Perhaps it is because I have just had my first visit to the dentist in over two years, but I have found myself earwormed by Spike Milligan’s darkly silly song, “English Teeth” – “three cheers for the green, brown and black” – in the version recorded by, of all people, Cleo Laine. Now I don’t pretend to understand how the mind (or my mind, at least) works, because I never saw the incomparable Cleo in concert, but this earworm made me start thinking about the various concerts I’ve seen over the years.
The first concert I can recall was Al Stewart, during my first year, indeed probably my first term, at university. That would have been the autumn of 1971. I feel sure I must have seen some live music before then but if so I have no memory of it at all. At the time the New University of Ulster, as it then was, was pretty much a building site, so the concert took place in our one and only lecture theatre. Afterwards I remember walking back to my digs along the seafront at Portstewart belting out “it got to feel less like fucking, and more like making love” at the top of my voice. Since then I’ve seen Al Stewart way more than anyone else. One memorable concert was at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester when I was invited back to the dressing room in the interval. Well, to be fair, the whole audience was invited back, but only a dozen or so of us actually went.
The loudest concert? No contest, it was Horslips in a ridiculously small room above a pub in Portrush. I was deaf for three days afterwards.
Best concert? Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, in a chi-chi little lounge in a hotel here in Folkestone, with the audience ensconced in well-upholstered chairs. The band was electrifying from the first note.
Biggest concert? That would be a toss-up between Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Wembley, or, a little later, the Human Rights Now concert at Wembley with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour.
Oddest concert? I remember a concert by Renaissance where the venue decided that because they were a “rock” band the audience would want to dance, to they took out all the seats. And there was the time I saw Ralph McTell supported by Bert Jansch during which Jansch couldn’t seem to get off the stage quick enough after his set. Turned out there was a big football match on that night, and periodically during McTell’s set Jansch would turn up in the wings to announce the latest score. But really the oddest was at the Dominion in London. The first half was a wonderful punkish set featuring Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and The Pogues. Then, during the interval, the audience seemed to change completely, and for the second half we had Fairport Convention.
Highest concert? Sitting up in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall to see Jackson Browne, which did my fear of heights no good at all. Thank heavens I wasn’t high in any other sense.
Best surprise? I had long given up any hope of seeing Pete Atkin; he had effectively given up music to become a BBC producer. But when he retired, he started performing again and we saw him, and Clive James, together in Canterbury. A glorious evening.
I am as unsure about the last concert I saw as I am about the first, but I’m pretty sure it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and if I get another chance I’ll be there to see them again.
I recommend, wholeheartedly, Louis Menand’s new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I am reading it very slowly because, (a), it is massive, and (b), it is so stuffed with facts and information that I need time to take it all in. Nevertheless, every day when I pick it up, it is with immense pleasure, and with the certainty that I will add to my knowledge.
Even so, there are a couple of points worth making. Not necessarily negative points, but things that might bear on your understanding and appreciation of the book.
For a start, the subtitle is misleading. Cold War is used here almost exclusively as a chronological identifier. The book covers the years from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, so roughly the first half of the period known as the Cold War. It deals with art and ideas that emerged during those years, but it does not deal with the way those arts and ideas engaged with the Cold War, or were shaped by the Cold War. Anyone recalling Who Paid the Piper? by Frances Stoner Saunders, for example, which looked at how the CIA used the arts as a weapon in their secret war against the Soviet Union, will find little if anything on that subject here (Encounter does not appear in the index). The Korean War is barely mentioned, though the Vietnam War which sparked a huge artistic response at the end of the 1960s does fare somewhat better (it would have been unforgiveable if it had not). But in general this is about what art was going on at the time of the early Cold War, but not how or why it was occurring in those circumstances. Over the first 300-or-so pages of the book the Second World War plays a far more influential part in shaping the subject of the book than the Cold War does.
The second point is that the book is largely focussed on American art. This is not unexpected (post-war American art is a massive enough subject for anyone) and he does nod towards what was going on in the rest of the world. There are chapters on Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, but these are almost lost amid the flurry of chapters on George Kennan, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Allen Ginsburg, and so on. The non-Americans who figure most prominently in this study are those who came to America as refugees during the war, or whose greatest success was achieved in or cemented in America. Those intellectual and artistic areas that were not so prominent in America get less attention. For instance philosophy in the post-war world remained a largely European endeavour, and the leading American exponents (Willard van Orman Quine) largely worked in a European model. So, despite the fact that Menand’s previous best book was on the American Pragmatists (Peirce, James, Dewey), here he makes no mention of the topic other than the chapter on Sartre.
Which brings me to what prompted these thoughts: pop music. This is a response to youth culture, and he makes the telling point that for such a culture to flourish there had to be space for it. Teenagers were effectively created when official efforts were made to encourage people to stay in school longer. This created a space between elementary education and work, and the United States was far more successful at creating that space. He’s got the statistics to back this up: in 1955, 84% of Americans between 14 and 17 were in school; in 1957, just 9% of British seventeen-year-olds were still in school. Youth culture started in America, created its first stars in America: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and so on. Then he asks a very telling question: in that case, why were the most popular entertainers in the world in the 1960s British?
I had an instant answer to that question, and Menand did not. But then, I’m not aware of any Americans who would have come up with the same answer. The obvious answer, to me, was class.
(As an aside, many years ago I was on a convention panel with Kim Stanley Robinson and some others, I was the only Brit. During the panel, Stan and I got into a discussion on class, and I realised very quickly that we were talking an entirely different language. For Stan, and for every other American on the panel, class was inextricably related to, and indeed defined by, wealth. The more money you have, the higher your class; the less money you have, the lower your class. And that is just not the way it works in Britain; here class is a far more complex thing. For several years, the Beatles were the highest paid entertainers in the world, but that did not make them upper class. Indeed, being working class was emphatically a part of their self-image, their creativity (I suspect neither “Strawberry Fields Forever” nor “She’s Leaving Home” could have been written out of anything other than working class sensibility), and their reception.)
