Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Pop Music

Just recently I got a bee in my bonnet.  This was prompted by something which I picked up when studying the story of the early days of Abba.
There is disposable, inane pop music, and then there is polished, exhilarating and life-affirming pop music. The Swedish foursome were consummate purveyors of music in the latter category. However, many of those who espoused the cause of "serious" music, both within Sweden and without, displayed a kind of sneering mockery and disdain. It seems that their primary objections were the commercial nature of the group's releases, which were considered the antithesis of what music should represent, and the absence of overt "political" content or social commentary. By all accounts, many of these observers cling to their outlook three or four decades on.
The last time I checked, nobody forces anybody, least of all the pundits, to listen to anything. In addition, it is not a pre-requisite of "worthy" music that it should advocate global revolution. Pop music for decades has helped to elevate, if intermittently, the lives of countless "ordinary" people above drudgery and the mundane, by creating escapism, and those special transcendent moments. Don't try to tell me that such things are devoid of meaning or value.  People who issue a blanket condemnation of "pop" music on spurious philosophical grounds probably need to get a life.  You never know, they might just smile or laugh occasionally as a result.
I love "serious" music (classical, prog-rock, singer-songwriters etc) as much as anyone, and my own political views have moved leftwards in recent times. However, I also know the thrill of listening to a beautifully crafted and thrilling pop record. It is possible to have a foot in both camps, without being some kind of reactionary traitor. Those who see everything in "political" terms reveal their insecurity. They bemoan "straight society", but who is really "uptight" and "repressed"?
Some people would do well to be honest with themselves, swallow their pride and forget their self-image for a few moments. Light relief might just do them some good....

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Siddhartha - Hermann Hesse

About three years ago, not long after being treated for depression, I read Hermann Hesse's novel "Siddhartha", and it had a profound effect upon me. The events and philosophies detailed in the book gave me hope and encouragement, and reminded me that the world, and this life, were still beautiful and precious. Just recently I re-read "Siddhartha", as part of a tentative effort to once again "reboot" my life.

In brief, the novel follows the eponymous character on a journey of self-discovery and spiritual exploration. He craves enlightenment, but comes to recognise that this cannot be attained via the teachings of others. It has to come from within, and we must find our own path, our own truths, and that the voices come from within - the "bird in the breast".
It is not difficult to appreciate why "Siddhartha" so captured the imagination of counter-cultural circles on both sides of the Atlantic in the decades which followed World War Two. Its message of liberation from doctrine, tradition and hierarchy, of arriving "there" by ourselves, was warmly embraced by a ready audience.
The renunciation of material possessions was of course also a favoured theme of the Sixties, but Siddhartha's quest does not perhaps follow the totally ascetic and self-denying course which some might expect (and/or hope). It seems he took the view that one needs to be immersed in "real life" to see the emptiness of some parts of it. All part of the process of conquering the "self"?
It was noticeable how some aspects of the story assumed greater prominence for me just recently, and which did not loom as large when I first read "Siddhartha".  One is the implication that more knowledge or learning can be imparted in one kiss or physical embrace than by slavishly studying some exalted text or tome. Events in my own personal life since 2011 have made me more receptive and empathetic to such things.
Also, Hesse mentions that a "game" can only last so long before it becomes stale and repetitive. We must have a goal, a path, a greater aim. As in all things, we need a balance, between keeping grounded and striving for a higher fulfilment.. This is something that many people, myself included, often overlook to our detriment.
Siddhartha's dreams are occasionally enlisted to convey symbolism, often to signpost the next stage in his odyssey. As in many of his stories, Hesse's language is organic, vivid but economical, evoking the vitality and the essence of life. These ingredients all help to make his work so enchanting and inspiring.
As with the many Hesse works which draw inspiration from Eastern philosophies, the themes of renewal, rebirth, cycles, the transient nature of things, and the essential harmony or "one-ness" of life and nature feature prominently here, as does a simple but profound love of all things.
Towards the end, as Siddhartha renews acquaintance with the ferryman, the river is used as a metaphor for life, being, "the moment", one's path, destiny, however we choose to interpret them. The arrival of Siddhartha's son is symbolic; the father's search coming to an end, and the offspring beginning his.
Some other important nuggets which I drew concerned the nature of time, the removal of fear and the limitations of words in expressing and explaining truth and wisdom. In time, Siddhartha came to terms with ordinary people, their preoccupations and their loves. This for me was one of the most important sub-plots, and consistent with the "unexpected" character of the journey.
Interestingly, the "lesson" which resonated with me was - don't try too hard, or you may miss something which is right in front of you.  Instead, listen and be receptive....
"Siddhartha" did not have quite the same emotional impact on me this time around.  This is not surprising, since it was not new to me, and I am a different person now from the one who was engrossed by it three or four years ago. However, I still found it invigorating and instructive.  Recommended reading for anyone.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Music From Big Pink - The Band - album review

