Sunday, 26 June 2016

Fangio: The Life Behind The Legend - Gerald Donaldson

Furthering my campaign to revisit some of the motorsport-related titles residing on my dusty bookshelves, I recently re-read Gerald Donaldson's 2003 biography of the great Argentinian driver, Juan Manuel Fangio.

Fangio still holds a special fascination and a particular aura, matched perhaps only by those of Ayrton Senna, although they were quite different people. Fangio was revered by his peers, and still represents something of a benchmark, as much for his human qualities as his consummate skills behind the wheel of a car.

His upbringing was in stark contrast to that of today's stars, and indeed to most of his contemporaries. In addition, his racing apprenticeship was unusual, and may have helped to equip him with the qualities which separated him from his competitors when he embarked on his international career.

The early chapters are an intriguing window on the world of the early twentieth century, when motor vehicles were still a relative novelty, and in the infancy of their technical development. The picture which emerges is of an early life characterized by the inculcation of certain imperatives, such as the importance of hard work.  Even the early years suggest Fangio's hallmarks of mechanical sympathy, adaptability and resourcefulness.

A crucial part of the story is Fangio's participation in the epic South American road-race marathons. The author unfurls evocative  accounts of the sheer scale of these undertakings, the hardships which were undergone, and the perils and hazards which confronted the competitors. The range of emotions and environments which he encountered must have been character-building. Describing the dramas, the surroundings and the sensory experiences is a strength which is noticeable in some of Donaldson's other books, and those skills are well employed here.

This biography paints a picture of the tenor of an epoch, where improvised machinery and improvised racing schedules were the norm. Also, the comradeship and friendly spirit which prevailed among the drivers throughout comes across strongly.

Fangio seems to have been a self-made man, also self-taught to some extent. From humble origins, a strong work ethic had helped to instill a resilience of character which was crucial to his success. The author does not portray the man as some kind of saint, but his flaws and weaknesses were evidently less pronounced than those of most people, and a practical, pragmatic approach served him well. It also appears to me that Fangio combined old-fashioned virtues with the more entrepreneurial spirit of modern times. A more complex individual than is sometimes made out, perhaps.

The book contains some interesting material on that "lost" period between the end of the Second World War and the 1950 inception of the World Drivers' Championship. It is sobering to be reminded of the frequency of fatalities and serious injuries back then, both to competitors and spectators.  The stories of the Grand Prix races are related entertainingly but sparingly, and they capture some of the essence of what was still a "heroic" age. Indeed, some might contend that the "heroic age" came to a close when Fangio retired from racing.

There is a little insight into Fangio's character, and his philosophy of life, via quotes and anecdotes. These focus on his means of coping with danger and challenges, and with the nature of competition. An element which permeates these pages is just how much physical discomfort the drivers of that period had to withstand, whether through primitive, ill-handling machines or via the elements. Comfort was still some way in the future.

This biography is compact and balanced, although I don't think it is quite as fluent and impressive as the author's books about Gilles Villeneuve and James Hunt. It will, however, enthuse the reader about the man and the era in which he competed so ably and nobly.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Last Road Race - Richard Williams

Whilst sifting through numerous old books on my shelves, I came across "The Last Road Race", by Richard Williams, originally published in 2004, which tells the story of the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix.

The premise of the book is that the race represented the closing of an era, in that it was the last World Championship Grand Prix to be staged on a particular type of circuit, and in a certain set of conditions. It is a compact work, packed with details and anecdotes, and it contains several evocative passages.

Only a relatively small proportion of the book is actually taken up with the Pescara race itself.  Much of the space is given over to scene-setting, with portraits of some of the key participants in the event, and analysis of the key trends which determined its outcome, such as the emergence of the British constructors.  In some ways, "The Last Road Race" also functions as a brief history of motor racing in the period up until 1957, a chronicle of how that point had been reached.

The tenor of the era comes through, such as the more relaxed, informal feel of less regimented times and even through the improvised arrangements for travel, accommodation and so forth. There are some amusing stories about these aspects.

