicting events from particular viewpoints or portraying the inner lives of her characters. She took on their roles, adopting the appropriate singing style, and was occasionally joined by Fiona in what became dialogue duets. This was particularly notable (and hugely enjoyable) in the lustily sparring shanty narrative of The King’s Shilling. Herbert’s pleasingly burred voice dovetailed with Bevan’s higher and lighter tones with harmonious congruence. The role-playing aspect fitted in with the theatrical nature of the evening. The songs were interspersed with a story, read by Gwyneth, about a woman wandering the shoreline, combing for washed-up artefacts which she collects, notes, classifies and takes home to file in her sea cabinet. The songs arise from these lost and discarded objects. They become the imaginative seeds for further stories and portraits, which span the decades and centuries and range from the personal to the folkloric, both tales bold and tall and glimpses of untold lives on the margins and in the shadows. Gwyneth reads these interludes beautifully, with great sensitivity and feeling. She would have been great on Jackanory, and could quite easily have a sideline recording audiobooks.


The words convey the melancholic and time-scoured sense which seems inherent in this landscape. In collecting these drifted fragments of other people’s lives, the cabinet curator seems to be trying to make sense of her own. The songs could be seen as projection of her own displaced self, exhibiting varying degrees of fantasy, the trying on of different personae. But the character in Promises, who remains true to a marriage which swiftly descends into disappointment and abandonment, remaining rooted also to place, perhaps gets closest to the truth. The final image, of a wedding gown made from torn fishing nets hung from her bedroom wall, suggests that a marriage to the sea may be the ultimate conclusion of this lifelong hunting and gathering. A ghost in her own life, she will end up spectrally adrift on the North Sea swell, until she herself becomes a piece of the flotsam, the sorting of which has so fully occupied her years – bones on the shore. Perhaps she will take her place alongside the east coast hauntings of MR James’ ghost stories. It reminds me of the powerful end of the extraordinary narrative poem The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High by Carol Ann Duffy (who I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing at the forthcoming Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington), included in her collection The Feminine Gospels. Mrs Mackay, who has roamed out of her marriage and across the country, but who ‘had finally run out of land’, walks out into the waves, which ‘danced her away like a groom with a bride’.


The bleak, flat expanses of the east coast, the end of the land on Britain’s flood-levelled rump, lend themselves to such sorrowful songs and backward-looking introspection. It is a place where people wash up, where lives run out, and where time seems to hang a little heavier, the past lingering on in local pockets of dense gravity whilst the modern world beyond rushes on. The delicately wistful piano and wordless vocal prelude summons up the atmosphere of reflection and reminiscence which pervades the Sea Cabinet and the intertwined narrative. It has some of the autumnal air of Norma Winstone’s songs, both on her own albums and with Azimuth. It feels like Kenny Wheeler’s plangently sighing trumpet could join in at any moment. The aforementioned Promises also has something of an ECM air, with the keening guitar (Al Cherry or Harry Bird? – it would be appropriate if it were the latter) reminiscent of Terje Rypdal’s echoing electric, which often seemed to be drifting on a chill wind from the fjords. The mixture of Herbert’s cracked and heavy-hearted vocals (more musical character acting) and the effects-drenched guitar also brings to mind Marianne Faithfull’s collaboration with Bill Frisell on the Strange Weather album.

This is definitely the out of season seaside we are inhabiting, a depopulated strand of faded memories and wide horizons drawing the gaze towards introspective distances. The album includes the recorded sounds of steps on shingle and the unceasing susurration of the waves. It might have all been in my mind, but there seemed to be a background whisper of waves emanating from the rear of the hall throughout. This put me in mind of Embers, Samuel Beckett’s play in which these sounds are also a constant presence (you can find Patrick Magee's extraordinary performance of it at ubuweb). In this work, too, the sea and empty shore direct the mind towards memories both sorrowful and bitter, the hypnotically repetitive cycle of the waves’ steady respiration stirring up ghostly voices and phantasmal scenes.
It wasn’t all bittersweet introspection and melancholia, however. The audience was involved in the spectacle, and made to feel as if they inhabited the landscape which was being conjured up. We were encouraged to add our own ambient contribution to the soundscape during one song, Sweeter, with the tips or flats of fingers pattering on palms or softly clicking, thus summoning a light rainshower. She made a more intimate connection with some members of the audience, who had responded to her open invitation to form a chorus for one song. It became apparent that the preponderance of tops with horizontal navy stripes wasn’t evidence of some new fashion trend – these were her handpicked crew of pirates. Such participation was a further manifestation of the spirit with which she involved fans and music lovers in the funding of her recording of the Sea Cabinet songs, giving them back something in return, whether in the form of a signed copy, an individual music lesson or a private concert. The chorus took their place in front of the stage, and she descended to sing with them and direct them with a bit of gestural conduction. The use of the area in front of and around the stage in this and other songs added to the theatrical feel of the evening, the sense of connecting with the audience. It also created a sense of space, the no-man’s land between performer and audience effectively becoming the interzone of the shingled strand.

For the hymn to sentimental nostalgia Sweeter, Gwyneth followed Fiona’s example and picked up a ukelele to sing the happy/sad memory song, redolent of pierrot pierside shows, soaked in longing for times long vanished. Penny Woolcock’s recent film From the Land to the Sea Beyond, compiled for the bfi from archive footage of life on the coast throughout the twentieth century, would be a great backdrop for this song, and several others too. The nostalgist’s sense that the glory days are in the past also pervaded The Regal. Clattering junkyard percussion, with Gwyneth wielding a cheese grater, rhythmically rasped with a stick, conjured up the sound of Mrs Wittering laying out the crockery in her once thriving b&b, going through the bustling motions.

The ocean is used as a metaphor for love lost or turned sour in a couple of songs. I Still Hear the Bells undermined the dream of the romantic escape to an isolated seaside idyll, with images of building on shifting sand, too close to the edge. In echoes of the old legend of the drowned city of Ys which surfaces from time to time (a legend, or a variant thereof, drawn upon by Debussy, Alan Stivell and Joanna Newsom), the bells of the church in which they were married still ring out in the minds of the parted couple from beneath the waters which have engulfed it. This allows for a loud, clangourous chorus, with bell sounds hocketed around and any nearby object co-opted as percussion. Drip, meanwhile, detailed the steadily progressive dissipation of a woman’s identity (or it could be a man), her sense of self drowning in the domineering, engulfing personality of the partner from whom she no longer has the strength or will to get away. The initial brittle jollity of the verse bursts into full-throated soul-testifying in the chorus, Herbert’s voice letting loose a flood of feeling, which this character has dammed up for so many years. It’s a formidable vocal force which is also brought to bear on the siren song Lorelei, an old favourite revived from the All the Ghosts LP. Here, the old destructive Rhine spirit is reincarnated in a modern woman against whom men collide and shatter. It’s seen as her tragedy (as well as her strength) that none of them prove a match for her. The chorus again is powerfully soulful, with an edge of desperation and a folkish tinge to the language.

