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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

I have recently finished reading Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain, originally published in 1924.
The story centres on the character Hans Castorp, who travels to a sanatorium in the Swiss Mountains, initially to visit his cousin, who is being treated there. However, Castorp himself soon falls ill, and ends up spending seven years in the institution.
Whilst in the sanatorium, Castorp is exposed to a diversity of intellectual, moral and philosophical viewpoints and pressures, and his curiosity on these questions is consequently aroused. He also becomes infatuated and obsessed with one of the female patients.

The novel is set in the early twentieth century, in the years preceding the First World War, and acts as a kind of snapshot of the European bourgeoisie at that time, their social mores and attitudes prior to an upheaval which would in some ways serve as a watershed. Some of the symbolism appears to touch on the forces and factors which brought about the catastrophe.

A constant theme throughout The Magic Mountain is the nature of time, and how people's conception of the phenomenon differs when they are in an "unnatural" environment such as that of a sanatorium, divorced from "normal" existence. Throughout the narrative the meaning of, and attitudes to, death are also a constant concern.

To me the Castorp figure is firstly portrayed as a little "green", perhaps the legacy of a sheltered early life, and although he comes under the tutelage of others in his new surroundings, he is also possessed of some innate savoir-faire and astuteness which bourgeois conventions and constraints would have prevented him from deploying in the "flat-lands". This latent perceptiveness is allowed to flourish.

Although the differences between life below and that in the sanatorium are highlighted, it can also be seen that some of the human relationships and behaviour in the mountain retreat are a microcosm of social dynamics everywhere.

New impetus is supplied by the introduction of the Naphta character, and his intellectual fencing with the humanist Settembrini. This brings me on to another pleasing aspect of The Magic Mountain, and that is the clever construction of characters.  They are distinctive but credible, outlandish but plausible, and generally do not conform to stereotypes.

It is refreshing to become immersed in a novel which does not concern itself with one central theme, or even a loosely connected set of themes. Some readers may even find that it takes a little time to adjust to this, but my advice is to just relax and let the story come to you.  Yes, Mann is trying to tell us things, but he is also telling us a story. Striving to see profound significance in every sentence will only impair one's enjoyment.
The story takes some unexpected but captivating twists, through Castorp's ski-ing expedition, his friendship with the Dutchman Peeperkorn, his continuing obsession with Madame Chauchat, the séances, the tragic duel between Naphta and Settembrini, to the final sequence, which follows the main protagonist's decision to volunteer for service in the war.

This is a challenging but highly stimulating and diverting read.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Marquee Moon - Television

As my musical horizons have become wider, I have grown to see New York or American punk music of the 1970s as more credible than its British counterpart. The "attitude", and occasional anger and vitriol, are by and large dished out more temperately, but the energy and immediacy are clothed in musicianship and pop sensibility of no little consequence.  Television's 1977 album "Marquee Moon" is arguably the single most affecting document to emanate from the scene.

One thing to observe about "Marquee Moon" is that it appeals to a very broad constituency, including people who ordinarily gravitate towards the genres of music to which the advocates of "punk" were meant to be antagonistic. I would not normally self-identify as a particular fan of punk per se, but this has become one of my favourite albums. Indeed, many good judges rate "Marquee Moon" as one of the great guitar albums.

The geometric but scintillating guitar work is one of the album's hallmarks, although it does not totally overshadow the quality of the songs, or the muscular rhythm section. The guitars betray the group's musical roots, but also possess a quality and dexterity which would even command admiration from devotees of progressive rock. I also detect echoes of Neil Young and Crazy Horse in places, and the sonic atmosphere reminds me of the "serious" end of British glam rock (Bowie, Roxy Music etc) and art-rock such as that created by the likes of Be Bop Deluxe.
These factors goes some way to explaining "Marquee Moon"s widespread appeal. The record even contains some songs which are more than four minutes in duration! So if we are defining this as a "punk" album then it can be seen that it breaks many of the "rules" of that genre. Perhaps the term "art punk" is more appropriate?  Or should we just dispense with all attempts at labels, and simply enjoy and savour the music?
I have heard some criticism of Tom Verlaine's vocals on the record. He may not have a conventionally "sweet" or smooth voice, but for me it perfectly complements the musical and lyrical backdrop, and engenders the ideal ambience.
When returning to "Marquee Moon" after a break, one of the things which is striking is the consistent quality of the material throughout the running order. The diet of four-piece guitar-led fare can serve to make the songs feel "samey" on the surface, but closer examination reveals the variety and vitality on offer.
The epic title track could seem to dominate all else, but patient and attentive listening will facilitate an appreciation of the "minor" items, such as the opener "See No Evil", with its insidious but exhilarating and insistent riff and rhythm. "Venus" and "Friction" are also gems in their own fashion, while "Prove It" and "Guiding Light" exude in a more transparent manner the traits of 50s and early 60s rock n roll. "Torn Curtain" concludes proceedings (brings the curtain down, if you'll pardon the pun) on an intense, slightly unsettling but memorable note.
"Marquee Moon" is a remarkable, stimulating and invigorating record, guaranteed to help the jaded listener blow away any musical cobwebs. Unlike some vaunted "classics", it fully warrants the fulsome praise heaped on it. Television were never able to match this album, but it stands as one of the towering achievements of 70s rock music. This really was high quality "indie" or "alternative" music, before those two terms had really been coined.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles

When the recorded output of the Beatles is discussed, the 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a touchy subject. Some rather lazily proclaim it as "the greatest album of all time", while others seek to distract attention from its (minor) shortcomings by emphasizing the record's cultural and social impact and importance.

I first heard "Sgt. Pepper" in its entirety about 25-30 years ago, when a member of my family purchased the vinyl version. I was somewhat underwhelmed, although admittedly my musical palate was woefully under-developed at that stage, and I had yet to appreciate the greatness of the Beatles in general. To my ears, it all seemed a little lacking in drama and "punch". In those days, anything which did not feature blazing guitar riffs and power chords I treated with a touch of disdain.

I re-appraised the album again in the mid-1990s, when the whole "Anthology" project re-ignited my interest in the Fab Four, and I explored their entire back catalogue. My assessment was more nuanced, and my by then more discerning ears were more receptive, but it still did not live up to the "the hype". In fairness, by that stage "the hype" was being counter-balanced by the surfeit of Beatles scholarship available, much of which placed "Sgt. Pepper" in its proper place, and tended to champion "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul" instead. One is tempted to wonder whether that line of thinking itself has now become tired and dated.  Personally, these days I prefer "The White Album" and "Abbey Road", but that's another story!

One thing I would say is that "Sgt. Pepper" cleverly "tricks" people into thinking that it is better and more substantial than it really is. This is partially due to the lavish packaging, the "aura" of a concept and the astute sequencing of the tracks.

