Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Big Star

Around 1994/95, I began to purchase the "serious" music magazines, and I continually read about an American group called Big Star, who it seemed had released a couple of seminal albums in the 1970s, and who were being cited as an influence by artists on both sides of the Atlantic. They, so the articles and reviews informed me, had also inspired many American "alternative" and underground bands of the 1980s.

Well, as my musical palette was beginning to expand during that time, I checked out Big Star's music, after finding that their first two albums, "#1 Record" and "Radio City", were available together on one CD.  Having listened, my initial impressions were "pleasant enough, a few catchy songs, nice harmonies", but nothing more than that. Big Star were filed away in my mind as a good group, but they were half-forgotten as my musical attentions were drawn elsewhere.

It was only very recently that Big Star re-appeared on my radar, and almost by accident, as I heard one of their best-known tracks on an internet radio station. This prompted me to go back and re-evaluate those first two albums.

Well, maybe my musical instincts and antennae have become keener and more discerning in the intervening period, but I was struck by how much I had initially under-rated Big Star. I now appreciate how important they were, and why they are recalled with such fondness by so many people.

The music is more diverse and hard-edged than I had remembered it, with the emphasis on Power Pop, rather than just pretty harmonies. The remastered versions which I have been listening to evidently accentuated some of the nuances.

Whilst Big Star were themselves hugely influential, it is worth examining from which artists and musical styles they derived their own inspiration. The conventional wisdom has been that their music was in many ways similar to The Byrds and some of the pioneering US power-pop combos. However, I detect major signs of The Who in their songs, melodically as well as in the vocal harmonies and "clanging" guitar sound. A healthy dash of Stonesy swagger is also evident at times. In the slower acoustic numbers there are distinct echoes of Gene Clark and Neil Young.

The lyrics straddle the line between youthful innocence and self-consciousness, but thankfully never becoming fully immersed in either.  Innocent and simple at times, but equally intelligent and thoughtful.

Big Star's songs tend to be compact and concise three or four minute affairs, more often than not effortlessly tuneful. The word "songcraft" could almost have been invented to describe their work. A few of their melodies owe a lot to the girl-group/Brill Building pop of the early 1960s.

One of the things which I have noticed in my revisit of Big Star is how technically intricate some of the guitar playing is. Similar in sound to The Byrds and The Who, but tending to be more complex and elaborate. Some pleasing acoustic picking is also on display.

Those first two albums contain few genuinely weak songs, but the stand-out tracks are probably "In The Street", "Thirteen", "O My Soul" and "September Gurls". In particular, "In The Street", with its punchy melody, angelic harmonies and hypnotic guitar lines, is a minor classic of its type.

So, given that so many observers wax lyrical about Big Star, and their early offerings, why did they not achieve more commercial popularity and recognition in the early to mid 1970s?  Plain bad luck may partially explain it. However, my own theory, for what it's worth, is that they were "a band out of time", and simply did not fit in to any of the convenient pigeon-holes of the prevailing musical genres of the era.

Big Star could not be accurately described as glam rock, prog rock, or mainstream album rock. If anything, their sound has more in common with some of the American punk artists who came along not long afterwards. They unluckily fell into the gap of having a retro sound, but also being ahead of their time in some respects (their music presaged the New Wave music which emerged in the aftermath of punk).

For anyone who appreciates true pop craftsmanship, and the pure joy of guitars and vocal harmonies, "#1 Record" and "Radio City" are essential listening. They are very difficult to dislike.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

It's Only Music....Or Is it?

This post was originally intended to ruminate on the pretentiousness and vapidity of much comment by music critics, and often people in general. Also, the post would have touched on the "taste-snobbery" and intellectual dishonesty which I feel that much music "scholarship" embodies. Following all this would have been a reasoned argument for us all to take music a little less seriously, to allow ourselves to enjoy music for its own sake, and for at least some objective aesthetic analysis, rather than constant reference to the "cred-meter". The title of the post was to have been "It's Only Music".