There are relatively few rock albums which can be said to have heralded a shift in the prevailing direction of rock music, but The Band's Music From Big Pink, released in 1968, is one of those. Its honesty and earthiness went against the trends of the time, and persuaded listeners and fellow musicians alike that there was another way.  It also came to epitomize the notion of "Americana", in rock music terms anyway.
In truth, the true "Band" sound did not fully emerge until 1969's eponymous second album, but Music From Big Pink had something approaching a seismic impact. The likes of Eric Clapton and George Harrison were enraptured, not just by the musical content, but also by the ethos and the modus operandi which underpinned it. There was no suggestion of The Band confronting the existing music scene ; they just played what came from their hearts and souls.

In asserting that the group's signature style was not fully shaped on the debut effort, we are acknowledging that they had only just struck out on their own, having spent much of the previous decade backing other people, most famously Bob Dylan of course. The Dylan/Basement Tapes influence is still keenly felt, with three of the songs originating from that era. In addition, Robbie Robertson did not yet dominate the songwriting stakes as he did on the "brown album" the following year. This renders the album less cohesive than its successor.

It is one of the numbers co-written by Bob Dylan, "Tears Of Rage", which opens the record, and for me it is one of the highlights. The boys make the track their own, and Richard Manuel's superb vocal brings out the full poignancy of the lyrics. As so often with The Band, the keyboards are much to the fore, but all the band members contribute in creating a most engrossing rendition. This is also an early taste of the distinctive vocal harmonies which would help to make The Band's music so captivating. Three distinct voices (Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko), blending and weaving together in a kind of ragged glory.  Few groups could boast a performance as confident and affecting as this to open their debut album.

This vocal interplay plays a prominent role in "To Kingdom Come", especially in the choruses. This track exudes the R&B-influenced ruggedness which would come to characterize much of the Band's best output in the years which followed.

Although The Band were often cited as an antidote to psychedelic music and its excesses and pretensions, they came perilously close here to making a psychedelic song, in the form of "In A Station". The mildly ethereal keyboard and guitar sounds, together with some of the lyrics, certainly point in that direction. However, these factors are counter-balanced by the homeliness and finesse typical of the group.

I always feel that "Caledonia Mission" is a Band song par excellence, with its blend of country/folk flavours with R&B funkiness, and its enigmatic but compelling lyrics. Perhaps Rick Danko's most impressive lead vocal performance with The Band.

"The Weight" is possibly the group's most famous song, and it has an enduring appeal, part of which is in interpreting the biblical and other imagery.  I think that many people imagine that the song is espousing the sense of community which is often associated with the group's music, but it seems that it was intended to be somewhat more complicated than that. What I really like is the simplicity of the arrangement, with the platform of acoustic guitar, drums and bass embellished by Garth Hudson's engaging piano flourishes. The interest is heightened by the switching of lead vocals between the three primary singers.

"We Can Talk" is a delight, from the sumptuous organ-driven introduction, to the amusing lyrics, to the satisfying drum sound (a feature of the whole album, incidentally).  Those inimitable vocal harmonies are more rugged and likeable here than ever, and the soulful "middle-eight" section still surprises and pleases after repeated listens.

