Friday, 27 June 2014

Queen - the debut album - review

Judgement of debut albums is fraught with distortions and wishful thinking, particularly those by artists who subsequently go on to achieve great things. There is a tendency to retrospectively attribute to them merit and qualities which they do not really possess.

I often think of Queen's debut album in these terms. A few pundits have hailed it as a minor classic, but their arguments rarely hold up to scrutiny. Yes, there is some promise there, but it is hardly the masterpiece which some maintain that it is. There is very much a sense of a work in progress, of a sound and style taking shape and not yet crystallized, and of a group still fumbling for a firm direction.

A distinct sound would not truly emerge until the third or fourth record, and this was in part due to the circumstances under which the guys were forced to record their music.  It was put together in fits and starts, with the four musicians apparently grateful just to be in the studio at all, but the situation was scarcely ideal if one was seeking to develop something genuinely coherent and well-crafted.

The spasmodic and rushed nature of the sessions is perhaps reflected in the relative lack of polish in some of the tracks, certainly when compared with their later work. The sound sometimes feels "half-baked", scrappy rather than genuinely raw. Only fleetingly does the trademark Queen sound, or indeed the hallmark of star quality, shine through brightly. "Keep Yourself Alive" remains impressively vigorous and fresh, but one or two other songs sound perfunctory and uninspired, and "Son And Daughter" and "Jesus" have not aged too well...

I have heard it suggested in the past that one of the deficiencies of this album is a failure to adequately project the talent and personality of Freddie Mercury. I am not sure that this criticism is fully justified. Upon closer inspection, his vocal range is quite well captured. The problem for me is the slightly nebulous and tentative feel of the album overall.

At this early stage, we can discern the beginnings of the complexity of "Bohemian Rhapsody", mostly in the structure and lyrical content of "My Fairy King" and "Liar". Brian May's ethereal and reflective songs, an often overlooked and important facet of Queen's 1970s albums, are strongly represented by "Doing All Right" and "The Night Comes Down".  These numbers help to provide texture and balance, and are probably the most pleasing to the ear for this listener in the 21st century.

It is also clear that the various members were still very much learning the art of songwriting, a process which began to bear real fruit on "Sheer Heart Attack".  The occasional rambling instrumental section betrays a lack of focus, and they would eventually learn how to achieve a more tasteful balance between grandeur and tightness, reducing the tendency towards self-indulgence whilst still allowing the band's talent and inventiveness to flourish and display itself.

It is often said that Queen were aiming for a "layered" sound, but they do not achieve that here, probably due to a combination of the circumstances under which the record was made and their own lack of experience and confidence. This may explain why on their second album, they went to extremes in terms of multi-tracking and overdubbing! The follow-up does have an identity, a sweep and a sense of drama which "Queen" lacks, even if the band in early 1974 was again still not the finished article.

This album does have a certain period charm, and of course historical curiosity and significance. It would be dishonest and foolish, however, to pretend that Queen's first record was of the same quality as the debut efforts by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and Boston, and I say this as a Queen fan of 35 years standing!. It is not a bad album, but they did not arrive fully developed like some of their contemporaries.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Next England Captain

There is much speculation about who might replace Steven Gerrard as the England captain, assuming that the Liverpool man either retires from international football or relinquishes the title of captain.
When surveying the current England squad, there is not exactly an abundance of players with the requisite combination of leadership qualities, experience and diplomatic skills. There are one or two who may become strong candidates in the future (Ross Barkley springs to mind in this regard), but few whose current claims are too compelling.

Once the post World Cup "shake-out" has been concluded, Wayne Rooney is likely to be by far the most senior member of the set-up, both in terms of caps and honours won. He also satisfies another criterion, in that he is (despite some protestations to the contrary), pretty much assured of his place in the starting line-up.

To some people, Rooney might not seem like captaincy material, especially for the national team. So what are the alternative options? Well, Joe Hart is the undisputed first choice in his position, he has now accumulated considerable experience with England and at club level, and he has a pretty good public image. Although it is often opined that goalkeepers do not make ideal captains, there are some precedents. Dino Zoff made a pretty good job of it with Italy in 1982. The one counter-argument in the current context is that England, with a youthful bunch of players, lack natural leaders on the pitch, and it might be sensible to give the captaincy to someone in the heart of the action, in central defence or midfield.