We are twenty-odd pages into Menand’s discussion of the Beatles before he uses the word class, and this is only to note that Ringo’s drollness — Q: What do you think of Beethoven? Ringo: Great. Especially his poems. — can be traced to his working-class Liverpool upbringing. (As Menand says, cuttingly but accurately, “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”) Which actually rather misses the point. By this stage, Menand has already made great play of the fact that John Lennon, like Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and a host of others had gone to art college, as if the British pop scene emerged as a result of this rather arty, middle-class milieu. But the British art school of the 1950s and 1960s had virtually no academic requirements for entry, so it became a haven for those who were too creative or rebellious to want to go into the jobs market, but were “not academically gifted”, which at the time was often a euphemism for “working class”. Every single one of these art school pop stars saw music as an interval before they had to get a proper job. The music emerged not from the art school, but from the dread of following their fathers into another dead-end job. The space that Menand talks about, the space in which youth culture flourished, had given people a desire for something better, but the British class system permitted no route to achieve that desire. So the reason why British pop music dominated the world in the 1960s, why the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Who and the Hollies and the Move and the Yardbirds and the Animals and all the rest emerged there and then, was because of class.
That Menand gets this wrong is not a criticism of the book. Rather it is a sign that what is going on here is far larger, far more complex, than even this huge book can accommodate. And there is much else of great value here.
I am not intending to add more to this post with each new chapter I encounter, but this is worth saying if only because it contradicts something I wrongly implied above.
The very next chapter takes us into the heady realms of philosophy, and directly addresses the connection between the Cold War and the development of ideas. The focus of this chapter is Isaiah Berlin (not generally a philosopher who is highly thought of these days). There is a passing reference to logical positivism (though not, so far at least, logical atomism or any of the subsequent linguistic philosophy, despite J.L. Austin being namechecked), but the main focus is on Berlin’s critique of Marxism, which, as presented here, seems to tie in remarkably closely to the critique of Soviet policy as propounded by Berlin’s friend, George Kennan (see Chapter One). I suspect that the central point of this chapter will revolve around Berlin’s famous distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, though Menand has not so far included that formulation. He has actually spent rather more time talking about Berlin’s time in America during the war, and his encounter with the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Which raises another point: each chapter has one or two central figures around which the story is woven. These central figures, at least so far, are all men. Women appear as followers, wives, or muses. Of course he might confound me by next including a chapter on science that revolves around Rosalind Franklin … but no, I don’t think so.
If this chapter runs true to form I expect to see Karl Popper making an appearance, but if so it will be for The Open Society and its Enemies rather than for The Logic of Scientific Discovery and falsifiability. We might even see Bertrand Russell, but I can’t imagine how Ludwig Wittgenstein might fit into this account.
There was a television drama series, back in the late-1960s, called Take Three Girls. Remember it? No, I don’t, not much (it was apparently the BBC’s first drama series in colour, though I doubt we actually had a colour TV by then, and anyway I suspect that what I do remember I’m getting confused with the slightly later series, Rock Follies, which starred the wonderful Julie Covington who had, incidentally, produced some pretty good covers of early Pete Atkin/Clive James songs, but that’s taking me down a rabbit hole I don’t want to explore right now …)
Where was I? Oh yes, Take Three Girls. There is one thing I remember about the series to this day: the theme music. It mesmerised me. I found out, after a while, that the song was called “Light Flight” –
Let’s get away you say find a better place Miles and miles away from the city’s race
– (quoted from memory probably ten years after I last heard the song) and the song was performed by a group called Pentangle. I went out and bought their most recent album, Basket of Light, which also happened to include “Light Flight”. That album became easily the most played record in my collection for the next 20 years or more.
It would be wrong to say that Pentangle was my introduction to folk rock because a) the term hadn’t been invented yet, and b) Pentangle was really more a sort of folk jazz. The rhythm section, Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums, were both jazz musicians who had played together with the great Alexis Korner. Up front were the guitarists and flat mates, John Renbourn who was into folk played with a baroque style, and Bert Jansch who was, right up to his death in 2011, one of the greatest and most influential of all blues and folk guitarists. To complement Jansch’s rather growly vocals, they brought in Jacqui McShee, who ran her own folk club and who had a hypnotically clear voice but who was so nervous of performing that she had to sit down for all their appearances.
For just five years following their formation in 1967, Pentangle did extraordinary things with traditional songs, adding complex guitar parts up front and varied rhythmic patterns behind. What Danny Thompson does with the double bass on their own composition, “Train Song”, is more like free jazz than anything traditional. And the interplay of Jansch’s and McShee’s voices made every song sound mysterious, sexy and enchanting. Folk music became something entirely other than the finger-in-the-ear, droning voices, and grudgingly-accepted acoustic guitar of most folk music to that point.
In his wonderful memoir, Beeswing, Richard Thompson says he was “fairly unenthused” by Pentangle. But for me they were the gateway drug, the necessary ear training so that I was ready for what came next. And what came next was Fairport Convention.
Oddly, Pentangle and Fairport were in lockstep in those early years. They both formed in 1967, and both released their classic albums, Basket of Light and Liege and Lief in 1969. But in my memory, Pentangle always came first, probably because I knew Pentangle before I heard of Fairport, and knew Basket of Light before I heard of Liege and Lief. In a way, I bought Liege and Lief because of Basket of Light, because Pentangle had shown me how inventive and exciting folk music could be so I was ready to try this other highly praised reinvention of folk.
