Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Moody Blues

If you have been listening to, and buying, music for more than 50 years then there are bound to be some bits that, in retrospect, leave you feeling a bit unsure of your taste and judgement. The Moody Blues were a band that I listened to a lot between around 1968-1972 - when I was in my late teens.
They were the perfect group for young men of a certain disposition. Musically essentially 'safe' but clever enough - in their pioneering use of the mellotron and their apparent multi-instrumentality. Lyrically they mixed the romantic with concerns about our inner-lives and our relationship with the planet we exploit for our own pleasure.
The Moodies were often called 'pretentious' (though Procul Harum seemed to escape that criticism). They would reply to such complaints by saying "We're not pretending. We're sincere." It was this apparent sincerity that appealed to their followers I think. There could undoubtedly be a certain pomposity about their music and manner.
Here are a couple of links which illustrate (visually and aurally) what the Moody Blues were all about. This shows them at their best and worst probably.
"New Horizons" was written and sung by guitarist Justin Hayward (who also wrote "Nights In White Satin"). There is a dreaminess about the sound and the lyrics which you have to take seriously - otherwise they are pretty embarrassing.
From the same album came Mike Pinder's "Lost In A Lost World". Pinder seemed to be the most spiritual member of the band and clearly struggled to make sense of worldly materialism. A vague Green, anti-capitalist element was always evident in his songs.
I can't imagine spending much time listening to this music in whatever years I have left. I know it pretty much note-for-note and as such it may be comforting in the way that sedatives can be. I don't really want that sort of medicine just yet, thank you nurse!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

So, what do you like?

When you meet new people and you try to identify things that you might have in common at some stage the question of musical preferences crops up. Forty years ago it seemed an easier question to answer: “What music do you like?” Now, of course, in answering any such question you are much more aware of what the answer might reveal and so we perhaps seek a more nuanced answer. Some will still confidently answer, “Oh, I was really lucky I got tickets for the last [name your own legend] tour.” But this is attending an event. What has it got to do with music and conscious musical choices?

As it happens the last live music I heard was a production of Bizet’s Carmen. As it turns out it was the second production I’d heard in three years. If I tell you this you might suppose I was pretty keen on opera. The fact is I have heard maybe 20 opera in a lifetime and I have recordings of maybe half a dozen (mostly Benjamin Britten) that I seldom listen to. By and large I don’t ‘get’ opera – the only experience of opera that I really treasure was the singing of an aria in Handel’s Jephta by tenor James Gilchrist. But if I don’t ‘get’ opera how do I explain what I do ‘get’?

There is much music from the western classical tradition that I listen to repeatedly – usually chamber works rather than orchestral pieces. I prefer the intimacy of a Beethoven string quartet to the power of his symphonies for example. But when it comes to ‘chamber’ music I’m as likely to choose a Miles Davis Quintet or something from Manfred Eicher’s ECM catalogue.

There is something about music-making on such a scale that is both accessible but so often surprising on repeat listenings. Maybe, at first, we sort out rhythms, melodies, patterns and structure in a piece. Once we have a sense of purpose that guides us through the music we can then pay more attention to the distinct voices and the conversations that are going on – secure in the knowledge that this all ties up and makes sense. Like any other conversation you start to hear how someone takes the phrase of another to create a different idea – perhaps supporting the first voice, perhaps disputing it. No doubt a formal musical training or education can help us to be listeners but it might be (I don’t know this) that schooling can narrow our hearing options because we may have expectations based on what we have been taught or know.

This distinction – if that is what it is – between scholarliness and musical instinct is an interesting one to me as a listener (because I’m not a musician). I know that both routes can lead to creative breakthroughs and challenges for musicians and audiences alike. Some of the most ‘difficult’ music I ever heard was played by jazz improvisers such as JohnStevens and Trevor Watts (circa 1972) but in other settings they also played some of the most direct and accessible music I ever heard. I think their approach to music-making relied largely on instinct and that seemed important to me as a listener.

When 'old' becomes 'new'.

Once I had the means to choose the music that I wanted to listen to then the amount of music that I actively shared with my parents became less and less. [Though until I had a record player of my own they sometimes had to share – perhaps ‘endure’ would be a better word – some prog rock and jazz stuff. Mum did once draw the line at the Mothers of Invention “Billy the Mountain” and I wouldn’t say that she was wrong there.] There were a handful of things that we were all able to enjoy.

