Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Open Society and Its Enemies - Volume One - The Spell of Plato - Karl Popper

I have recently discovered my enthusiasm for reading about political philosophy and theory.  One book which I have just finished is the first volume of Karl Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies", subtitled "The Spell of Plato".

This volume, written during the Second World War,  amounts to a lucid and well argued defence of democracy and individualism, and a critique of authoritarian and totalitarian approaches, with reference to the teachings of Plato and his ilk.  Popper looks at topics such as tribalism, historicism, social engineering and the notion of the "philosopher-king". There is also some analysis of the extent to which Plato's outpourings were determined by the social changes which occurred around his own time.

Although this book was originally published in the 1940s, much of its content is as relevant now as it ever was. It could serve as a handy refresher for jaded minds.

I will blog more thoughts when I have finished reading the second volume!

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Rush (2013 movie) - DVD review

First of all, a confession. I did not see Ron Howard's  "Rush" when it was released in the cinemas. I fully intended to, but my September diary ended up being rather preoccupied with more pressing concerns. The movie's DVD release enabled me to catch up, and to commit these thoughts in blog form...

As a confirmed devotee of 1970s Formula 1, and something of an anorak on the subject, I resolved to put aside my reservations about the historical accuracy of the movie, and appraise it on its quality in artistic and technical terms. So within these parameters, what of "Rush"?

In short, the movie follows the fortunes of 1970s Grand Prix drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, concentrating on their duel for the 1976 world title. What struck me about the film straight away was the almost semi-documentary flavour to it. The opening scene, set at the Nurburgring, serves as good exposition. This is accompanied by some rather hackneyed pseudo-philosophizing, of the type which has been obligatory in all racing movies since time immemorial.

As expected, the production values are high, although the computer-assisted trickery does not obscure the story-telling. Indeed, the racing scenes, although dramatic and at times striking, were almost incidental to me. I was much more interested in the exploration of the human dimensions of the tale, which after the shaky beginning are told in quite a refreshing and unpretentious way.

Clips and previews had conditioned my expectations regarding the performances of the main actors. Daniel Bruhl is indeed excellent as Lauda, and becomes more convincing as the story unfolds, really coming into his own after the Nurburgring 1976 accident.  Lauda's allegedly prickly and abrasive nature is played up for all it is worth, as is the playboy, non-conformist image of Hunt. Chris Hemsworth's performance as the latter came as a pleasant surprise, and he also manages to capture some of James' more laconic side.

The supposed eccentricities and foibles of every character, including team personnel, are magnified and accentuated, and it seems that the producers felt the need to pack in every known and recorded anecdote and incident involving the two men. Whilst watching, I almost felt the silent presence of a researcher ticking boxes on a "checklist" of items to include in the script. So yes, the "chapters" and content are composites of various things which did occur, many in different contexts and timescales, compressed for dramatic effect. What this all shows is that regardless of how things are presented, Hunt and Lauda, and indeed the era which they lived in, are simply splendid "raw material" for film-makers.

The Hunt-Lauda relationship depicted here is at variance with the generally accepted version, but as the narrative moves on, the dialogue becomes more incisive and cerebral, and feels less forced. The scenes sometimes feel short and staccato, but this is often the case with "biopics", where lots of information has to be included in different settings within a specified time.

The film manages to capture an appealing 1970s European/transatlantic aesthetic, invoking the music, fashions and social trends of the time, but not to excess. The more informal, less regimented atmosphere is well projected, even if the recreations of haircuts and clothes are not always totally on the mark....

I found the action sequences a mixed bag.  Exciting yes, but often looking a little contrived and clinical, even if a 1970s Grand Prix is always a fine sight to behold. The greatest impact is attained via the arty "in helmet" shots and those of suspension parts, tyres and steering wheels. They help to get across the sheer primal mechanical vigour of those cars.

"Rush" moves up a notch or two with the run-up to the 1976 season. The pace quickens, and things become more intense.  This really kicks in with the demise of the Hesketh team, and Hunt's anguish and uncertainty before the McLaren drive becomes available. The 1976 race scenes make good use of the camerawork and effects, helping to capture and encapsulate the pressures and the claustrophobia, as well as the gladiatorial nature of the sport.

