Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Beach Boys

There exists in the rock music world a "pantheon", reserved for those artists deemed to be the most influential, creative and innovative. The Beach Boys are generally in there, but I get the feeling that for some this is a rather grudging accolade, and they are in some respects still misunderstood and underrated.

Several reasons can be put forward to explain why The Beach Boys' image is nebulous. Their career was long, fragmented and frequently messy. There was little of the bookended tidiness which characterized the reign of The Beatles.

Some even accused them of being "derivative" of people like Phil Spector and Brill Building pop, and of course some of their early material contained riffs and rhythms reminiscent of Chuck Berry. Let's face it, though, most bands and singers wear their influences on their sleeves early in their careers.

The very name "The Beach Boys" didn't exactly help either. It propagated the idea, in the public consciousness, that they were inextricably linked with sun, sea and surf, and it was something of a millstone in that respect. Even relatively early in their career The Beach Boys were producing work, such as "The Warmth Of The Sun", "In My Room" and "Don't Worry Baby", which exhibited a reach and an outlook which utterly outstripped most of their contemporaries and also transcended the constrictions of whatever "scene" they might have been associated with.

One can see, with closer analysis, that these early gems were pointing the way forward towards "Pet Sounds", "Smile", an so forth. A view of human emotions and love which went beyond the cliched depictions which were so prevalent in pop music at that time, into something almost spiritual in nature, complemented by the sometimes otherworldly beauty of the music, especially the vocal harmonies. Direct comparisons are invidious, but I would say that The Beach Boys were at the very least "level" with their British counterparts in 1964 or thereabouts, both in technical terms and in the emotional and philosophical depth and maturity of their outpourings.

It is often difficult to escape the feeling that people do not really listen to Beach Boys records. They go into it with preconceived notions of what the music is, and what it represents.  The true nuances and charm of the music, the originality of the arrangements and the strength of the concepts, pass them by.

"California Girls" has been seen as a turning point, or a watershed of sorts, because of the circumstances under which it was conceived by Brian Wilson.  Some of the advances present in the song are subtle and almost imperceptible.  However, the wonderful introduction is striking to behold, and there is a sense of greater scale and sweep.  The Beach Boys were subject to the same influences and "revelations" which were expanding the horizons of rock's other principal exponents in the mid-Sixties. A certain spirit can be detected in "California Girls", as if a door was slowly being opened onto a new and more colourful vista.

"Pet Sounds" very much bears the stamp of Brian Wilson. It does have a coherent flavour, if we conveniently overlook the fly in the ointment that is "Sloop John B".  Brian does much of the singing on the record, and the arrangements throughout have a uniformity.  The power of some of the songs is almost overwhelming ("Wouldn't It Be Nice", "God Only Knows", "Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)", "Caroline, No"). It makes few compromises, and this contributes to its artistic weight, because it makes an overall statement about the auteur's view of himself and the world around him. Uncommercial, maybe, but the single greatest album released by The Beach Boys during their peak years.

Not long after "Pet Sounds", things began to fall apart, although "Surf's Up", arguably the group's greatest individual song, was originally spawned by the "Smile" sessions, eventually being completed and surfacing in 1971. The "Smile" songs and ideas display breathtaking ambition and originality, in advance of almost everyone else around at the time.  Of course, not all of these ideas were properly realized, and some would opine that the project was excessively experimental.  However, it is a sign of how far rock music had come, and of how visionary Brian Wilson had become.

So, for me a reappraisal of The Beach Boys is long overdue. I don't always think that they the general public admires them for "the right reasons". They should be revered for their sublime earlier masterpieces, and the fruits of the "Pet Sounds"/"Smile" era, but all too often the public (and the mainstream media) place excessive weight on the chirpy "surf" tunes.

The Beach Boys did not display the same consistency, stability and concentrated creative staying power as The Beatles and others, but at their very best they produced pop/rock music which has seldom been equalled.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Deja Vu - Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Many years ago, when I was first getting into the whole folk-rock/singer-songwriter genre, Crosby Stills and Nash (and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) were an obvious port of call.  However, before too long, as my radar logically encompassed yet more artists and bands, the CSN sound suddenly appeared somewhat anemic and lacking in grit by comparison.

I have always felt that CSN/CSNY were at their strongest when the trademark vocal harmonies were based around either a basic acoustic folk foundation or a more "aggressive" rock backing. The "third way", prevalent on the debut album from 1969, doubtless buttressed the group's "counterculture" credentials, but it has not necessarily aged that well.

