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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 na├»ve 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.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Russian Revolution - Sheila Fitzpatrick

As one of the most complex, traumatic and seismic episodes in recent world history, the Russian Revolution can be a daunting subject to tackle. For such topics, a well-written, authoritative and compact account is always valuable and welcome. This requirement has been fulfilled for me by Sheila Fitzpatrick's excellent work, simply entitled "The Russian Revolution".

When I picked up this book, I expected it to deal almost exclusively with the events of 1917/18, with perhaps some coverage of the Civil War. To my surprise and delight, it also encompasses the "revolution" in its broader sense, taking a look at various phases of development leading up to the eve of World War Two.
Fitzpatrick does a solid and credible job of setting the scene for the upheavals, and observing how the state of flux in Russia's economic and social development provided fertile soil for revolutionary sentiment to thrive and flourish. The nature of dissent and organised opposition in the late Tsarist era is also outlined, and how the forceful personality of Lenin began to make its present felt. Contrary to what many people might imagine, the fortunes of the various opposition factions fluctuated. Ultimately, however, the course of events was going the way of the Bolsheviks, and they were usually quick to capitalise on these trends, and prod matters actively further forward.
Reading this book, one has to wonder whether the "liberal" elements opposed to the autocracy treated the workers patronisingly, and how much they attempted to use the "lower orders" in order to try and save their own skins. They were also probably victims of their own scrupulousness on certain matters, their own bourgeois sensitivities, and of course a failure to fully comprehend the importance being placed on an early end to Russian involvement in the First World War.
Once the Bolsheviks had grasped what had occurred in February 1917, they kept their eyes firmly on the prize, and refused to dilute their principles and demands, knowing that things were developing to their advantage. Of course, a healthy dose of revolutionary ardour, and an absence of scruples or prevarication did the rest.
What I really like about this book is that it doesn't bother slavishly relating every minute twist and turn, and does not try to give dramatic accounts of some of the supposedly iconic moments in the story of the revolution. Instead, it concentrates on scrutinizing the political background to each stage, and the possible explanations for how the participants behaved. This can leave the revolution appearing to lack overt drama and even grandeur, certainly in comparison to the version with which most of us were inculcated in our younger days. When one looks at the how revolution unfolded, in its early phases at least, it was perhaps not as spectacular and explosive as we sometimes imagine. How much this has to do with a "post-Soviet" reappraisal is open to question.
I found the most enlightening and illuminating sections to be those dealing with the period between February and October 1917, the ebbing away of the Provisional Government's credibility and power, and its eventual impotence and demise. There is also some musing on just how much support the Bolsheviks actually commanded around October/November 1917. 
The Civil War is also given due prominence here, but more in the context of how it affected the domestic situation and the power struggles in Russia than of military events. Particular note is taken of how the conflict led to the regime becoming more authoritarian and militaristic, and also of the importance of the peasantry.
We are given a clear and persuasive analysis of how the Bolsheviks handled the reins of power once the situation had become relatively settled and stable, and I was intrigued by the question of the balance between the involvement of the party in the implementation of government, and that of the bureaucracy.  The New Economic Policy is also an integral part of this portion of the book.
"The Russian Revolution" concludes with a look at the power struggles after Lenin's death, and the subsequent "revolution from above" overseen by Stalin, including the Five Year Plans, the collectivization of agriculture, and of course the purges. There is an interesting summarization of the changes which overcame Russian social, economic and cultural life in these times, and whether they did indeed represent the realisation or accomplishment of real socialism and the vindication of the revolution.
This was an instructive read. Clearly not the definitive tome on the subject, but admirable all the same. A good "one stop shop" summary or refresher, and a possible stimulus for deeper research.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Protest Songs

The early years of rock & roll were primarily notable for songs about the pleasures of the flesh or youthful rebellion. However, as the Sixties wore on, and the social and inter-generational atmosphere grew more febrile and unstable, the frontiers of rock expanded, and lyrics became more diverse, experimental and profound. The protest song genre was very much part of this overall pushing back of the boundaries. I have lately embarked on an intensely "political" phase, and this subject therefore came to the forefront of my mind.
Protest songs take several forms, all of which have their own virtues and hallmarks. The most overtly powerful, but also the most ephemeral, is the song written on the spur of the moment, often in a spontaneous outpouring of rage, indignation or dismay, and in reaction to a traumatic or tragic incident. An example which springs to mind instantly is "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Songs such as this make up in rawness and sincerity what they may lack in long-term universal anthemic potential. Even if some of the precise cultural references may mean less these days, they are formidable period pieces, with a unique appeal.
The track which for me stands out as the ultimate protest number is "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Clearly addressing an emotive and topical theme of 1969, but also espousing many sentiments which have remained common ever since. The clinching factor is the fact that "Fortunate Son" is, in purely musical terms,  a rip-roaring piece of rock & roll. John Fogerty could be singing about washing-up liquid and it would still be a great record.  However, the lyrics elevate it to something else again, the frenetic pace of the arrangement ideally complementing the anger being expressed.

The other "Vietnam era" protest song which still packs a real punch, and stands up well, is "Draft Morning" by The Byrds. An ethereal vibe pervades this one, punctuated by sound effects depicting the horrors of war. A different approach to "Fortunate Son", but still highly effective and memorable.

Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded one or two other excellent protest records. "Bad Moon Rising", to the uninitiated, could be open to several interpretations, but now it seems clear that it was a lament about the political events of the late 1960s in the United States. "Who'll Stop The Rain" is a more wide-ranging, if equally forthright, commentary on the ills and turmoil of those times. John Fogerty's passionate songs had an honesty, directness and clarity which was sometimes lacking in the "social commentary" and posturing of the psychedelic and singer-songwriter crowds.

Jackson Browne, initially renowned for his introspective and personal lyrics, grew more overtly concerned with social and political issues as his career developed. In his case, I always found the satirical approach more convincing than his direct "protest" material. "The Pretender", from 1976, was eerily shrewd in its assessment of where the wind was blowing, and prescient about the careerism and economic rapaciousness which would fully emerge in the decade which followed, even raising concern about "work/life balance".  "Lawyers In Love", released in the early 1980s, is a cynical, if astute and amusing, take on the Cold War and cultural imperialism. If not "protest songs" in the conventional sense, both "The Pretender" and "Lawyers In Love" deliver a thought-provoking and coherent message without sounding either self-righteous or corny.

Then there is the carefully researched campaigning song, bringing an injustice to wider attention, as perfectly exemplified by Bob Dylan's "Hurricane".  The Rolling Stones delivered their own distinct, and sometimes ambiguous, verdict on the upheavals of the late 60s with songs such as "Street Fighting Man" and "Gimme Shelter".

These are just examples from what may loosely be termed the "classic rock" era, and of course other musical genres have been equally prolific in commenting on political matters. The concept of "the protest album" is most popularly encapsulated by Marvin Gaye's magnificent "What's Going On".  Of course, protest and activism is in the very DNA of folk music and folk-rock.

An interesting debate would be whether the protest song is less prevalent and favoured than it used to be, in "mainstream" music at least?  Did the financial crisis of a few years ago produce any great protest songs, or is the music scene now so fragmented that such tracks do not gain widespread recognition?