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Sunday, 28 June 2015

In Search Of The Lost Chord - The Moody Blues

It is fair to say that some of the albums from the psychedelic era have not aged well. However, one of the musical artefacts from that time which warrants attention is the the 1968 record "In Search Of The Lost Chord" by The Moody Blues. In some ways, it is the quintessential psychedelic album, and one is left marveling at how far these guys had traveled from their early days as a cuddly "British Invasion" combo.

The main reason why it stands out from many of its contemporaries is the way in which it encompasses both the whimsical "childlike" flavour of British psychedelia and the more "philosophical" school of the genre which existed on the West Coast of America. In addition, there is some truly beautiful, haunting and affecting music on the record...

Yes, this album does sound "dated", in its production values and to some degree the subject matter, but these are no bad things to my ears. It is an absorbing listening experience, a feast for the senses. After the opening vignette "Departure" comes "Ride My See-Saw", arguably the most famous song on the record.  With a driving and energetic core, and its grandiose and dramatic production, this number ideally and compactly sets up the fare which follows.

"Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" is a kind of hybrid song, incorporating two persuasions of psychedelic rock, with its cute verses and more "profound" choruses, both of which essentially explore the same themes. Ray Thomas' lead vocal is most endearing and likeable.As the title of the LP implies, much of the material concerns broad issues of spiritual and personal exploration and development.

Next comes "House Of Four Doors". Musically complex, and featuring some great "door" sound effects.  The nice flourishes on mellotron, harpsichord and flute add vital texture, and the chorus vocals are beautiful if decidedly "sixties". This track, and its shorter "reprise" could be said to constitute the heart of "In Search Of The Lost Chord".

"Legend Of A Mind", a paean to Timothy Leary, is also an important building block in making this album so good, and also serves as a reminder of the importance and input of Ray Thomas to the project. He wrote this song, sang the lead vocals, and performed the haunting flute solo.

Another of the album's best known compositions, "Voices In The Sky", although a good tune, feels a touch lightweight in the context of some of the other items. "The Best Way To Travel" sounds more like other British psychedelia which was around in 1967/68.

The piece de resistance of the album in my opinion is the beguiling "Visions Of Paradise". Melodically seductive, and drenched in the luxuriant flute of Ray Thomas, it is a simple but effective song which for me epitomizes the appeal of the record as a whole. The sitar is a pleasant touch too. A song to lose oneself in....

"The Actor" has some similar virtues and qualities to the song which precedes it, if in less "esoteric" clothing. Some expressive and evocative singing by Justin Hayward, and containing the same order of instrumental finesse which pervades much of the album.

After another brief interlude, "The Word", we find the closing number "Om". An Indian-influenced piece, and dare I say it, much more appealing and convincing than similar things released by certain other British groups of the period. The vocal harmonies are sumptuous, and the "exotic" instruments are employed here again with considerable aplomb.

"In Search Of The Lost Chord" is an enjoyable and absorbing album to listen to. Even people who are not particular fans of The Moody Blues or the psychedelic/progressive music of the era should find it enjoyable, because it is a beautiful and coherent artistic statement, possessing real impact and charm.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Put Me Back On My Bike-In Search Of Tom Simpson - William Fotheringham

A book which has won many plaudits is "Put Me Back On My Bike", William Fotheringham's biography of the British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France. I recently read the book myself.

I had enjoyed Fotheringham's biography of Eddy Merckx, and found this one even more compelling. As well as chronicling his life and achievements, it examines the tragic circumstances of his death and his legacy for British and world cycling.

In the past, I had rather shied away from fully exploring the Simpson story, mainly I suppose because of its tragic end and unsettling elements. It is a tale with many old-school elements, but also starkly pertinent for modern eyes and eyes. 

What emerged most of all for me, over and above the well-documented episodes, is Simpson's complex and quirky personality. He appears to have presaged characteristics which we associate with modern sportspeople, but there were endearing traits and contradictions. I found myself warming to the man, even allowing for his flaws.  Aren't we all flawed in some way?  The Tom Simpson who is portayed here is much different from the one who, in my ignorance, I had sometimes imagined. His interest in money, the mild English eccentricity and the mischievous side. The one area which I expected more to be made of was the notion of the "working class boy made good", but it seems that this was only a part the story

It could even be said that he was a visionary in the context of the British scene, having his eyes on the Continental arena from an early stage, and in his renunciation of the insularity and backwardness of the domestic landscape. His approach to training and preparation is also covered in detail here, from his focus on diet to his constant striving for any minute technical or tactical advantage, his hunger for knowledge and information, and how he was prepared to stretch himself and his physical limits.