"Long Black Veil" and "This Wheel's On Fire" are probably the two weakest cuts on the record. The former, although lyrically interesting, comes out as ponderous and uninspired. "This Wheel's On Fire" has never really grabbed me as a song, and the Band's interpretation is not a patch on their own versions of "Tears Of Rage" and "I Shall Be Released".

There is a case for saying that "Big Pink" is more outright soulful and permeated with rhythm and blues than the follow-up, and "Chest Fever" is a prime example of this, although there is a strong dose of Johann Sebastian Bach (the organ sounds) as well as Sam and Dave!  The snare drum is once again a feature, and this recording contains some of Robbie Robertson's most effective and dextrous guitar work.

The next track, "Lonesome Suzie" can almost pass the listener by unless close attention is paid. Richard Manuel excels here, on his own composition, and his fragile and expressive vocal is complemented by delicate keyboard and guitar parts. The organ is a reminder of the pivotal role played by Garth Hudson, and his versatility, in the potency and vitality of The Band's music.

Although Music From Big Pink did not attain massive commercial success, it still endures as one of rock music's most important records. It has a pull subtly different from the sophomore release which followed. It sounds as fresh and as "musical" now as it must have done way back in the late 1960s.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Queen II (the second album) - review

Following the recent release of "Let Me In Your Heart Again", I have been listening to Queen intensively, and realised that I had not committed my thoughts on their second album to blog.
I have grown to see "Queen II" as a reaction to the circumstances under which the debut record was pieced together, and it is important to bear that in mind when placing it in the context of their discography. The first album was quite a frustrating affair, and the follow-up reflects the relief of a group given a bit more freedom and time. The entire "package", right down to the sleeve and the artwork, is more coherent and focussed.
It is often remarked that the most distinguishing feature of Queen's music is the multi-layered sound. I would contend that this is an over-simplification; to me, the "trademark" multi-tracking is less important than the individual instrumental and vocal sounds, and the keys in which many of the songs are written. I am insufficiently qualified to comment with great authority on the latter, but suffice to say that, in contrast to some people, I don't regard "Queen II" as the quintessential Queen album. It has a distinctive sound and feel of its own, more ethereal and elaborate in nature than the majority of their other work.
Going back to the peculiar circumstances under which the album was recorded, it has always seemed to me that the band compensated for the lack of time and continuity allowed on their first effort, and went all-out to produce an extravagant LP, getting much of the multi-tracking thing out of their collective systems In Roy Thomas Baker and Robin Cable, they had producers who were only too willing and able to help them accomplish this. The juxtaposition of band and producers' intent helped to bring about the finished product. The assertion that this record signified a "purging" is lent credence by the more stripped down and succinct musical statements which pervaded the next album "Sheer Heart Attack".
The "Side White/Side Black" idea on the original vinyl LP was another case of Queen flirting with the notion of concept albums without ever fully committing themselves to it.  It is an area of Queen's potential, like film soundtrack music, which they never fully explored. That said, the "white/black" theme helps to imbue the album with a kind of unity, the sort based on "duality"?
The songwriting duties continue to be dominated by Freddie Mercury and Brian May, although Roger Taylor chips in with "Loser In The End" (which admittedly is a touch out of place here).  Freddie's later signature style is continuing to evolve, whilst Brian is still exploring what on the surface appear to be philosophical and quasi-mystical themes.

A major pointer to the future was in the adroit use of "light and shade" - moments of chaos and intensity, followed by passages of delicacy and subtlety.  This is most evident on "Father To Son" and "March of The Black Queen".  The former betrays influences, both sonically and melodically, which are hardly difficult to discern, but both songs show the band learning how to construct music combining complexity with affecting hooks and chord changes.

"White Queen (As It Began)" has an eerie and esoteric flavour, accentuated by the acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar parts and the vocal "choir".  Although the song arguably worked better in the concert setting, the studio original has a charm all of its own. "Someday One Day" is another one of Brian May's poignant and reflective acoustic folk-inflected compositions, which he continued to contribute to the Queen canon until the early 1980s.