John Lennon was later dismissive of the notion that this was a concept album, pointing out that his own contributions were "autonomous" songs, not intended to nourish or realize any greater goal. Ringo Starr I think was nearer the mark in one of the "Anthology" videos when he implied that the group started out with the loose intention of making such a record, but then decided just to record songs. He did correctly observe, however, that the finished article retained some of the flavour of embracing some vague central theme. Lennon was accurate in his suggestion that people became convinced that there was some "concept" because the Beatles said so! The mesmeric power of the Beatles having its effect on public and press alike?  Was major criticism of the Beatles still something of a taboo in 1967?
The album exudes a polish and a charm which mask the deficiencies. A very "clean" sound is evident, partially resulting from the lesser role allotted to electric guitars. Paul McCartney I think has remarked that around that time he was striving for such a sound, perhaps inspired by the achievement of Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds". The music-hall flavour of much of the music here helped to nurture the Sgt. Pepper "myth". Other artists had already been experimenting with such styles, but their adoption by the Beatles gave them mainstream acceptance and credibility.
The opening sequence of songs ("Sgt. Pepper", "With A Little Help From My Friends", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds") generates momentum, even if on closer inspection the material is unexceptional and relatively shallow. The momentum is not maintained, as the album then goes off on various tangents.
Of course, with "Friends" and "Lucy" we come to one of the main talking points which surrounds the work. What are these songs really about?  The Beatles were thought to take delight in teasing people by making songs open to certain interpretations, and may have enjoyed poking fun at those in the media and elsewhere who had a tendency to over-intellectualize rock music. One of the strengths of the Lennon-McCartney stable was its capacity to make the compositions work on more than one level.
Some of these numbers have acquired a reputation and popularity somewhat out of proportion to their artistic merit. They might not have merited much attention if they had been performed by Fred Bloggs. In the event, because they were "Beatle songs", minute scrutiny, and a plethora of cover versions, were sure to follow.
Many of the songs on this LP lack the incisiveness of other parts of the Beatles' discography, and I would also dispute the assertion that "Sgt. Pepper" represented the apotheosis of the Swinging Sixties. That accolade belongs, in Beatles terms anyway, to "Revolver".  Did the 1967 record, together with the double A-side single "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane", instead signify a watershed of sorts, before the Sixties went in another direction entirely?
The relative roles and contributions of the individual Beatles bear close examination. It is commonly regarded as a "McCartney album", and it's tempting to regard this as the point at which Paul, in tandem with George Martin, began to assume something of an ascendancy. Yes, he did come up with the "concept", and by some measurements contributes more than the others, but to say that he dominates the record is erroneous. The album's piece-de-resistance was largely the brainchild of his partner/rival. Lennon was mildly dismissive about "Sgt. Pepper" in later years, ironic indeed when one considers "A Day In The Life". Maybe he was resentful at how the project came to be perceived as a Paul vehicle, or perhaps his attitude reflected tensions which were just beginning to emerge within the group.
George Harrison is mostly a peripheral figure on this particular record, a blip in the steadily burgeoning influence which he had been enjoying within the Beatles. Even his song "Within You, Without You" is eclipsed by "Love You To" from the previous year. It has been hinted that George's blossoming interests outside the band contributed to this temporary plateau in his contribution.
"A Day In The Life" can be difficult to get one's teeth into unless the listener concentrates on what John Lennon is trying to say, and absorbs the symbolism of the arrangements. Once these things are accomplished, its glories become clear. Paul's middle section adds to the effect, and prevents the piece from becoming over-earnest, but as an example of Lennon/McCartney "syncretism" its importance has arguably been a touch exaggerated. One thing I would contend is that "A Day In The Life" is another example of how the Beatles (and their producer) possessed some intangible musical "sixth sense", which enabled them to determine what worked and what didn't.
"Sgt. Pepper" is pleasing and distinctive in its utilization of unconventional sounds, these primarily extracted from conventional instruments. Keyboards (and occasionally guitars) are made to emit sounds which do not outwardly resemble those traditionally associated with them. This quality the album shares with "Pet Sounds", and is also symptomatic of the time and care which the boys were able to lavish on their creation.
The songs forming the heart of the album ("Getting Better", "When I'm Sixty Four", "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning Good Morning") are all beautifully crafted, and because of the band's humour and joie de vivre, immensely likeable. However, they fall short of genius in their own right as individual pieces. The album's supporters will point to the part these tracks play in making up the "Sgt. Pepper" mosaic, the big picture which makes it an "album" in the truest sense of that term.
"She's Leaving Home" appears to polarize opinion, amongst the critics at least. There is a fine line between capturing a mood perfectly and descending into over-sentimentality, and a few people have tentatively insinuated that the line was crossed by this number. I adopt a middle view, and tend to regard it as a cousin of "Eleanor Rigby". As a take on inter-generational tension and strife it is less overtly strident and subversive, but more affecting and poignant, than most of what was being written on the subject by others at the time.
So how do we judge "Sgt. Pepper", leaving aside personal tastes?  It signalled a further intensification of rock's elevation to that of an art-form worthy of cerebral discussion, and cemented the Beatles' place in the vanguard of that process. The musical merits of the record will continue to be debated so long as there is air to breathe, but in pop-cultural terms it might be the single achievement for which they will be best remembered.


Monday, 15 September 2014

Life's Soundtrack

Many of us, myself included, trace our existence via the music which we were listening to at various stages of our lives. This could either be a song which happened to be in the charts at a particular time, or tracks which for whatever reason have a certain resonance, reminding us of happy (or sad) times, or evoking our state of mind.
The first time that I can remember truly relating to songs, and seeing in them some semblance of inspiration or "meaning" was in my mid-to-late teens, when many different pressures and emotions conspire to give rise to a need to "belong", and find spiritual outlet, however imagined and superficial.
It makes me cringe now, but the first track which I, and my circle of friends, saw as a personal anthem, was "Livin' On A Prayer" by Bon Jovi. This may have just been escapism or peer pressure, and the blue collar romanticism in the lyrics now makes me nauseous. My social and economic situation bore very little relation to the characters depicted in the song. "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight" by Cutting Crew fulfilled a similar role, both at the time, and in retrospectively evoking a sense of time and place. This was clearly the naïve optimism of a confused seventeen or eighteen year old mind at work, although in some respects it was healthy that I was latching on to such harmless if shallow subject matter. It was preferable to existing in some vacuum.

From my late teens until my late twenties, my life fell into a torpor, and music served primarily as an agent to fill the void, but acting as a neutralizer, simply cancelling out a negative. I had by this time begun to explore the work of singer-songwriters such as Neil Young and Jackson Browne, but the impact of their lyrics was generally secondary in importance to the melodic invention and subtlety on display. I was looking to the sound to anaesthetize me, not the words or messages to inform me.