Leighton Baines might have been an outside bet for the role, but his shaky performances in Brazil have not helped his cause, putting his position at left-back in potential peril. Gary Cahill has been mentioned by some, and in truth he does not have much competition for his position in the heart of the defence, but does he have the galvanising personality of the great captains of the past? 

In the absence of any other blindingly obvious choices, I would be inclined to give the armband to Rooney at the beginning of the Euro 2016 qualifiers, and see how he fares. Who knows, the responsibility might bring out the best in him?  If the team does well, and his own playing form is good, then there would be no reason to change the situation. As is often observed, the captain in football is less important in an overall tactical sense than in many other team sports, but his effect can often go beyond the symbolic, and help to motivate and inspire those under him.

It will be fascinating to see how Roy Hodgson resolves this matter....

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

In Defence of Progressive Rock

I make no apologies in saying that a large proportion of the music which I listen to these days could be termed "progressive rock".

Progressive rock music is popularly associated with self-indulgence, "uncool" excess and showmanship, and a kind of elitism, a world away from the primal energy and spontaneity of rock and roll. This analysis of course assumes that self-indulgence, excess and elitism are always harmful and bad, and that all the purveyors of progressive music necessarily wanted to be thought of as "rock and roll". Music is tribal in nature, and as with other forms of tribalism, intellectual honesty and open-mindedness are among the first casualties, on all sides.

It is worth recalling whence prog came. It is often asserted that it was a natural and organic continuation and expansion of the psychedelic revolution and experimentation of the second half of the 1960s. However, this would be to over-simplify matters. There was no single source or catalyst, just as what became identified as progressive rock was not single, coherent, homogeneous entity. It takes many forms, and many shades.

Perhaps a better explanation would be that the "genre" emerged from a desire of many musicians, from varied backgrounds, to push the artistic, spiritual and intellectual boundaries of rock. New frontiers and fields were there to be explored, and there is little doubt that some of the, ahem, lifestyle choices of the period hastened and intensified this process.

The term prog became almost a pejorative one in the mid-1970s, and this tended to obscure the fact that it was a broad church, embracing classical, folk,jazz, blues and avant-garde elements, all loosely connected with the desire to produce more complex and intricate music, and to some extent to address more outlandish and challenging themes.

Prog has had a bad press partly because its practitioners were mainly, but not exclusively, from educated middle class backgrounds. Many had received formal or classical musical training. It may also be ventured that many of those who listened to and appreciated prog were from similar social strata. This has prompted charges of "elitism", but I fail to see how this prevents the music from being "relevant" or subversive. It may not have had the visceral energy of punk, but many prog acts examined contentious moral and social questions.  The stances adopted by some prog acts, when looked at closely and objectively, can be seen to correspond to the world-view of many of the journalists and musicians who so fiercely criticized the movement. Often the lyrics, if cryptically or enigmatically, questioned or deplored the social status quo.  They just did it with less outright vehemence or venom than other musical genres, and they often employed sarcasm and humour to get their points across. It was sometimes a case of the prog musicians rebelling against the stagnation and conservatism of the milieu into which they themselves had been born. In their own way, they were also alternative and militant, but the perceived pomposity of their sound tended to conceal this, and many deliberately ignored this dimension of prog.
In defending prog, I am not implying that it is beyond criticism, and some of the music of the mid 1970s in particular has not aged too well. It was Yes who were on the receiving end of the much of the vitriol circa 1976/77. Now, however, I would say that their music, particularly that from their peak period of 1971/72, has aged better than the output of most of their prog contemporaries. The melodicism, and the often hippie/New Age lyrics now seem quite benign. Perhaps things have come full circle in that respect.
It is often proclaimed that the punk explosion sounded the death-knell for progressive rock, but this thesis ignores salient considerations. By 1974, prog had already passed its peak in terms of artistic vigour, invention and originality,  and to some degree in commercial appeal as well. The "genre" thereafter treaded water, becoming a touch hollow, and was therefore in decline for a good couple of years even before punk fully emerged.  
In saying that prog became bloated and self-indulgent, we must bear in mind that by its very nature it was experimental, and when people push boundaries, they occasionally cross that thin, invisible line which divides "ingenious and erudite" from "bombastic and pretentious". Many of the good ideas had been used up, and the survivors remained on the "wrong" side of the line, could not find a way back, and offered up an empty and pale shadow of what had once been, also perpetrating increasingly frequent lapses of taste.
Some of the detractors made perfectly valid points, but I still contend that at its best, progressive rock was genuinely innovative, exciting and cerebral. What we all need to remember, whichever side of the fence we inhabit, is that it's only music!