Although I stand by much of what I say about music writing and the "arbiters of cool", in the early hours of this morning I was given pause for thought concerning my assertion that "It's Only Music".

I had read about the supposed transcendental qualities of Richard Wagner's music, but whilst finding his work stirring, had not encountered these myself. However, this morning I found myself lying alone in bed in the darkness, listening to some of Wagner's orchestral work on my MP3 player.  Browsing various tracks, I found myself returning to "Siegfried Idyll".

Much popular (and indeed, classical) music seeks to tug at the heart strings, or to summon up our sensual desires and instincts, but this sensation was something entirely different. I felt as if my entire body and mind had been joined, and transported to another plane, and that myself and the music were the only two things remaining in the world.

Attempting to put these phenomena into cogent language is a troublesome task, and the best approximation I can come up with is having for a few moments experienced life and living at their most intense and pure, purged of all insecurities and irritants. Half expecting to break into tears of joy and/or euphoria, instead I found myself breaking into the broadest smile imaginable. The exultation was still present following several hours of sleep.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the music of Wagner, or classical music generally, has a monopoly on such properties. Indeed, jazz, dance music and progressive rock possess the capacity to deliver altered states of consciousness. Our minds and bodies all have different tolerances. This brings us back to our debate regarding musical "taste" and snobbery. I would venture to suggest that transcendent attributes and perceived "artistic integrity" do not always coincide.

Hence the amendment to the title of this thread.....

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Ayn Rand's "Anthem"

I am in the process of working my way through Ayn Rand's most famous novels and novellas.

After much enjoying "We The Living", next on the agenda was "Anthem".

I approached the book with few pre-conceptions, not knowing much about its themes or subject matter, but even allowing for this, it was not what I was expecting!

Reading the first few pages, I became acutely aware that this was a fierce critique of collectivism, and although receptive to many of the messages contained within, I feared that it would become a turgid read. The style is clearly intended to assist in vividly conveying the author's points of view, and once the reader accepts this it should become more accessible. The pace quickens appreciably as the scenes progress, as the main character's journey progresses, and the final sections are quite powerful, even invoking a sense of "catharsis". The concept of moving from addressing oneself as "We" to "I" is a clever idea, but needs to be fully embraced if the narrative is to be fully appreciated.

I must confess, even as a libertarian, that some elements of Ayn Rand's philosophy, particularly the emphasis on ego and selfishness, leave me slightly cold, but I was still impressed with the way in which "Anthem" builds to a crescendo, climaxing with a passionate espousal of individualist values.

After reading the book from start to finish in a couple of hours, I was inclined to regard it less as a novel than as a form of manifesto. Although compelling in its own way, it had little of the charm and flow of "We The Living". In fairness, comparisons between the two works are unfair, in that they adopt totally differing approaches.

Well, just "Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" to go now!

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Book Review - "Shunt - The Story of James Hunt", by Tom Rubython

Having received distinctly mixed feedback, I had delayed purchasing this book, but eventually relented and decided to judge it for myself.

The first thing to make clear is that this is a very lengthy book, and it cannot be accused of skimping on detail. The style of writing will certainly not be to everyone's taste, but it can still be quite a rewarding read, for several reasons.

It would seem that the author had access to sources not available or sought out by Hunt's previous biographers. This ensures that some stories and information in Rubython's may be reaching a wide, mainstream audience for the first time. Certainly, several gaps in my knowledge were filled, particularly on matters hitherto submerged beneath the rich tapestry which was Formula 1 in the 1970s.

The life of Hunt both before and after his Formula 1 racing career are covered in more depth than in previous similar publications, although at times perhaps the level of detail is excessive.

One of the most illuminating aspects of the book was its concentration on the financial and promotional elements of motor racing at that time, when sponsorship and television coverage were still in their infancy. It was fascinating to read how informal, almost amateurish, things were as recently as 1975. The one thing I could do without was the constant quoting of figures and monetary amounts!