Gwyneth Herbert - framed by Brighton seafront sculpture?

Herbert’s voice is a flexible and finely tuned instrument, capable of moulding itself to the many and varying forms her music takes (it’s a long while since anyone could sensibly confine her within the admittedly comfortably furnished jazz ghetto). As already noted, it has a sensitive storytelling timbre. It’s capable of nuanced ballad portraiture and atmospheric vocalese as well as soul wailing and blues growling. She put it to more roistering use in a trilogy of rowdy nautical songs. Plenty Time for Praying set the whisky and rum flowing as Gwyneth and Fiona called out a forceful siren song in seductive shanty form, luring mesmerised pirates to their ecstatic doom. Drink swayed along to a Tom Waits junkyard clatter, offering a myriad reasons to seek the oblivion offered by the demons stoppered in the bottle. The King’s Shilling was a Brecht and Weill-flavoured tale of nautical temptation, with Gwyneth taking the role of the man tempted to take to a life on the ocean waves, Fiona as the woman telling him he’d better not, unless he wanted a kitchen knife plunged into his back. The whole ended with a freeform vocal and instrumental tempest, presumably plunging everyone into the roiling deeps and down into Davy Jones’ locker. Herbert’s voice emerged, keening like a seagull, a sea maiden’s shamanic transformation.

There were also tales of invasion, of the island fortress breached. Alderney began with the remembrance of a personal island idyll, an old whistled tune maintaining the air of nostalgia established by the previous songs. But this distracted mood was shattered by the violent, percussion-rocked chorus. This painfully recalled the desecration of this paradise, the quarrying and concreting of the pastures and narrow streets by the occupying Nazi army once the inhabitants had been evacuated. Fishguard Ladies remembered a less successful attempt at invasion, this time from the French, via Ireland, in 1797. The women of the Welsh port stood on the cliffs above Goodrington Sands and, as the song would have it, lifted their petticoats and saw the timid Gallic boys off with a few bawdy choruses. More ratcheting and clattering percussion suggested both the loading and priming of old rifles and the sounds of domestic labour transformed into rhythms of martial defiance. It’s a triumphant, rude gesture of a song which, like all the others emanating from the cabinet, sees things from a woman’s perspective (the perspective of the cabinet’s curator, as I suggested). These are sea songs for the ones who stayed ashore, although as the Fishguard Ladies so amply demonstrated, this by no means entails passive waiting and watching.


The Sea Theme with which the storybook was opened returned to mark its closure, the sad piano chords and softly lulling voices drifting away on the tide, leaving us with a faded and rather melancholy postcard of a now empty landscape. It was a wonderful, theatrical experience (and I can imagine who fantastic it must have been on the Wilton’s Music Hall stage), and large velvet curtains should really have swept across to draw a veil over the finished performance. However, such grandeur had to be restricted to the theatre in my head, and the actors took their bow to deservedly warm applause.

Nancy Elizabeth’s performance on Sunday evening was a more low key affair. It was just her alone on stage standing with guitar or sitting behind her keyboard, although she was joined after a while by a friend on bass to add a bit of heft. He also provided the occasional low, rumbling electronic drone as an atmospheric and slightly ominous bedrock to a couple of numbers. She began with two songs not yet recorded, one of which rode on a hypnotically spiralling fingerstyle guitar pattern in the Nick Drake One of These Things First mould. Most of the material was drawn from her new LP Dancing, however. It’s been a favourite of Stuart Maconie (also heading down this way for the Dartington Ways With Words festival, where I shall be going along to hear him). He’s played several tracks on The Freak Zone, his eclectic Radio 6 showcase for the rarefied, esoteric or just mildly offbeat.


The first of the Dancing songs, Last Battle, was prefaced by ethereal, wordless vocalising, which soared on operatic updrafts. Such fearless flights into the upper register reminded me a little of Lavinia Blackwall’s singing in Trembling Bells (coming up in July at the Phoenix), or the romantic psych-folk stargazing of Shelagh McDonald. There are echoes too of Jane Weaver and her Fallen By Watchbird projects. Nancy soon came back to earth, however, her voice settling into its pure soprano tenor, strong and vulnerable at the same time in an early Sandy Denny manner. A Mancunian common sensibility insures that her songs don’t float off into Narnian realms or folkish netherworlds, any fey waftiness immediately dispelled by the city’s plain, no-nonsense outlook. She remains on the street where she lives and makes her observations from that firmly rooted standpoint. Last Battle is a song which eschews dewy-eyed romance for a declaration of independence and self-assertion in matters of the heart (‘won’t wait in a cage till someone comes to rescue me’). Her pragmatic outlook on love is further expressed in Desire, and could be described as desolate but philosophical. It has something in common with the pleasurable melancholy of Elizabethan lute songs, with their disquisitions on the pain of love. Indeed, the discreet, singularly struck piano chords sound like they could have been transcribed from a strummed lute, the high, yearning vocals of the chorus akin to the emotive singing of a counter-tenor. It’s an anti-lament reaching a position of resigned equanimity, choosing to reject the myth of romantic, ever-lasting love. The forceful Debt with which she ended her performance, was driven by fierce chordal strumming and underpinned by a throbbing electronic drone, which was suggestive of the mountain-shaking bass chanting of Tibetan monks. A song of love and parting, it expressed a rather more active desire to hold on as long as possible, but was once more prepared to let go, to accept a natural ending.