Sunday, 22 June 2014

England Out Of the 2014 World Cup

The hopes that Italy could give England a hand proved forlorn, and the Three Lions have exited the tournament with a whimper rather than a roar. Unlike most people, I do not see the prospects as quite so bleak.

It may be a case of interpretation, but England have been nowhere near as miserable in Brazil as they were in some other major tournaments (Euro 1988, Euro 2000, even World Cup 2010).  And at least this time around the ineptitude was concentrated more on defensive frailties than the usual paucity of creativity and technical skill.

Some of the more alarmist pronouncements of the pundits are a bit exaggerated, I feel. There is reason for optimism, in the form of Sturridge, Barkley, Sterling, Wilshere and Lallana. To my eyes, many of the shortcomings in forward positions looked to be a product of a lack of experience, rather than inherent defects in "the system".  Yes, the deficiencies at the back are a matter for concern, but the prospect of remedies in that department somehow always seems less intractable. Good defenders are arguably less difficult to find than those elusive creative and flair players.

All the same, the current England defence is probably the least impressive that I have seen in my time watching England, which goes back four decades. It was unfortunate that the likes of Terry, Ferdinand and Cole all disappeared around the same time, leaving the back line with a very threadbare and mediocre look about it.

I would be inclined to keep Roy Hodgson in his job, not least because there is a lack of realistic candidates to replace him.  Many of the players are still developing and improving, and more promising youngsters will undoubtedly emerge in the next year or so. It would be tempting, in the interests of stability and continuity, to give Hodgson a free run up to the next World Cup, but football in the real world does not work like that. Provided that England qualify for Euro 2016 and give a reasonable account of themselves, it would then be perhaps sensible to use that as a staging post for Roy and the team on the way to Russia 2018.

Another thing which England need to bear in mind is that football is a team game, and cohesion and harmony are very important. It is therefore sometimes necessary to leave out "star" players in the interests of making the machine operate more smoothly. Just picking your eleven best players does not always translate into a more efficient team performance. Putting square pegs in round holes, and picking "names", are not the road to success.

The English media is full of the usual anguished post-tournament talk of bringing in winter breaks, grassroots reform and quotas on foreign players, but I for one am not quite so downcast.  I'll let you known in two years' time whether my (very) cautious optimism was justified. I have been known to be wrong before....

Friday, 20 June 2014

Uruguay 2 England 1

Before last night's World Cup group match in Sao Paulo, I was reasonably optimistic that England would be capable of building on their creditable performance against the Italians, and getting their tournament "back on track", to use an irritating modern phrase.

My cautious buoyancy gradually evaporated, however, as the match developed. The shortcomings in England's defence were manifest even in the early stages, and Uruguay's team changes and the return of Luis Suarez to the fold clearly made them a much tougher proposition than the one which had turned out in the match against Costa Rica. There was much more purpose and cohesion about their play.

The sense of foreboding which had developed within me during the first half was partially ameliorated by Wayne Rooney's equaliser, but it was a temporary respite, and Suarez's emphatic finish for the second goal brought England back to earth, and reality, with a bump.

Were there any positives for England?  Well, Wayne Rooney was clearly happier and more dangerous in his more central role, and could have scored one or two more goals in addition to his close-range leveller. One hopes that Rooney will continue to perform well in the final match, even though any such efforts may prove academic.

Daniel Sturridge may not have been quite as effective as he was against Italy, but he was quite industrious and energetic, and never afraid to try something a little different in order to carve out an opening.

It probably won't happen, but I would make some changes for England's final group match against Costa Rica. How about "resting" Steven Gerrard, who has been ineffectual and lacklustre, and playing a midfield of,say, Henderson, Barkley and Lallana?  The team would have added zest and freshness, and even if England are eliminated, you would be giving the England stars of the future valuable experience on the world stage.

I guess that England's fate depends to some extent on the attitude of Italy to their final game, assuming that they defeat Costa Rica later today. Would they rest one or two players against Uruguay under those circumstances, and seek to conserve their energy for the latter stages, knowing that a draw would see them through?