The testimony and anecdotes, together with the documentary sources, are part of what makes this book work for me, giving it real substance and authority. The recollections of those closely associated with Simpson all go towards composing a vivid picture of the man and his life. The human nitty-gritty is uncovered, not just the dry facts about races won or lost. Some of the stories are funny, others are unsettling or poignant. The author also visits some of the locations central to the tale, augmenting the tapestry.  The book is compact and to-the-point, but the level of detail and insight is impressive.

In relating the Tom Simpson story, Fotheringham also evokes the atmosphere of cycling, and to a lesser degree, European society in the Sixties. Whilst the vibrancy and cosmopolitanism are celebrated,  I sensed his unease about the organisation and financial structures of the professional sport in that era, which often placed the competitors in an invidious position. We also gain a taste of how Simpson was in some respects a man of his time, when sports and the world in general were going through a transitional phase. There are some touching and intriguing passages about the "expatriate" cycling community in Belgium, and how Flanders welcomed and embraced the young Brits who went there to pursue their dreams.

The last third or so of "Put Me Back On My Bike" necessarily assumes a darker tone, as the factors contributing to Tom's death are addressed, as is the issue of drug use in cycling, and how the peloton and the powers-that-be viewed it. Needless to say, these chapters contain much less in the way of levity and lightheartedness than the earlier parts of the work. It seems to me that the standard line that "everybody was doing it" is only accepted by the author up to a point, and he elaborates on the reasons for this.

All in all, I found this book to be an engrossing and informative read. It is well put together, powerful in places, and candid. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Merckx : Half Man, Half Bike - William Fotheringham

For some time, I have been fascinated by the great Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx.  He was one of the world's pre-eminent athletes during the early years of my childhood, and for years afterwards his name was synonymous with the sport of cycling. Fortunately, the world has been quite well served in recent times with books about the great man. I had already read Daniel Friebe's biography, and more recently came across William Fotheringham's book "Merckx;Half Man, Half Bike".

My interest in Merckx was only deepened when I learned more about his approach to his sport, and how he was perceived by his contemporaries. It is probably true to say that he remains something of an enigma.

The thing which stands above all in this relating of the Merckx story is the sheer workload which he took on year after year, There was little picking or choosing of events, by him or his peers, and no concentration on a few select races, as would become the norm in the 1990s.

Fotheringham gives due prominence to the cyclist's upbringing, and how the influence of both of his parents impacted on his temperament and his outlook on life and racing. It is also interesting to note that Merckx came from a slightly different social and cultural background to many of his rivals. This painted him as an outsider, but also has been cited as enabling him to have more universal, less parochial appeal. Of course, how "The Cannibal" sat within the linguistic and cultural make-up of Belgium, and Belgian cycling, is a theme which recurs throughout this work.

One of the things which interests me most about Merckx is how he shunned and broke down many of the cosy conventions and assumptions which prevailed in cycling when he arrived on the scene. This antagonized some, but drew acclaim from others for the way in which it shook up the status quo. It is noted here that his riding style drew ire from some purists, but he won over some sections of the press and public because of the intensity and courage of his modus operandi.

I think that Fotheringham scores highly because he continuously delves into the mind of Merckx, to see what made him tick, how insecurity and a fear of failure, as well a colossal work ethic, drove him on. He was constantly challenging himself, finding out what he was capable of, rather than just doing the minimum necessary to win. These imperatives, coupled with immense natural physical gifts, make a select few sportspeople very special. The author documents how Merckx's methods evolved and were refined throughout his career, from junior days, to the amateur ranks, through to his peak years as a professional, and to the period of decline. The author also draws on his knowledge of the finer technical, as well as tactical, points of cycling.

This book seeks to address some of the mythology which has built up around elements of Eddy's career, including the assertion that he lacked genuine opposition. These themes are explored in a nuanced and balanced way, and I was left with a much enhanced understanding of the Merckx phenomenon.

Monday, 8 June 2015

We Are The Damned United-The Real Story Of Brian Clough At Leeds United-Phil Rostron

The 44-day tenure of Brian Clough as Leeds United manager in 1974 has probably commanded more column inches and popular cultural scrutiny than any other period in the club's turbulent history. An addition to the oeuvre is Phil Rostron's book "We Are The Damned United - The Real Story of Brian Clough at Leeds United", originally published in 2009.

This particular subject touches a raw nerve among Leeds supporters, and there is a tendency for people to become defensive and touchy about it, not always indulging in lucid and critical thinking. The whole affair, I suspect, is somewhat difficult for outsiders and insiders alike to comprehend, and its nebulous and nature still makes it intriguing and frustratingly elusive four decades later.