Fiery firmanent - the Dancing cover
Nancy’s Romanticism is of a rather more broad variety, venturing at times into the mystic. It’s the full-blooded Keats and Shelleyan beast, with a strong golden vein of Blakean vision, leading her to ‘dream cloudy like a poet’, as she sings on Shimmering Song. If she is given to traditional singer-songwriterly bedroom introspection, the expression of personal feeling is soon expanded to connect with the wider vistas afforded by the active imagination. This is perfectly encapsulated in the beautiful sleeve art for the Dancing album, which she designed herself. A silhouetted row of suburban rooftops, compressed into the very bottom of the cover, gives way to rising, arced layers of collaged, varicoloured and textured paper – a fiery firmament coruscating above the everyday. The craters of a full moon, which is limned with a blue corona, are made up of words, luminous and sacred. Nancy alluded to her insomnia during the concert, and this picture suggests that the nightworld she often finds herself awake in is a place of heightened reality, full of wonders revealed to the open and receptive mind.

Cecil Collins - The Great Happiness (1974 version)
Simon Says Dance, the single from the album, was half-dismissed as throw-away song thought up during an insomniac phase. It depicts life and love as a universal and eternal dance, moving from waltz hall to disco floor. A sense of mystical connection and the unearthing of the extraordinary from the everyday characterise a number of Nancy’s songs. As she sings in Shimmering Song, she is ‘thinking of ways I can turn a mundane day into shimmering song’. In Death in a Sunny Room, which is by no means as goth-gloomy as it sounds, and which featured a gorgeous piano arrangement, she sang ‘under a giant blanket of stars we spin away’. Intimately personal and astronomically vast scales are conjoined in one transcendent moment. Desire, on the other hand, sees ‘horizons crumble in my hands as I learn new depths of love’, a rather more ambiguous and earthbound metaphor. Indelible Day makes a permanent impression of a dawning moment. There almost seems to be a recognition of some divine, radiant and all-encompassing presence in the line ‘I can see the light of a golden sphere with ubiquitous rays’ (and what a great-sounding word ‘ubiquitous’ is – one of my favourites). Cecil Collins’ painting The Great Happiness comes into mind here, his depiction of a solar, life-giving force filling the sky with light. Nancy’s spiritual songs are suffused with a similarly numinous glow.

She incorporates elements of Indian scales and rhythms into some of them. Shimmering Song has Eastern vocals, additively building up and ascending, two steps up and one back. Raven City also has Indian-inflected melodies, and is her most explicit piece of religious mysticism, essentially depicting a transformation in the nature of the soul. In contrast to most rock and pop songs, this is not achieved through romantic love, although there is an intriguing allusion to ‘other entities’. A moment of transcendent comprehension comes upon her, when ‘I revealed and beheld all the universe in me’. The song was another which Nancy played at the keyboard (set up to sound like a piano throughout), its spacious chords initially interspersed with claps, lending it a calmly celebratory air (clap happy music in a less hysterical register than usually encountered). These turned into rippling, arpeggiated chords which seemed to emulate the shimmering, metallic clangour of the East European cimbalom.

For all the heady mystical themes underlying many of the Dancing songs, Nancy’s self-declared favourite from the album was Heart, which she wrote about and for her grandmother. It’s evidently deeply felt, a real heartsong which empathetically tries to see the world from the point of view of an old woman whose mind has drifted into self-forgetful dementia. It’s not at all depressing, however, finding hope in the continuance of life and the remembrance of the passionate way in which it has been lived, a persistence of personality in some form. In spite of it all, ‘I woke every morning with my own heart’. Another piano song with sublimely simple chord patterns. Nancy seemed to reserve her most emotionally charged moments for when she was safely at rest behind the keyboard (although the makeshift drumstool she was obliged to sit on was, she observed, a little precarious). She finished with no instruments at all, however, delving back to her artistic origins to sing a brief, a cappella encore of The Wheel Turning King, a ritualistic song which she recalled having recorded in a small church for her first EP back in 2006. It brought things full circle in an appropriately all-embracing way. In the end, the beginning.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Jazz Enlightenment, Approximate Classics and Psychedelic Suites



I’ve begun recently to tentatively tweet on behalf of the Oxfam Music and Art shop in Exeter, alongside its manager, Jane. I’m highlighting some of the more notable items that come our way, whether they be classics, sought-after rarities, intriguing oddities, or just have nice covers which I can take a picture of and post. And, let’s face it, some of them are simply things which attract my attention because they’re part of my personal canon – I just like them.


Such is certainly the case with John Mclaughlin’s My Goals Beyond and Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing At Baxters, both of which are long-term favourites of mine. Mclaughlin’s 1970 LP turned down the electric riffing he’d unleashed on his 1969 sessions with Miles Davis (notably for the Bitches Brew LP), in the Lifetime power trio with Tony Williams, Larry Young (with Cream bassist Jack Bruce joining for the follow up) and on his debut as bandleader, Devotion (with its timelocked Ira Cohen mylar-mirror photo and enthusiastically phased Alan Douglas production). My Goals Beyond picks up from delicate, contemplative acoustic track at the end of Extrapolation album (which otherwise is more reflective of the British free jazz scene at the time), Bill Evans’ lovely Peace Piece, whose mood of stillness Mclaughlin translates perfectly to the guitar. A number of short solo acoustic guitar numbers (with some overdubbing) take up the second side of My Goals Beyond, including versions of Bill Evans’ Blue In Green, his contribution to Miles Davis’ perennial favourite Kind of Blue, and Charles Mingus’ elegiac Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat. The first side is taken up by two loose and lengthy group improvisations, Peace One and Two, which unfurl around steadily circling bass lines and humming tambura drones.

Many of the musicians involved were associated with Miles Davis’ late 60s bands, or would go on to play with him in the early 70s. Mclaughlin himself had stumbled into playing with Davis on the In A Silent Way sessions almost as soon as he’d set foot in New York, and percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Billy Cobham turned up on the Bitches Brew sessions, even if their efforts didn’t surface on the album as originally released (of course, every note Miles and his cohorts ever breathed, hit or plucked has now been issued in some form or another). Cobham went on to provide the swinging, jabbing percussion on Miles’ tribute to boxer Jack Johnson, whilst Moreira can be seen in the film of the Isle of Wight festival performance, in which free interpretations of the Bitches Brew material were aired before a slightly bewildered audience waiting to hear The Doors and The Who. Badal Roy, playing tabla, provided the rhythmic template for the Indian influenced linear improvisations, allowing them to soar free from set harmonic patterns. Dave Liebman’s lyrical, Coltraneish soprano sax and Jerry Goodman’s singing violin rise together into the wide blue yonder like twin larks ascending. Goodman, originally from jazz-flavoured psych-rock band The Flock, would play alongside Mclaughlin again when he plugged in and launched his spiritual explorations with full, twin-necked force in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Both Liebman and Roy would go on to join Miles for his On The Corner album, whose world fusions may well have been influenced by Mclaughlin’s pioneering ventures. Bassist Charlie Haden also launched explorations outside of the usual jazz borders (and well beyond his Midwestern origins), having initially expanded the music’s boundaries with Ornette Coleman. He would play with Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry in the 70s, both of whom introduced significant world music elements into their sound (occasionally to such an extent that the question might be asked ‘is this any longer jazz’?), and his own commitment to progressive international politics led him to record arrangements of the African National Congress anthem and Spanish Civil War and anarchist songs with his Liberation Music Orchestra. Haden is a great lover of the jazz tradition too, however, as displayed in his Quartet West LPs, one of which we also have on the shelves (unless someone nabbed it over the weekend). Appropriately enough, this 1980s reissue is pressed on clear vinyl, so that Mclaughlin’s far-off goals can be dimly made out through its groove-frosted disc (like a thin sheet of ice lifted from a small pond).