If we assume that Italy will win the group, I have to say that, even as an Englishman, part of me would rather see Luiz Suarez in the later stages of the World Cup than England.  Yes, Suarez has his faults, but he is also a magnificent player, who offers more in a purely footballing respect than anything which England have to offer.

The Unforgiven - The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United - Rob Bagchi & Paul Rogerson

There is frustratingly little in the way of books, that I have seen anyway, which comprehensively cover and analyse Don Revie's glorious but turbulent tenure at the helm of Leeds United. This one, originally published in 2002/03, does not completely plug the gap (if such a gap indeed exists) or satisfy the need, but it is nonetheless an entertaining and lively effort.

"Concise", "lean" and "digestible" would be some of the words appropriately employed to describe "The Unforgiven". Fans and students may feel that it barely scratches the surface on  key issues such as tactics, Revie the man and the mystique surrounding the whole era.  One is left wanting more, but I see this more as a virtue than a criticism of the product.

Where the book does score highly for me is in capturing the essence and the atmosphere of the times, both in football and in a wider social context. The "outsider" status and distinct character of the Revie team, and the hostility which it attracted from the outside, are well conveyed. One is also constantly reminded of the different parameters within which Leeds, and other clubs, were operating in the 1960s and the 1970s.

It is amusing but poignant to note the paltry (by today's standards) financial sums involved, and the crucial importance of week-to-week gate receipts in determining strategy, even in the "glory days".  This leads us on to another thread which runs through the book, namely the complex relationship which the club "enjoyed" with the Leeds public, and the sense that this team was often under-appreciated and misunderstood, even on its own doorstep.

The text is colourfully written in places, and will not be to everyone's taste, but it does help to encapsulate the mud-spattered, rugged world which Revie's men inhabited, with limited squad sizes, horrendous fixture congestion (a familiar bugbear for Leeds in those days) and a very different media landscape. Quotes from the press of the time help to bring over an immediacy and a "real time" feel.

Creditably, Bagchi and Rogerson concentrate much of their effort on the pre-1969/70 period, when the groundwork was being undertaken. We therefore get a glimpse of how the legendary team of later years took shape and evolved, with the introduction of the young players and the occasional judicious signing. The passages dealing with activities in the transfer market are quite illuminating, and once again underline how times have changed. Some episodes not particularly familiar to the casual observer are given prominence, such as the club's early adventures in the European competitions.

By no means do the authors give the impression that all was sweetness and light, examining the less savoury aspects of the epoch, including the beginnings of hooliganism and the excesses of some teams on the pitch. The supposed professional insecurity of Don Revie is also a major theme. The flaws, contradictions and disappointments are part of what made the team so compelling, although some might yearn for a more profound search for the reasons behind Leeds' repeated role as "bridesmaids".

This book was originally written at a time when Leeds United were still threatening to build something vaguely comparable to those heady days of yore. The subsequent precipitate decline of "the dream" only adds to the allure of the era which ended in the summer of 1974. The club, and the city itself, have undergone additional change in the past decade, and some of the comparisons and perspective, in the edition which I have at least, may not be as pertinent as they were. However, this does not negate the overall charm of this piece of work, which is both breezy and highly readable.


Monday, 16 June 2014

2014 World Cup - so far

Well, we have now had three-and-a-bit days of World Cup action, so how are things going?
I remember that around this stage in the 2010 World Cup, the general consensus was that the tournament had been "boring", giving rise to anguished phone-ins on radio stations here in the UK, speculating on the reasons for the malaise. Happily, the 2014 edition of football's global spectacle has started quite brightly, although there is a tendency to get a little over-excited. World Cups have that effect on people....
The football has generally been enterprising and positive, with a decent goals-per-game ratio, which is often employed (somewhat simplistically, I feel) as the barometer of a tournament's quality. One or two pundits have remarked cynically (or level-headedly) that we are also witnessing the further demise of defending as an art. Having said that, you can attribute the high level of goals scored in the World Cups of the 1950s to the prevailing lack of tactical acumen and defensive solidity in those times.
The conditions, at least in some parts of Brazil, should promote high-scoring games, as defenders tire towards the end of matches, and become more prone to committing errors. Substitutions could become key in deciding the outcome of many games as the World Cup progresses.
Of the teams which we have seen so far, Brazil clearly have abundant talent, even if they were deemed to be slightly fortunate in their opener against Croatia. Holland have potent attacking resources, although the overall level of quality and flair in their line-up is perhaps not as sparkling as some Dutch outfits of the past.
Before the tournament, I thought to myself that France might do well. Nobody was talking about them, the discord and disunity of the last World Cup was gone, and a quite confidence was being exuded. In their game against Honduras they played some constructive football, with a few of the younger, more hungry players really catching the eye. Deschamps has achieved some real cohesion, it would appear.
A mantra before every World Cup is "never write off the Italians", and in their game against England they proved the wisdom of this maxim. Playing in their compact and economical style, they gave England, and other teams, plenty of food for thought, Andrea Pirlo strolling imperiously around the pitch as if he was in the local park on a Sunday afternoon.
Although the football has been entertaining, the undoubted highlight of the World Cup thus far has been the employment of "vanishing spray" by referees, to discourage encroachment by defenders at free-kicks. This has to be the most important innovation in football in decades, and a significant boost to the level of entertainment!