The "Freddie half" of "Queen II" commences with "Ogre Battle", a track which manages to combine real incisiveness and bite with an affecting melodic base. The two verses in the early stages are classic Queen. As with several other numbers on this record, there is a slightly nebulous middle section, which builds up tension for the final phase of the song. Some pleasing guitar riffery from Mr May here, too.

"The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke" is an intricate and appealing piece of work, with fine harmony vocals and the nice touch of the harpsichord.  The lyrics were seemingly inspired by a painting which Freddie saw, but the imagery is vaguely in keeping with the content of other songs at this stage of the group's career.  This song does not appear to have been played live that often, presumably because of its demanding technical nature, but evidently the boys made a fine job of it when they did.

"Nevermore" is a stylish vignette, containing those dreamy vocal textures which, for me anyway, scream "1974!". The piano also sounds great on this song. "Funny How Love Is" sounds a touch like a Phil Spector pastiche, perhaps hinting that Queen owed a debt to this other side of the pop music tradition, in addition to the "usual" influences (Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles etc). The song possibly stretches the boundaries of multi-tracking and overdubbing more than any other track on the album.

Although "Seven Seas of Rhye" was Queen's first hit single in many territories, in the context of this album it feels almost like an afterthought. I must admit that I have never particularly warmed to the track, for reasons which I find difficult to pin down. Although exhibiting some of the traits which permeate the whole set, the song is a little uninspired compared with what went before. 

"Queen II" is an uncompromising album in some ways, embracing excess and charm is equal measure, and it has inspired and influenced some unlikely people down the years. This wasn't the "finished article", as far as the definitive "Queen sound" was concerned, as there was some additional polishing and fine-tuning still to take place.  However, as both a staging post, and as a fine rock album in its own right, it is well worth a listen.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Peacemakers - Margaret MacMillan

After a gap of two or three years, I recently revisited this book about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Not only did it turn out to have fewer pages than I remembered, but it is also very wide-ranging, embracing the discussions concerning the Balkans, the Middle East and Asia as well as the "core" European concerns.
The tone is generally entertaining and breezy. It was a good idea to set the scene with character sketches of the main protagonists - Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George. Indeed these pen portraits, extending to various politicians, diplomats and hangers-on, are one of the most likeable aspects of "Peacemakers". They are supported by passages conveying the "culture" of the conference, and the social activities which went on.
One of the things which struck me was that the "Big Three" were all nominally of a similar political creed - liberals. This, however, did not prevent numerous tensions, antagonisms and disagreements. All were acutely aware that, in addition to forging what they saw as a new international order, they were playing to their respective domestic political and public galleries. The two were not always wholly compatible. Short-term feelings of revenge or schadenfreude might be scant consolation for bitterness and complications stored up for future years.
It was sad to be reminded of the attitudes which still prevailed in 1919 towards people from Asia and Africa, even among self-proclaimed "liberals". This was especially visible in the dealings of the "powers" with Japan and China. At least the Americans occasionally delivered a subtle anti-colonialist dig at the British. Still, double-standards were evident throughout, in the approach of the British and the French. The writing was on the wall, but much British energy was still being expended in seeking to preserve the empire.  Should they have been looking more to the future?
This book also provides an intriguing window on attitudes to the Bolsheviks, in the wake of the Russian Revolution. As Wilson and Lloyd George correctly observed, it was injustice and cruelty which had given to rise to the revolution, but there was also much naivete and wishful thinking about what the Bolsheviks might turn out to represent.
Looking back, it also seems ridiculous for Allied governments to have been contemplating further military involvement in the internal affairs of Russia, after what the troops and civilians had just had to endure during World War One. No wonder there were mutinies and protests. Thank goodness that sanity prevailed before too much damage was done. Any further intervention might have been counter-productive, by spreading revolutionary ideas, and the muddled policies were probably a blessing in disguise. The ones who really benefited were the Soviets, who gleefully used the appearance of Western bullying for propaganda purposes.
How important was the Russia question in dictating how the conference proceeded?  The author rightly points out that the vexing social and economic pressures in Europe were largely independent from what was going on in the East. They would have existed regardless of the Russian Revolution.