The sessions for After Bathing At Baxters found Jefferson Airplane let loose in the RCA recording studios, where they built up its song ‘suites’ from scratch, learning how to use the equipment (the studio as instrument) as they went along. The melding of songs into unbroken, discrete sections, no doubt drawing on Sergeant Pepper, works particularly well on the opening trio (subheaded Streetmasse). The Ballad of You & Me and Pooneil’s psychedelic free association, with burning acid guitar lines from Jorma Kaukonen and a rhythm which is both foursquare and woozily wonky, leads into the tape splicing and manipulating musique concrete goonery of A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly, the sound of people messing with the machinery and having a great deal of fun doing it. Perhaps this is what caught Zappa’s ear, and led to his collaboration with Grace Slick the next year, Would You Like A Snack, which appeared as an extra on the Crown of Creation CD reissue a while back. After a strange, giggling distortion of John Donne (‘no man is an island…is a peninsula’) we launch into the irresistible opening guitar lick of Young Girl Sunday Blues, the San Francisco sound encapsulated. Marty Balin’s yearning vocals, given little leeway on the rest of the album, are allowed their full emotive rein, the catch in his voice giving them a slightly countrified air. Elsewhere, Paul Kantner’s delicate, folkish portrait of a free spirit runs into his celebration of the spirit of the age, Wild Tyme, and Grace Slick forcefully sings two of her fiercely literate, provocatively confrontational compositions, rejoice (that’s James) and Two Heads. The cover, by Ron Cobb (who would later work as a designer on Dark Star, Star Wars and Alien), is great too. The colourful Airplane Haight Ashbury house, trailing balloons, flies with triplane wings over a monochrome America choked with the detritus of the industrialised, consumer society. Its prescient view of an ecologically devastated wasteland was later reflected in Cobb’s designing of an Ecology Flag, an alternative stars and stripes used as a symbol by the nascent environmental movement in the 70s. For those record collectors amongst you, for whom fine detail is all important, this is the UK stereo repressing with the orange RCA label (so no gatefold sleeve). For others less concerned with matrix numbers and label design, this has the advantage of making it a lot cheaper.


Another interesting record which has just gone out on the shelves is the 1974 LP Hallelujah by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which documents their sell out concert at the Albert Hall. The Sinfonia were renowned for mangling popular classics such as Also Sprach Zarathustra, the William Tell Overture and the Blue Danube Waltz. Their spirited but woefully inaccurate renditions brought tears to the eyes produced by a mixture of laughter and wincing pain. Although they appeared to be a mere novelty comedy act (albeit an extravagant and populous one), and were by and large received and written about on that level, there were more interesting and musically exploratory ideas active beneath the surface. The Sinfonia drew on Cornelius Cardew’s idea of the scratch orchestra, an ensemble which aimed to democratise music making by removing the emphasis on virtuosity. Cardew used graphic scores and emphasised free group expression and improvisation within the loose structures they provided. The Sinfonia was founded by the composer Gavin Bryars in 1970 whilst he was teaching at Portsmouth Art College. He too emphasised a non-technical, intuitive approach to music which eschewed virtuosity and pitch-perfect notated score-reading. By applying this approach to the classical music world, however, he challenged the elitism inherent in its structure and in the education system which produced its performers from such a narrow range of society. Widely familiar pieces from the repertoire were chosen so that the members of the orchestra would already have an idea as to what they should be playing. They were all earnest in their desire to create music, otherwise the whole enterprise would have descended into intentional, exaggerated amateurishness.


In fact, some of the people involved were more than competent musicians (including Bryars himself). It wasn’t long before Brian Eno, himself an avowed non-musician, became involved, taking his place on the clarinettist’s stool. He appears in this unlikely guise on this LP, which he also produced. His would continue to have a fruitful artistic relationship with Gavin Bryars, giving several of his compositions (including The Sinking of the Titanic) their premier recordings on his Obscure Records label (now gathered together over at Ubuweb). The Orchestra’s position within the diverse world of British experimental music in the 70s, and its sharing of some of its ideological concerns, is reflected in some of the other musicians and composers taking part. Simon Fisher Turner sits next to Eno in the clarinet section. He would go on to provide the soundtracks to several of Derek Jarman’s films, including the sublimely drifting mix of sound, speech and music for Blue. Michael Nyman bravely takes up the euphonium, having apparently joined the orchestra mid-concert, such was his immediate enthusiasm. He went on to provide the driving, baroque-meets-minimalism soundtrack to The Draughtsman’s Contract, as well as many concert pieces. He also had a more experimental work, Decay Music, released on Eno’s Obscure label. Kate St John is definitely not an amateur oboe player, having recorded as a session musician with many top pop and rock acts, as well as in her own right and in collaboration with Bill Nelson and the other Eno, Roger. Steve Beresford, playing trumpet, represents the improv and free jazz scenes, whose ideals of non-idiomatic playing which avoids preconceived patterns or reflexive riffs he imports into the gleeful warping of classical forms and notions of perfect reproduction. And there’s a more straight ahead jazz player, tenor saxophonist Phil Woods, who left America for France in 1968 and moved into more exploratory, free waters. His marriage to Charlie Parker’s widow Chan provides a direct link with jazz aristocracy. Perhaps its not such a leap from Parker’s nimble bop lines (a different kind of virtuosity) to the Sinfonia. He always did dream of playing over a string section.


