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

Depression - My Story

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it can be seen that my journey truly commenced during the closing months of 2009. I had been somewhat ill-at-ease for several months, sensing a lack of fulfilment in both personal and professional spheres, but attributing these sensations to a transitory “phase”, and assuming that things would soon return to normal.

As the autumn of 2009 gave way to winter, the aforementioned feelings began to intensify and broaden almost imperceptibly, in the form of difficulties in concentrating, a short attention span, and poor memory recall. Not reading the warning signs, and being ignorant on these matters, I put these things down to the “winter blues”, and endeavoured to soldier on.

The symptoms detailed above continued to be apparent in the early weeks of 2010, but at that particular stage they did not seem sufficiently serious for me to seek help, or to change my lifestyle. I could still cope reasonably well with what life had to throw at me, or so I thought.

At some point, probably in early February, a kind of tipping point was reached, and I slowly began to sense that this was something out of the ordinary. The shortcomings in my levels of concentration and attention span were beginning to impinge on my ability to do my job, and changes in my duties began to exacerbate things. I realised that my behaviours and interactions were becoming increasingly defensive, and that this was merely aggravating my predicament.

As is often the case in such situations, it took an outsider to grasp the nettle. My managers at work seemed to sense a problem, and it was agreed that I would take a few days off, in an effort to recharge my batteries and generally get my act together. At this stage, I thought that I was suffering from some form of “burn out”, caused by my workload. 

The enforced lay-off afforded me the opportunity to look at myself, and to begin to be honest with myself. I sensed that this was somehow different from other similar difficulties which I had encountered in the course of my adult life. Notwithstanding this, I still clung to the belief, or rather hope, that this would pass, with some rest and recreation. At this stage I had still not taken the leap of faith of acknowledging that some fundamental malaise was afflicting me. I decided that the only course of action open to me was to plough on regardless.

After my break, I returned to work, and this was when the penny well and truly dropped. The problems with my levels of concentration and attention span were magnified, and I finally realised that I had to be honest with myself and those around me. I resolved to see my doctor, and some cursory research on the internet brought me face-to-face with the probability that I was being affected by depression.

My initial discussions with my GP seemed to confirm my own belated self-diagnosis, and the doctor’s swift assessment instilled a regret in me that I had not read the tell-tale signs at an earlier stage. I was prescribed anti-depressants, but was realistic enough to know that these did not represent a solution in themselves, but merely helped to “stop the rot”, bring about some semblance of equilibrium, and form a sound platform on which I could base my own efforts to overcome my problems.

A period of reflection ensued, enabling me to make additional enquiries of my own, and to speak to friends and acquaintances. Slowly but surely the realities of this illness began to sink in, and the information acquired served to furnish me with the outline of a “plan of action” to tackle my condition.

One of the first lessons I learned was that one has to be totally honest with oneself and others. It dawned on me that in seeming to sub-consciously “fight” it earlier, I was merely engaging in instinctive, defensive behaviours and thinking, and that this simply exacerbated the negativity.  A step back, reflection and analysis is invariably the best way forward in order to confront things. This usually requires help and advice from others.

Another hurdle was surmounted when, almost by accident, I informed close relatives of my situation. Their honesty and constructiveness also aided in bolstering me at this critical stage. I had a sense of constructing a “base camp”, from which my arduous ascent could be planned and executed.

All of these factors assisted me in coming to terms with the fact that I had a problem. It is not easy for everyone to achieve this.

Consulting with my doctor had convinced me that a good starting point would be to indulge in behaviours which could be conducive to overcoming negativity, and promoting greater self-confidence. Everyone will approach this in a different way, depending on the severity of their depression and their own personal preferences. For me, it took the form of more exercise and engaging in hobbies and interests. The usual advice is to take things steady at first, and gradually branch out as some self-confidence begins to return.

Following the initial diagnosis, the nature of the symptoms gradually became clearer, and my findings were surprising. I had been aware months before of difficulties with concentration, memory and attention span, but scratching beneath the surface revealed a more complex picture.

It seemed that my thoughts were becoming jumbled and trapped in my mind, unable to escape or reach their reasoned or logical conclusion, creating what I described at the time as a kind of “fog”.  This “blocking” of thoughts led to stereo-typed or “all or nothing” thinking, probably as the mind’s defence mechanism.  These negative outlooks appeared to be aggravating adverse cycles of thought.

The solution, or at least part of the solution, seemed to lie in breaking these cycles, but how was this to be achieved?  I was making modest progress with my own efforts to expose myself to more positive and optimistic situations and thoughts, but I accepted that I would require professional assistance in order to achieve more profound steps. So, where to begin?

After speaking to friends and relatives, it seemed that counselling could be a valuable starting point. I was referred to a counsellor through my employers’ health assistance scheme.