Sometime in the early 1970s we went to the Royal Albert Hall together to hear Pentangle. Mum loved Jacqui McShee’s voice and was impressed by her hair. I enjoyed the slightly gruff and dishevelled contribution of Bert Jansch. I don’t remember if Dad had any preferences when it came to Pentangle but I know he enjoyed seeing the Spinners – a folk trio who did a lot to bring traditional songs and tales to wider audiences. Mum and Dad accumulated quire a collection of Spinners’ albums – if we could think of nothing else come birthdays or Christmas they were a dependable standby.

One of the last things I can remember doing with Mum was going to a party where Tom Robinson’s “2, 4, 6, 8 Motorway” was played and we did our best to dance and sing along.

I now listen, from time to time, to Ella Fitzgerald’s classic Great American Songbook albums. I think Mum and Dad liked many of the songs – even if there might be versions other than Ella’s that they would choose. They died far too soon for this shared pleasure to be an option. When they were alive I did, of course, think that I knew better and that all this ‘old music’ was so much tosh. Now I don’t listen to much ‘new music’. Whatever I hear that is ‘new’ doesn’t strike me as fresh at all – simply a watered down version of something that went before. I must suppose that this happens to many of us at a certain age – we hear music in terms of what we know already, almost as though our memories are full and these new files simply match ones that we have saved already.

Every now and then something breaks through – but it is little and rare. Talking Heads and The Smiths – from 30 odd years ago made a difference to my listening habits. The Tallis Scholars (and other early music ensemble) affected how I heard things maybe 20 years ago. In general terms what is marketed as World Music seemed refreshing in the early years of this century but since then most of my listening has revolved around what I have known about for 40 years or so. And, for me – as a listener, it wouldn’t matter if no new music was ever made again – there is so much that has been laying around that I haven’t heard yet. The ‘newness’ is not the most important quality any more.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

From the Wind Up to the Beatles

Just as I have no musical talent neither of my parents played an instrument or sang. They came from working-class backgrounds and grew up in the years just before and beyond the Second World War. There would have been no money for luxuries such as music. [Though my Dad's parents had a piano but it was seldom played]. I don't remember either of them singing much. But they did listen to music. They married in 1949 and must, I think, have got a machine to play 78rpm singles early in their married life. It was a wind-up machine with a fearfully heavy arm that was placed onto the fragile disc. The needles got blunt pretty quickly and had to be replaced after a few plays. There was no volume control. If it was too loud - and it seemed pretty loud - a bit of cloth, probably a duster, was jammed into the space where the sound came from.

Mum and Dad had a pile of 78s. Mostly bought in the early 1950s I guess. I was born in 1953 and money would have been tight from then on. Also we had a TV pretty early (the result of a pools win according to family legend) and that was the focus of home entertainment. The 78s were mostly of popular songs by well-known American singers of the day: Frankie Laine, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day. As children we became aware of this pile of treasure about 10 years later I think. Jimmy Boyd's recording of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and his duet with Frankie Laine, Tell Me A Story, got plenty of plays.

Sometime around 1966 or 1967 so far as I can work out Dad bought Mum a new portable record player. It would play at 45rpm and 33rpm and had an automatic mechanism for playing singles and LPs. The first record played on it was the soundtrack of South Pacific. It took us a while to build up any sort of a record collection between us and so we became word perfect on I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair and Bali Hai. The love ballads such as This Nearly Was Mine required a depth and richness of voice that none of us had (and probably it would have been embarrassing trying to sing songs like that).

Once the family had a modern record player, however, it opened up the possibilities for all of us to inflict our choices on the rest of the family. Not that any of us had - at first - extreme tastes (or at least they don't seem all that extreme now). I doubt if Dad cared much for Pictures Of Matchstick Men (an early bit of Status Quo psychedelia) and neither he nor Mum were very enthusiastic about buying me Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as a birthday present (my first LP!) I think the drug associations worried them more than the music - it isn't an album I've listened to in over thirty years I would think but When I'm 64 (not far off now) and She's Leaving Home wouldn't have upset anyone much. Though the Lennon stuff was not, I concede, so listenable. So far as I can recall though there were two main reasons for wanting this Beatles' LP (and I bought nothing else by the Fab Four): everyone had it and you would look odd not having it - and that mattered to 14-year-olds; it wasn't just about the music - it was all the other stuff that went with it - the cover artwork, the cut-out inserts (which sadly I've lost over the years) and the fact that people talked about the music as well as listened to it. This intellectual aspect of music listening became important to me pretty much from the beginning of my music collecting.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Miles and Dad

I've got more CDs by Miles Davis than by anyone else. Not sure how many. About 50. That is hardly an accident and so his music must matter to me. I think the first Miles album I heard was 'Sketches of Spain'. The main piece on this is an arrangement by Gil Evans of the middle movement of Rodrigo's guitar Concerto de Aranjuez. The melody is very familiar now and has been arranged and recorded umpteen times over. I've read that some jazz critics didn't care much for the album - it seemed a bit bland, wallpaper music to some. It is music that can be ignored I suppose. Don't turn the volume up, pick-up a magazine, drink some wine - 'Sketches of Spain' can be ignored, but I don't think it should be.

