I remember # 6

On September 26, 2013, in I remember, by Luke McKernan

157. I remember hearing a siren wailing at some point in the early ’80s and wondering if nuclear war had been declared

158. I remember Hiawatha

159. I remember Porky Prime Cut (the message cut into the grooves of many single and albums in the 70s and 80s)

160. I remember Pogle’s Wood and little Pippin

161. I remember being frightened by a poster for the film Pulp – not an horrific or violent film at all, but simply on account of its title

162. I remember gobstoppers

163. I remember David Bowie’s appearance on Top of the Pops, singing ‘Starman’. It wasn’t that big a deal – it was the bass player that I thought looked weird

164. I remember trolley buses

165. I remember Esma Cannon

166. I remember faynights, the magic word which somehow gave you immunity from capture in playground games of chase

166. I remember Noddy Holder’s hat with its silver discs

167. I remember parkas

168. I remember Tracy Island, home of the Thunderbirds

169. I remember when seemingly every TV programme carried a credit for Ken Morse, rostrum camera

170. I remember the bitter look our previously friendly local grocer gave us when we admitted that we now had to do our family shopping at a supermarket

171. I remember James Burke saying ‘look’ in a really emphatic way

172. I remember a great storm and the day after finding that Herne Bay pier had disappeared, apart from the bit at the end

173. I remember 1066 and all That, which I read as straight history

174. I remember sparklers

175. I remember Peter Wyngarde as Jason King, who seemed as immaculately cool then as he appears deeply ridiculous now

176. I remember the shock when Liverpool went one up in the 1971 FA Cup Final and worrying that I might never be able to face my family again if Arsenal lost (they won 2-1)

177. I remember Charlie George’s goal celebration, lying flat on his back, arms raised

178. I remember Blue Mink

179. I remember Olga Korbut, and Nellie Kim

180. I remember the girl who served at the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk who was the subject of the Freshies’ song ‘I’m in love with the girl at the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk’. She never smiled much.

181. I remember reading Tristram Shandy for the first time and being giddy with excitement at what a writer could do

182. I remember sherbert dabs

183. I remember being baffled by two children who lived in our road who had never seen television

184. I remember “They asked me how I knew / It was Esso Blue / I of course replied / With lower grade one buys / Smoke gets in your eyes”

185. I remember Action Transfers, the pictures you could rub over, leaving an impression of the image on a piece of paper

186. I remember jukeboxes

187. I remember thinking that the pop charts were arranged in order of merit and so was baffled why Donny Osmond was able to get to number one

188. I remember T-shirts that had collars


Self portrait

On September 13, 2013, in Music, by Luke McKernan


Bob Dylan

All the tired horses in the sun
How’m I supposed to get any ridin’ done?

I was brought up on Bob Dylan. My parents had nine records in their music collection (aside from children’s LPs). There were two Classics for Pleasure albums, Joan Baez in Content Volume II, a Joan Baez EP featuring her version of ‘Plaisir d’Amour’, and the first six Dylan albums. My parents were not social rebels, still less followers of what was happening to pop music in the early 1960s, but the sincerity of Dylan’s music clearly spoke deeply to him. Equally clearly, they abandoned him once her picked up an electric guitar and started to produce what must have sounded like noisy pop music, precisely the sort of sounds from which his earlier records have stood out as offering something different, something genuine, that spoke not just to the young of America but to a young couple raising a family in Tunbridge Wells.

I don’t recall them playing the records much while I was around, but I knew the sleeves and every word of the liner notes. Then, when I was seven or eight, a teacher at my school asked if anyone’s parents had records by Dylan or Baez, because she was keen to find the lyrics to Dylan’s song ‘Masters of War’. That night my mother transcribed the lyrics for me and I took them triumphantly to school the next day. Did that teacher then go off and earnestly sing Dylan’s anti-war masterpiece at some party or concert? I do hope so. One can hope to change the world, even if you a young primary school teacher, armed with an acoustic guitar, and living in Herne Bay. The truth will sing out, wherever you are.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy

Dylan slowly started seeping into my consciousness, even as I was listening to the music that you were supposed to like at that age – T. Rex, Slade and so on. The dam burst when my father bought a book of Dylan’s lyrics for my mother. I’m not sure that she read it much, because I didn’t give her the chance. The book became my bible. I knew every word of every Dylan song (such as I thought the book represented) long before I had heard the vast majority of them. Each album that I now played from my parents’ collection or started to buy for myself was a process of amazed discovery and I finally heard the tunes and arrangements to words that I could recite by heart.