Deja vu leaves me with a good feeling. It is a satisfying work which although eclectic, packs a coherent punch. The impact of Neil Young might actually have been less than is sometimes imagined, but there is genuine substance to the end result. I would go so far as to say that Deja vu is a bonafide rock album, whereas the previous Crosby, Stills and Nash record was "folk-rock".

There is a harder edge to the performances, and also to some of the subject matter being explored. The material is pleasantly balanced in tone and content, and has more of a "group" flavour to it.

So what about "the Young effect"?  He doesn't appear on all of the tracks, but his guitar work enriches proceedings, and "Country Girl" has real mystique. On reflection, it may be that the mere hiring of Neil, and his presence, prompted a new dynamism, by causing the others to raise their game and find new impetus and inspiration.  "Helpless" is widely admired as a song, but frankly I have always felt it to be rather hollow.  Well performed, yes, but by Young's standards, unexceptional.

I had a tendency to view Graham Nash as a "junior partner", but the more I learn the more I realize what a vital role he played in making this combo function. His spirit and enthusiasm were crucial, and his instrumental contribution was greater than is often thought.  His two songs "Teach Your Children" and "Our House", with their simple melodic sensibilities, perfectly complement the more outlandish offerings elsewhere on Deja vu. 

David Crosby's part was equally important;mercurial and quixotic, and occasionally sublime.  The title track is admittedly an acquired taste. "Almost Cut My Hair" has attracted some hostility and ridicule, it would seem, but I fail to see why. It contains some sizzling guitar playing by Stills and Young, and an expressive vocal, and it manages to be both coherent and edgy.

On Deja vu, each song has a strong and distinct identity. The sound is rich, warm and uncluttered, inviting the listener to embrace it. Considering the cultural context in which this record was made, there is comparatively little in the way of preaching and moralizing.

"Carry On" is a strong opening number.  I know that some people will see it as "CSNY by numbers", but it has a freshness and an unwavering incisiveness which permeate much of this LP. The cover of Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" exudes commitment and intent, and is further aided by Still's bluesy vocal delivery and a nice, breezy production.  "4+20" is the one nod on the album to traditional, stripped down singer-songwriter folk, and it is a good showcase for Stills' talents.

Deja vu is a fine document of an era, and also a jolly good rock album.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Neil Young's debut album (1968)

After a hiatus, I am back to listening to the music of Neil Young quite avidly. The authenticity and emotional depth of his work is impossible to ignore for too long. He is one of the most interesting singer/songwriters to study, because of his restless spirit and unpredictability.

Neil Young's debut album, self-titled and released in 1968, tends to be forgotten by the wider music world, in part because it contained comparatively few of his classic or best-known songs. I had even forgotten Ry Cooder's involvement with the record.  Anyway, I recently revisited the Neil Young album in an effort to reappraise it.

The presence of two "superfluous" instrumental numbers, "The Emperor of Wyoming" and "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill", I find a tad mystifying, especially for a singer-songwriter.  While it helps to imbue Neil Young with a certain quirkiness, some might contend that it betrays a shortage of genuinely strong material to put on the record. Perhaps the nature of the track listing was an early indicator of the idiosyncratic and maverick path which the Canadian's solo career would follow?

The overall sound and character of some of the album carries echoes of Buffalo Springfield, which is hardly surprising.  In fact, the tone feels more "Sixties" to me than "70s singer-songwriter".

The one song contained on the album which has endured to a significant degree is "The Loner".  This memorable tune adds real gravitas, and makes the album better than it would otherwise have been. It is one of those dramatic, intriguing Young numbers with an impenetrable aura to it.

Another item in a vaguely similar vein to "The Loner" is "I've Been Waiting For You", which has its own mystique and atmosphere, and even exudes a touch of the psychedelic.

"The Old Laughing Lady" is another song of substance, and is redolent of some of Young's more ambitious and experimental excursions from his tenure with Buffalo Springfield. The influence of Jack Nitzsche is also discernible in the arrangement. Lyrically it would also seem to point the way forward for the songwriter.

One of the other noteworthy compositions to feature here is "Here We Are In The Years", which appears to address issues of "getting back to the country", ecological concerns, the alienating effects of modern life and the pursuit of a simpler, more pastoral existence, themes which were prevalent in much of the rock music being created in 1968. I hear a synthesizer too, which might sound incongruous, but actually works well, and this number has a vaguely "baroque" feel to it.  A certain poignancy and dignity underpin the song, and it quietly qualifies as a minor classic, in my estimation.

