Be still

On January 26, 2013, in Music, by Luke McKernan

I’ve only collected three autographs in my lifetime (getting friends to sign copies of their books for me doesn’t count). The first was when I was aged 10 or so. It was Bertie Mee, the manager of Arsenal football club. I forget the circumstances, and I lost the autograph long ago. The second was the filmmaker Derek Jarman, when I went to a talk he gave to the University of Manchester’s film society in 1980. I’d just seen his The Tempest which was the film that opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema. I’ve lost that autograph too. The third was last Thursday evening, when jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas signed a copy of his new CD for me, Be Still. As of two days now, I’ve still got it.

Dave Douglas is one of my favourite musicians. His playing is something that I can recognise automatically, whatever the musical setting, like spotting a friend’s face in a crowd. I first came across him a dozen or more years ago, playing with John Zorn. I noted at the time that a little of Zorn’s Klezmer-inspired music went a long way, but that he had a fine trumpeter with him. It was a few years later that I stumbled across Douglas once again, and rapidly became hooked. As a jazz musician he is one for pushing at the boundaries. He has a taste for the avant garde, unusual musical combinations, and collaborations with choreographers and filmmakers, though he can do (fairly) mainstream as well. His various ensembles range from big bands (not quite to my taste) to smaller groups such as Keystone, the experimental Tiny Bell Trio, the wild and free Quartet, and the exquisite combination of trumpet, violin, accordion, and bass which produced what could well be my desert island album, Charms of the Night Sky. Introspective, lyrical, inventive and fresh to listen to no matter how many times I return to it, this collection of original compositions inspired by East European folk music completely lives up to the promise of its title and the beauty of its CD cover (from the excellent Winter & Winter).

Douglas’s film collaborations have a particular interest for me. His Keystone band (trumpet, tenor sax, electric piano, turntables, electric bass, drums) is ostensibly inspired by the work of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. To be honest, if you listened to the music alone it wouldn’t be likely to conjure up silent films to you, and if you see the music played alongside the films you’d think so all the more, but it works best as Douglas’s expression of what the films mean to him. On that level, the recordings are very fine, and if you encounter the CD Moonshine (inspired by the Keaton/Arbuckle film), recorded live at the Bray Jazz Festival in 2008, then that’s me cheering at the end of the recording (along with the rest of the audience, I hasten to add). Most recently he’s collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame) for a work inspired by the Frankenstein story, Spark of Being.

Douglas has never quite made to the top tier of jazz favourites, perhaps because of the eclectism and the taste for experiment, but that may change with his latest CD, Be Still. It’s a collection of adapted hymn tunes, each of them favourites of Douglas’s recently deceased mother, who requested that they be played at her funeral service. Most of them feature singer Aoife O’Donovan, whose breathy renditions of ‘God be With You’, ‘This is my Father’s World’ and ‘Barbara Allen‘ both blend and contrast compulsively with Douglas and band. It’s a cross-over sound that could well have cross-over appeal.

Douglas was in London because he has been International Artist in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music for the past two years. On the night I was there, in the incongruous setting of a hall with chandeliers and walls lined with oil paintings of eighteenth-century child prodigies, Douglas was awarded an honorary membership of the Academy (joining a distinguished list, we were told, than includes Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Kenny Wheeler). He then played various compositions of his with assorted combinations of Academy students, who you expect to be accomplished but not necessarily to play jazz with a swing, but they swung alright. The chandeliers trembled. It was a tremendous concert – the sort of evening where you end up think that maybe all that we can really do well, as a species, is make music, and how well we are able to do it. Other planets take note.

Douglas is an innovator in things digital as well as things musical, and his website has much in the way of downloadable material (mostly for purchase) by himself and other musicians on his Greenleaf label, including music available only on the site. There’s the Greenleaf YouTube channel and you can find Greenleaf recordings on SoundCloud. If you are at all intrigued by Douglas, I certainly recommend Be Still, or else a good starting point is the double-CD Live at the Jazz Standard, or for anyone still finding their way through jazz there’s The Infinite, with its beautiful interpretations of Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Poses’ and Bjork’s ‘Unison’.

Then move on to Charms of the Night Sky, and be at peace.


Where’s the new wave now?