The centerpiece of the movie, unsurprisingly, is the '76 German Grand Prix and its aftermath. An ominous and dark atmosphere of foreboding is skilfully created.  The Lauda crash is harrowingly but effectively done, evoking its true horror. The hospital sequences are moving without being mawkish, and are cleverly interspersed with clips of the F1 season continuing to progress in the Austrian's absence.  Daniel Bruhl truly shines in this phase, ably portraying the character's bravery and single-mindedness. One somewhat jarring note is struck by the scene at Monza involving Hunt and an intrusive journalist.

Needless to day, the season finale at Fuji is given the full treatment. Although drenched with CGI, the drama, emotion and confusion are recorded with some clarity.

Overall, I think that "Rush", while being glossy and "Hollywood" up to a point, also brings out the then still grimy world  of racing, that of the nuts and bolts and the oily rags. On its own terms, good quality entertainment, if hardly a cinematic masterpiece. In the end, much of the rumination and verbal sparring between James and Niki is solid and soundly judged. The final main scene, set in Bologna, is a good way to go out - dignified and reflective.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Stockholm 75

Of the documentary films which I have watched in recent times, one of the most interesting was "Stockholm 75", which was originally released in 2003, I believe. Directed by David Aronowitsch, it tells the story of Karl-Heinz Dellwo, a member of the Red Army Faction urban guerrilla group, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the 1975 siege of the West German embassy in Stockholm.

In the film, Dellwo explains his motivations for joining the armed struggle, and his thoughts and reflections from the perspective of the 21st century.  He also revisits the scene of the Stockholm siege and the prison where he was incarcerated, and discusses his experiences during a trip to see relatives. On the whole in the film Dellwo comes across as articulate, honest and realistic. Still clear in some of his long-held beliefs, but aware of where he and his colleagues may have gone wrong, and how his actions will continue to affect his life.

Dellwo gives his own account of how the Stockholm embassy siege proceeded, and offers his opinions as to the reasons for its outcome, and the negotiation stances adopted by the governments in both Bonn and Stockholm. He admits that it was a political and moral error to undertake the action.

There is widespread use of archive footage shot both during the siege, and in its aftermath. We are also shown clips from an interview which Dellwo and others gave while they were in prison.

The film's short duration (it lasts less than one hour) helps to give it real punch and impact. The interview segments are kept short and to the point.

A frank and well produced look at a difficult topic, which like any good documentary, will encourage the viewer to think more deeply about the issues tackled and research things further.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Computing Back Then

Over the past day or two, I have been watching a few documentaries pertaining to "old school" computing, and it got me thinking about the nature of my own computing experiences in far off days.

My computing days began, as for so many others of my age, with the home computer boom of the early 1980s. Up until 1982/83, I had no real idea that "ordinary people" had computers in their own homes. My eyes were opened after seeing a friend using his Sinclair ZX81 (called a Timex in the USA, I believe?). At Christmas 1983, after the usual "hard sell" to my mother, extolling the "educational benefits" to be derived, I received my first computer, the iconic ZX Spectrum.

The computers of that era were hugely limited and primitive by today's standards, but they had a magic and a fallibility that was strangely endearing, and a stark contrast to today's "templated" world.  The technical limitations were part of the magic. There was no social element to the 1980s boom, from my perspective. The only "networking" was a bit of desultory schoolyard chatter about the machines and games themselves.

As with other youth sub-cultures,  in the early to mid 1980s teenagers split into factions, owing their allegiance to a particular computer, and vehemently defending them against the contempt of others. As a Spectrum owner, the main "rival" groups were those people who favoured either the Commodore 64 or the BBC Micro.

C64 users tended to denigrate us because of the "superior" specification of their machine. It even had a proper keyboard! The BBC clique, on the other hand,  evinced a different kind of "superiority", based on the notion that the Micro was more suited to intellectual and erudite pursuits, unsullied by what they viewed as our juvenile inclinations. This "tribalism" seems foolish and petty now, although I guess it was innocuous enough when pursued by adolescents. I wish the same could be said about similar antagonisms practised in the 21st century by "grown ups"...

By about 1985/86, the appeal of computers was beginning to diminish, as other distractions intervened. My computer was consigned to a dusty corner, and fell into disuse, looking increasingly forlorn. I can't even precisely recall what became of it. It must have fall victim to some "spring cleaning" in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Apart from using PCs at work, my only contact with the IT world came with a brief flirtation with the idea of buying an Amiga...

It was only eight or nine years ago that I got another computer, and this was only because it was virtually given to me by a relative. Yes, the internet is wonderful, and I couldn't live without it, but I still look back with fondness and nostalgia at those far off days of miniscule memory, erratic power supply units and programs loaded by cassette....