Liege and Lief was nothing short of a revelation, a pounding, thrilling piece of rock music. A few years later, when I was at university, I got into one of those long, rambling, late night conversations at a party at a house way out in the middle of nowhere outside Portstewart. It started out being about Jacques Brel, whose work I loved when covered by other artists (I’m thinking particularly of Scott Walker) but whose own performances I barely knew. But it meandered on from there as such conversations have a habit of doing, and at some point came around to the inevitable question: “So, what sort of music do you like?” To which I answered that I was mostly into folk. Except I’m not sure that was true. I bought Transatlantic samplers, so I was familiar with the work of people like Mr Fox, and I had a few Steeleye Span albums, though other than Below the Salt I got tired of them very quickly. But I really didn’t have that much in the way of folk music. But I liked the people who had emerged from folk music, the singer-songwriters like Al Stewart, Sandy Denny, and, of course, Joni Mitchell; and I liked the groups who had made something fresh out of folk music, by which I mean (because there weren’t really that many others) Pentangle and Fairport.
Pentangle, of course, only lasted a few years, and I got every album they released though I never saw them live (when they were reincarnated with different personnel some years later I had no interest in them at all). Fairport I followed for a few years. I got the two albums that preceded Liege and Lief, What We Did on Our Holidays which is okay and Unhalfbricking which is excellent, and at one point I even had a copy of their first LP with Judy Dyble on vocals, but she never worked for me as a singer. After Liege and Lief I kept up with them for a while through their innumerable personnel changes. Though I didn’t see them live at this time, it was their live albums that were generally most interesting, including the original vinyl version of Live at the LA Troubadour which includes a version of “Matty Groves”, with Simon Nicol on vocals, in which he changes the line:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck no more
to the rather more effective:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck the floor
accompanied, if I remember rightly, by a thump on the drum from Dave Mattocks. Alas, when a retitled version of that album was reissued on CD they switched to another version of “Matty Groves” with the conventional lyrics.
But the departure of Sandy Denny was something that, so far as I was concerned, they never really recovered from, though the departure of Ashley Hutchings at the same time was no great loss because the addition of Dave Pegg on bass more than made up for it. But when Richard Thompson left as well … I think it was “Babbacombe” Lee when I realised I didn’t like the album anywhere near as much as I felt I should. After that, I bought Rising for the Moon because it was Denny’s temporary return, but otherwise I bought no more Fairport.
Years later, through Maureen Speller, I reconnected with Fairport, and we saw a later iteration of the group live a couple of times, and they were every bit as thrilling as you’d hope they would be. And I reacquired on CD several of their albums, but it is still the Denny/Thompson era that works best for me.
Post-Fairport I followed Sandy Denny through Fotheringay and her solo work (The North Star Ravens and the Grassman remains for me an absolute classic, though there are songs on each of her other three albums that I keep returning to). With Richard Thompson, for some reason, it was more hit and miss. I skipped Henry the Human Fly until quite a few years later, but I did get the albums he made with Linda Thompson, of which the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and the last, Shoot Out the Lights, (an interesting circularity of titles there, given the rise and collapse of their relationship) are clearly the best. And I followed him intermittently into his solo work (the early compilation, (guitar, vocal) is essential), but I missed out on more albums than I ever bought. Even so, I continue to rate Thompson as one of the great guitar geniuses of our age, and a songwriter of rare power. (Have I seen him live? That’s the strange thing. I have a feeling I must have done, but I just couldn’t say for certain. I know I have seen his son, Teddy Thompson, in concert, but was he accompanying his father? Must have been, but the picture in my mind is blurred and fuzzy.)
All of which reminiscence is prompted by the fact that I have just read Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, his memoir covering the years from the formation of Fairport Convention to the break-up of his marriage to Linda Thompson. Beeswing, which is as elegantly and engagingly written as one might expect of Thompson, is subtitled “Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice”, as if the voice (by which he means his guitar playing rather than his singing) was in place by the time he went solo. What follows, a career that has so far lasted another 40-odd years, might generate the usual showbusiness anecdotes, but the story itself was essentially over. And he is right in that: the story lies in how he got going rather than in what he did when he got there.
It is the relatively narrow focus – a period of less than ten years taken from a career of over 50 years, and a life of over 70 years – that makes this book work. It’s like Dylan’s Chronicles in that respect. And those ten years contain all the dynamics, the interplay, the discovery, that we want to read about. Some of the stories are fairly well known, of course: how they were auditioning for a new singer and Sandy Denny ended up auditioning them; how she sang “A Sailor’s Life” in the dressing room before a gig in Southampton and they impulsively decided to include it in the set that night only for it to go down so well, both with the band and the audience, for them to invite Joe Boyd down to hear them play it again the next night, and how he then called on his mate Dave Swarbrick to play on the recording, thus essentially inventing folk rock. There’s a detail I didn’t know: I know that a guitar is tuned in fourths but I hadn’t realised that a violin is tuned in fifths, so it is physically impossible for a guitarist to match many of the chords that a violin plays, and vice versa, so the interplay between Swarb and Thompson on “A Sailor’s Life” and many other tracks involved them both developing new ways of playing their instruments. There are other well-known incidents that acquire a little more detail in the telling here. We learn that he barely knew the groupie Jeannie Franklyn when she attached herself to him, and after a couple of weeks together he seems to have been on the point of splitting with her when she accompanied them to a gig in Birmingham. That’s when the van crashed on the way home afterwards, and Jeannie along with drummer Martin Lamble were killed. The death of Lamble had a far greater effect on Thompson and the rest of the group. And then there’s stuff that is new, at least to me. I now know, for instance, why the magnificent “Sloth” is called that. Thompson and Swarb were making their first attempt to write songs together. They had two pieces of music they were working on, one was fast paced and one was slow paced. For convenience they called the fast tune “Fasth” (it would become “Walk Awhile”), and the slow tune “Slowth”. Only they never got around to deciding on a proper title for the slow tune, and “Slowth” mutated into “Sloth”.