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Desert War - Alan Moorehead

This first-hand account of the North African campaign of World War 2, written by a British war correspondent, is deeply compelling.

It is different, and refreshing to read these accounts, from somebody who was actually there. There are some great anecdotes, evoking the atmosphere of the region, so different in some ways, yet also so similar in others, to the European war. The very fact that these writings were originally published whilst World War Two was still raging gives them a rawness and immediacy absent from so many books dealing with the period. This is not just a chronicle of military and political developments, but also a record of life as a war correspondence, a gruelling and perilous existence in itself.

The book does not just concentrate exclusively on the campaigns in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, but covers the operations in East Africa (Abyssinia, Sudan and so forth). A large chunk of the text also deals with the fighting between the British Empire forces and the Italians, "pre-Rommel" as it were.

There is an intimate flavour to much of this work, as the effects on civilians and individual soldiers are examined, with much localised drama and colour, rather than just grand strategy. Of course, Moorehead was not always where the main action was, so this is as much the story of his war as it is an attempt to rigorously record the war in Africa as a whole.

Many eye-witness accounts of bombing raids or the aftermath of battles are here, bringing home the fears and hazards both for the individual serviceman and the journalist. Warfare in its many shades is exhibited, highlighting the diversity of terrain and tactical concerns.

As well as covering events on the fields of battle, the book includes lots of material from "behind the lines", from cities such as Cairo, where life seemed to remain relatively "normal", certainly when compared to the beleaguered cities of Europe.

There are some eye-opening passages hinting at how lavishly the Italian forces, and particularly the officers, lived at the outset of the war, certainly when compared to the spartan existence endured by many of their British counterparts. This may go against some present-day perceptions of what the state of play was. We are given detailed, and in some instances poignant, lists of the articles left behind by retreating troops.

Personality portraits of military commanders are another interesting feature, including those who have not always had a favourable press from historians, such as those who oversaw the early exchanges in North Africa. The deeper motivations behind strategy and tactics are also analysed. One is left with quite a positive impression of the effectiveness of the Allied forces in the early stages, although this was of course put into perspective by the arrival of the Germans...

Upon the advent of the Afrika Korps, I detected a darkening in the mood and tone of the book, with some lamenting of Allied inferiority in material and tactical terms. It is also interesting to see some examination of strategy in "real time", linking events in the Western Desert to Greece, Abyssinia and other areas. There are some intriguing tangents, with chapters on the home fronts in Britain and the USA, and also one concerning the political manoeuvrings in India.

The constant references to "we" and "our" may irritate some non-British readers, but we have to remember the circumstances under which these passages were composed, when Britain was under siege both at home and overseas. For this and other reasons, "The Desert War" is definitely a period piece, but a good one.  I didn't think that any "bias", if it can be called that, interfered with the value of the book.