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Turbo times

Only weeks now remain before the new Grand Prix season commences in Melbourne, Australia, and the teams are going through the familiar rituals of unveiling their new cars, to be followed by testing. This year there is even more interest and conjecture than usual, as the engine regulations are undergoing a transformation. Normally aspirated V8s are out, to be replaced by 1.6 litre V6 turbo units.  All this talk of turbos reminds me of F1's previous experience with this form of forced induction motor, from 1977 to 1988.

I first became really interested in racing just as the turbos were beginning to make their presence felt. This was in 1981, when only Ferrari,Renault and Toleman were turbocharged, the French company having pioneered the "innovation" as far back as 1977. I remember that they were still regarded very much as a curiosity, and the Renaults in particular were plagued with poor reliability, although when they kept running long enough they demonstrated that they were the future.  The only question was precisely when that "future" would arrive, and when they would fully supplant the venerable Cosworth DFV.

The 1982 season was very much a transitional one in terms of the balance of power between engine philosophies. Ferrari in particular were slowly mastering reliability and driveability issues, and if Didier Pironi had not suffered grievous injuries at Hockenheim, it is probable that he would have become the first driver to win the title in a turbocharged car. In the event, the driver's championship was once again decided between men driving "atmo"-propelled vehicles.

By 1983, the pendulum had tilted decisively, and the spoils at most races were divided up between Ferrari, Renault and Brabham.  Even now, though, a Cosworth-powered car piloted by a particularly brave driver, on a circuit or in conditions which suited the unit's characteristics, could still prevail. Examples of this were Keke Rosberg at Monaco and John Watson at Long Beach. By this stage, however, even the Williams and McLaren teams had seen the writing on the wall, and had turbo projects in the pipeline.  I recall 1983 as the first real "turbo season", and it kind of passed me by, probably because the imminent demise of the DFV induced in me a form of disorientation. I was probably not the only one who was not yet totally prepared for this brave new world.

So was racing "better" when all or most of the field was turbo-equipped?  Well, it was certainly exciting at times, especially in qualifying around the mid-80s when some teams had in excess of 1000 bhp at their diisposal. Many still wax lyrical about Ayrton Senna's exploits in the Lotus Renaults, and of course there was Rosberg's 160mph lap at Silverstone in '85.  The early laps of some races, at least in 1982 and 1983, before fuel restrictions were introduced, were spectacular and frenetic, with the turbo runners seemingly intent on racing each other to destruction. Monza in 1982 was typical of this trend.

I know that several prominent journalists saw the turbo era of the 80s as one of the high points of the sport's history, because of the distilled, almost primeval drama which the technical developments encouraged, in qualifying most of all. Some offered the opinion that those cars were driven by "real men", and that they rewarded and magnified both bravery and finesse.However, there is also an argument for saying that the massive horsepower and performance differentials made it impossible to appraise driver capabilities, a perilous and unenviable task at the best of times.

As with much nostalgia, we tend to filter out the less agreeable aspects from our memories. In the 1984-86 period, the fuel rules turned some races into economy runs, and raised the spectre of cars running out of fuel in the closing stages of races. It was remarked at the time that qualifying, on stratospheric boost, bore little relation to the race, and was almost a separate event. It is significant that Alain Prost was the pre-eminent figure in mid-1980s F1, being able to juggle the vagaries of tyre wear, fuel consumption and strategy.

By 1986, Honda had begun to master the fuel consumption problems, and dominated the sport for the next two seasons, which contained much dreary and processional racing, as few could hope to match Honda's overall package for speed and reliability. By now, turbos had lost their way, the technology was becoming stale, and Grand Prix racing was looking a little tattered around the edges, with separate classes introduced for normally aspirated contenders, and some participants may have been looking further ahead, anticipating the forthcoming change in the engine regulations. Hence the utter McLaren domination of 1988, as the other manufacturers ceased developing their soon-to-be-redundant turbo engines.

Looking back, turbos, with their aura of extravagance and expense, seemed suited to the glitzy and thrusting 80s, and they broadly corresponded in direction and ethos with trends in other forms of motor sport at the time. The world has changed, though, and the rationale behind the reintroduction of turbos for 2014 is very different to that which triggered their heyday three decades ago.