By the age of sixteen I was the world’s leading authority on Bob Dylan – or at least north Kent’s leading authority. The effort I had previously put into knowing all that there was to know about football (the history and statistics always appealed to me more than the game itself) I now transposed to Dylanology. I knew every song, the history and import of every song, I knew as much of Dylan’s personal history as the muddled historiography of that time would allow, and I loved the poetry – not the poetry of words alone, but poetry enriched and made fully apparent through tunes, musical forms, and that rasping voice that sung the truth even while it continually wondered just what truth it was looking for.

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

The rest of the history can be told quickly. I saw Dylan when I was seventeen at Earl’s Court (ten rows from the front – I’ll swear he saw me waving), then at the Blackbushe festival in 1978. I’ve seen him play three or four times since then. I weathered his ‘born again’ phase, lost interest around the mid-1980s and sold all my albums not long after when I was in need of the money. Then at some point in the late 1990s I saw on TV a ballet of some sort based on early Dylan recordings I’d never heard before, and was entranced. They came from The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3: Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991, a collection of material Dylan had never got round to releasing.

The quality of songs and the performances was astonishing – the stuff he had rejected was so much superior to that which the rest of the music world was earnestly publishing. I had ended up like my parents, rejecting the pap of pop and discovering the sincerity of Dylan the singer of songs that were timeless. And then he released Time out of Mind, and it was like all that had gone before was apprentice work. Glorious album after glorious album then followed, plus an Oscar-winning song (‘Things have changed’), an exceptional, innovative autobiography (Chronicles), exhibitions of his paintings, a Martin Scorsese-directed documentary, even a turn at being the best DJ ever (Theme Time Radio Hour). And so on.


The Dylan paintings from the two versions of Self Portrait, plus Dylan himself centre

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

In the middle of Bob Dylan’s grand career is an album – a double album – that angered the critics, bewildered the majority, and has been a guilty pleasure for the few. Self Portrait was released in 1970 while Dylan was in recovery from the absurd intensity for him of most of the previous decade, plus a motorcycle accident. It came after the surprise of Nashville Skyline, his country music album, but if that effort left audiences baffled, Self Portrait made them angry. It was a ramshackle collection of mostly other people’s songs, indifferently presented, erratically produced, and ranging from soupy standards such as ‘I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know’ to disastrous versions of songs that wanted no cover version such as ‘The Boxer’, to tunes like ‘Wigwam’ where the people’s poet simply sang la-la-la. Throughout Dylan affected the crooning singing voice that made Nashville Skyline such a surprise. For those seeking the ongoing message about how to think, Self Portrait was more than a disappointment – it was an insult.

That said, many liked it. It was Dylan’s first number one album (in the UK), and when I came across it five or six years later I was initially puzzled but found myself liking the songs in spite of everything. Though there were some lapses in taste, mostly it it was a collection of songs that it was good to sing, and which lingered in the mind – precisely why Dylan chose them. I loved the two versions of Clarence Ashley’s ‘Little Sadie’, one a conventional up-tempo take close to the original, the other (‘In Search of Little Sadie’) a bizarre, stop-start deconstruction. I loved the melancholic female chorus singing ‘All the tired horses’ over and over again. I loved the wistfulness of ‘Copper Kettle’, the rich storytelling of ‘Days of 49’, the cheesy ‘It Hurts Me Too’ and the romance of ‘Belle Isle’. It didn’t matter which were Dylan’s songs and which the songs of others.

Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it roll?
Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?
Who’s gonna let it down easy to save his soul?

Time has passed on, and Self Portrait has regained some respect, even if Dylan himself has been dismissive of it. It seems to fit naturally alongside Dylan’s first album (most of which featured other people’s songs), his two revelatory folk standards recordings, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, even the bizarre Christmas in the Heart, and certainly the profound understanding of traditional songs- old and new – that Dylan showed throughout Theme Time Radio Hour. Dylan works within a grand tradition. Sometimes it is his songs that he contributes to that tradition; sometimes he sings the songs of others, and often it is hard to tell the one from the other, as he borrows tunes and phrases from others while producing songs that countless others have borrowed, adapted and made their own.