Of course, when one's outlook and circumstances alter, music which previously appeared relatively innocuous and distant can suddenly take on a major piquancy and relevance. This began to occur in my case about fifteen years ago. I often think that the more introspective songs of Jackson Browne (Farther On, Sky Blue and Black, Sleep's Dark And Silent Gate, The Pretender, Fountain of Sorrow, These Days) are speaking only to me, and that they could have been written to document the course of my life and my mental state over the past decade-and-a-half. I could say the same about a few of the compositions of Gene Clark. Once the seed is sown, and we are "convinced", it is difficult to dispel such notions, even when evidence to the contrary looms.

Is this just wishful thinking, and intellectual dishonesty, a desperate and misguided attempt to avoid dealing with one's demons (and confronting reality), by taking refuge in somebody else's sentiments and inner thoughts?

I make take a (retrospectively) jaundiced view of the musical preoccupations of my late teens and early adulthood, but in seeking to "intellectualize" and rationalise my latter-day inclinations, I may be subjecting myself once again to delusions, if of a different type this time.

Perhaps the "soundtrack" to our lives should concern itself less with finding "poignancy" and "meaning" in lyrics, and more with the sometimes overlooked  and unnoticed capacity of music (i.e. the sounds themselves) to sooth and uplift us spiritually. This path also entails less anguish and pretence than the other approach....


Saturday, 6 September 2014


One of the joys and satisfactions of rock music is being able to follow, and identify with, the thought processes of the artist, and chart their growth (or regression), and the fluctuating course of their personal fortunes and attitudes. This is easier when one is dealing with singer-songwriters.

The "singer-songwriter" genre can arguably trace its roots back to Delta Blues, or even further back to the days of wandering minstrels and troubadours, and the early days of rock n roll saw the emergence of such figures as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran. However, if we are thinking in terms of the modern "rock" scene then, like so many things, it began with Bob Dylan.

Not only did Dylan make it viable and credible for people to express themselves creatively entirely through their own compositions and ideas, but he also laid down many of the ground rules, by giving validity to the notion of such views and observations being poured out in a challenging and poetic way.

The mental stimulation in absorbing the work of singer-songwriters is to a large extent in the concentration of the thoughts and interests of one person. This is not really possible in the case of groups and bands, even those whose members write tunes prolifically, because the message is often confused and fragmented, reflecting the diverse personalities and outlooks of the people who make up the ensemble, and the compromises made in the creative process. With a single creative engine, the message can still be occasionally confused and contradictory, but leaves the listener safe in the knowledge that this is the psyche of a single individual, with all its idiosyncrasies and foibles.

Although there have been great singer-songwriters in more recent decades, the "genre" enjoyed a golden age in the period from the late 1960s through to the mid-1970s, on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the foremost practitioners hailed from the folk movement, and folk's capacity for, and tradition of, storytelling and social conscience stood them in good stead in this new environment. Some of these figures achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne), while others had to be content with admiration from their peers, long-term influence or royalties from cover versions of their songs (Laura Nyro , Gene Clark, Tom Waits, Nick Drake.).
The zenith of the 70s singer-songwriter scene probably occurred around 1974, when several prominent artists released seminal works. Jackson Browne's "Late For The Sky", "No Other" by Gene Clark and Neil Young's "On The Beach" are just a few which instantly spring to mind. All different in their own ways, but each representing a kind of peak. "No Other" and "On The Beach" are arguably untypical of their architect's general output, and partly for this reason stand out all the more.
In the mid-1970s the lustre of the "confessional" and "introspective" genre faded. Most of what was there to be said had already been said, and the artists naturally began to branch out and explore fresh territory.  The social climate was also less conducive to what some regarded as self-indulgent navel-gazing.
The appeal, though, of the singer-songwriter has never really gone away. The 80s saw the likes of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman achieve both artistic credibility and bounteous record sales, and people will always be receptive to the vulnerable and earnest person wielding a guitar, or sitting at a piano, pouring out angst, anger or regret.
Many of my most rewarding musical experiences of recent times have been in discovering the work of the great  singer-songwriters of the past;the likes of Fred Neil, David Ackles and Jackson C Frank. The work of such artists remains piquant and stimulating, and is well worth checking out.
Whatever the caprices of musical favour, the singer-songwriter, in whatever form he or she takes, will never disappear.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Holger Meins

Holger Meins was a member of the German urban guerrilla group the Red Army Faction, and before that a film-maker, who died on hunger strike in prison in November 1974. Although he may be less universally known than those core members of the group who inhabited Stammheim prison, and who went on trial in the period 1975-1977, his is nonetheless an interesting and revealing story, and this is explored in some depth in the 2001/2002 documentary "Starbuck Holger Meins", directed by Gerd Conradt.