The most troubling chapters of "Peacemakers" deal not with Germany, but with the debris of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The frustration of the three major powers over Italy's territorial demands and obstinacy is palpable. On the other hand, the conduct of the Allies concerning Turkey and its periphery seems like little more than shambolic. As mentioned above, the treatment of Japan and China was shabby, and the consequences for the West were arguably just as momentous as those stemming from decisions pertaining to Europe.

As this book went on, I began to lower my opinion of the pre-eminent statesmen (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George), for varying reasons. I suppose that whenever one probes deeply into the lives of prominent people, their negative traits and characteristics become more apparent, and some illusions are eroded.

One of the fascinating things about the conference was that it represented a change-over, or at least an attempt at one, from the old diplomacy to the new way of doing things.  Thus, countries felt they had to cloak unjust territorial or political demands in the clothes of the new order, citing dubious statistics and historical "facts" of questionable veracity.  Still, the disingenuous behaviour of some was hardly less admirable than the double-standards often displayed by the main powers, in seeking to perpetuate their colonial influence and strategic and economic advantages.

The Americans were quite justified in their exasperation at the "secret deals" made by their allies earlier in the war, and the way in which these complicated the post-war negotiations.  However, the thought occurs that they might have been on more solid ground if they had entered the conflict earlier. France and Britain were fighting for their lives before 1917, and in the real world, any sort of expedient or advantage must have seemed worthwhile.

The author makes some persuasive and well-balanced points in appraising the merits of the treaties and the effects of what occurred at the Conference. The Treaty of Versailles allowed Germans to perceive, rightly or wrongly, that it was unjust and humiliating, whilst at the same time its provisions and its implementation, did not do enough to avert future aggression. As MacMillan rightly says, though, the peacemakers could have done worse. They were not dealing with a simple, ideal or perfect world.  A lot of water had still to pass under the bridge during the inter-war years, and World War Two was by no means inevitable. That was how I interpreted her conclusions, anyway!
This is the sort of book which reminds me that much has changed in the past ninety-odd years, but also that much has remained the same.


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Let Me In Your Heart Again - Queen

It is always nice to receive a pleasant musical surprise, and the newly released Queen song "Let Me In Your Heart Again" is one of those. It is not a new song of course, but dates from 1983/84, and the recording sessions for the album "The Works", and it was subsequently recorded by Anita Dobson.

My first reaction, on hearing the track, was that this was a "Freddie song", so authoritative and natural are his vocals, but of course it was composed by Brian May. It sounds a little like one of the piano ballads which Freddie was so prolifically turning out during the 1980s, but it also has elements which are similar to "Hammer To Fall".

Perhaps one of the reasons why the song did not make the cut for "The Works" was that it in places it sounds a bit like both "Hammer To Fall" and "It's A Hard Life"?  On reflection, it is actually stronger than some of the material which did end up on the record, and it is surprising that it was not revisited for any of Queen's subsequent LPs. Then again, songs are sometimes viewed as ephemeral, and if they are not deemed appropriate for a particular moment in time, they are permanently discarded, no matter what their evident strengths. "Let Me In Your Heart Again" was just in the right place at the wrong time.

For me, Freddie's performance on the song is a minor revelation. He sounds very confident here, as if he instinctively knew how to approach each line and how to phrase each word. Each part of the number is sung slightly differently, and the second verse is delivered powerfully but not excessively. It is always nice to be reminded just what a versatile and talented singer he was, comfortable and adept with all manner of material.

Considering that this track originated in 1983/84, it is also mercifully largely free of 1980s production values, which tended to obscure the melodic qualities of songs during that era. If I have one gripe, it is that some of Brian's guitar flourishes are a little too ostentatious, and they could have been toned down marginally.

Overall though, a worthy addition to the Queen catalogue.