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Last Waltz

Whenever the subject of "greatest concert movie" or "best rock movie" comes up for discussion, it has become almost obligatory for Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz", a document of The Band's 1976 "farewell" performance, to be placed at the top, or the near the top, of the list.
The film is made up of The Band's performances of their own songs, and a series of guest appearances onstage by many of the musical luminaries of the time.  All this is interspersed with interviews, conducted by Scorsese himself, with the members of the Band, in which they provide recollections of their years on the road.
Although I feel that some of the praise lavished on "The Last Waltz" has been a touch excessive, it is still an affecting and rather poignant picture, being seen by many as signifying, or symbolizing, the close of the "classic rock" era.
The first song in the movie, "Don't Do It", was actually done as an encore, but it was an astute choice as the film's opener, as it helps to illustrate what The Band was all about, and where they came from. It is probably fair to say that The Band had passed their peak as a live act at that point, but they definitely rose to the occasion here.
As with The Band, some of the guest artists had also seen better days creatively, but Scorsese's affinity for music, and his abilities as a film-maker, enable him to capture much of the essence of the 1970s rock scene. Many of those artists had some connection with The Band, having influenced them, collaborated with them, or just been friends. They encompassed every genre and sub-genre which made up The Band's appetising musical stew - rock n roll, blues, country, gospel, soul, folk, even Tin Pan Alley.
The interview segments are highly entertaining, with many colourful anecdotes from the group's varied career. The "between song" banter is often loosely connected with the guest artist whose performance immediately follows. This helps to ensure that "The Last Waltz" is not just a routine run through a series of songs. It is also educational, informative and evocative of a lost time.
It is interesting to note that many of the most memorable performances in "The Last Waltz" come from the supposedly less "exalted" guest stars. Ronnie Hawkins and Dr John both exude charisma, but in an endearingly old-fashioned, unpretentious manner, in contrast to some of the precious mainstream rock stars.
The let-down for me is the Neil Young segment. I have always felt that "Helpless" is quite a mediocre, listless and irritating song, and it seems a poor choice in this particular context. especially when he had plenty of great, more exciting and dynamic songs to choose from.
On the other hand, Van Morrison is quite mesmeric, resplendent in purple, giving an exuberant and animated performance of the wonderful "Caravan".  There was a musical empathy between The Band and Van, and this may have been the secret to the magic here.
It is noticeable how much The Band enjoyed and relished playing other people's songs, and performing alongside musicians who they respected or revered, and these sentiments appear to have been heartily reciprocated. The blues-orientated acts (Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton) also worked very well in this environment, again perhaps hinting at a special rapport with The Band and their ethos, which stressed feel and soul over virtuosity. 
When reviewing the Band's "solo" performances here, the powerful and heartfelt rendering of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the highlight - a song which seemed more effective onstage than on record.  It is also interesting to note the pre-eminence of Levon Helm in the vocal department throughout, arguably reflecting the power-shift within the group as the 1970s progressed.
The beautiful lighting and camerawork assist in engendering a particular atmosphere in this movie, to the extent that the setting sometimes feels less "rock and roll" than retro Hollywood. A couple of numbers (featuring the Staple Singers and Emmylou Harris) were recorded separately in a "studio" setting.
With repeated viewing and analysis, the musical performances in "The Last Waltz" become slightly less dazzling, but as a snapshot of an era in music, and of the fondness with which a magical group was regarded by its peers, this is great viewing.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Dire Straits

Just the other day, I stumbled across the music of Dire Straits again, and it occurred to me that they have been a bit forgotten amongst the public and music pundits.  I must admit that I myself had got away from listening to their stuff in recent years, but decided to take the time to revisit their studio work.
It is easy to forget how "cool" Dire Straits were, in relative terms, up until the mid-1980s. This status appeared to be diminished when they were perceived to have moved away from their earlier sound, perhaps in aiming to engage with a wider audience.
They achieved genuine global superstardom with the success of "Brothers in Arms". This album became notable, or perhaps notorious, as the one which untold millions bought in the mid-to-late 1980s in order to initiate themselves into the new-fangled technological wonderland of the compact disc. I vividly recall lunchtime visits to the home of a school friend, in order that we could gather round and listen with awe to the introduction to "Your Latest Trick", in pristine digital quality. The album came to be identified, rather harshly I thought, with safe conformity and the corporate face of rock music.
This was all a far cry from the gritty and earthy charms of their first couple of albums. The eponymous debut effort betrays an ethos somewhat "pub rock" in nature, with an impeccable list of other influences (JJ Cale, Clapton, Dylan, Ry Cooder etc). The broodingly atmospheric sound and lyrics draw the listener in, often reflecting the seamier side of life. The expressively brittle guitar of Mark Knopfler is prominent, of course, but is used sparingly and tastefully. Of course, "Sultans of Swing" is the best-known track here, but "Wild West End" is also a little gem.
With the sophomore release, "Communique", the sound becomes marginally richer and more varied, though the subject matter remains pretty much the same. The song "Lady Writer", perhaps even more than "Sultans of Swing", exemplifies the appeal and essence of the early Dire Straits sound, although the guitar is captured with greater clarity and bite, and the level of melodic subtlety and gloss are magnified. Of the other numbers, "Portobello Belle" stands out, in some ways pointing the way ahead for the band.
1980's "Making Movies" has a more "cinematic" flavour. Indeed, the title itself may have been an acknowledgement of this. There is an increased self-confidence about the band, and this displays itself clearly on the opening track, "Tunnel Of Love", arguably the group's finest achievement. The augmentation of the sound with more keyboards is another sign of this blossoming, and of a desire to branch out and diversify. I have heard it suggested that songs such as this, and also "Skateaway" and "Hand In Hand" for example, owe something to Bruce Springsteen's tunes, and this is hard to dispute, although "Tunnel Of Love" and others are also a logical and natural development of the themes and trends shown on the earlier records. On this third album, the impression which I am left with is more blue-collar romanticism than the almost seedy realism of the first two LPs.