I was determined to approach the counselling with an open-mind, and to derive as much from it as possible. In all honesty, I was unsure how it was going to work, or what its effects were going to be.

As it transpired, the six one-hour counselling sessions represented the beginnings of me “turning the corner”. I was at a fairly low ebb at the outset, but by the end of the course I began to see a path forward.

The counselling which I participated in served a number of purposes. It gave me a sounding board, with whom I was able to be honest and candid, and also helped me to “deconstruct” my life, identifying some factors which had led to my current plight, a few of which had not hitherto occurred to me!

In order to extract the most benefit from counselling, it is probably vital for it to be a “two way street”. Empathy is important, and the sessions need to be tailored to the circumstances and state of mind of the patient.

 I found that identifying the salient factors in my depression to be therapeutic, as it helped me to “draw a line” under some of them, and to assess ways of moving forward.

I would describe the counselling which I took part in as a launchpad of sorts, and it further equipped me to go away and implement and apply what I had already learned. I was realistic enough to accept that this would be achieved piecemeal, in the form of “little victories” which would feed off each other, hopefully generating some momentum and a “snowball effect”.  These “little victories” would usually take the form of achievements such as social interaction, starting a new hobby or overcoming some form of barrier. I found it useful to keep a diary in order to record these accomplishments, to refer back to for reassurance and inspiration.

In the aftermath of the counselling, my own journey of self-healing and discovery started in earnest.  Having lots of time on my hands could have been a double-edged sword, and I combated this by doing lots of reading and learning, seeking to expand and augment my interests, being conscious that a regime of lethargy and indolence would only perpetuate the dreaded “cycles”.

The activities in which I was engaging helped to restore some of my self-esteem, and this encouraged me to keep going, in order to capitalise. Whilst this was all helpful and positive, I still sensed the danger of a plateau effect, and the need for some form of final push.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) had been mentioned to me earlier in my treatment, and also by acquaintances. I began to pressure my doctor for some further treatment to push me on, and eventually I was referred to a therapist.

Basically, CBT is all about analysing thought patterns, and seeking to break the cycles of negative thoughts, behaviours and actions. I found that it gave structure and impetus to many of the processes which I was already going through via my own efforts and initiatives. I was asked to keep records of various types of thought (worries, strong positive or negative feelings, and so on), and how I addressed them. I found that I was already developing strategies to overcome negativity, and break the cycles, but these exercises added additional clarity and purpose, and reinforced the momentum which was already there.

Looking back, I can see that CBT benefited me immensely, by amplifying and strengthening some of the processes which were already beginning to form in my mind. I was very receptive to the therapy, probably because at the time I was on an upward curve, and therefore keen to throw myself into it, hitting the ground running, so to speak. I appreciate that other people would need more help in getting lots out of it.

The conclusion of my CBT represented the end of my formal, professional treatment for depression, and not long afterwards I ceased taking my medication. I accepted that it was now up to me to continue to maintain the progress, and continue to apply the lessons learned over the previous year or so.

There have been occasional troughs in recent months, as I expected, but thus far I have been able to use my increased awareness and tools at my disposal to weather any storms. The treatments and processes which I have undergone appear to have equipped me with a kind of “sixth sense”, enabling me to detect a gathering “bad patch”, and pre-empt the worst of it by engaging in the appropriate behaviours and thoughts. Now that I am aware of the symptoms of depression, I am forewarned.

So, what have I learned, and what have been the other side-effects and repercussions of my battle with depression, and treatment?

Well, first of all, depression is not at all what I had imagined it would be. Comparatively rarely did I simply feel “down”.  The symptoms already described were the most tangible manifestation of the illness.

Secondly, I found that the body and mind’s instinct to “fight” the problem can be counter-productive. Impulsive reactions are often defensive and negative, possibly hastening and reinforcing the cycles of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviour. I know that it is easier said than done, but for many people the way forward is to take a step back, accept that there is a problem, seek help, analyse it, and only then begin to really tackle and confront it.

Although I would not wish depression on my worst enemy, for me there have been some unexpected but tangible benefits.

The treatments which I underwent, and the shifts in behaviour and thinking which they precipitated, have caused changes in me as a person. It is as if in banishing negative thoughts from my mind, many old pre-conceptions and prejudices have also disappeared, endowing me with a clarity and openness of thought which I have never previously possessed. Over the last year I have done more profound thinking than at any stage in my life, and I am now capable of tackling issues more logically and fearlessly than before. I have found this to be a healthy and at times exhilarating sensation!

For me, depression has been a traumatic and life-changing episode, from which I continue to learn.

Above all, my advice would be to get help, and if possible adopt a constructive approach to your treatment. Many people do recover from depression, and often emerge at the other end as better, more tolerant individuals.


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!