And writing all that makes me want to just go away and listen again to “Sloth”, or “Meet on the Ledge”, or “Calvary Cross”, or any of a dozen other songs that are seared into my memory.
I have, over the last week or so, found myself obsessively watching YouTube videos by the a cappella group Pentatonix, and perhaps even more obsessively watching reaction videos to Pentatonix videos. I don’t think I’m yet obsessive enough to be a Pentaholic (which is what fans of the group call themselves) but it must be getting close.
Reaction videos are a very strange phenomenon, which I tend to watch as a guilty pleasure because I find them either sociologically mystifying or amusing. Am I showing my age when I react with amazement as someone says they have never knowingly heard Steely Dan or The Animals or, God help us, The Beatles? And you have to admit it is funny, in a shocking kind of way, to watch two educated and musically aware American kids listen to “Lola” by The Kinks for the first time and (a) think it is describing a sleazy nightclub in somewhere like Havana, and (b) completely miss the cross-dressing references. I mean, I remember when the song first came out in 1970; I was still a fairly naive teenager, but even so I knew it was set in “a bar down in old Soho”, and I couldn’t miss the fact that “I know I’m a man, and so is Lola.”
But reaction videos to Pentatonix seem to be a very different sort of thing. For a start, there is a curious pattern to them. If you happen upon the very first time the person is listening to the group (for some reason it is almost invariably to their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), their script is pretty well identical. They start by fumbling the name: “This is a group called Pen … Pen … Pentonicks? Is that how you pronounce it?” (I’ve heard musicians, who should know about the pentatonic scale, have the same problems.) Then you either get: “I’m told this is an a cappella group, and I don’t really like a cappella”, or the video is stopped within the first few seconds with: “Woah! Is this a cappella? Nobody told me it was a cappella.” From that point on, comments follow a very familiar course, they get goosebumps within the first minute, they exclaim at how deep that guy’s voice is, they complain that they can hear a drum so they must be using instruments, they get orgasmic over the girl’s voice and then are stunned into awed silence by the guy with the high voice (“I didn’t expect that!”),and they wonder why they haven’t heard from the black guy who’s banging his chest and stamping his feet. The end is always the same: “Wow!”
After that, there will inevitably be a second Pentatonix reaction (usually, this time, to their version of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence”), and often recorded within a day or two of the first. But this is very different. By this time they know the names of everyone in the group, as if they’ve been best buddies since childhood: “Oh, that must be Matt who replaced Avi, isn’t his voice a perfect fit for the rest of the guys.”
While I was on holiday, I read One, Two, Three, Four by Craig Brown about The Beatles. When discussing the fan reactions to the group there are constant references to the girls who were convinced they were going to marry one or other of the Fab Four. The thing is, The Beatles were so fresh, so innovative, so exciting and so engaging that those who heard them felt drawn into a strange intimacy with them. I think there is something similar with Pentatonix, that same sense that the beauty and the novelty of what they are doing speaks to each listener individually. We are not observing a group, we are being drawn into an extraordinary family. Those sounds are addressed to me, to me, to me, they give me goosebumps, they make me gasp. The only way to respond to the group is to know them, even if only vicariously.
I first came to Pentatonix like, it would appear, so many of the makers of reaction videos, through “Hallelujah”.
I wouldn’t say that I love the song, it is by no means one of my favourite Leonard Cohen tracks, but it fascinates me. Part of this fascination lies in the mutability of the song. There are a huge number of verses (I seem to remember Cohen saying at one point that he had written something like 20 verses for the song), and each version picks different verses, so that each version is, in effect, a different song. I am wondering if there are verses that have never been sung. Thus, of the four verses sung by Pentatonix, for example, three are familiar (the first two are in just about every version you will hear), but they also choose one of the less familiar verses, and one which thus gives a slightly chillier, haunting affect to their rendition.
One of the fascinations of the song is that the lyrics in the first verse of the song actually lay out its musical structure. The first five lines of the verse are as follows:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David sang and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall and the major lift
Okay, a little basic music theory. Each key runs through the seven letters of the musical alphabet from the note for which the key is named. The key that is invariably used as an example of this is the key of C, because it is the one key in which there are no sharps and flats. The key of C thus runs: C D E F G A B. The chords that belong in any key always follow a particular pattern: major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. The chords that belong in the key of C, therefore, are: 1st – C major (usually just C), 2nd – D minor (usually Dm), 3rd – Em, 4th – F, 5th – G, 6th – Am, 7th – Bdim.
Most (though not all) of the transcriptions of “Hallelujah” I have seen put it in the key of C. Therefore, the chords for the last two lines I quoted follow the lyrics exactly. The line starts in C; with the words “the fourth” the music switches to the fourth chord, F; for “the fifth” it switches to the fifth chord, G; “the minor fall” is in Am; and “the major lift” takes us back to F major. It’s a fairly common chord progression, but I find it endlessly fascinating how Cohen fits together words and music in this way.