Now comes Another Self Portrait, tenth in the series of official ‘bootlegs’ that have made available Dylan’s unreleased recordings in exemplary packages which rewrite music history. The albums Dylan released in his original prime were only one part of his legacy; the bootleg series has widened and enriched that legacy so that past Dylan is in a constant process of reinvention even as Dylan today pushes forward with new albums as fresh and arresting as his first.

Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece

Another Self Portrait is a collection of outtakes and alternative versions from Self Portrait and the album that followed it, New Morning. It is the album that Self Portrait was meant to be, released at a time when we are better able to understand it. Certainly part of the problem with the original record seems to have been producer Bob Johnston’s uncertainty over how to treat this material. The plainer renditions here, losing strings and overdubs, certainly help (though some big production surprises remain – ‘New Morning’ with horns, a swooping surge of sound at the start of ‘Time Passes Slowly’). The original album’s severe lapses, such as ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Blue Moon’, are gone, while beautiful renditions of Eric Andersen’s ‘Thirty Boots’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Annie’s Gonna Sing Her Song’ fit in harmoniously with ‘Days of 49’, ‘Belle Isle’, ‘Railroad Bill’ and an impassioned ‘This Evening So Soon’, all traditional songs.

There is a sensational, menacing take on ‘House Carpenter’ (taken from Clarence Ashley but based on an old English ballad), a louche ‘If Dogs Run Free’ minus its scat singing, two versions of the cryptic ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, and particularly pleasingly some excellent live recordings from the 1969 Isle of Wight festival which previously recordings have made sound like the concert was a mess. Here were get a jaunty ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ that more than matches the original, and the deluxe version of the CD features a third disc with all seventeen of Dylan’s performances from the concert, which sound so terrific you wonder why on earth it wasn’t released as a separate album in the bootleg series.

The best is always yet to come
That’s what they explain to me
Just do your thing, you’ll be king
If dogs run free

Another Self Portrait rewrites history in that it presents a wiser take on recording sessions from forty years ago that were a reflection of uncertainty from the artist and the producer. It presents an argument that says this is what was really meant. It is an historical judgment, reviewing the past from the vantage point of the present. It takes us away from the linear understanding of an artist’s progression, album by album, and suggests that only now, as we recognise that Dylan the troubadour sees his art as part of a grand tradition of American song, can what he tried to do in 1970 be understood and appreciated. Many of us rather liked Self Portrait at the time, for all its blemishes, but Another Self Portrait loses the blemishes and rediscovers purpose. At last the album’s title make sense. It is a portrait of Dylan through American song, and a portrait of ourselves.




On September 1, 2013, in Audiences, Cinemas, Resources, Web, by Luke McKernan


‘They were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble of the world’: illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanied Mary Heaton Vorse’s article‘Some Picture Show Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

I’m happy to announce a new website that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months, Picturegoing.

I say a couple of months, but this builds on research which I’ve done for some years now. Back in 2005 I was co-researcher on The London Project, a Birkbeck University of London project looking at the origins of the cinema industry in London. My subject was the cinemas (and other films venues) of London from before the First World War, and their audiences. The main output of the project was a database of cinemas and other London film businesses, plus assorted articles. But as part of the research into audiences I started gathering eyewitness testimony of the experience of going to cinema in those early days. The general critical consensus was that the audience from that period was ‘unrecoverable’, because no one had interviewed them at the time, and no one from that time was left alive to be interviewed now.

I disagreed. Certainly there was no one left around from those times, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to track down what they thought. The first interviews with London cinema audience members weren’t held until 1916, and then only under very partial circumstances, but the children of those times grew up and wrote memoirs. A few were published; many more were donated as unpublished manuscripts to archives and libraries. I went round every borough archive in London and found many of these memoirs of pre-WWI life, a good many of which included references to cinemagoing, with a freshness and keen observational eye that showed how important the cinema was for the children of that time. I found more evidence in oral history interviews, especially those undertaken by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (1975), for which the original recordings are held by the British Library and the transcripts by the UK Data Archive.