This book is not a strict chronicle of the 44 days. There is ample build-up and scene setting, and several tangents are pursued. Some readers may seek a little more coherency and focus, but overall I found it enjoyable, if not that comprehensive.

The backbone of the book is formed by the contributions of numerous individuals who were connected or associated in some way with either Leeds United or Brian Clough, or both. We do not just hear from the "usual suspects" either;we get observations and recollections from people whose view of events has perhaps not been widely heard previously. It often seems to me that most of the established Leeds players of the time closed ranks, and decided on a story from which they would not deviate.

A nice touch for me was the inclusion of  excerpts from contemporaneous newspaper reports from the time in 1974 when the drama was unfolding. The match reports do not paint a picture of unmitigated gloom or despair, although the real problems were of course manifesting themselves behind the scenes.

Whilst "We Are The Damned United" is in many ways evocative of the atmosphere and ethos of football in the Seventies, it also serves to remind us that egos and intransigence were just as prevalent in those days, no matter how different the financial ground rules have become. Human nature has not changed in the intervening period.

What shines through here also is Brian Clough's approach to the game and to coaching. The simplicity of his footballing philosophy is something which many could learn from. His laissez-faire style was perhaps one of the things which the Elland Road stalwarts had most trouble adjusting to. The stories here about the regime in training sessions are quite illuminating.  The assertions that Clough's methods would only work with youngsters and misfits, and not established stars, do have some merit, but may be an over-simplification.

Was either side disposed to make concessions and meet half-way, or as the author suggests, was this a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object?  It would be nice to think that the impasse could have been resolved, but my feeling is that this was an unusual set of circumstances which made the situation untenable. We do not live in an ideal world, and "ifs and buts" are merely academic in this case.

It is pointed out by several contributors that the absence of Peter Taylor from Clough's side deprived him of a potentially emollient influence when dealing with his new charges. This is often cited as an "excuse", often by those who do not wish to confront more uncomfortable aspects of the saga. At the same time, the Taylor factor is undoubtedly part of the complex state of affairs which together dictated how things would turn out.

There is a wealth of anecdotes here about Clough's idiosyncrasies, and his often unconventional style. and it is hard not to find the eccentricities endearing, even if they were not always appreciated by those on the receiving end. Even in the football landscape of the 1970s and 1980s, his achievements with Derby County and Nottingham Forest still inspire awe and respect. One or two nuggets here also paint an interesting portrait of the man - one story from Duncan McKenzie springs to mind, in which he touches on the loneliness and isolation which Clough may have felt during his sojourn at Leeds.

All in all, this was a pretty good, if rather disjointed read. It is probably true to say that the definitive tome on "Cloughie At Leeds" has still to be written.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

It seems that one book which divides opinion is Truman Capote's 1966 non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood", which tells the tale of the 1959 murder of four people in rural Kansas, and the subsequent trial and execution of the culprits.

One of the first things which became noticeable to me when reading "In Cold Blood" was that although the story is set primarily in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, there is also a distinct Steinbeckian/Dustbowl character to it, as if many of the sweeping cultural and economic changes of the post-war period had not yet reached certain parts of America.

There is quite a lengthy build-up to the crime itself, allowing us to gain a flavour of the temperament and background of all concerned. There is real poignancy in the passages portraying life in the town of Holcomb, the people going about their everyday business, oblivious to the horror which was to shortly be visited upon them. As we the readers know what is going to occur, we are given a keen appreciation of all that is about to be lost.

As many have observed, the interplay between the two murderers, Perry and Dick, is gripping and unsettling. The constant ruminations about the raw deal which life had supposedly dealt them, are food for thought, even if they do not diminish the disdain which one feels for them and their deeds. Whatever one might think of them, though, they are not one-dimensional people.

Whenever I am exposed these days to "true crime" literature or television, I am left thinking what else society could have done, pro-actively or otherwise, to prevent such terrible things happening. Maybe what really needs to be done to make resentment, alienation and envy marginally less prevalent is too much to ask for. The genie was out of the bottle long ago.

Another feature of "In Cold Blood" which intrigues me is that certain stereotypes are not adhered to. For example, the uneven attitudes to the death penalty, and the humanity and understanding shown by some residents and law enforcement people towards the prisoners.

The final stages of the novel deal with the execution of the two men, after their legal avenues had been exhausted. It didn't really feel like any particular stance was being adopted about capital punishment, and the story didn't do anything to shake my opposition to the practice. The words and the imagery speak for themselves.