One thing which you have to admit is that Dire Straits did not stand still, and each album has a distinct individual feel to it, and "Love Over Gold" sees an emphasis on longer, more experimental songs. These tracks seem to have worked excellently in the concert setting, though they must have further alienated those who had been reared on the immediacy and gutsiness of the early albums. The band was using the augmented instrumentation to paint pictures and create an atmosphere, the most notable examples being "Telegraph Road" and "Private Investigations". This is probably the "forgotten" Dire Straits album as far as the general public is concerned, as it did not feature much in the way of snappy, catchy hit singles.

I'm not sure whether "Brothers In Arms" signified a reaction to the "excesses" of "Love Over Gold", but the songs are more concise, and one or two of the numbers are more frivolous lyrically. The record is beautifully crafted and produced, and the compositions are generally strong and entertaining, but they have neither the genuine earthiness of the first two albums, or the sweep and emotional pull of the next two. Having said that, it is hard not to like the sophistication and melancholy of "Your Latest Trick", the jaunty "Walk Of Life" or the eerie title track.  It is noticeable how the guitar sound has changed - was this something to do with the types of guitars being used by Mark Knopfler?

To me, the final studio album "On Every Street", which emerged after the band had effectively broken up and taken a sabbatical,  sounds a little tired. Not that the band was going through the motions, but perhaps they themselves must have sensed that the game was up, and that it was time to move on definitively. To their credit, they have not indulged in any big "cash-in" reunions.  The nature of Mark Knopfler's side projects even during the lifetime of Dire Straits perhaps indicated where his musical heart truly lay....
Some might contend that Dire Straits at some point "sold out".  I don't subscribe to this notion. Their music never became fundamentally more shallow than it had been before, it just kept evolving and shifting naturally, retaining a certain integrity throughout, and their work was generally credible and sincere.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Alexander The Great - Robin Lane Fox - book review

Until comparatively recently, Alexander The Great was a bit of an enigma for me. Yes, from early childhood the name had been familiar to me, but this did not persuade me to conduct any great research into who he really was, and how he acquired his legendary status. Until recently, that is....