It remains to be see what effect the 2014-generation turbos will have on the direction of the sport.  I somehow doubt that the raw, chilling and exhilarating spectacle of 1985/86 will return, but I remain cautiously optimistic that they will engender both some renewed technical interest and freshness, and a shake-up, however temporary, in the competitive order of things.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Pet Sounds - The Beach Boys - album review

Such an aura surrounds this album that on initial listenings the primary reaction can be one of disappointment or anti-climax. However, this is an album which demands repeated attention before the melodies and messages seep into the psyche. The process took a little while for me. I, like countless millions of others, was raised on the Beach Boys' naive but infectious hits of the earlier years. Undeveloped or immature musical antennae were ill-equipped to discern the musical signposts which pointed the way towards the glories of "Pet Sounds".

As time passes, the thing which occurs more and more to me about "Pet Sounds" is its overall cohesiveness, in musical and spiritual terms. This sets it apart from the Beach Boys' previous output, and that of many other people for that matter. The backing does not sound like it was created using conventional musical instruments, but by some otherworldly implements. This factor, and the conceptual unity of the subject matter, permit the songs to blend together seamlessly and naturally. The only blemish in this happy scenario is "Sloop John B", which comes perilously close to marring the whole effect....

Was this a Brian Wilson solo project in all but name? Well, he had been exerting greater artistic pre-eminence and control for a couple of years prior to these sessions, and it is fair to say that most of the other Beach Boys were almost reduced to cameo roles, Carl Wilson's glorious vocal on "God Only Knows" being one of these. Brian appears to have handled much of the singing on the album himself, and block harmonies are not as abundant as elsewhere in the Beach Boys canon. As had been the trend, top session musicians provided the bulk of the instrumental prowess.  In this respect, the approach was quite uncompromising, although the end result would seem to justify the thoroughness and care lavished on the production.

"Pet Sounds" shines like a beacon because of its distinctive character and sound when set against the other trend-setting and groundbreaking rock and pop releases of that period, including those by the Beatles and Bob Dylan. "Pet Sounds" almost existed in isolation, on the surface not influenced by its immediate contemporaries and "rivals". Conversely, it served as a shock or wake-up call to others, notably Paul McCartney.

It is possible to contend that "Pet Sounds" was an alternative way of viewing what was "going on" in the mid-Sixties, or maybe a slightly different way of interpreting or channeling the spirit of the era. Others had hinted at similar preoccupations, but this was presented as a fully-formed creation.

"Pet Sounds" has the same kind of immersiveness and all-encompassing engagement more normally associated with classical music. It appeals to the senses in a manner more subtle and surreptitious than most "rock" music. For all that, it is still replete with hooks and pop sensibility. In a sense, the voices and instruments are indivisible and indistinguishable from each other, all equally important in setting and expressing the emotions . One greater "mood piece", and a concept album before such a notion was fashionable.

The journey commences with something adhering to the concept, but which is also accessible - "Wouldn't It Be Nice".  The work is anchored and signposted with such gems as "God Only Knows" and "Caroline, No". For me though the tracks which most acutely exemplify the spirit of the album are the eerie instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile" and "Dont Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).

Lest anyone form the idea that this is all sentimental candyfloss , there is also much angst and soul-searching in there ("I Just Wasn't Made For These Times", "I Know There's An Answer").  Brian Wilson famously dubbed "Pet Sounds" a "teenage symphony to God", and the record does depict and explore a range of emotions encountered by young people, but not exclusively by young people;the themes are universal.

Even allowing for its mystique and reputation, I imagine that "Pet Sounds" still confuses people when they first hear it, because it is so distinctive. If it wasn't as socially significant as other records of its time, then as an artistic achievement it still stands up today.  In a strange way, it both operates as a monument to its time, and exists outside the strait-jacket of being categorized as "sixties", because of its dreamy and ethereal flavour and its sonic composition. Even the sleeve photograph, which has come in for much ridicule, somehow adds to the effect. By 1966, artists were expected to come up with outlandish or esoteric cover art. On "Pet Sounds", the words and music say all that needs to be said....

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Some Girls - The Rolling Stones - album review

Much misty-eyed mythology surrounds the recordings which the Rolling Stones made during the period 1968-72, and indeed those prior to that, and it is commonly asserted that much of the band's existence since then has been spent living off past glories, and that their albums have often been made on auto-pilot. However, the 1978 record "Some Girls" emphatically gives the lie to this view, and stands comparison in its own way with anything in the Stones' catalogue.