On January 19, 2013, in Music, by Luke McKernan

I want to go where they’ve never seen snow
Send my Giro to Cairo

Has there ever been, in the entire history of popular music, a finer opening to a song lyric? As I trudged home from work through the snowy wastes of North Kent, the words came back to me – ye gods, from thirty-three years ago. They come from the first single by Brighton band The Golinski Brothers, a song entitled ‘Bloody’. A sing-a-long new wave number with ramshackle production put over with exuberant passion, it tells of the miseries of love and life with the irresistible pay-off line, “well, I suppose you’ve got to laugh … ha ha ha”. Of course it was a great favourite of John Peel’s, and it’s just the sort of record I would have bought around then, but a copy never made to the shops I obsessively frequented back in those days in Kent, and all I have is the song, playing ever more faintly in my head wherever snow reappears.

But then salvation comes in the form of YouTube. Among the true wonders of the great video archive that belongs to us all, is its music archive. While today every song has its accompanying video, back in 1978, 1979 – the golden year for popular song – 1980, so many bands issued one or two singles, released through backstreet labels with cheaply-printed covers, and left almost no other trace behind them. Many of the better-known, and even some of the middling-known punk and new wave songs of the era have made it onto compilation albums to appeal to nostalgists, but for the lower tier of songs that few bought because few could find them in the first place, the only place for them now is YouTube, as those of my generation dig out their 45s, use the record sleeve as illustration, and put them on the site out of sheer goodness. (There are other music sharing sites out there, of course, but YouTube is what I know).

So it is that I can find ‘Bloody’, and discover that it is every bit a wonderful as I recall – and indeed it comes with commentary from John Peel’s show, the great man declaring that people have been given OBEs for less and that he would like to listen to the song on a loop forever. (Happily it can also be found on Amazon as an MP3 download, I’ve now discovered)

Well this inspired me to seek out some other favourites from my well-spent youth. Of course the music that you hear when young is the greatest music ever, but in my case it is absolutely the truth. I was 18 in 1979, and the music then was so sensational, so creative, so new, it made you giddy. But while the Sex Pistols and the Clash had hit the headlines and frankly had had their day, and while the general public was discovering Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Buzzcocks, the Undertones and so on, there were hundreds of bands who just made the one or two records, ran out of ideas, never made so much as the alternative charts let alone the main ones, and slipped out of music history. You can trace them in the peerless International Discovery of the New Wave by B. George and Martha Defoe, or in handy databases such as Discogs or 45cat. So many incredible pop records that if released today would turn their creators into overnight sensations, yet then there were only few local concerts, and people like me leafing through the racks of 7″ records looking for that tune we heard on Peel last night, or intrigued by a striking record sleeve or witty single title.

So here are a few of my favourites from that golden age, which I think ended when the gloom of Joy Division changed the tastes of that generation for the worse. Few can be found anywhere else other than YouTube (so far as I know). Ah, memories.

The Quads: There Must be Thousands

The Quads came from Birmingham, released four perfect pop singles, reached no. 66 in the charts with this record, then were gone. I confess to having a tear or two come to my eyes when I played this again for the first time in three decades. Why did ‘Teenage Kicks’ become known to everyone, but ‘There Must be Thousands’ lies virtually forgotten? I can think of no other record that so powerfully expresses the delight in singing your heart out.

The Quads: You’ve Gotta Jive

And then you turn the record over, and find that the B-side is every bit as good as the A-side. What were they doing putting this on the B-side? It’s just as great a pop song, with a unique guitar riff, irresistible drive, and a sly stop-start surprise towards the end. In 1981 the Quads went on to release the impassioned ‘Gotta Get a Job’ in support of The People’s March for Jobs (it may not be on YouTube, but how great to see that the Media Archive for Central England at least stores an ATV clip of the band rehearsing the song).

The Cravats: Precinct

The Cravats came from Redditch, and somebody loves them enough to have created a website dedicated to them, with history, discography, pictures and audio clips. Indeed they still exist, intermittently, and there’s a clip of them playing their greatest number, ‘Precinct’, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2011. The original is punk as it was supposed to be, a rush of noise and anger, with war drumming, thudding bass, a just about discernible melody and the surprise element of urgent saxophone. Listen, then go and smash something up.