The penultimate track, "I've Loved Her So Long", contains some of the hallmarks which would characterize Young's later work, and it is perfumed with zest, things happening. Although an unexceptional song, it is a rather captivating piece of music, with a pleasing presence.

The record closes with "The Last Trip to Tulsa", which anticipates some of the artist's "epic" efforts. The lingering Bob Dylan influence is detectable in the lyrics at least. The earthy nature of the acoustic guitar is a welcome relief - there is not enough of it on the album. Like with some other songs on the LP, though, it is somehow not fully satisfying, as if the artist had not yet found some secret ingredient which would elevate his music to a different plane, emotionally speaking.

The vocals on this record seem to lack authority, and the character and warmth, which we would grow to associate with Young, although this may have been attributable to the mix, or to a lack of confidence by the singer in his own voice.

Neil Young was clearly a formidable talent, and this had been demonstrated by his contributions to Buffalo Springfield. This record contains some glimpses of his potential, but for me it lacks a certain bite and conviction, qualities which were admittedly not slow in emerging on his second solo album. Here, though, things are strangely low-key and even hesitant.  Not a false start, but equally not altogether convincing.

Should we be surprised at how this record turned out, though? 1968 was a transitional year, in the direction of rock music, and in the cultural and political outlook of Western youth. Some of the tension, anxiety and uncertainty of the time is undoubtedly reflected in these songs.

It is easy to forget, too, that this was his first solo effort.  Previously, he had been part of bands. An unevenness is therefore not totally surprising, and it does merit attention as a period piece, and as the start of a wondrous journey. It is folly to try to look for a "pattern" in the man's career. As the world was to discover, Neil Young did not favour simple patterns or easy options, and this is one of the reasons why his body of work remains so important and absorbing.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

I had been meaning to check out the work of Robert A. Heinlein for a while, but was a little unsure where to begin. Well, I took the plunge by checking out The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, first published in 1966.

Basically, the novel is set in the latter part of the 21st century.  The Moon has been turned into a penal colony, to where Earth's convicts and "undesirables" are transported. A group of revolutionaries, with the help of a "self-aware" computer, seek to overthrow the authority of "Terra" in the lunar colony.

The story is narrated by one of the main characters, Mannie, and he employs a curious Lunar dialect, which may take the reader a little while to become accustomed to. However, once this minor issue is overcome, the book will absorb and captivate.

Only a short way into The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I found myself rooting for the characters and their aspirations, even if their methods were sometimes questionable. I had emotionally invested in their fate and their destiny.  A diverse bunch, and this engendered some friction, and a strange chemistry.

The scientific and technical aspects of the story were for me secondary in importance, although I am not sure that by 2075 computers will have advanced to the degree envisaged here. To be frank, I'm not sure that I would want them to, either.  In truth, I usually reverted to "auto-pilot" mode when elaborate telephone systems and the vagaries of "Mike" the computer were being discussed.

I was impressed by the way in which justification for the Lunar revolt was presented, not just in "abstract" matters of freedom and self-determination, but by bringing ecological issues, economic liberalization and free trade into the equation. This demonstrated a real confidence on the part of the writer,  and added depth and credibility to the story.

Much of the nitty-gritty of how the revolt was organized is not presented in exhaustive detail, and the reader is invited to use his or her imagination, and to read between the lines. From this perspective, the novel does require concentration and open-mindedness, to grasp the rationale and implications of some of the deceptions which are committed by the "revolutionists", for example. A similar approach may be necessary when comprehending the social structures and customs which are shown to have evolved on Luna.

This book has a reputation as a "libertarian" novel,  although I think that conspicuous "preaching" on ideological matters is kept to a minimum.  Rather than being obtrusive, such things are generally woven quite seamlessly into the text, and at appropriate points.

The climax to the novel I found truly gripping, largely because, as mentioned above, I had been drawn in by the characters and the subject matter, and the outcome mattered to me.  The moral questions posed by the story line are not straightforward;they are awkward but timelessly pertinent. My curiosity and my senses had been animated, a good barometer, I find, for how worthy and substantial a work of fiction is.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is well worth a read, and not just for dedicated science-fiction fans.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Norman Conquest - Marc Morris - book review

It is a curiosity that, in reading about history, I have tended to skip over The Norman Conquest. Perhaps this is because when I was young, 1066 and all that, or at least the "official" version of the story, was constantly rammed down our throats. I recently sought to remedy this anomaly by reading a book by Marc Morris, simply titled The Norman Conquest.