Friday, 7 November 2014

Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (If Not Us, Who)

I recently watched the 2011 German film Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (English: If Not Us, Who), directed by Andres Veiel. The movie is largely set in the 1960s, and tells the story of Bernward Vesper and Gudrun Ensslin. The two main roles are played by August Diehl and Lena Lauzemis. The template for the movie was a book by Gerd Koenen.

Although this picture was produced by different people, it can be see in some ways almost as a "prequel" to The Baader Meinhof Complex;Ensslin went on to co-found the Red Army Faction. There is some overlap in the period 1967-70. Wer Wenn Nicht Wir follows the young duo in their literary endeavours and political activities, and their struggle to come to terms with their country's immediate past.
This movie is less flashy and "Hollywood" than others of its type, and the visuals have a very agreeably dusty and bookish feel to them, being understated and restrained.  The dialogue concerning literature is cleverly played so as to gently propel and complement the narrative. Real archive footage is employed in places to instil the context of the times. There are some excellent performances, most notably from Diehl and Lauzemis in the leading two roles.
Rightly or wrongly, I saw the efforts of Vesper and Ensslin to establish themselves as publishers as symbolic of the wider effort of the younger generation to break free from the shackles of the past, whilst at the same time endeavouring to confront, and make some sense of, what had occurred two or three decades before. There are some powerful scenes with both sets of parents, and a revealing one with a landlady when the couple are viewing an apartment, where they were given to understand that "co-habiting" without being married was seen as some kind of heinous sin.  It is hard to believe that such attitudes were still prevalent in the 1960s, but it gives some idea of the tenor of the times.
The hardening of Gudrun Ensslin's outlook becomes evident only quite imperceptibly, as the personal and the political continue to inter-mingle, but the move to Berlin was clearly something of a watershed. Something of which this film also reminds us is that up until about 1967/68, even the political radicals still wore sober suits or pretty dresses!
Of course, the scenario changes after 2 June 1967, and the arrival of Andreas Baader on the scene. Now jeans, leather jackets and cool shades begin to proliferate. A word for Alexander Fehling and his performance as Baader. He manages to capture some of the directness and impudence which we have been told about. It was intriguing to hear the Baader character say that you won't change anything with books. What did Baader and his cohorts ultimately change though? Less than words and peaceful protest did, I would contend.
This is a "dramatization", but it seems to stick quite closely to what we know of the true story. The scenes surrounding notable events are quite measured and plausible. Thankfully, there is a relative absence of "crowd scenes", which never quite work out in any movie....
One of the most significant scenes in the whole picture for me was in the prison, where a female prison official seeks to reason with Gudrun Ensslin about the methods being employed. The official may have had a point, in referring to the lack of mass grassroots support as a major flaw. She also used the phrase "small steps in the lowlands" - better than attempting giant leaps which alienate everyone and achieve little?
All in all, a fine movie, well worth a viewing, and not just for those interested in the precise subject matter.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann - book review

After finishing "The Magic Mountain", I was sufficiently enthused to immediately seek out Thomas Mann's first novel, "Buddenbrooks", published in 1901.

"Buddenbrooks" chronicles the fortunes, and gradual decline, of an affluent north German merchant family, and its social circle, during the nineteenth century. This is set against the backdrop of social and political changes in Germany and the wider world. The socio-political stuff is not at the forefront of the narrative, but it does form part of the fabric of the story, and the effects of change are occasionally evident in the dialogue between characters and their attitudes towards their elders or contemporaries. Possibly the most overt manifestation is in the chapters which address the upheavals and ferment of 1848.

One thing which "Buddenbrooks" exudes is evidence of diligent research and a grasp of the world in which such a family existed. This was a multi-faceted world, and it was rarely simply a case of one generation, or one social class, being at odds with another. The notion that all groups were moving in certain directions, as part of some uniformly seismic shift,  is quietly dispelled here I think.