Fatal Microbes: Violence Grows

This sounded astonishing back in 1979; it sounds just as extraordinary now. There had been nothing like it music before – a menacing, slow bass line, phased guitar meandering the background, and the 14-year-old Honey Bane (who later had a brief solo career before becoming an actress) half-singing half-declaiming about society’s collapse. How curious that its account of people witnessing violence on a bus and doing nothing about it reads like Daily Mail leader…

Longport Buzz: Fun

Even those with encyclopaedic knowledge of the British new wave might struggle to recall Longport Buzz. They were big in Canterbury, and not much more. The drummer lived at the bottom of our road. Six songs made it to vinyl, including the 4-track EP ‘Canterbury Pop’, from which this comes. My copy has the tracklisting written in fountain pen ink – they clearly didn’t plan for major sales. Their songs were a mixture of the crpytically sardonic and pop pastiche, ‘Fun’ being an example of the latter. It’s not their best number, but it’s what YouTube has, and it’s the very embodiment of the song’s title.

Bet Lynch’s Legs: Some Like it Hot

OK, who wouldn’t have wanted to buy this record purely on the strength of the band’s name? This is just the sort of record you would be so happy come across when leafing through long racks of 7″ singles in search of some eye-catching oddity. Named after Coronation Street‘s legendary barmaid, the band came from Manchester, but little seems to be known about them. They made instrumentals based on cowboy film theme tunes, with twangy guitar, saxophone and spaced out chanting. But what did Julie Goodyear think of them?

The Flatbackers: Pumping Iron

This 1980 single has a better production than the other songs on show here. Did someone have plans for this female trio from London? It’s certainly an irresistibly chirpy dig at muscle culture. I particularly like that the copy played here comes with scratches. Nothing brings back the happy past quite so much as crackle on vinyl.

Metabolist: Chained

Metabolist were pure musique concrete, from their eye-catching single-colour-in-a-square record covers to their unrelenting industrial sound. They released a number of singles and one album, declined to have anything to do with the music business and the music business probably didn’t want to have anything to do with them anyway. ‘Chained’, from 1980, makes Cabaret Voltaire sound like kiddie pop. More information on this wilfully obscure band is here.

Tarzan 5: Boy’s Game

This dates from 1981, and its spare style is typical of sort of new wave records that followed the poppier sounds of 1979. But while a ‘post-punk’ bands like Delta 5, A Certain Ratio and The Gang of Four have a cult following, who remembers the Tarzan 5? Who were the Tarzan 5? They only ever released the one single, and I still deeply regret seeing a concert advertised for them when I was living in Manchester and not being able to get there. They disappeared, leaving just this pin-sharp comment on habitual sexism, with as catchy a chorus as you’ll find anywhere.

The Cybermen: Where’s the New Wave Now?

The Cybermen came from Accrington. I think I own their complete works – one EP, from which this song comes, and the glorious single ‘You’re to Blame’, both issued in 1978. The records are in flimsy paper sleeves with photocopied pictures of the band, the epitome of the punk ethos. Possibly recorded in a small shed, ‘Where’s the New Wave Now?’ laments the selling out of what was the most ethical and principled of music movements (indeed perhaps the only music movement that ever has been based on ethics and principles).

Thank you to all the bands, and to all those who have shared the songs on YouTube. Now someone should put together a compilation of uncollected new wave rarities and give the bands some royalties.

Update: The other posts in this musical series are:


The civilizing process

On January 11, 2013, in History, Sociology, War, by Luke McKernan

I have spent the past few months reading Sir Steven Runciman’s three-volume A History of the Crusades. It’s one of those works that has sat on shelves for a long while, daring me to find the stamina to read through all 1,430 pages. But one day – to be precise, it was the day of the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, when I could not bear to look at the television screen any more – I launched in, and, with several diversions along the way (I usually have three books on the go at any one time) I reached the end last week.

And what a desperate tale of human folly it all is. One is brought up knowing bits here and there about the Crusades, from tales of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, to feature films, history programmes, encyclopedia entries, and a vivid childhood memory of reading Henry Treece’s hugely sad The Children’s Crusade. I had the Crusades in my head, but in no sensible order. To read the story of the main Crusades and the various sub-Crusades between 1095 and 1272 is to be overwhelmed the stupidity of it all. The Crusaders were violent, immoral, greedy, vicious, deceitful, cruel, hypocritical, bigoted, but above all stupid.