One of the other fascinations about the song is that it is, like anything by Cohen, very wordy. It demands attention to the lyrics which means that the diction has to be clear. Yet at the same time it demands a slur, “ya” not “you” in order to rhyme with “Hallelu-JAH”. When I was working at Canary Wharf, I once came upon an outdoor concert by a singer who was clearly classically trained and had a very fine voice. But at one point he started singing “Hallelujah” and when, in the first verse, he sang “But you don’t really care for music, do you?” I turned and walked away. By his careful, precise, correct pronunciation, he had destroyed the rhythm and pattern and hence the sense of the lyrics.
The Pentatonix version begins, as so many of their songs do, with Scott (yes, I know, forgive me and bear with me) stepping forward to sing the first line or two unaccompanied. He has a warm baritone, though he can sing a very resonant bass (as in, for instance, “The Sound of Silence”), and here he sings quietly with a little vocal fry (the crackle that you get at the back of the voice) that makes this an intimate whisper, from which the volume will subsequently soar.
The harmony as it comes in is also quiet, ooo’s and mmm’s. But as the verse ends the group starts to arpeggiate the chords, that is, each individually singing one of the notes of the chord. This starts to change the dynamic of the rendition. Avi, the bass, takes the second verse – “Your faith was strong but you needed proof / you saw her bathing on the roof” – singing in a very creamy, sweet low baritone.
As the verse ends, Kevin starts thumping his chest and stamping his foot and creating all sorts of rhythmic noises in his mouth. This is what some people have heard as a drum kit, but it is just a very skilled example of beatboxing. To get the full effect, try their video of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which, at one point, he perfectly emulates a full drum kit, snare and hi-hat and tympani and so on. This again increases the pulse of the song, making it more urgent, more powerful.
Kirsten takes the third verse – “I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / but love is not a victory march / it’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah” – and I may be mistaken but I think there’s an effortless key change at this point. Her voice soars as the harmony vocals get louder and more urgent. Then, suddenly, it all falls away and in the abrupt silence we get Mitch singing the final verse – “Maybe there’s a God above / but all I ever learned of love / was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Mitch is a wonder, he has a crystal clear high tenor almost verging on the countertenor. He has a range of somewhere in the region of four octaves, and I have never heard this part of the song without a shiver.
Then all the voices start to merge for the ecstatic climax. For a while Scott’s voice is dominant, then, as it climbs higher, Kirsten takes the lead. Meanwhile Avi rumbles out a low counter-melody. Just as it seems it can get no higher, it all falls away again, ending on a low, soft hum that echoes the quiet of the opening. The last note you hear is a bass note from Avi so low it is almost subliminal.
The thing about this video is how controlled it is, the timing is immaculate, and the voices, all very different, blend perfectly together. Of course, this is a recording made in a studio, but if you search YouTube you will find film of live performances that are pretty well indistinguishable from this recording.
Kirsten, Mitch and Scott were friends at school in a small Texas town. They had been singing together for years when they decided to form a group. But to do that they realised they need some lower notes to underpin their own voices. A friend introduced them to Avi, and another friend showed them a YouTube video of Kevin playing cello and beatboxing at the same time (which strikes me as like patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously). Kevin and Avi joined the group and they entered a TV talent show called “Sing Out”. I’ve no idea if this is still a thing, but it seems to have run for several years, with vocal groups competing for a big cash prize and a recording contract. Video of most if not all of their performances from the show can be found online. There are a couple duff songs, but in the main they strike me as every bit as clever, inventive, and musically sophisticated as any of their later work. The stand-out, for me, is perhaps their version of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
They won easily, of course, but the record company broke the contract before they even saw the inside of a recording studio. But they decided to stay together and put their stuff out on YouTube to get attention. At some point they recorded a medley of songs from Daft Punk which, according to rumour, they recorded in a kitchen cupboard for less than $400. Nevertheless, the effect is stunning, and it won them the first of their numerous Grammy Awards.
Now, their videos routinely get millions of views (“Hallelujah”, at the time of writing, has had 564 million views), they have a shelf full of awards, and they have, of course, a recording contract.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I want to have any of those records. But I will give anything to see them live.
I grew up with folk-rock, that curious hybrid which took (so-called) traditional tunes and added rock instrumentation. For a decade or more throughout the 1970s, the most-played record I owned was Basket of Light by Pentangle, one of the first folk-rock outfits (though I’ve never been convinced that the term rightly applies to them, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee certainly came from the folk tradition, but what Danny Thompson and Terry Cox brought to the mix was more a jazz infusion than a rock sound). And then there was Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention, which certainly was folk rock, and Below the Salt by Steeleye Span, which always sounded to me like an outfit that wasn’t really convinced by what they were doing and thought the rock stuff was a little infra dig. Anyway, by the time they got to All Around My Hat and the abysmal Rocket Cottage, they had pretty much given up on being anything but a pop group.
There were others, of course. One of the things that first drew Maureen and I together was that I was the only other person she’d met who knew who Mr Fox were. But those three, Pentangle and Fairport in their pomp, with a little bit of Steeleye on the side, were the great triumvirate of folk rock. There were a couple of live albums by Fairport, Live at the LA Troubadour and Full House, that you don’t seem to get any more. There’s a version of Full House that has been released, but it’s not quite the same as the original; Simon Nicol’s version of “Matty Groves” is different, and the original was superior (in the original, Nicols sang: “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck the floor”; the other version, more familiar but less dramatic, goes “Lord Arnold struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more”). But those albums were ones I always listened to with amazement, even though it would be many years before I ever saw a Fairport line-up on stage.