Much of the story revolves around Stirling Moss, either directly or indirectly.  Whenever I read anything about Moss, my admiration for the man rises. His professionalism, his talent and his energy combined to make him a compelling study.  There is some illuminating material how about how he organized himself, and how his approach differed from some of his peers. Moss comes across as a transitional figure on more than one level.

In addition to Moss, another person who impresses is Tony Brooks. An intriguing character, whose opinions and frank observations about racing and life are always worth reading.

I discerned quickly that the drivers had varying views about racing, their motives and their anxieties. Some were at home on the classic, perilous natural road courses, and bemoaned the sterility which later infiltrated the sport. Others were candid in expressing their unease about some of the conditions which they raced under.  Less romantic than some of their contemporaries, they were more pragmatic and business-like. Not everyone later complained unfailingly that things were better in their day.

From today's vantage point, the 1950s feel like a fabulous period for racing. Post-war optimism and renewal, the rise of the British drivers and teams, and the beginnings of technological upheaval, overlapped with the remnants of the pre-war age. This book manages to capture much of that atmosphere and excitement.

The actual competitiveness of the racing was often lacking, but the spectacle was enticing, and that seemed to be enough. It was real theatre, this dimension being heightened by the greater contribution of the driver, and the manner in which that contribution was more immediately visible.  Yes, some things in today's world are better, but those far-off days had an innocence and a raw drama about them.

Also, the media and the public did not constantly agonize about "the show", and subject it to minute scrutiny. In some respects the audience, and expert observers, had a more nuanced and sophisticated view. Attention spans were longer, and there was less pressure to pander to some perceived requirement to "entertain".

In 1957, the world was already beginning to change, but old-world courtesies lingered, and some timeless values were scrupulously observed. The drivers from that era were a diverse but likeable and noble group. They were not perfect, and had their flaws like all of us.

"The Last Road Race" is an enjoyable and stimulating document on a place and a time, written with enthusiasm and some style.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Amazing Summer of '55 - Eoin Young

Just recently, I surveyed some of the unread books piled up in a corner of my humble abode.  One which caught my attention was The Amazing Summer of '55, written by the late Eoin Young. This tells the story of the dramatic, tragic and turbulent motor racing season of that year.

The book takes the form of a series of articles, arranged in chronological order, covering the pivotal racing events of 1955. Extensive use is made of quotes from participants and excerpts from diaries, giving many of the episodes a genuine rawness and immediacy. The individual articles are concise and breezy, and they cover not just the "obvious" topics and incidents, but also some more obscure and less-publicized things which occurred during the year in question.

Human interest stories are combined with technical details.  The informality and relative lack of regimentation of the mid-Fifties shines through, although doubtless the "old hands" of that period bemoaned how things were different from previous times.

This was an intriguing epoch, not just in motor racing but in the wider world. The remnants of the "pre-war" world were increasingly in collision with elements of modernity such as technological progress, scientific advances and social change. The stories concerning Ruth Ellis and James Dean help to illustrate and emphasize the latter.

The epic and momentous nature of the Mille Miglia never ceases to impress and captivate, and it is accorded due prominence here. There are some evocative quotes and passages, and amusing anecdotes.

A strong quality of this book is how it covers the broad canvas of motorsport, not just the Grands Prix, but also sportscar racing in all its facets, and also the Indianapolis 500. One can get a real flavour of the culture of racing back then, and the attitudes and motivations of the people involved.

Of course, the disaster at Le Mans in 1955 figures strongly in this work, and the horror is powerfully evoked. Some interesting material is featured relating to the aftermath, the ramifications and the investigations, especially on the response of Mercedes to the tragedy.  These sections, and also the chapter examining the Tourist Trophy race at Dundrod, highlight perhaps most acutely the differences between now and then.

I worked my way through this book through it very quickly, which is generally a good sign. It is the kind of book which prompts the reader to seek out additional information about some of the topics covered.  A lively and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Works - Queen

In 1984, Queen released their album The Works, a record which warrants a little scrutiny.