The Crusades were a venture from which nothing was learned, and nothing gained. Each wave of Crusaders poured into the Near East lands, determined to slaughter the Infidel, settled down, started to become assimilated to the ways and means of the East, then a new wave would come, express disgust at the lax ways of their brothers-in-arms, and start the slaughter all over again. But they weren’t even very good at the slaughter, falling into ambushes over and over again, their belief in charging headlong at the enemy being regularly exploited by an enemy that simply made a tactical retreat, then counter-attacked once the Crusaders had been lured into disadvantageous territory. They would not shed the belief that they could not fail because God was with them, a belief reinforced by the seemingly miraculous success of the first Crusade which ended with the conquest of Jerusalem, yet they failed and failed again. They seem to have had no grasp of political strategy, most noticeable in their contempt towards the fellow Christian state of Byzantium, which was an essential buffer against the Seldjuk Turks, yet which the Crusaders never trusted and eventually destroyed in the grotesque parody of the Fourth Crusade.

The lack of any honour is particularly striking. Over and again you read of a besieged fortress, of the defenders surrendering on the understanding that they would be allowed to walk away unharmed, only for the victorious leader to go back on his word and have them all killed in any case. Personal, familial or tribal advantage outweighed any other consideration, and could be twisted to justify any outrage. How could one live in such a world?

The siege of Jerusalem, 1099, from Wikimedia Commons

And then there are the massacres. To read the history of the Crusades is to wade in blood. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, practically the entire population of the city was slaughtered – estimates range between 10,000 and 40,000 people. According to the code of the times (in a time without much in the way of codes this was one that all seemed to adhere to, most of the time), a besieged city’s inhabitants should be spared if they surrendered with a reasonable period of time; if they resisted, and the siege was successful, they they had to suffer the consequences, as the victorious troops were allowed a period to gather booty and slaughter and ravage as best suited them for a set period (three days seems to have been the going rate).

At least one million people were killed during the Crusades. Thousands were killed in each wave of invasion and counter-invasion. Repeatedly the history tells of gung-ho Crusader armies attacking when wiser counsels tried to advise caution, only to be massacred by the Moslem forces who must have been baffled by an opponent who never listened, never learned. What you don’t get from Runciman’s history is a sense of the proportion of troops killed on their side, compared to the size of the armies overall, or how much wastage there was of the civilian population. How did life sustain itself? How could one live in such a world?

It is the civilian massacres that are the most upsetting. Behind every bald account of some many thousand killed at the falling of some city are countless individual tragedies. Young, old, women, children, of every religious persuasion or tribal identity, all fell to the sword or some other brutality (mutilations, blindings and so on). If they weren’t killed, they were enslaved. They expected such a fate, because that was how the world was, and it is noticeable how often besieged cities would refuse to surrender, valuing their honour or their special identity above any calls to give these up (though such shows of defiance may have come more from their leaders than the commonfolk). But what did the children know of such honour or identity? You were just trapped in a world where everyone who decided that you were of a kind that was not like them would therefore kill you if given the opportunity, and violently so. Violence was the expression of certainty.

There’s not much comfort to be gained from such a history, so you look for understanding. Runciman sums up the Crusading movement as “a vast fiasco”, the consequence of “faith without wisdom”. This makes it a moral failure, which is an interesting conclusion that perhaps belongs more to the time in which Runciman wrote (his three volumes were published 1951-1954) than one would get from a historian today. A military historian such as John Keegan, in his A History of Warfare, sees the the rise and fall of the Crusader armies as one of changing tactics, their early successes being due to the advantages that armoured soldiers had over light cavalry, a situation overturned when Saladin and then the Egyptian Mameluke powers with the “evasive, harrying tactics of the steppe horsemen” outwitted the blinkered methods of the Crusaders. An economic historian would see the landless younger sons of Europe’s gentry driven to the Crusades to obtain territory denied to them by existing market forces, while humans on the field of conflict were mere objects of exchange, to be eliminated or else enslaved or sold. Such conclusions see the ebb and flow of history as one of tactical, commercial or mechanical advantage. It does not tell us why people acted in the way that they did, and why so horribly.

Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of our Nature looks at the history of violence, and argues that we are living in the gentlest of ages, because overall progressively fewer people get killed year by year. He presents this argument as though it is something startling, assuming that his readership will hold it that we live today in the worst of times. Notwithstanding the fact that the twentieth century saw the conflict which killed more people than any other in history (the Second World War), it seems fairly obvious that we live in – for the most part, and in most places – pacific, civilised times. I can go about my daily business without fear of attack or invasion, without the feeling that I must kill or be killed. Yes there are absolutists about who still think in a killed-or-be-killed way, but statistically I live in better times. How did we change, or are we the same people as those in the eleventh century, only brought up differently?

Pinker starts with the facts and figures that show that we have progressively slaughtered one another less and less as the centuries have progressed. He then tries to find out why. His guiding text is Norbert Elias’ classic sociological study, The Civilizing Process. This is one of the great books of our times. Elias traces the processes by which we have gradually suppressed our baser instincts over time. He homes in on such entertaining subjects as table manners, spitting, bodily functions or bedroom behaviour in the Middle Ages, and how gradually the idea of manners, or hiding one’s behaviour on occasion, progressively took hold, usually starting with the gentry and then working its way down. Then he turns to the question of aggression and violence, and finds the answer for it in the structures of society. Here’s what he says about the aggressive instinct in the Middle Ages:

Not that people were always going around with fierce looks, drawn brows and martial countenances as the clearly visible symbols of their warlike prowess. On the contrary, a moment ago they were joking, now they mock each other, one word leads to another, and suddenly in the midst of laughter they find themselves in the fiercest feud. Much of what appears contradictory to us – the intensity of their piety, the violence of their fear of hell, their guilt feelings, their penitence, the immense outbursts of joy and gaiety, the sudden flaring and the uncontrollable force of their hatred and belligerence – all these, like the rapid changes of mood, and in reality symptoms of one and the same structuring of the emotional life. The drives, the emotions were vented more freely, more directly, more openly than later. It is only in us, in whom everything is more subdued, moderate and calculated, and in whom social taboos are built much more deeply into the fabric of our drive-economy as self-restraints, that the unveiled intensity of their piety, belligerence or cruelty appears to be contradictory. Religion, the belief in the punishing or rewarding omnipotence of God, never has in itself a “civilizing” or affect-subduing effect. On the contrary, religion is exactly as “civilized” as the society or class which upholds it.

It was a time when “the structure of affects was different from our own, an existence without security, with only minimal thought for the future”. For Elias, what caused the civilizing process was – broadly speaking – the formation of states and the rise in commerce. Living in such states, with their controls and their particular interrelationships, brought about restraint, inculcated self-control. Pinker picks up on this, examining Elias’ thesis with reference to neurological studies, economics, psychology, evolutionary biology and social investigations. He concurs that self-restraint has become second nature to us, “a stable trait that differentiates one person from another, beginning early in childhood”. Impulses toward tribalism, moralism, the revering of one sacred thing above another, all still exist and seem at some level fundamental to human thinking, but the majority think first to exercise restraint. And so we are able to call ourselves civilised.

There are others reasons too – the rise in literacy, communications, social interaction, scientific and industrial advances, the change in the position of women in society. It’s a complex picture, and still more complicated when one considers (as Pinker does at length) whether this means there has been environmental or genetic change. Have we evolved into better beings, or are we merely creatures of the social structures that now sustain us? Elias and Pinker tend towards the latter, though Pinker ranges at length on the possibility that we are measurably more intelligent than our forebears, that our ability to reason and to act with a sense of consequences shows how as a race we have may have moved on biologically. He goes so far as to call our ancestors “morally retarded”.

Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid. They would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values they claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them.

The Crusaders did not think of consequences, did not listen to such wise counsels as did exist, could not act for what was ultimately to their long-term advantage. They were stupid.

But what was it like being a mother with a child, trapped in a besieged Syrian city, powerless, hearing the shouts of the besieging army outside the walls, hearing the crash of the rocks hurled from siege weapons that sought to batter down those walls, hearing from one’s leaders that death was to be expected and all that there was to do was to fight and to believe, to see the gates fall and the enemy pour in, with licence to do whatever they wanted to do and devoid of any sense of mercy? What was it like, knowing that the blade would fall? How could one live in such a world?

The sociologists cannot answer this, nor the military or economic historians. How could they live? How do they live in the Congo, in Somalia, in Syria today? They live because they have to live. And they serve as reminder that the line between ourselves and our violent forebears is a thin one.