Miles Davis wasn't always a happy man; he abused drugs and alcohol for much of his adult life. He was often in physical pain; he had many relationships with beautiful women but they were often destructive and he treated the women badly. The anguish that was part of his life is close to the surface in his soloing on 'Sketches of Spain' (not that this was an especially bad time in his life). Davis was not one to shout about his hurt (though he didn't suffer fools gladly) but neither was he able to run away from it. There is an open beauty to his playing at this time - as spare and as minimal as ever - that is starkly exposed by Evans' settings. One friend says he really doesn't care for the Davis/Evans account of the Rodrigo melody; I'm not sure what his problem with it is exactly but it could be the nakedness of Davis' trumpet lines are at times too hard to bear. Certainly it hasn't the romance of the original.

'Sketches of Spain' was released in 1960 I think. I heard it in the early 70s. It was a record that I borrowed from the London Borough of Southwark's record library. I can't even borrow a CD from the library anymore. Vinyl records are quite delicate things of course, easily damaged. If you borrowed library records it was prudent to go for ones that had been borrowed only two or three times. Older records often looked as though Sunday tea had been served on them. The librarians who bought the records did not necessarily have good judgement but in days long before Spotify and so on it wasn't easy to hear new music. Record libraries enabled me to take a chance on music that I didn't know, and 'Sketches of Spain' (and discs by Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman) was a very fortunate chance. 

Miles was born in 1926 and died in 1991. My father was born in 1925 and died in 1991. Apart from the contemporaneity they had just about nothing in common. Miles could not have been my father, of course, nor would I wanted someone like him as a father; he was far too volatile and selfish a man. My dad was - in cultural and life-style terms - a much more conservative man than someone like Miles. It is odd to be reminded, however, that men so different were contemporaries and that not all dads were like your own father.

Why? And where to begin?

I never could or should write an autobiography. On the other hand it is now so easy to make a record of any thought - however fleeting - that passes through your head that it almost seems wrong not to share some memories with anyone that might be interested. I can easily set aside an hour or so a week for this task and, who knows, it might be good for me in some way.

I've never been a musician and have no useful knowledge of western music theory. Like many I have spent a lot of time and money over the years on music. The first money I ever parted with to buy a single was in 1963 (when you could get 3 records for a £1 - not that I had a pound). In 1963 I was on a primary school trip to Somerset and we had access to a ballroom. I think all the kids paid one shilling (5 pence) and we bought three records to dance to at night. One was the Beatles, a second was Gerry and the Pacemakers and I'm not sure about the third - an American dance novelty perhaps. Three singles, play both sides - that is six songs, less than 15 minutes probably, so they were played over and over. In the following 51 years listening to music has always been an important part of my life.

Sometimes there is an almost tribal aspect to listening choices, it is a means of identification - perhaps with a mass movement, perhaps with an obscure minority. The difference between attending an event like Glastonbury, for example, and a 'difficult' jazz improvisation session in a small room above a hard-to-find pub. There are occasions when it seems right and necessary to be part of the masses, but at other times music and music-making needs to be a more personal matter. On the one hand you may want everyone to admire 'your' band as much as you do; on the other hand you want your own secret music that is a rare and precious thing. Or is that a masculine/competitive view of life in general and, in this case, musical preferences in particular?

For example many people of a certain age enjoyed listening to Pink Floyd at one time or another. So all Floyd fans can say, 'Yeah. We're us. Great'. But who is the best, most authentic fan? Is it about who has been to most gigs or about who saw Syd play? Is it about insisting that 'Interstellar Overdrive' is 'better' than 'Money'? Is it about knowing who played trombone on an old blues on the 'Relics' compilation? Why can't we sometimes simply accept that we all loved some of the music and not feel a need to prove we love it more deeply and more loyally than the next person?

These days questions about the history and evolution of Pink Floyd are of no interest to me. I last saw them on the 'Dark Side of the Moon' tour in 1972 I think and I never bought that album. I can remember when it did seem to matter to know all the tiniest details. Maybe that was because in 1972 I was an insecure, teen-aged boy with no real responsibilities - and now I just getting older and other stuff matters more.

The next post will have something to do with Miles Davis and Southwark record libraries. I write that only to remind myself - not to whet the appetite of any passing reader.