There were numerous reasons for this sudden re-invigoration.  Personal problems, creative inertia and a changing musical landscape appeared to be conspiring against the Stones as the Seventies moved towards their conclusion. People were asking whether the Stones were still relevant,and if they had run out of steam artistically.  This tight and zestful set was an resounding response to such misgivings.

Being perceived as having their backs to the wall, the defiance shines through on "Some Girls", as if they were simultaneously putting a metaphorical two fingers up to the world, and revelling in the refuge and escape offered by music. It has often been said that this was the point where Mick Jagger began to stake a claim to de facto leadership of the band, but the sentiments were collective.

The focus, energy and strength of purpose could not present a starker contrast with the relative lethargy and nebulousness of the previous three studio albums. Yes, the emergence of punk and disco did contribute to the album's mood and content, but not to the extent that the Stones simply wrote and recorded "punk and disco songs". They absorbed the ethos and vitality of those two genres, and the consequences revealed themselves naturally within a broadly familiar framework. This is still very much a "Rolling Stones album".

One of the most startling features of "Some Girls" is the dearth of instrumental padding and decoration. Many of the songs are performed at a hefty rate of knots, reflecting perhaps a mixture of anger, frustration and even liberation from the directionless and torpor of the years which went before. The modern Stones sound is taking shape, seen in the guitar interplay and the nature of the riffs.

The resolve possessed by the band is amply displayed on the album's opener, "Miss You". Much has been made of its "disco" leanings, but I would also argue that it is part of the broader trend of rock bands in the Seventies to embrace more rhythmic and funky patterns (Little Feat, Steely Dan). The sleazy electric piano and guitars, and punchy rhythm section, allied with a sneering Jagger vocal, give it its potency

The breathless immediacy which pervades most of "Some Girls" really kicks in on the second number, "When The Whip Comes Down". Freshness in abundance.

The pace is maintained with the cover "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)". This is not a straight cover version, and the Stones' rendering shows a strong power pop/new wave sensibility.  It has a spontaneity to it, as if it was being performed at a sound check a few hours prior to a gig. This is not a criticism, and a lack of the over-reach and artifice often associated with cover versions is a joy to behold.

Moving on to the title track, and leaving aside the controversial lyrics, this son typifies the approach and mood on the album. Very bluesy and raw, accentuated by the harmonica and the ragged vocal harmonies. The Stones' "bad boy" image and notoriety was kept flickering by songs like this. The melody is simple and straightforward, but powerfully delivered.

"Lies" is stripped down, frenetic, almost minimalist.  "Meat and potatoes" one could say, but a statement of intent, and far from dull or pretentious. "Respectable" is similar in character, but is marginally more tuneful, and lyrically more decipherable, if not containing much in the way of emotional or psychological depth!

Of all the Stones' excursions into the domain of country music, "Far Away Eyes" is one of the most authentic and sincere, but equally one of the least entertaining or memorable. Some relief is introduced by "Before They Make Me Run", forming the usual Keith-on-lead-vocals slot, with what appear to be semi-autobiographical lyrics.

"Beast of Burden" is one of the most durable of Rolling Stones songs. High quality pop/rock which has stood the test of time. This one contains more intricate guitar work, and a more considered and complex melody. The album closes with "Shattered", another quick and sparse rocker, exhibiting a vaguely 50s flavour, and redolent of some of the New Wave sounds which would appear in the years ahead. A slightly odd choice to conclude the album?

So there we have it, "Some Girls" by the Rolling Stones. No-nonsense rock n roll, packing a considerable punch, and exuding the restless vigour of the those times. After this, the Stones enjoyed a new lease of life, and it was both a symptom and a cause of their continuing strength. Above all, it is an enjoyable and important collection of songs.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Dixie Chicken - Little Feat - album review

Many bands or solo artists reach a sweet spot, never to be repeated, at some point in their career.  Often this is not part of some pre-ordained masterplan, but rather a consequence of cumulative influences and experiences.  One of my favourite groups, Little Feat, arrived at this landmark in 1973 with their superb album "Dixie Chicken". They made great music before then, and made some fine records afterwards, but this remains their most coherent and affecting album.

"Dixie Chicken" marked a departure for Little Feat, both in terms of personnel and musical direction. New emphasis was placed on rhythm, with the recruitment of a new bass player, and the addition of a new percussionist and second guitarist. The first two albums had been primarily blues and country inflected, but the new record saw a partial immersion in more funky New Orleans R&B styles. The generally grittier tones of the eponymous debut and "Sailin' Shoes" were joined, if not totally supplanted, by the smoother, more sensuous charms of "Dixie Chicken".