Another interesting oddity (with a simple but graphically striking and colourful cover by Jim Fasso for this UK release) which has just turned up is vibraphonist Gary Burton’s album of Carla Bley compositions A Genuine Tong Funeral, billed on the back cover as ‘a dark opera with words’ (those words don’t seem to extend beyond the evocative titles and Carla’s liner notes, however). Arranged in the form of a suite which documents imaginary, exotic death rites, this is a blend of jazz and Bley’s early compositional style, which draws on twentieth century chamber music. The music is far from the lugubrious experience the overarching concept might suggest, however. Bley’s answer to the question ‘does humour belong in music?’ is always an unequivocal ‘yes’. The Gary Burton Quartet under whose banner the record is released includes electric guitarist (and sometime John Mclaughlin collaborator) Larry Coryell, bassist Steve Swallow (a longtime personal and musical partner of Bley’s) and ‘Lonesome Dragon’, more prosaically known as drummer Bob Moses (later to play in a trio with Dave Liebman – there are always connections to be found in the companionable world of jazz - and on Pat Metheny’s debut LP on ECM, Bright Size Life, featured on this week’s Freak Zone). There are musicians beyond the core quartet on this record, however, and a distinguished group of guests they are, too. Steve Lacy was always an adventurous collaborator in whatever context he found himself, and here he plays his signature instrument, the soprano saxophone. Gato Barbieri blows hard tenor saxophone, as he would do on the soundtrack of Last Tango in Paris a few years later. Jimmy Knepper plays trombone, as he did for several years with Charles Mingus, until the irascible bassist punched him in the mouth whilst they were preparing for the fraught 1962 Town Hall concert in New York, which was to have showcased his large scale compositions. It was a blow which seriously affected Knepper’s ability to play for a couple of years, landed Mingus in court on an assault charge, and unsurprisingly ended their personal and musical relationship for many years. Knepper’s fully recovered and in fine form here, though. Michael Mantler, personally and musically attached to Bley for a number of years, plays trumpet. He’s perhaps better known now as a composer who blends jazz and modernist music and literature. His 70s albums No Answer and Silence were based on the words of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter respectively (and we’ve got a hard to come by double CD release which paired them both on the online Oxfam shop at the moment).

In fact, we’ve got something of a golden hoard of great modern jazz at the moment: Art Pepper, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, and the funky flute of Jeremy Steig, and a whole lot more. Do come and plunder it if you’re passing by.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Children of Alice on Devon Folklore Tapes



Harbinger of Spring, an 18 minute piece by Children of Alice, was released earlier this week, fortuitously timed to coincide with the long-delayed turn of the season, the sun warming up the English earth at last. It forms one side of the Devon Folklore Tapes Vol.5 cassette, which comes wrapped with typically imaginative and beautifully executed artwork by David Chatton-Barker. I must admit, the revived appeal of cassettes leaves me a bit baffled. They really did seem a redundant medium, made for mangling and hugely frustrating when you’re trying to wind to the beginning of a particular track. Recording on tape is now exponentially more effortful than burning multiple copies of a CD-R, and not noticeably cheaper, so this seems to be creating extra, time-consuming labour in a wilfully perverse manner. But retro-fetishisation knows no bounds, and I’m probably missing some charm inherent in these compact little plastic packages.



This is the first post-Broadcast music by James Cargill. Here, he forms a trio with old Broadcast cohort Roj Stevens and Julian House, Ghost Box co-founder and Focus Group prestidigitator. They have all played together recently, on the Focus Group LP The Elekrik Karousel, released last month. But James and Roj understandably took a more subsidiary role in Julian’s project, lab assistants in his experimental combinations of sounds. Harbinger of Spring forms a more cohesive whole than House’s deliberately fragmented and roughly edited collages. It marks a similar shift to that which could be heard in Broadcast’s Mother is the Milky Way, which took the ideas they’d developed in the Witch Cults of the Radio Age collaboration with the Focus Group and moulded them into a suite of more impressionistic and songlike forms. Harbinger of Spring sees the Children of Alice furthering and refining that line of development, emphasising the gently psychedelic soundworld and the mood of pastoral reverie. There’s certainly a sense of continuity with previous recordings by Broadcast and The Focus Group, and no attempt at a radical break with the past. Nor would their really be any need for such a ruction; there’s still much to explore here, new riches to discover.

The piece has a progressive structure, with various sections clearly delineated from each other, and characterised by their own distinct soundworlds. This makes it feel as if we are being led on a journey, passing through different stages. We begin with mechanical clock chimes, a cuckoo springing forth with a drawn-out, distorted cry which is multiplied to sound like the plaintive cries of estuarine waders. A clipped voice instructing someone to ‘replace your receiver’ suggests a household interior from which the responsible adult is temporarily absent, an impression deepened by the sound of giggling children. We hear a vaguely hummed song, an isolated child crooning to herself. LP surface hiss and crackle is like the hum of warm air, the drifting dust illuminated by the sunlight angling into a sleepy afternoon room. All that follows could be seen as an aural daydream, a mental meander through inner worlds akin to Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole.



Warm synth tones and birdsong move us out of the house and into the garden. From hereon, there’s a pastoral feel to the music, a hazily impressionistic, Delius-like reverie. This transition is cued by chimes and reverse tape effects which evoke that summery psychedelic haze. Electroacoustic autoharp (maybe) and the glinting swell of what sounds like processed harmonium respiration cast bright rays of sunshine upon and set caressing breezes playing across our recumbent forms. Xylophones and flutes sound like birdcalls, in the musically imitative manner of Messiaen (or Beethoven in the Pastoral Symphony, for that matter). Wobbly tape effects, with reels sped up or slowed down, make for birdcall variations. It all goes a bit Clangers for a couple of seconds, too, as if the knitted moondwellers had launched an expedition which landed in an English garden (one of Major Clangers grand projects which didn’t end disastrously, for a change). No doubt the few lucky souls who managed to get their mitts on a tape release in the millisecond before it sold out caught their breath for a moment when first hearing this section, thinking the fragile oxidated ribbon had already wrapped itself around one of the revolving capstans.



A bass drum and cymbal splash paints a picture of something diving and plopping through a watery surface – the garden pond, perhaps. Bubbly sounds take us underwater, where we hear submerged chanting voices, a drowned chorus. A music box seems to be playing a looped fragment of Someday My Prince Will Come, whilst a series of echoing boings conjure the image of a comic, animated frog leaping about, possibly with a crown fixed around his warty bonce. A jokey musical association, perhaps, with fairy tale connotations. Brief, brightly metallic notes struck on a toy piano are like small, darting fish, flashing mercurially across our field of vision.