At the time, this was regarded by many as a "comeback" record, after the band had gone on a mild hiatus, by the standards of the time. On the face of it, the album felt like a confident return to form and a more "classic" Queen sound, but it later transpired that this was a period of uncertainty, internal tensions and even a lack of self-belief.  The record is notable for containing more overt social and political commentary than Queen fans had become accustomed to.

The reviews which cited a restoration of the traditional Queen style were not totally accurate. There are modernistic touches, and not a wholesale return to the multi-tracked ethos which had last been evident on 1978's Jazz. The sound is often "big", in a more 1980s sense, and this anticipates what would happen on Queen's remaining studio albums.

In mentioning the big production, I would assert that the production, and the temptation to dabble with the shiny new technology then coming on stream, sometimes masks the quality and impact of a few of the songs, such as "Radio Ga Ga" and "I Want To Break Free".  The songs from The Works often sounded better in the concert environment. By the same token, I can appreciate how the band was looking to experiment, and not just rely on the old techniques, the old sounds and the old gimmicks.

Whilst the sound on this record was more contemporary, I don't think that Queen can be accused of trying to be "trendy".  Yes, they were embracing new technology, but they were harnessing it to do their own thing, rather than attempting to appear "relevant" or hip.

The themes explored in the songs include nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent time ("Radio Ga Ga"), the dehumanizing effects of technology and machinery ("Machines") nuclear war ("Hammer To Fall") and Third World famine ("Is This The World We Created").  This subject matter was hardly original for the 1980s rock scene, but I don't think that it was a consciously orchestrated thing. It is not surprising that "baby boomers" would wish to express anxieties concerning such matters.

Although some of the songs address areas of concern, others have words which are more anodyne, not really saying anything of note.  "It's A Hard Life", "Tear It Up", and "Man On The Prowl" lack any real incisiveness. They do not possess the fire which would return to the band's work in the late 1980s.

The Works has a sound which is bright, clear and vibrant, and not quite descending to the characteristically irritating level which mars so much 80s pop/rock. Much of the recording was done in 1983, and the malaise of 80s music had at that stage not yet fully taken hold. On this record Freddie Mercury is in pretty good voice, and the deterioration in his vocals which surfaced on A Kind Of Magic is scarcely discernible.

This record exudes a self-confidence which may have been illusory, belying the atmosphere and mindset which prevailed in the Queen camp. On the surface, ideas seem to be flowing in relative abundance. Little in the way of introspection or self-doubt can be detected in the lyrics.  They are looking outwards, not inwards. Those looking for "clues" will find few. The fact that all four band members, with disparate personalities and temperaments, wrote songs on their own meant that it was rarely easy to detect a general mood (until the final two albums) - a contrast to the career paths of singer-songwriters, or bands with one dominant composer.

"Keep Passing The Open Windows" is an interesting song, musically sharp and ebullient and with a strong message. It has recently occurred to me that there is a Elton John-like feel to the piece.  Some Queen hallmarks are in there, but the tune is energetic and animated.

The album version of "I Want To Break Free" is much better than that released as a single, as the keyboards are less prominent and guitar more to the fore.

"Man On The Prowl" is for me one of the weaker Queen album tracks, and probably owes its inclusion in the running order to the fact that it is anonymously catchy as a genre exercise,  and that it is different to the more futuristic and profound material which surrounds it. Other, superior, songs may have been in circulation at the time, but were probably too similar to others which made the cut.

One song which did not make the original album, appearing as a B-side, was "I Go Crazy", a spontaneous and infectious number which sees Queen in "garage band" mode, singing some amusing lyrics. It is a mystery why room was not found for it.  Perhaps it lacked a certain polish.....

The Works is enigmatic, taking Queen in new directions whilst holding on to trademark elements. It still holds up pretty well, certainly in the the context of the group's offerings from their "later period".

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.