The title refers to the code-name, taken from a character in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", allocated to Meins as part of the communications system devised by the members of the group whilst they were incarcerated. The documentary is made up primarily of recollections and reflections from friends, acquaintances, colleagues and relatives of the subject. Part of the narrative is told in the "first person", courtesy of extracts from Meins' writings. There is lots of rare footage and material, much of which I had not seen before.

I was interested to note his early Christian leanings, in common with some other prominent German activists and militants of the time. It would have been good if this aspect of his life could have been developed more in the film, in the context of his political beliefs.

Due attention is paid in this film to Holger Meins' film-making and other artistic activities, and how these became more and more entwined with his political commitment, as the social atmosphere in Germany and elsewhere grew increasingly fractious and polarized. Some of the rhetoric both contained in the art, and expressed in writing and sound-bites, now seems somewhat dated , such as the worship of Mao Zedong. 

Although the documentary contains some elementary examination of, and insight into, Meins' personality, and the contradictions therein, I would have liked some greater stress on the ideals which persuaded him to become embroiled in the armed struggle. What effect, for example, did some of the pivotal incidents of the student protest movement have on him personally, or was it a gradual and inexorable process which stemmed largely from within?

The selection of contributors and "talking heads" is well-judged, constituting a good cross-section of the people with whom Meins had contact. Some of the names are well-known, but they do not overshadow or marginalize the thoughts and observations of those people who Meins associated with before his rise to "notoriety".

The hunger-strike is given surprisingly little coverage, only being fully scrutinized in tandem with Meins' death itself, although the scenes in this section of the film are quite powerful and well-judged. There are what I see as gaps in the story, but the producers were seemingly not striving for chronological rigour, but for overall impact and symbolism, and in this they generally succeed.

This documentary is a good piece of work, quite imaginatively and stylishly put together, but if anything it further hardened and soured my view of groups such as the RAF. Whilst being in sympathy with many of the grievances which they expounded, I feel that the methods and solutions which they offered were misguided, confused and often counter-productive.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

All The President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The Watergate affair, in its broader definition, remains the most compelling political scandal of modern times. This is not just because it brought down a President, but because of the nature of the episode itself, and the manner in which the case escalated from relatively innocuous beginnings. The most famous, but by no means the only, journalistic investigation of the affair was the one conducted by the Washington Post, and the paper's probe is related in "All The President's Men", by the Post's two reports, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
The great thing about this book is that it works on more than one level. It appeals to those interested in the political process, but it is also a gripping detective story, and reads like a thriller. Later adapted into a superb motion picture, "All The President's Men" is a delicious, but often disturbing, plum pudding of intrigue and subterfuge. The story in book form is naturally more detailed and comprehensive than seen in the later motion picture adaptation. More scope is permitted for analysis, nuance and character projection.

One is struck by the amount of patience, tact and inventiveness which the reporters were required to exhibit and maintain. We learn much both about the methods employed by the two men, but also about their personalities, and how they fashioned a tolerable and fruitful working relationship as the scope of the investigation widened and the stakes grew more and more momentous.

These pages help to underline the sheer amount of hard work, often tedious and repetitive, which had to be conducted to help crack the story. It was not all about dramatic revelations, inspired guesswork and unexpected disclosures. The old phrase "ten per cent inspiration, ninety per cent perspiration" comes to mind.

The book also highlights the role played by other publications and media outlets in uncovering the story, and the authors are at pains to thanks those who helped them to bring things into the open. To cite this saga as a vindication of a free press is possibly a little trite, but still very much valid. 

In addition to the heartening and positive signals which the ultimate outcome contains, this book is also at times sobering and disconcerting. The tenuous nature of cherished institutions and principles, and how susceptible some of them might be to subversion and corruption. Close scrutiny of these events should occasion a jolt to those who are inclined to give "the powers that be" the benefit of the doubt.

On a more general note, this work does also provide a cultural snapshot of life in the early 1970s, an uncertain, transitional phase in history. The optimism and excitement of the 60s had gone, but at the same time the problems and concerns which were to characterize the 1970s were not yet fully in focus. A time of ennui in some ways?

The closing chapters are amongst the most illuminating, as they chronicle the slow unravelling of the White House position in 1973/74, and concentrate less on the Washington Post's involvement in the process.

The world can never have enough investigative journalists, and I dare say that reading "All The President's Men" has persuaded quite a few people that it would be a stimulating and noble vocation to pursue.