A cuckoo clock sends its wooden herald concertinaing out of its hatch, marking another transition. We hear the ratcheting sound of wound up gears, a trundling wooden rhythm and percussive clashes, their resonance deadened. It’s as if a toy monkey had suddenly come to life in a haunted playroom, clapping its little cymbals together with manic fixity of purpose. Reverse tape effects once more suck us into the summer psychedelic vortex. The buzzing, drowsy drone with its molecular swirl of overtones evokes the dreamy drift of blossom and down filling the air. I’m reminded of the XTC song Summer’s Cauldron from their season’s cycle LP Skylarking. A cuckoo broadcasts its two note call above the soporific haze, the sound given a somnambulant echo, as if heard though dozing semi-consciousness, and shifted to a minor interval. The music of Delius once more comes to mind, in particular the perennial favourite On Hearing the First Cuckoo In Spring.



The cuckoo, whose call recurs in mechanical, field-recorded and processed form throughout, is the harbinger of spring. Benjamin
Britten uses Edmund Spenser’s poem The Merry Cuckoo in his Spring Symphony, in which the bird is identified as the ‘messenger of spring’. He also includes Thomas Nashe’s Spring, which celebrates the time when ‘Spring, the sweet spring, is the year’s pleasant king;/Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,/Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing:/Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!’ The piece concludes with the anonymous 13th century song Sumer is icumen in, familiar to many as the cheerful ditty which the Summer Islanders chant, merrily swaying in time, as they burn poor old Sergeant Howie to death at the end of the Wicker Man. ‘Sumer is icumen in/Laude sing cuckoo’. Britten may very well have been another inspiration here. He’s certainly been mentioned in Broadcast interview of old, and it would certainly be appropriate in this, his centenary year.



A shimmer of electroacoustic autoharp, of the kind which Trish used to play onstage with Broadcast, draws a translucent veil which marks off the permeable divide leading us into the next module. A wavering, plucked motif seems to have subaquatically distorted echoes of Ashes to Ashes, a tiny tear in time through which half-perceived sound of the past have leaked. A bass clarinet adds an ominous note, and a soft bell, initial attack smoothed away as if the clapper were wrapped in felt, begins to toll the progression of time. A descending synth pattern gives the impression of a ringing carillon drifting across the meadows from a church tower, the sound made more ethereal by the acoustic contours of geography and distance. This all draws us back to the preoccupation with bell sounds on the Broadcast LP Ha-Ha Sound, from Minim (‘how sweet the bells’) to the Little Bell (‘it used to ring across the air/It’s sweetened tone would linger there’).



A ratcheting, two-step wooden rhythm is introduced, adding a sense of urgency (as if we were suddenly following the white rabbit, scurrying along with his eyes on his pocket watch). It’s reminiscent of the propulsive flight path of Hawk, the concluding track on Ha-Ha Sound. A deliberate nod to the past, perhaps. More reverse tape effects suggest that we’re being rapidly called back from our reverie, sucked back up the rabbit hole to the waking world. A sprinkle of harp adds a folkish or bardic element, echoing the theme music of The Owl Service (which James and Trish included in a mix for Johnny Trunk’s OST show on Resonance FM a few years back). A line of dialogue from Village of the Damned, George Sanders tensely repeating to himself ‘I must think of a brick wall’, lands us in Midwich. As with the use of a sample in Mother is the Milky Way taken from the Nigel Kneale scripted Hammer film The Witches, also set in an English village, this adds a sinister undercurrent to the bucolic idyll, hinting that there are dark forces at work in the paradise garden.



Liquid bubbling sounds locate us by the pond once more, fishes gaping to the surface. A synth squiggle sounds like a bee buzzing across the stereo spectrum. Everything ends with distorted female vocals, singing a self-absorbed and slightly melancholic refrain. These sound more mature than the girls we heard at the start of the piece. Something has been learned in the course of this kaleidoscopic journey. Alice has woken up from her summer afternoon dreaming, and found herself older, the lonely little girl left somewhere behind.

Well, these were some of the impressions which occurred to me as I listened to this beautiful and carefully crafted piece of music. Happily, you can listen to it yourself, as James has immediately put it up on bandcamp. Close your eyes, put the headphones on and see what pictures it projects inside your mind.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Film Freak by Christopher Fowler



Christopher Fowler’s Film Freak is a follow up to his well-received memoir about growing up in the South East London suburbs of Greenwich, Paperboy. Categorising both as memoirs is misleading, however. Whilst they do contain a good deal of autobiographical material, these books are as much about the evocation of time and place and the exploration of the cultural tenor of the 60s and 70s, the decades in which young Christopher grew up and found his way in the world. Paperboy was a reminiscence of a childhood world, and of the peculiarities of the British character in the post-war period. It was affectionate but resolutely unsentimental, tending towards the painfully but often hilariously honest exposure of the absurdities underpinning the façade of suburban normality. It was also unrelenting in its depiction of the claustrophobia inherent in a traditional nuclear family, within which any love between husband and wife had long since become desiccated, drifting and settling to mingle with the household dust. Film Freak finds him departing the family home at the earliest possible instance, leaving his father to his endless round of disastrous DIY projects. He swiftly finds a job in an ad agency as a copywriter, the best way he can think of turning his love of writing into remunerative employment.

If Paperboy summoned up the spirit of a particular corner of South East London in the 60s, Greenwich and its surrounds, then Film Freak does the same for Soho and Fitzrovia. Fowler wastes no time in seeking out the local cinemas, and spends the greater part of his spare time in faded picture palaces and rank fleapits watching what amounts to a history of British film. Once he gets involved in the film industry himself, setting up a promotional company, the geographical compass narrows even more. The business end of the British film world was concentrated in the Soho artery of Wardour Street, a loose hub around which the studios scattered in the hinterlands of London formed a radially attached ring. In a manner familiar from the wonderful Bryant and May books, Fowler delights in uncovering the hidden strata of local myth and geography; a rather less portentous and obscurantist variety of the psychogeography practised by Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, Will Self et al. Here, we learn of the underground world beneath Wardour Street – the tunnels worming their way between buildings on either side, and the secret basement screening room bunkers where the rough cuts of innumerable movies were shown to a small coterie of insiders. Some to be forever forgotten, others to achieve subsequent immortality in more or less modified forms. There are excursions to places beyond this small world, outside the comforting if mouldy and nicotine-coated womb of the aging London cinemas. But the nightmare of Cannes and Hollywood makes the return to these damp and dreary isles seem like a relief. Fowler’s descriptions of the manners (or lack of them), the insularity and the stunning levels of insularity and self-delusion on display in these movie business subworlds balance undisguised revulsion and level, dispassionate observation in the classic Waugh, Isherwood or Huxley Englishman abroad style. In fact, the LA sections reminded me of Michael Moorcock’s Letters from Hollywood, a similarly amusing and insightful collection of observational missives originally sent back to JG Ballard in his English filmtown home of Shepperton.