So I started transcribing all I could find, and picking up other testimonies that weren’t from London pre-WWI but still seemed worth gathering. The evidence I then used in assorted writings, and in a mini-show, ‘Only the Screen was Silent’, which dramatised the child’s experience of early cinema. I also reproduced some of the testimony on my silent film blog The Bioscope (now defunct), where they never quite fitted.

Then a couple of months ago, when I was telling myself I really wasn’t going to be writing anything more online about film history, I thought once more of a project idea I’ve been mulling for years now. The Open University has a marvelous research project with database called the Reading Experience Database. This documents the historical experience of reading worldwide through transcribed and categorised evidence from printed sources. And my thought was, what about the Viewing Experience Database? What about the way we look at things? What about cinema, art works, exhibitions, television, illustrations, magic lanterns, the Web, mobile video? For some of these subjects there is a good body of work on their audiences; for others there is shamefully little (how much had been written about the historical experience of going to see paintings as opposed to reacting to them outside their social contexts?).

Well, that could be a grand project indeed, but best to start small. Why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to gather all of this testimony in one place I don’t know, but I idly looked up a web addresses, and was amazed to discover that picturegoing.com hadn’t been used by anybody. Well, some things are meant to be, and here I am launching Picturegoing today.


Poster from 1896 advertising the Cinématographe Lumière, with the heterogeneous audience watching L’Arroseur Arrosé

The aim of Picturegoing is to document the experience of going to see pictures. It reproduces eyewitness testimony of watching films, from the 1890s to the present day. The intention is to be global in reach and to cover all time periods, but to begin with it mostly focusses on the UK to the 1940s. The documents cited include (or will include) diaries, memoirs, essays, film trade papers, newspapers, works of fiction, poems, interviews, official reports, web texts, photographs, cartoons and artworks. Texts therefore have been chosen whether they are contemporary or retrospective. The selection does not include conventional film reviews.

For each document the original source is given, the text is reproduced verbatim, and a comment provides contextualising information. The decade covered, the country and the type of document are noted under categories; other subject terms are listed under tags. No distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective. They are there for users to interpret them as they think best. (In researching the site I came across someone’s thesis on filmgoing who used memoir evidence but spent 40 pages or more contextualising and qualifying the choice of this material – good grief, if you are that worried about evidence, don’t write history at all).

The documents are a combination of complete texts and extracts from documents. The extracts focus on that part of the document that is most relevant to the subject of picturegoing. Extracts are also used for in-copyright works and are quoted for the purposes of criticism and review. Many of the older texts have been taken from public domain sites, such as the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust and Project Gutenberg.

It’s very much a work in progress, please note. There are 117 testimonies recorded on the site so far, and I don’t think it will have achieved critical mass (as we say in the trade) until it reaches 500. I have a long list of documents that I will be adding in due course, but I’m really keen to hear from people who can point me to examples I can use – if already transcribed, so much the better! There’s a contact form on the site to encourage such contributions. Remember, I’m not interested in film reviews – it’s the audience experience and the experience of being in the audience that matters. This sort of testimony tends to predominate for the early years, when the phenomenon of picturegoing so exercised commentators, after which point we all try to be film critics rather than observers of the social scene. I’m also keen to expand more beyond Britain – evidence of picturegoing in India, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the African nations, and in venues that aren’t just cinemas. It would be quite something to have such a global resource. Then we can start thinking about the paintings, TV, magic lanterns and other enticing forms of the visual.


Advertisement for the Brixton Scala, Brixton Free Press, 1914

If you are dipping into Picturegoing I recommend using the categories and tags to browse across theme – for example, Serials, Interviews, Talking (i.e. while the film is going on), or Fear. Alternatively, here are some of the key testimonies posted so far:

And much more besides. Picturegoing is not just about cinema history; it’s about people, and how they see things. It’s about all different kinds of people: young and old, intellectual and plain-speaking, rich and poor, from north, south, east and west. It’s also about people as individuals. I have a strong dislike for that part of film studies branded as ‘spectatorship’ where it views the audience as a homogeneous mass, all thinking alike, stripped of all personality. We each of us see things differently, even as we continue to choose to view things together, collectively. There’s the mystery, and the beauty of it all.