I had grown up on the Beatles, (I was 11 when I watched their first ever appearance on British television), and my musical taste continued to be informed by what were then known as beat groups. So I never had any particular interest in or liking for the old finger-in-the-ear traditional singer, but when the folk song and the rock music merged, suddenly my ears pricked up. For a while my record collection held some real oddities (anyone remember Magna Carta, Fairfield Parlour, Amazing Blondel? No, me neither, not any longer.) but as the folk-rock wave of the 70s began to recede, my tastes began to shift back to the rockier side of things. Though with some variations: the astonishing and idiosyncratic songs on Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and Sandy, certainly had a folk heritage, but they were hardly what I’d call folk songs, and the new direction they were opening up was one I was very interested in pursuing.
All of which is a long-winded way of getting around to talking about Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young. I was drawn to the book because it is largely a history of British folk rock, and in so far as that is what the book is, it’s a good book. Unfortunately, Young tries to cast his net wider than that, and that bit is problematic.
He starts with a chapter about Vashti Bunyan, which is a mark against him right from the beginning. Really! Surely, she had the most anaemic singing voice ever recorded, and her album, Just Another Diamond Day, justifiably sold about 20 copies. But in the decades since then, she has somehow been transformed into an iconic figure in the history of British folk music. I don’t understand this, but Young is far from the only person to put her up on that pillar. This chapter does tell us some things about Young’s book. In the first place, when it comes to actually writing about music, Young is crap. But then, there are very few people who are able to write well about music, though not many of them reach for the sort of extravagant and laboured metaphors that Young employs. In the second place, Young is largely uncritical: if the song or album or group can be squeezed into his history, then it is by default good. Okay, as the book goes on there are a couple of albums which he doesn’t greet with unalloyed praise (Rocket Cottage, of course, being one), but this is not exactly a work of criticism. Thirdly, the book is only accidentally about folk music; the clue is in the sub-title, “Visionary Music”, though he never actually explains what visionary music is, and for much of the book he blurs the boundaries so that folk rock is inevitably equated with visionary music. So Vashti, setting off in her gypsy caravan for Donovan’s Scottish island, which he has already left, is of interest because she is visionary rather than because she is a folk singer.
Now it is when we come to that term, “folk singer”, that things become interesting. Leaving Vashti to wander off stage, never to return, Young now goes back in time to the early collectors, Cecil Sharp, the Child Ballads, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and so on. This is where the book becomes interesting, because you start to realize how problematic the whole thing is. The whole collecting thing was tied up with a strand of late-19th century nationalism that echoed similar movements in Europe, and therefore inevitably has a rather dubious right-wing vibe. It was also rather indiscriminate, the collectors picked up on anything that grizzled country folk liked to sing, whether traditional ballads or music hall songs or something they had extemporized themselves, but because of where they came from they were all deemed authentic. “Authentic” became a nonce-word that plagued folk music for decades after, everything was geared to digging back to find the most ancient and therefore most authentic version of every song. The truth is that there is nothing authentic about folk music: tunes are remembered and forgotten, lyrics get changed constantly, lines are misremembered and new lines are cobbled together, and one set of words could be put to a different tune then the words would be changed to fit the tune. But for the panjandrums of Cecil Sharp House, the songs were set in stone, their authenticity an earnest of their importance. By the 1950s, Ewan McColl (or Jimmy Miller from Salford, as he was originally) was so insistent on authenticity that singers at his folk club had to employ the accent of whichever region the song had been collected from. Folk music was associated with various popular, left-wing causes, the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass in the 1930s, the Aldermaston Marches in the 1960s, and yet the traditionalists were extraordinarily authoritarian.
The guitar, for example, was not an authentic instrument, and so it didn’t start to creep into the folk music scene until the late-50s and 60s. But the young masters of the guitar who came on the scene around this time, Renbourn and Jansch, Davy Graham, and so forth, began to change the scene. They brought a more fluid, fluent style to the traditional songs they played; they began writing their own pieces in the style of their vamped-up traditional songs; and they were listening to other popular music around at the time. After all, if guitars aren’t common in your chosen area of music, who do you listen to for techniques and ideas? The folk guitarists who came on the scene in the early-60s brought influences from jazz, from classical music, and from rock ‘n’ roll; and in time they brought in electric guitars.
One of the things that comes across in the longest and best part of the book is how eclectic folk music became between the mid-60s and the mid-70s. Failing rock groups reinvented themselves as folk groups; most of the drummers who played in folk groups had originally started in rock bands. The folk musicians were listening to jazz and classical and rock; rock musicians were listening to folk; and from all of this new hybrids emerged. And thus were born Fairport and Pentangle and their ilk.
So far, so good. This is, of course, a partial account of British folk music during the period. There is no mention, for instance, of groups like The Spinners, The Dubliners or Planxty, though they were all very successful (The Spinners never seemed to be off British television screens throughout the 60s). No mention, either, of other performers who arose on the folk scene, like Al Stewart or Ralph McTell, even though these would go on to have very successful careers in ways that played very adroitly with the borders between folk and rock. And though there are nods to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon and Jackson C. Frank, the ways that the British folk scene interwove with the American folk revival of the 50s and 60s isn’t really developed. Nor, given the whole issue of authenticity that plagued folk music, is there any real discussion of whether folk musicians who wrote their own songs (which is the case with practically all of the performers I’ve mentioned so far, including the austere Ewan McColl) could be said to be part of the folk tradition. Can things like “Pentangling” by Pentangle or “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” by Sandy Denny really be considered folk songs? And if so, what is it that makes them folk?
But we come back, yet again, to that subtitle: “Visionary Music”. It is undefined; sometimes it means a songwriter who read William Blake, sometimes a song that refers to the landscape, sometimes a piece that pays homage to Aleister Crowley, sometimes it seems to be just a band that Rob Young happens to like. And over the course of the book, it transmutes into something called “acid folk” (don’t ask, I’ve no idea), or psychedelic folk (ditto); and by the end of the book he’s talking about obscure experimental musicians whose work, so far as I can see, bears no relationship to folk in any way. Which is another problem with the book, it is unfocussed, the subject drifts. It may be that those who like Ghost Box will find the final chapters of the book enthralling, but for me they have moved away from the area I was particularly interested in. Which to my mind makes the book over-long (660-odd pages) and rather bitty.