Fowler conjures up the atmosphere of the 70s in all its pungent, decaying glory. This is as much a book about that decade and the declining years of the British film industry as it is a personal story (although one’s own life is, of course, inextricably intertwined with the times one lives in). There are plentiful asides which give his own outlook on the cultural characteristics and social shifts of the era. Fowler is far from being a ‘Bakelite-sniffing nostagist’ when it comes to his recollection of a past age, to requote Matthew Sweet’s splendid phrase from his secret history of British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, which is cited in Film Freak. The two books sit comfortably beside each other on the shelf (as the sharing of Alec Guiness in The Man in the White Suit as a cover star in some editions would suggest), each offering an affectionate but clear-eyed view of the British film industry. Much of the humour in the book (and it is an audibly funny read) comes from detailing with telling precision just why the 70s were such grubby and desperate years, a ‘plummet from the dazzling 60s into miserable decline and poor taste’, as it is put. Any retro veneer of glamour we might be under the illusion the period possessed is soon stripped away. The first ad office Fowler works in, in Fitzrovia, has none of the modernist, future-now décor he was expecting. Instead, it looks like ‘a Welsh post-office’. The flesh-burning qualities of the static electricity conducting Brentford Nylon sheets he is obliged to make ads for are hilariously outlined in a way which also summons up the proudly synthetic spirit of the age. Even the NFT is included in the portrait of a country whose brief flowering has been and gone, the petals fallen and the stem drooping and withered. It is summed up as ‘a building designed to punish people for liking films’. I can’t say the experience I’ve had there have ever been particularly punishing.

Fowler is not one to say unpleasant things or spread cheap gossip about people, famous or otherwise, whom he comes across in the course of his career in the advertising and film businesses. The closest he gets to celebrity tittle tattle is an observation about how unbearable Eric Morecambe became over the course of an evening, so determined was he to be constantly ‘on’. This is really a way to express empathy with Ernie, the eternally overlooked partner, who he notices diplomatically smoothing things over with everyone afterwards, acting as Eric’s minder, or the solicitous overseer of a wild kid brother. Elsewhere, he ignores the many objectionable actors and showbiz ‘personalities’ (whilst acknowledging their capacity for appallingly self-regarding behaviour) and notes how ‘smart…quick witted and gentle’ and aware of his limitations Larry Grayson proved to be. Kenneth Williams is the soul of kindness and generosity, taking time to make helpful suggestions to someone new to the business as to how he might improve his comic writing. Cary Grant, whom he briefly bumps into in LA (he marries the receptionist at the office where Fowler works), thankfully maintains his immaculate aura, glowing with the ‘charisma of sun god’.

Not George Sanders' finest hour
Fowler doesn’t put too much of himself into the book. He remains more of an observing presence at its centre, a relatively anonymous POV camera soaking in what he sees and reflecting on his surroundings and the people who populate them. He remarks that he feels authors should maintain a certain degree of mystery and anonymity, otherwise their projected personality distorts the reader’s reception of their stories (and good storytelling is what Fowler prizes above all). It’s refreshing to find a memoir which doesn’t descend into indulgent displays of self-diagnosing therapeutics or literary feuding and cattiness (celebrity gossip culture for the prurient highbrow). Not that Fowler isn’t capable of the odd sharp-clawed swipe. I did enjoy his comment (another of his footnote asides) about George Sanders’ suicide note, which cited boredom as the reason for ending it all. ‘He had presumably been watching his own late film output’, Fowler pitilessly (but very amusingly) remarks, having just discussed a typical example, the 1973 living dead biker flick (and Trunk Records favourite) Psychomania. Rather ignominiously, this was indeed the film which he bowed out on, the final item in his filmography. All About Eve or Journey to Italy it ain’t, although it does have its own special charms. Coincidentally, the suave Mr Sanders also worked as an advertising copywriter before making it in the movies.

Fowler’s coming out is dealt with in a similarly offhand, flippant manner, which characterises the light and witty tone of the book as a whole. Anecdotally, his awareness of his sexuality is confirmed in his own mind ‘when I snubbed my school’s rugby final to go to Die Fledermaus’ (he had already revealed his love of Gilbert and Sullivan’s quintessentially British comic operas in Paperboy). Of course, it was probably a great deal more complex than that, but there something positive in the shrugging attitude to sexuality as being an incidental aspect of an individual’s character, looking forward to a world where no-one really does give a damn. A tiny glimpse of another side of his life is offered by a throwaway remark about being stranded in a wintry Tottenham Court Road in the early hours, modesty covered by little more than a dusting of body glitter. Actually, he later writes that he suspects regular gay clubbers are reactionary at heart, something which a constant diet of ‘Kylie, cock and ketamine’ (a wonderfully alliterative triad which shows that those years writing film poster straplines weren’t wasted) would tend to instil. This is not the sort of book in which such revelations and wild times predominate, however. We’re more likely to find young Chris in his true home, a rank cinema with peeling wallpaper, cracked plaster and sticky carpets where a double bill of well-worn, scratched and dirt flecked films is unreeling before his hungry eyes. The author retains his cloak of semi-invisibility, allowing us a few discrete glimpses of the person it’s wrapped around (no flashing, mind). Of course, one can put together a composite (and perhaps deeper) portrait by reading between the lines of the fiction, where an author tends to leave the most personal of traces.