Having observed this stylistic shift, it must be stressed that the idiosyncratic and quirky approach which made them such an endearing and compelling act still remained, that quality which causes so many people to become lifelong fans as soon as they hear Little Feat once. If anything this phenomenon was accentuated by the increased "funkiness" on display.

Some critics have complained that Little Feat's work became less focused and more self-indulgent from the mid-70s onwards, and it is fair to say that they were walking a thin line on "Dixie Chicken", where the tightness of the playing, the fresh angle and the residual rootsiness of earlier records, formed a very agreeable cocktail.  Did the later records become patchy?  In comparison, possibly yes, although by that time it may be argued that they were more renowned as a stellar concert attraction. There were great recordings post-1973, but they were fewer and less frequent.

Lowell George's penchant for writing amusing and entertaining lyrics was never better exemplified than on "Dixie Chicken", most clearly in evidence on the "Fat Man In The Bathtub" and the title song. The earthy rhythm guitar work of Paul Barrere added a new dimension to the sound, ideally complementing George's familiar chops. The augmented line-up also doubtless aided Feat's rise and rise as a live act, by filling out the sound, and aiding and encouraging improvisation onstage.

The overall sound on this album is very languid and seductive, and even ethereal in places ("Kiss It Off", "Juliette"), with some "swampiness" introduced, often by a combination of keyboards and percussion. The variety and diversity facilitated by the revised line-up of players, and several guests, creates a glossy veneer at times, but the music is never bland or clinical. The trend for such slickness in recording was pronounced in much West Coast rock of the time, but these guys did not lose their soul, at least on this record. They managed to conjure up an appetizing stew by allying their existing strengths to new influences and directions. And fear not, acoustic guitars do not totally disappear!

The centrepiece of the album for many people is the majestic "On Your Way Down", written by Allen Toussaint. Dripping with style, panache and even menace, this is a song with some social commentary, which was unusual for a Little Feat recording. The understated but propulsive rhythm blends with the intertwining guitars, and Bill Payne's atmospheric piano and organ work to create a compelling whole.

When I first heard "Dixie Chicken", it didn't immediately bowl me over. I was at the time very much immersed in my "West Coast" rock phase, and at the time the band's first two albums were more in keeping with my requirements in that respect . It did not take long, however, for my resistance to melt away, and by general consensus this is viewed as their best studio creation. The overall ambience is engrossing but also mildly disconcerting, perhaps subconsciously illustrating the social climate of those times.

Little Feat's music was often irresistible, with a tendency to get under the skin of the listener, in a benevolent way.  They recorded no finer or more rounded example of this than "Dixie Chicken".

Friday, 17 January 2014

Hold Out - Jackson Browne - album review

Continuing my exploration of the albums of Jackson Browne, we come now to the great man's 1980 release, Hold Out, the only album of his to top the American Billboard charts.

Coming after the "experimental" and idiosyncratic Running On Empty, this record is a more conventional and slick mainstream singer-songwriter rock album, and in some respects it picks up where 1976's The Pretender left off, serving as the far side of the hinge of Browne's career.

When I first listened to Hold Out, my reaction was that it sounded a touch soulless, like much "album rock" of that time. However, I soon realized that my assessment was flawed. It had only seemed relatively soulless, because I had heard it back-to-back with Jackson's classic "organic" sounding music from the 1970s. Closer inspection revealed hidden depths, and it remains to me one of his unfairly overlooked works, although it contains only seven songs!

Although Hold Out is deceptively meritorious in a purely musical sense, there is a case for arguing that lyrically some water-treading is in evidence. If anything, the subject matter is, by and large, less weighty and profound than on his previous LPs. Any social commentary is very mild, and is confined to "Disco Apocalypse" and "Boulevard". That said, the "personal" lyrics on a couple of the compositions are very moving and affecting.

Instrumentally, the accent is very much on keyboards, with little in the way of acoustic guitar work to be had. Thankfully, the subtle and soothing tones of David Lindley's lap steel feature prominently on several numbers. Also, acoustic piano survives, and the layers of keyboards give genuine texture to a few of the tracks, with the assistance Hammond organ. Any synthesizer work is very unobtrusive, and is employed primarily to accentuate melody and atmosphere.