The final scene, when the detective Dewey meets Susan in the cemetery, is a suitably eloquent note on which to close matters.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry

Just recently, my interest in the Charles Manson phenomenon has been re-awakened, and as part of this process I revisited the book "Helter Skelter", written by Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry. This is a comprehensive account of the infamous murders of August 1969, and the subsequent investigations and trial, seen partly through the eyes of Bugliosi, who was the prosecutor in the case.

As well as chronicling the intricacies of the police enquiries and the assorted legal manoeuvrings, we get some insight into the motives and mindset of Manson and his followers, although this is not really a biography as such. This is a true crime work with considerable cultural resonance.

The investigations are methodically detailed here, including the initial reluctance to connect the two sets of murders. The notion that the second incident was the work of copycats seems laughable - do copycats operate within such a short timescale, and do they go to such lengths? The inflexibility of some officialdom also comes through, in its refusal to believe or take seriously stories supplied by people who had knowledge of who was responsible, and why. Was the gap between "straight" society and the counterculture even wider in 1969 than it is now?  Those who pursued an "alternative" lifestyle were not to be trusted, it seems.

One gets a sense of how the investigations assumed greater urgency, cohesion and imagination once Bugliosi became involved, and he tries hard to hide his exasperation at the inefficiency of some sections of the police. I also gained a heightened appreciation of the skill, sharpness, diligence and ingenuity required to be a prosecutor (or any kind of lawyer, for that matter). The peculiar nature of this case clearly placed a premium on those qualities. From early on, the prosecutor realised what, and who, he was up against.

Of equal fascination to the purely criminal nature of this story are the wider socio-cultural aspects, such as the question of whether these terrible events caused the end of "the Sixties". This precise question is not directly addressed in this book. My feeling is that the murders, and what preceded them, was just one symptom, rather than the cause of the end of the "dream". This all assumes, of course, that "the Sixties" can be classed as a single entity. Some observers have pointed out the signs of decay and trouble which were present as early as 1967, and of course 1968 had scarcely been all sweetness and light. The events of August 1969 must have been a shocking affirmation that things had changed. Quite apart from the terrible nature of the crimes, a side-effect of the saga was that "non-conformists" in general were tarred with the brush of being deranged or potentially dangerous.

A thing which is brought out in the book is the process by which Manson cast a spell on his followers. It was a combination of methods, many of them learned by Manson during his spells in prison. The task was made easier by the fact that many of the people with whom he came into contact were receptive to his overtures because of their own background and/or foibles. They invariably had "issues" and lingering resentments and antipathies before they even met Manson, who was equipped to press the right buttons, so to speak. It is emphasized as the book progresses that some of the members of the group refused to go beyond a certain line, their moral compasses still being functional.

"Helter Skelter" is a compelling but at times disturbing read.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Til I Die - The Beach Boys

When the music of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys is discussed, it is invariably asserted that their most "cerebral" and important music was recorded around the time of "Pet Sounds", and in the period shortly thereafter (i.e. "Good Vibrations" the Smile Sessions and so forth).  However, the song "'Til I Die", included on the group's 1971 album "Surf's Up", may well represent the zenith, and the logical conclusion, of what Wilson had been aiming at since 1965 or thereabouts.

"'Til I Die" has nakedly existential lyrical content, and is ethereal to an almost otherworldly degree. I have heard it described as a mantra as much as a song, and I can see why. The inspiration apparently came to Brian Wilson during a night-time visit to the beach. At once, it conjures up the notion of the utter insignificance of each one of us in the grander scheme of things, hence the references to "a cork on the ocean", "a rock in a landslide" and "a leaf on a windy way", and it all ties in with the songwriter's other ruminations about loneliness and alienation.

It is quite pertinent that this track is regarded by many observers as Brian Wilson's last great song. It signifies almost a settlement or reconciliation of the territory which had been explored. Was this the end of the journey which had begun around the time of "California Girls"?  It is significant that this was purely a Brian creation. Input from, or collaboration with, other people would have tainted the purity of the emotions being expressed here.

The song can be interpreted as an expression of resignation, despondency or helplessness, but it can also be seen as a "coming to terms" with the realities of existence. This multi-levelled meaning is one of the things which makes "'Til I Die" so compelling.

Songs about spiritual or cosmic concerns run the risk of being trite or pretentious, but "'Til I Die" pretty much hits the spot. It does not outstay its welcome, having lyrical conciseness and a complementary rhythmic base. The complexity of the harmonies and the melodic nuances merit repeated listening.

It is well worth a listen even for non-Beach Boys fans, and for non-music fans for that matter.