There is some valuable and well-argued material concerning the years preceding the Conquest - the power struggles, the fluctuating fortunes of the various factions, kingdoms and rulers, and the social landscape which existed then.

The account of the "prelude" is highly entertaining, and helps to explain why so many people find this epoch so stimulating. The overlapping and inter-mingling of "Vikings", "Anglo-Saxons", "Normans" and "French" is also part of the draw. The dynastic squabbles and horse-trading, the strategic inter-marriages, the occasional ostracized rebel.

For my own personal tastes, I would have preferred a little more detail about the Viking/Norse origins of the Normans, and how they came to be so powerful and vigorous. In fairness, the author does stress what his remit is, in the introduction to the book.

I liked the writer's fluid and economical style, which is erudite but accessible. A good deal of space is given over to assessing and comparing the reliability and motivations of the available written sources. One of the key skills required by a historian covering the Middle Ages is the ability to see through the propaganda and bias of those sources, and make informed deductions and judgments.

The author's interpretation of events feels very plausible and rational, and it passed a kind of test by refreshing my addled knowledge. The power-politics of medieval "France" are documented in compact fashion, and it is surprising how closely linked the fortunes of Normandy and England really were, even well before the Conquest happened. The 21st century may find many of the values and mentalities baffling or quaint, but it makes for engaging reading.

Whilst reading this work, I was reminded just how superficial and even misleading the "history" served up by the mainstream media (i.e. television) can sometimes be. We are regularly reassured that such depictions serve a purpose, by encouraging people to delve deeper, by reading books and studying. I hope so, but remain unconvinced.

The military elements of the story, such as tactics and weaponry, are not deal with in exhaustive detail, and I found this refreshing. The emphasis is on the politics and the grand strategy. In any event, clear and unambiguous information about the major battles has always been difficult to come by.

As a born and bred Yorkshireman, the suffering of, and defiance by, the North of England in the aftermath of 1066 was of great interest to me. Indeed, the chapters about the numerous rebellions against Norman rule were among the most interesting and absorbing sections of the book.

Naturally, the Domesday undertaking comes under scrutiny, particularly its true purposes. The author also employs the areas of architecture (churches, abbeys, castles etc) as a measure and symbol of the changes which were seen. The focus on the allocation and redistribution of land ownership struck a chord with me, as this is an area which has seized my attention with regard to modern times. In the end, a lot of life boils down to land and rents....

Morris undertakes an honest and nuanced appraisal of the merits and debit-sides of the Norman takeover, pointing out areas where the invaders were comparatively "enlightened", and where their impact and methods were less appetizing. It is rather facile to adjudicate on whether things were "better" or "worse", and the author wisely does not try.  How does one quantify such a thing, anyway?  Drawing up a simplistic balance sheet?

There is a lean, urgent and energetic spirit to the writing here. I found it enjoyable and illuminating, and was left feeling a strengthened appreciation of the age and the subject, and how it relates to what came before it, and what came afterwards.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Strawbs - From The Witchwood - album review

Of the many sub-genres which featured on the British rock scene in the period beginning in the late 1960s, those of progressive folk, or progressive folk-rock, spawned some interesting, inventive and highly listenable music. Prominent among the acts which fell into these categories were Strawbs.

To many more casual observers, Strawbs are best-known for having Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman in their line-up at different times, and for their rather quirky hit single "Part Of The Union". However, closer evaluation of their 1970s work reveals a highly talented group.

One record which stands out for me is their 1971 album From The Witchwood, which showcases strong songwriting and musicianship, and acutely tuneful, compact sensibility.  The production capabilities of Tony Visconti also help to ensure that a cohesive and lively ambience prevails throughout.

Tracks such as the opener, "A Glimpse Of Heaven", mix authentically folk-inflected sections with more exotic instrumental flourishes. Rick Wakeman's keyboards add some texture and occasional dynamism to the arrangements.

Some of the lyrics tackle "traditional" folk topics, centering on rural life and pastoral imagery, but they very rarely descend to the "maypoles and apple scrumpy" territory which characterizes some British folk and folk-rock of the period. Crucially, most of the compositions fall short of being over-earnest.