The opening track on the album is "Disco Apocalypse", a dark and atmospheric song suffused with the aforementioned keyboards, in this case organ and electric piano.  The title track follows, with an expressive Browne vocal, and a bland if endearing melody, and the first appearance here of the Lindley alchemy on lap steel.

The production on this album has a glossy feel, which is not unusual for the early eighties, but I would contend that this does not suffocate the emotion, nuance and melody of the set. The separation between instruments is pronounced, and this is exemplified by "That Girl Could Sing".

"Boulevard" is the nearest thing on the album to a catchy, up-tempo commercial song, with an energetic "new wave" blue-collar flavour, the sort of track which would become a staple of American mainstream rock in the years which followed. It is often forgotten how much Jackson Browne pioneered this particular "sub-genre", at least in sonic terms.

Without doubt the most emotionally charged song is "Of Missing Persons", written largely in tribute to Jackson's friend, the late Lowell George of Little Feat.  The song is dominated by the vocal, seized with sincerity and sadness, and the poetic Lindley lap steel work.

"Let's Call It A Loan" then offers some light relief, preparing for the epic closer, "Hold On Hold Out", which almost has a suite-like quality, and the most grandiose arrangement on the whole album. The full range of keyboards is deployed, and the slide guitar again comes to the fore.

Hold Out often gets lost, as it falls between Browne's critically acclaimed early work and his more socially conscious albums of the 1980s.  However, it is worthy of respect, being an entertaining and superbly crafted record.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Klingsor's Last Summer - Hermann Hesse

Continuing my quest to read as much Hermann Hesse as possible, I next tackled "Klingsor's Last Summer", a novella which was originally published in 1919.

The story is loosely that of the last months of Klingsor, an artist/painter who lives in Switzerland. Although the narrative does not explicitly "cover" Klingsor's death, it is "reported" in an introduction. The bulk of the text is dedicated to ruminations by the artist and his friends on subjects relating to death, fate and human existence generally.

Although "Klingsor's Last Summer" explores and encompasses familiar Hesse preoccupations, it also feels quite "surrealistic", in terms of the imagery which it evokes. At times, it was difficult to ascertain whether or not metaphor was being employed.

The Klingsor character is what we may describe as a hedonist, seemingly living live to the full, and for the moment, unconcerned by consequences, or the pressure to conform. This is in keeping with a theme common in Hesse's body of work, that is the tension between bourgeois comfort and the more freewheeling, bohemian life of the artist or creator.

My own feeling is that "Klingsor's Last Summer" is a little more chaotic and meandering than many other Hesse novels or novellas. This is partly because of the more exotic imagery and symbolism. Any central, overriding message, if indeed there is one, is difficult to discern for much of the way.

In their discussions, Klingsor and his friends debate and agonize over various matters relating to the role of the artist, and the purpose of life. They question whether people spend too much time striving to portray and depict life, rather than enjoying and savouring it for its own sake. That was my interpretation, anyway! Another old chestnut raises its head, in the form of musing on what constitutes useful and constructive employment of one's time on earth, and whether this is necessarily important.

To me, Klingsor celebrates the childlike, the frivolous, the joyful, the ephemeral. Does it matter how we obtain pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment, as long as we do?  Can one sublime moment of euphoria or exuberance compensate for the myriad mundane aspects of life?

As the book progresses, I detected a tension between traditional Western views and perceptions of life, death and Fate, and the teachings of Eastern philosophies on these subjects. Is human experience one whole, embracing both life and death, and should we fear this concept?

The attitudes held by Klingsor and some of his associates also appear to be reflective of the time during which this story was composed, that is the opening decades of the twentieth century, a period of war, upheaval and change. Pessimism and fatalism abounded.

In all honesty, I did not find this as immediately enjoyable and stimulating as much as other Hermann Hesse works, although this view was doubtless influenced by its distinctive character.  It is still intriguing, and in places thought-provoking.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Behind The Scenes of Motor Racing - Ken Gregory

In today's world, it is always comforting and entertaining to read of "the way things used to be".  Ken Gregory's book "Behind The Scenes of Motor Racing", originally published in 1960, not only offers a window on a particular field of endeavour during a certain era. It also evokes a period of history generally.

Ken Gregory, who sadly died last year, served in various administrative and management positions in motor sport and motoring, and also managed Stirling Moss, and later Peter Collins.