Often the outlook of individuals was determined largely by their upbringing, their associations and their obligations within an extended family. It was still a world of deference, where people tended to "know their place". Many had no incentive to be worldly-wise or enlightened, because they were insulated, reliant on others, or did not truly own themselves. It was often only the disturbance of the equilibrium by some extraneous jolt which upset this "comfort zone".

The thought passed through my mind that although the social conventions which prevailed in those days were stifling, they also ensured a kind of stability and security - provided you were born into the right measure of prosperity and influence. It must be borne in mind that not all people enjoyed the privileges and the relative certainty of outcome of the Buddenbrooks.

The pivotal characters for me in the novel are Tom (Thomas) and Tony (Antonie). Both are superbly rounded and convincing creations, full of contradictions, flawed but also admirable. Their experiences and viewpoints form the backbone of the story as they struggle, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds, to keep things together.

Some of Tom's reflections are quite revealing. He appears to recognise some of the anomalies and injustices of the world in which he operates, but either can not, or will not, bring himself to confront them, partly because of the underlying need to "keep up appearances". Difficult decisions were avoided because of the tethers of loyalty and obligation. Set against this landscape, perhaps things were always going to change slowly.

Another character who I found captivating was "Hanno", the son of Thomas Buddenbrook, who showed little interest in his father's world of commerce, and instead found refuge in music and the arts. This invokes the age-old examination of the tension between the "bohemian" outlook and the bourgeois existence. Countless authors have explored this area, but it never gets old or tired.

The chapter set in Hanno's school provides a window on some of the emergent trends as the nineteenth century wore on, with some young people unwilling to subscribe unquestioningly to the ways and the values of their elders. Insubordination had always been there in some form, but were the new ideas of that time just more coherent and potent?

The one character who I found curious was "Morten", with whom Antonie has some contact quite early on in the piece. I was expecting him to return in a major way at a later stage, but he didn't.  He had some profound things to say in his brief appearances. However, when I think about it, the fact that he was something of a "red herring" actually enriches the overall.

Even though this novel could be seen as somewhat downbeat, in that it deals largely with decay and misfortune, I found it uplifting and moving, in its celebration of human foibles, the richness of life and the stoicism and resilience of people. For all its depiction of momentous social change, it is also quite simply a magnificent piece of story-telling.

On my first reading, I did not fully take in the significance and relevance of the author's unusually diligent concentration on the personal appearance, characteristics and mien of many of the characters.  Much symbolism to be savoured there, methinks.  That calls for a second reading of "Buddenbrooks", then....