The captivating, and slightly eerie, title track is one of the highlights of the record. "Thirty Days" carries distinct echoes of the Beatles' work circa 1964/65, by dint of its melody and its vocal harmonies. "Flight" is another number whose vocal sound is rather Beatlesque in flavour.

The contribution of Rick Wakeman is perhaps most keenly felt on "Sheep", and on "The Hangman and The Papist", with their prominent organ components.  In addition to its dramatic words, the latter is another song with a strong melody. And the consistently strong running order is sustained by "Cannondale" and the beautiful and striking "The Shepherd's Song", with its eclectic and surprisingly effective mixture of influences.

From The Witchwood closes with two intriguing and affecting songs.  "In Amongst The Roses" typifies the contemplative and enigmatic leanings of the album's subject matter. "I'll Carry On Beside You" is more upbeat and strident, and features an intricate piano "engine" courtesy of Wakeman. Like many of the pieces on the LP, it is performed with conviction and vigour, and this is important.

Overall, this record is a strong and purposeful collection of songs, well-crafted, controlled and appealingly organic in their execution, the relatively sparing use of electric guitars strengthening this impression. Combining the lyrical and poetical hallmarks of folk music with the odd infusion of rock energy, and the occasional "experimental" passage, it is a most satisfying listen, which still sounds fresh and credible today.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie

I must confess that detective fiction, or crime novels, have not featured that highly on my list of literary priorities over the years. However, the lure of Agatha Christie's work proved too strong, and I therefore recently sought out The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, first published in 1926, and often cited as one of the most important detective novels of all time.

Almost as soon as I commenced reading the book, the thought struck me that its impact had been dulled by the fact that I had seen the British television adaption, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, even if that adaptation differed from the novel in several respects. On the other hand, the small-screen version did assist me in my "visualizations".

The employment of a central character as "narrator" helps to give this story its distinctive feel. Again, the effect might be different, more pronounced, to those who are unfamiliar with the story in any format.

For me, the character of Hercule Poirot both irritates less and charms less when his idiosyncrasies emanate from the printed page. Even so, one can readily appreciate how Agatha Christie supposedly came to dislike the character, her own creation. I guess that modest, anodyne characters do not inspire strong emotions, or persuade people to read books. Perhaps the reader should develop a method of "tuning out" Poirot's less agreeable traits?

I should stress that my evaluation of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd may have been coloured by the slant of my fiction-reading in recent times, which has tended to focus on meatier, "philosophical" fare, such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. So, when a sense of time and place, and historical perspective, seems largely absent, as with this novel, the natural reaction may be "what is all the fuss about?".  An adjustment has to be made, to accept things on their own terms, and to concentrate on the detective elements and the "human nature" angles.

The plot has some compelling elements. Suicide, blackmail, jealousy, resentment, avarice, deceit and of course murder.  The characters themselves are projected quite strongly in the novel, so that one acquires a reasonable understanding of their attributes and vices. The ending can be seen to fulfill more than one function. It surprises, especially to newcomers, but it is also left sufficiently enigmatic to leave some people wondering, and even proffering alternative, if sometimes fanciful, interpretations...

I did enjoy this book, but I wish earnestly that I had experienced it before I saw the television version. Its novelty and "shock" value was much diminished, I think. Repeated readings may alter my attitude, but it does surprise me a little that The Murder Of  Roger Ackroyd is revered to the extent that it is. I guess that opinions depend largely on the personal tastes and literary palate of the reader.

Despite the cleverness of the plot, and its gripping nature, I was not heavily engaged emotionally or spiritually. I was not left feeling inspired or emboldened, or moved by any sense of being uplifted or animated. I had finished the book, and that was pretty much that. It was an interesting and well-constructed novel, but its alleged status as a masterpiece was, I admit, lost on me, during this first encounter.

To my mind, there was little genuine examination of the motives behind the culprit's deeds, or of his underlying grievances, if he had any.  Also, the story is not really placed in any contemporaneous social context, in a way that could penetrate this reader's conscience and imagination. I would have recoiled at the callousness of the murderer, whilst simultaneously pondering any injustices or iniquities which might have been perceived to have fuelled the tragedy.

I think the message to me is either that I prefer pure crime stories to be audio-visual, or that glossy and atmospheric TV shows with lavish production values have tarnished or distorted my approach towards the crime novel genre....