The book contains a wealth of amusing and charming anecdotes. Many of them illustrate the enthusiasm, optimism and parsimony of post-war Europe. The state and atmosphere of motor sport at any given time is often reflective of broader society and culture, and this certainly held true in the 1950s. There was a new freedom, and a new breed of personnel involved, less hamstrung by pre-war conventions.

Although the sport was becoming more "professional" and commercialized, these pages also convey the improvisation, camararderie and informality which still prevailed. Simpler times, but strong hints of trends which would grow stronger.  A "work hard, play hard" ethos is what emerges from Gregory's own recollections of those days.

One of the strengths of Gregory's account is the light which it sheds on some of the pivotal moments in Stirling Moss's career, and 1950s motor sport generally, many of which have assumed mythic proportions over the years, or have become distorted and/or embellished.  These include the various offers which Moss received from Ferrari, his dealings with Maserati and the process by which he came to join the Mercedes outfit for 1955.

To my surprise, the author is quite candid in his assessment of some of the key personalities of the time, both drivers and team owners/managers. He also supplies his own first-hand perspective on numerous contentious episodes, both relating to technical issues and human relationships. Gregory also ruminates on the changing face of the sport.

Curiously, the book does not betray any great sense of euphoria as Stirling Moss enjoyed greater and greater success. Also, it is striking how "laissez faire" Stirling was in some aspects of his career progression, leaving many key discussions and negotiations to Gregory and others. The driver's legendary sense of loyalty and integrity is also clear.

I found this to be a most absorbing read, a welcome and entertaining antidote to the more clinical and regimented landscape of later times.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Kaiser Wilhelm II - A Life In Power - Christopher Clark

Having thoroughly enjoyed two of Christopher Clark's other efforts, "Iron Kingdom" and "The Sleepwalkers", I was eager to see what his book about the last German Kaiser was like.

The book feels much more streamlined than the others, with little in the way of preliminaries, and we go straight into the early stages of the subject's life. The author emphasizes that his aim is not to present a straight biography of his subject, but to examine and weigh his relationship with, and exercise of, power. With this in mind, the book is not structured in a strict chronological order, but rather dedicates specific chapters to individual aspects of Wilhelm's reign and stewardship.

I detected the main thrust to be the fluctuations in Wilhelm's fortunes, and the ongoing battle of wills and wits with the Reichstag and with his ministers and advisers.

There is a look at court life, and Wilhelm's military tutelage and education.  On the surface, the latter would seem to have boded well for a balanced, relatively enlightened approach, but the author argues that it may have contributed to later failings, by encouraging disjointed and uncoordinated views.

Clark documents the shift in Wilhelm's stances, citing the influence of both his grandfather and his wife.  I would have liked to hear more about the precise reasons why and how this came about, other than the supposed rubbing off of certain people's attitudes on the future emperor. Was he just an opportunist, seeing as he got older the potential for carving his own niche?  Did this in turn make Wilhelm more susceptible to manipulation and intrigue by others, for their own ends?

The early stages of the book afford a tantalizing glimpse of how history might have worked out differently had Friedrich III not succumbed to cancer after a very brief reign.  The relating of Wilhelm's fractious relations with his parents is quite illuminating.  Even at a comparatively early stage, he was having to demonstrate and assert his independence from cliques and conspiracies, and the very nature of the German system of that time may have encouraged that sort of thing.

Clark does his best to explain how the idiosyncrasies of the imperial and Prussian systems impacted on the Kaiser's conduct of his office, and clarifies one or two misconceptions about how "absolutist" the situation was. One of the most valuable sections of the book is that dealing with his relations with Bismarck, and his part in the downfall of the "iron chancellor".

As regards Wilhelm's views, there is more evidence to support the notion that he disliked economic liberalism, although on the surface his stance on some social issues seems reasonably admirable. He may have been acting as a "chameleon", currying favour with various sectors of society in order to court popularity. A clever decision by Clark here is to use relatively "mundane" topics to demonstrate trends and traits.

The author has some interesting things to say about Wilhelm's apparent lack of closeness to the German military just prior to the 1914-18 war, and also the amount of control exerted by the civilian politicians during those crucial days. He may have been "militaristic", but Clark expresses doubts as to how much this translated into action before the war.

The closing chapters of the book examine Wilhelm's role in the war, his attitude to unrestricted submarine warfare, and his eclipse by Hindenburg. There is also an intriguing, if brief, look at his period in exile in the Netherlands, and his views on post World War One developments in Germany.

Not as intoxicating a read as a couple of Clark's other efforts, but a high quality read nonetheless...