The Scala today from the top of a bus
There are certain personal touchstones scattered throughout both Paperboy and Film Freak which trigger memories for me. In Paperboy, the South East London suburban settings were very familiar, as was the importance of the local library in incubating a love of reading. More specifically, the Popular Book Centres to which he refers, with their diamond printed stamps, which allowed you to exchange the books for half their value, were regular haunts of mine. I used to travel to the one in Lewisham on my trusty three-speed bike (two-speed in effect, since one gear had conked out) or on the 21 bus if I had a bulging bag of books to barter with. Here I’d stock up on Dicks and Delanys, New Worlds and Dangerous Visions anthologies, Le Guins, Aldisses, Ballards and Vonneguts – anything which took my fancy (and of course I’m leaving out the less cool stuff, here). In Film Freak, the Scala Cinema is the point of connection, a place whose shadows I regularly retreated into to absorb generous helpings of Cocteau and Tarkovsky, Powell and Pressburger and Hitchcock, all-night showings of George Romero, horror and sixties countercultural oddness, and If and Blow Up whenever they were shown in double or triple bills. Fowler describes the audience there as consisting of ‘social outcasts, autistic film nuts and…loners’. Not sure which one I was – possibly all three. I also share his love of discovering London film locations. Like him, I sought out Maryon Wilson Park in Woolwich, used in such an atmospheric way by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow Up. It still looked little different from the place where David Hemmings photographs what may be a murder in the upper, tree enclosed area, and where he ends up participating in a game of ‘mime tennis’. I confess, I may have run up the steps and clicked my heels in imitation of Hemmings’ Baileyesque fashion photographer.

Smashing Time OST - worth 30 quid according to the latest Record Collector Guide

Fowler has a taste for idiosyncratic cinematic fare, and a not inconsiderable amount of the book is spent in outlining particular favourites which he saw at the time (a time when the wide variety of repertory cinemas provided a readily available introduction to the history of cinema). The Bliss of Mrs Blossom and Beautiful Things (which achieves the considerable feat of casting the Thamesmead Estate in a favourable light) have thus far passed me by, but I will keep an eye out for them from now on. It’s always good when you are pointed in the direction of new films and books like this. Other choices are more familiar. I’m particularly fond of Smashing Time, Sparrows Can’t Sing (I’ve written about those two, in fact) and Death Line. The latter features a devolved cannibal living in the underground who emerges from time to time from the tunnels leading into Russell Square tube station (although a lot of the film, as with most recent movies with underground sequences, was shot on the platforms of the disused Aldwych Station). I feel an obscure sense of admiration for Fowler’s feat of first seeing the film in what is now the Renoir Cinema (formerly the Gate) in the Brunswick Centre (itself a location in Antonioni’s The Passenger) just a stones throw away. Rather tiresomely, I mutter ‘mind the doors’ to Mrs W every time we pass through Russell Square on the tube, these being the only words now left in the pitiful creature’s vocabulary. Disappointingly, the announcement system intones the safety mantra ‘mind the gap’ these days.



The text of the book is structured in an unconventional way, although it hardly reads as hardboiled Joycean modernism. There are footnotes on nearly every page, which are initially distracting, but soon become like conversational asides or quips sparked off by a certain comment. More often than not, these offer mordant commentaries on particular personalities or products redolent of the period. They’re like transatlantic translations for those who would have no reason to know what Peak Freans biscuits were, or who on earth Joan Turner was (actually, I didn’t know that one). There are also plentiful lists (Fowler seems an inveterate lister) detailing everything from favourite London films and locations to our intrepid traveller’s brief sampling of the myriad artificial highs on offer in Hollywood, the latter tabulated as ‘my cause and effect chart of chemical experimentation’. It’s a comical and unpreachy refutation of the supposedly ecstatic or mind-opening properties of drugs. The ultimate horror on offer here is the local bastardisation of the English cuppa, the only stimulant which our Chris really craves. No Huxleyan intellectual or gonzoid Hunter S Thompsonish pill scoffer, Christopher prefers to keep the doors of perception firmly shut, thanks. Keen observation, the power of good art and a vivid imagination are more readily available and quite sufficient to steer the mind beyond the mundane.

Fowler’s double-columned lists are particularly amusing, bathetically contrasting a projected ideal with the provincial, small-time British reality. This is best illustrated in the table juxtaposing Hollywood film conventions with their equivalents in British life. In addition to mocking Britishness in a way which makes it clear that he really rather likes it here, Fowler has a neat line in self-deprecating humour of the kind which only works if you are in fact quite comfortable in your own skin. The photoshop grafting of his head onto Alec Guiness’ running form from the poster of The Man in the White Suit on the book’s cover is entirely apposite. He depicts himself as the quiet, semi-anonymous ‘little man’ who struggles to overcome an overly apologetic nature inculcated by his archetypal English upbringing. But, as with Guiness’ character, underneath the mild-mannered exterior there is a determination, allied with self-belief, a tireless work ethic (and an inherent talent) which makes him stand out. The Mr Cellophane from Chicago to whom he likens himself becomes inked and fully coloured in. The story is really a classic bildungsroman; in other words, the growth of a young man into maturity and wisdom.

The Producers - Bialystock and Bloom, or Sturgeon and Fowler?
Fowler puts a lot of this growth down to his friendship with a character called Jim Sturgeon, who is himself colourful and manifestly substantial from the outset. Their odd couple relationship is at the heart of the book. It is a love story of sorts, with two people who seem to complete each other. A portrait of his father as an English icon of repression, disappointment and failure was at the melancholy heart of Paperboy. Jim is like the father he never had (we don’t have to intuit this for ourselves, he tells us so quite explicitly). Even his own dad seems to view him in this light, as the father he wished he might have been. Fowler likens them to Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers (he is Gene Wilder’s Bloom, of course), and suggests that they should have had a composite name in the modern Brangelina mould, although he ends up with the rather less than celebrity headline friendly Fowlgeon. Jim is the bluff and hearty bon viveur, always living well beyond his means (not even really registering the concept of ‘means’). He naturally becomes the centre of attention in any room he enters. But he is also genuinely interested in people and the world around him, and views things from his own unique, acutely angled perspective. Fowler’s episodic narration of their meeting, dreaming, scheming and eventual parting is like a letter to a lost love. Jim also becomes the manifestation of the nobler aspects of the spirit of the age, made manifest through the billowing miasma of his chain-smoked ciggies. When he dies, so does the era they had made their uncertain but ever-hopeful way through (even when they had no rational cause for hope). Fowler’s final tribute to his dear friend, sitting through a double-bill of his favourite movies (The Producers and Harold and Maude) in an empty cinema is deeply touching. As he walks out into the Soho night, he says goodbye to all the ghosts he has so palpably summoned up in the course of the book (the writing of which means that Jim can now take his place amongst them). The past is now not just another country, but from an entirely different continuum. Wardour Street, he says in conclusion, is now ‘an alien universe’.