But the bits that I was interested in are very good indeed.
Further to my post a little while back about Pete Atkin and Clive James, I’ve been playing a lot of their stuff on guitar recently. It’s challenging for a rank amateur like me because Atkin uses a lot of obscure chords and jazzy rhythms. Even so, there is something satisfying in, for instance, the transition from Em9 (020002) to A9 (xx2132) in the first line of “A King at Nightfall”.
But the curious thing about playing the same songs over and over again is that at first you lose the sense of the words because all of your concentration is on the chords. Then, suddenly, the words click back into focus and you start to see them in fresh ways.
The thing is, I’ve known and loved the songs of Atkin and James since I first encountered them in the early 70s. So I’ve got used to thinking of the lyrics simply in terms of their cleverness, their complex wordplay, the mass of cultural references that James jams into so many of the songs. But seeing them anew as I relearn the songs in a different way I’ve realized how slangy James’s writing could be (“Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field will be in it for the bread”), and more significantly how full of contemporary social observation that is simply taken for granted. So much so that I think some songs would probably be almost incomprehensible to a modern audience without a gloss.
Take, for example, the second verse of “Laughing Boy”:
A kid once asked me in late September for a shilling for the guy
And I looked that little operator in her wheeling-dealing eye
And I tossed a bob with deep respect in her old man’s trilby hat
It seems to me that a man like me could die of things like that
It’s a verse that has always delighted me, and for anyone my age, it’s probably perfectly clear. For anyone half my age? I haven’t seen any kid asking for pennies for the guy for years, probably for decades. So the resonances in this verse are going to be missed.
Bonfire Night is on 5th November (or, more commonly, the closest Saturday to that date). This is a pre-Christian festival of light that was adopted to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the prevention of the Gunpowder Plot. The practice was to make a guy, a figure made of old clothes stuffed with straw or something else combustible, which would be burned on top of the bonfire. During the week or two before Bonfire Night, children would take their guy around the neighbourhood collecting pennies for the guy; the pennies would then be used to buy fireworks for the event. That the girl in the song is asking for a shilling (12 pennies), twelve times the going rate, is therefore a sign of her entrepreneurship. And that she is asking for money in September places it around a month ahead of the usual time. (That it’s a girl is possibly also significant: collecting money for the guy was more often associated with boys.)
I tossed a bob (a slang term for shilling) in her old man’s (old man could mean husband or father, in this context it is pretty clearly father) trilby hat. In the late-60s/early 70s when this song was written, men didn’t often wear hats, they had fallen out of fashion, so they tended to be rare and expensive. The girl has probably stolen the hat, and may well, at the end, put it on the head of the guy to be burned.
So in a few lines we learn an awful lot about the characters in the song and about their milieu, but all in terms that have lost their meaning, their social context, over the nearly 50 years since it was written. That sort of particular observation is common in Clive James’s lyrics, but I am suddenly wondering how transparent they might be to a modern audience.
Loose Canon by Ian Shircore is essentially a poor man’s version of Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, and I learned a lot from it. It has to be essential reading for any fan of perhaps the finest songwriting team of the late twentieth century, if only because of the dearth of other material. But it is a partial book, it doesn’t even pretend to cover all of their songs, and many of my favourite Atkin/James songs (A King at Nightfall, Driving Through Mythical America, The Prince of Aquitaine) aren’t even mentioned, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in Shircore’s book about the tropes and themes that recur in the songs, some of those themes, such as James’s habit of filtering the world through references to often obscure Hollywood films, do not get the depth of analysis I think they deserve. So here are a few other things about the music of Pete Atkin and Clive James.
I don’t remember how I came across them. Their music seems to have been an intimate part of my entire life, and in such circumstances there are no real beginnings. The first album I got was Driving Through Mythical America, which I must have picked up back in 1971 or 72 soon after it came out. I don’t know what the impetus was that made me pick it up, perhaps a song on the radio, but it was surely my happiest musical discovery. I only ever saw them perform live once, in 2005 (so long ago?) in Canterbury, two old men who had recently started performing together again after more than 20 years out of the business. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the reality was better, it was mesmerising. The songs hold up better than anything else from that era. In interviews, Clive James has said he is prouder of his songwriting than his poetry; I understand the feeling, but what makes the songs so good is that they are written with a poetic rather than a lyrical sensibility. Sometimes this shows through, as in Girl On The Train, for instance, in which “mouth” is rhymed with “earth”, a rhyme which works visually on the page but not vocally, but this is a rare exception.
The words were always written first, then Pete Atkin would spend days, sometimes weeks or even longer fitting music to them. In part because he sings with such clear diction that every word is always crystal clear, and because the music showcases the lyrics so well, I always used to think of Atkin’s music as fairly simple. It was only when I started trying to play it on guitar that I realised just how richly complex his music is. He uses a lot of complex chords that aren’t common in popular music, a lot of 9th chords, for instance (the shift between Em9 and A9 in A King At Nightfall, or the C9, F9, D9 progression in All The Dead Were Strangers, and Thirty Year Man has a G13b9 chord that I still haven’t worked out); and the rhythms vary constantly, from the jazzy C-Bb-C-Bb opening of Thirty Year Man to the more folky strum of Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger. There’s a fairly straightforward illustration of how adept Atkin was in mastering different musical styles in their 6th (and for a long time their last) album, Live Libel, which contains effortless parodies of about a dozen different forms of popular music, from country to heavy metal. It is not a great album – Atkin and James weren’t popular with the label because they simply weren’t producing the hits that were expected, and this was an openly derisory effort to complete and get out of their contract – but it is instructive in its way, and at times quite funny.