My main criticism of the book is its apparent tendency towards hyperbole and even exaggeration of some events. The life of James Hunt was hardly mundane, and little sensationalism is needed to turn it into a compelling story.  Some fairly insignificant and unimportant incidents are overplayed in order to embellish parts of the tale, and the "all or nothing" mode of language employed is irritating at times.

Although casual readers will probably not notice, any F1 "anorak" will be surprised by the number of historical inaccuracies and errors contained in the text.  This did slightly mar my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

The author is not afraid to pass judgement on aspects of Formula 1, particularly the transition towards ground-effect, and its impact on the quality of the racing. Not everyone will agree with his interpretation of events, but to his credit, he does not attempt to sugar-coat the Grand Prix scene of the time, or indeed Hunt's role in it.

Perhaps also I could have done without the constant references to economic and political events of the times. I accept that this is sometimes desirable for the purposes of context, but for me it went a little too far in this instance.

Later in the book, efforts are to made to analyse Hunt's complex persona, and also to document his trials and tribulations following retirement from racing. Doubtless many readers will find this the most revealing, and indeed moving, part of the book.

In summary, I would say that this is a mixed bag. Plenty of information to be extracted, if one can see past the "over the top" style of writing, and the inaccuracies. Those seeking a more condensed and temperate account of Hunt's life may wish to seek out the biography written by the Canadian journalist Gerald Donaldson.

Friday, 19 August 2011

A Good Week

Well, after some rather aimless times, the past week has been very encouraging.

First, I sent a chronicle of my own personal experience of depression to a charity. Not only could this help other people, but putting the document together was a rewarding experience for yours truly. It helped to "draw a line" under the preceding eighteen months of my life.

In addition, a nagging "DIY" issue at home seemingly rectified itself, as if by magic. I am sure that the laws of physics played their hand somewhere, but the good fortune was in keeping with the positive trends of the week.

As the week drew to a close, I was in receipt of some surprising but welcome news on the financial front.

Allied to a productive week of research for internet projects, these developments were all very invigorating! It is noticeable how a series of minor but happy episodes can buoy the spirits....

Thursday, 4 August 2011

After The Rain

Well, the rain ruined my best-laid plans earlier today, and I was caught out in the deluge, sans umbrella! However, undaunted, and determined to salvage something constructive and productive from the situation, I tried to take some "arty" photographs, once a watery sunshine sought to break through:

Monday, 1 August 2011

"The Fall of Paris" - Alistair Horne

I have just finished reading this book, which chronicles the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

Originally I was lead to this book by my efforts to learn more about the Franco-Prussian War, although Horne's publication does not cover the military aspects of the war in great detail, preferring to concentrate on the Parisian reaction to the traumatic series of events.

The book places the dramas of 1870/71 in their historical context, examining the prelude to the war, including the state of France as presided over by Napoleon III, and the tensions evident in the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the light of the revolutions and upheavals of the previous eight decades.

Horne paints a vivid picture of the inertia, inefficiency and self-interest which characterized the actions of the main protagonists, and also the multi-faceted ideological landscape, which was loaded with paradoxes and ironies. The author apportions blame where it is warranted, whilst remaining even-handed. Later in the book, Horne comes across as equally critical of the Commune, and the subsequent repression by the "regular" army.

Throughout, there is an effort to stress the impact of the tribulations of 1870/71 on European history of subsequent generations, in particular the two world wars.  These issues, it seems to me, are sometimes overlooked by those in the English-speaking world.

Perhaps those looking for a dry, technical and chronological military history of the period should look elsewhere, but this book manages to inter-link the military, political and social elements to some effect, with first-hand testimony proving particularly potent.

Whilst I appreciate the times and prevailing attitudes were different in the late nineteenth century, the horrors and authoritarianism detailed in "The Fall of Paris" have reminded me why my world-view and outlook have inexorably become libertarian!