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Rising Sun - John Toland

For me, the Pacific theatre of World War Two holds a special fascination. Not only because of  certain peculiar strategic issues, but also because of the perceived cultural factors which contributed to the outbreak of hostilities and to how the campaign was conducted.
The period, and the Japanese empire of that time in general, are comprehensively chronicled in John Toland's epic "The Rising Sun". Here the story is told primarily, but not exclusively, from the Japanese perspective. For some unfathomable reason, I had imagined that this book commenced with the Pearl Harbour episode, but in fact the opening chapters are an illuminating and gripping look at the factors which triggered the conflicts in Asia and the Pacific, and the rebellion (s) by Army officers. 
People often assume that the Japanese conquests were motivated solely by blind nationalism and rapacious economic greed, but these pages stress that, at least in the beginning, the position was more complex. Japan suffered grievously in the wake of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and there was also revulsion about political corruption. It is often forgotten that some in the military and elsewhere saw Manchuria as a "new Jerusalem", where socialist ideas could be implemented, and then possibly transplanted to the homeland itself.
The book also amply illustrates how Japan's clock was set ticking once the oil embargo was imposed in the summer of 1941, and how the mixed messages emanating from both sides helped to breed mistrust. Were Japanese officials simply trapped by encroaching economic woes and also by fear of a revolt by sections of the Army, and did the Americans do all that they could have done?
There is an extended description of Pearl Harbour, largely from the point of view of individuals. The unpreparedness of the Allies in the face of the Japanese onslaught is sobering to be reminded of. The horrors of the Philippines campaign are afforded stark attention, with unflinching detail of the hardships inflicted on Allied troops, and the agonizing over the decision to surrender. The author does mention that some Japanese officers repudiated the harsh methods employed by their colleagues.
The sections dealing with the Battle of Midway really bring across what a psychological turning point this event was, because of the dent which was delivered to Japanese confidence, and the knowledge that the material advantage of the US and its allies was now likely to prove decisive.  The harsh reality was that perceived spiritual virtues would largely be powerless to sway things.
Throughout "The Rising Sun", Toland looks at the broader question of Asian self-determination, and Japan's efforts to harness these energies.  The condescending attitude of many in the West to the Asian peoples is also clear, and one is left wondering whether the Japanese might have had more success if they had adopted a different attitude to the populace in the territories which they occupied. As with the proclaimed socialistic sentiment, it is a moot point whether the rhetoric about fighting colonialism was a ploy to seduce and entice the people of Asia. Perhaps some were more sincere than others in adhering to these views.
In addition to the documenting of the military events, and the first-hand accounts, there is some fascinating coverage of the big wartime conferences attended by the major leaders, and some amusing anecdotes concerning the dialogue between Stalin and Churchill in particular.
The thing which never ceases to amaze, and depress, me when reading military histories is the petty wrangling between commanders, and the egotism on show. It seems absurd and bizarre that professional self-interest and vanity were allowed to interfere with the overriding objectives, but that is human nature, I guess. Perhaps such things are less easy to understand from the vantage point of seven decades later. How many lives were lost because of compromise decisions, effected to smooth over ruffled feathers?
It was interesting to read, towards the end of the story, examples of Japanese soldiers questioning the ethos which guided the nation and its military, and the self-sacrifice which was expected. This belies the conventional "wisdom", and is in keeping with the tendency of this book to pose some awkward questions about both sides who were engaged in the struggle.
Needless to say, the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are given due prominence. The stories from the cities are harrowing, and should trouble the conscience of anyone who blithely and complacently states unquestioningly that the attacks were necessary or unavoidable.
I must admit that reading this book again has affected me quite deeply, in its portrayal of the futility and cruelty of war, and the intransigence and callousness of  some of those who wield power.  A thought-provoking and rewarding read.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Children Of The Revolution

After much vacillation, I recently got around to watching the 2010 documentary film "Children Of The Revolution", produced and directed by Shane O'Sullivan. It explores the lives of two famous political militants, Ulrike Meinhof and Fusako Shigenobu, through the eyes and experiences of their respective daughters, Bettina Rohl and Mei (or May) Shigenobu.

The film is made up of interviews with the two daughters, together with archive material and also segments recorded in the twenty-first century. There is excellent use of archive footage and photographs, some of which I had not seen before.

The film alternates between the two case studies, but is held together by common denominators such as the Palestine question and the concept of global revolution. Crisp editing and a stylish flow ensure that it remains generally cohesive, and successfully holds the interest and the attention.

The Japanese angle is fascinating, and of course this area is less well known to Western eyes and ears, but the thing which really stood out for me about this documentary was the perspective of Bettina Rohl. Her comments, and those of others in the film, provide some new insight into Ulrike Meinhof''s life and character.  Myths are dispelled, and much of the romanticism which surrounds the urban guerrillas of that era is put in its true light.

The film addresses the question of how Meinhof's personality and outlook may have altered over time.  Whether this came from within, or was prompted by some of her associations, is left somewhat open to question, but Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin are portrayed in a less than flattering light. Indeed, the bleak and blinkered vision of the Red Army Faction leaders is underlined once again.

Both of the daughters on which the film focuses come across as well-balanced and well-adjusted people, despite, or maybe because of, their "unconventional" upbringing and background. Their contributions are both candid and enlightening.

Overall, this is quite an absorbing and thoughtful documentary. It does not just re-hash old material and theories, but looks at a contentious topic from an interesting and imaginative angle. It is well worth watching.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a challenging but highly stimulating and diverting read.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Marquee Moon - Television - album review

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

Life's Soundtrack

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, 6 September 2014


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Holger Meins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?