Why they didn’t break through to a mass audience is, of course, one of the great mysteries. They began writing songs as undergraduates at Cambridge, and there is always an edge of undergraduate cleverness about their stuff, but were they too clever? Yet at pretty much the same time Leonard Cohen was being equally clever in his lyrics. Was it the jazz infusion that Atkin brought into so many of the songs? But Joni Mitchell was being jazzy and popular at the same time. They had devoted fans, including people like John Peel, but it never translated into high sales.
My own theory was that the mood of the songs was at odds with what people wanted from popular song. The overwhelming mood evoked by their early albums is pathos: they were songs about failure, death, loss, often comic in effect but pathetic nevertheless. There were, for instance, no straightforward love songs. If there are love songs, it is about unrequited love for another man’s wife:
Another night I bring the flowers and the wine
Has slipped away There were only three to dine And two to stay
Or the object of affection doesn’t even notice the hopeless swain:
Apart from the chance of the driver accepting a cheque For crashing his loco so I could be brave in the wreck To boldly encounter this creature was not in my power So my heart mended and broke in the course of an hour.
James’s heroes can can look forward only to an endless stream of broken relationships, as the character granted the chance to see his future mistress in a crystal ball:
“Hello there” she said with her hand to her brow “I’m the one you’ll meet after the one you know now There’s no room inside here to show you us all But behind me the queue stretches right down the hall For the damned there is always a stranger There is always a beautiful stranger”
And this wasn’t just a characteristic of James’s writing; one of only two songs that Pete Atkin wrote the lyrics for concludes:
All I ever did while you were here was done for you Now through my tears I’m asking why All you ever said was goodbye.
And it is not just love that is imbued with this fatalistic tone. There are any number of songs about death and defeat:
You spun the crown away into a ditch And saw the water close The army that you fed now feeds the crows A king at nightfall
So yesterday they left me on the ice I could barely lift my head to watch them go The sky was white, my eyes grew full of snow And what thing reached me first, bears or the weather, I just don’t know.
Even a song about the dignity of labour, an expression of the left-wing sensibility that comes out in so many of James’s lyrics, turns into a song about a funeral:
He was generally respected, and the proof Was a line of hired Humbers tagging quietly behind A fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof.
And one of the most syntactically convoluted sentences in popular song also ends in death:
When on the outskirts of the town Comes bumping cavernously down Out of the brick gateway From the faded mansion on the hill The out-of-date black Cadillac With the old man crumpled in the back That time has not yet found the time to kill.
[In a parenthetical aside: you go to the web sites of singers and songwriters and you will find the chords for their songs all very carefully transcribed. It’s a valuable resource for those of us learning guitar. But I wish they were as careful transcribing the lyrics. The transcription of The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance, has a line that the web site tells us is “The cemetery of home”, but the sense of the lyrics, common sense and a casual listen to the song will tell us this is really “The cemetery of hope”. There’s something similar on Al Stewart’s site, where the lyrics as given insist that the final verse of Electric Los Angeles Sunset includes the line “Movie queens diffuse into a cinerama haze”, where sense, internal rhymes and a listen will tell us the real line is “Movie queues diffuse into a cinerama haze”. And these people are supposed to be listening carefully to what is going on.]
Back to The Faded Mansion On The Hill, which appeared on the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, and I am convinced that the passage I quoted is a direct reference to the Stacy Keach character in Robert Altman’s 1970 film, Brewster McCloud. This, of course, is perfectly in keeping with James’s interest in the cinema, which would pretty soon translate into a film reviewing spot on TV where he would first come to popular attention. Film references constantly crop up in his work, most interestingly, to my ears, in Driving Through Mythical America.
This, again from 1971, is a direct response to the shootings at Kent State University:
Four students never knew that this was it There isn’t much a target needs to know Already Babyface had made the hit And Rosebud was upended in the snow
America is not a real place, but a melange of film references. The real urgent moral and political purpose that got the four students at Kent State killed is overwhelmed by the pretend America that is created by a diet of Hollywood movies.
Movie metaphors recur constantly throughout James’s work:
Through screens of memory you leave me Smile on the screen behind And then the screen behind the screen behind the screen But nothing alters what has been Nor do my eyes deceive me
And I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon falling moulting to the street He was caught by Queen Christina who was Following the Fleet And Scarface found the Sleep was even Bigger than the Heat When he hit the Yellowbrick Road to where the Grapes of Wrath are sweet
The problem with an exercise like this is that there is no limit. Clive James’s lyrics are so meaty you want to keep quoting them, in fact you want to cite the complete lyrics of every song, simply because they are so good, and because there is such intimate connection within the lyrics that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Of course there are problems, one of the things that makes the lyrics so alive is that they are of the moment as much as they are timeless. Would a reference to duty-free allowances in The Prince of Aquitaine –
I have brought them all the plunder of the international jets An envelope of sugar and two hundred cigarettes
– require an explanatory footnote nowadays? Is a line like this, in A King At Nightfall –
Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field Will be in it for the bread There’ll be a price on your anointed head
– sound too slangy to a modern ear?And yet the songs work for me, probably better than any others. They make me laugh, they make me wonder; at times the writing is extraordinarily beautiful, at other times it is delightfully colloquial. I keep playing them over, on my music system, on my guitar, or just in my head. They do what the very best songs are supposed to do.