Robin Lane Fox's book is less a biography than a quest to strip away some of the layers of myth and distortion which have amassed over the centuries, as a consequence of the limited first-hand evidence, and the unreliability and questionable motives of some of the most prominent sources.
The period immediately before and after Alexander's accession to the throne is one of the more intriguing sections, with a cogent outlining of the political and social landscape which he grew up in, and the legacy bestowed by his father.
The author frankly points out the scarcity of  information concerning Alexander's childhood, and eschewing idle speculation, draws together strands from what is known about the region in that period, to offer theories about how he might have developed. The tutelage by Aristotle is naturally looked at, but Lane Fox is careful not to over-play the influence which the great thinker might have exerted.
The role of superstition, religion and myth cannot be ignored in a book about Alexander The Great, or about ancient/classical times, but this telling does not become weighed down by such considerations. The importance of Homeric legend is clear, although it is mentioned less as the story proceeds.
Because of the often dubious nature of the historical "records", much of this tome is taken up in weighing up the bewildering number of interpretations placed on pivotal episodes in Alexander's life. The author's knowledge and erudition come into play, as does an ability to see the "big picture" and to place contentious events into a wider context. These arguments are put forward clearly and plausibly, when one considers the complexity of the subject matter.
I think there is a tendency to portray Alexander as some kind of "superman", but Lane Fox rationalises things by offering earthly explanations for his qualities and prowess, citing factors such as his inheritance, his upbringing, his environment and his intellectual and military nurturing, as well as his innate strengths and foibles. It could be argued that he built on very solid foundations, and reaped the benefits of other trends which had little to do with him directly. Another strength of this book is that it does not attribute every change or upheaval to the foresight, will or "genius" of Alexander. It acknowledges that there was a rich and formidable cast of characters, many of whom were significant players in the drama which unfolded...
The passages which deal with Alexander's pursuit of diplomacy and geopolitical planning are excellent, and I found them more engaging than any descriptions of battlefield derring-do. Not everything was accomplished via "heroic" deeds. Much was relatively mundane, informed with a deal of pragmatism or common sense. To understand these parts of the story, it is necessary to see through the morass of propaganda issued by apologists and detractors. This is all part of the fun, though.
The book comes into its own for me when it deals with the period after Alexander had achieved his initial objectives, by way of "revenge" against the Persians. He had to adjust his tactics, vision and aims, and even he was occasionally afflicted by indecision. Significantly, Lane Fox does not neglect what was still happening in Macedonia, Greece and the Aegean generally, and its ramifications for the campaign much further east.
One is also struck by the varied and unpredictable nature of the threats which Alexander and his army faced as they ventured further into the unknown.  He had to juggle and marshal his resources adroitly, and also make tough decisions about priorities. He did not always arrive at the correct balance, and the localised failures are not concealed.
The whole picture knits and blends together well. Many accounts concentrate excessively on Alexander's charisma at the expense of a broad and accurate picture of the state of play in his newly conquered domains. This version illustrates the magnitude and intricacy of the achievement, and the effort required to sustain and consolidate it.
In the end, the thing which makes this story real, and Alexander seem "human", is the sense of fallibility which intruded towards the end, even though his ambitions remained momentous. The mutinies, and the Makran desert episode, are looked at in depth.
In taking all this in, it is easy to forget the fact that Alexander was approaching what was thought, in Western eyes at least, to be the "edge of the world". The author points out what had been going on foe centuries beyond these frontiers, and this helps in adding perspective. It also tells us what Alexander and his colleagues missed out on, and helps us to conjecture how history might have worked out differently if the army had not turned back.

Naturally, there is a fairly exhaustive probe into the conspiracy theories which surrounded Alexander's demise. As with so much else concerning the man, we will never know for sure....

The book concludes with a look at Alexander's legacy, largely in terms of his enduring impact, and that of Greek culture, on the lands which were subject to conquest. Their limitations are also accepted. If anything, these final chapters left me wanting more...
This is a fine book, and it left me with a much enriched understanding of Alexander the man, and of a dramatic period in history.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Citizen Kane

This is not a formal "review" of Citizen Kane, but instead a set of random (and probably highly debatable and misguided!) observations about this remarkable film.
I find that the reputation of the movie is so formidable that one feels an obligation to concentrate intently on the socio-political content and moral undertones, to the extent of over-analysing it and extracting a distorted or over-zealous interpretation. Also, an excessive focus on the perceived messages risks hindering a full appreciation of the film's technical excellence and innovation.
At the same time, it is easy to become caught up in the "Rosebud" "enigma", and forget the deeper things which Orson Welles et al were possibly trying to say.  "Rosebud" may have been intended as a bookend device, to hold the thing together. Yes, Kane in his dying breath appeared to lament the loss of childhood innocence and happiness, with the intrusion of wealth, power and adulthood. However, some other elements of the story are worthy of comment.
How significant is it, for example, that Kane was set on his way by his family suddenly coming into money, by a sudden extraneous intervention which was bound to disturb his equilibrium, and lead to an air of unreality and artificiality?  The gold mine which was discovered on the Kane family's land can perhaps be seen as a metaphor or dubious portent of sorts, a symbol of plenty and affluence which actually led to impoverishment of a non-material kind for one of the supposed beneficiaries?
Watching Citizen Kane, I mused on the nature and effects of "privilege", good fortune and windfalls. It is often (correctly) noted how such things often lead to a sense of injustice amongst the less fortunate, but it must be remembered that those on whom "fortune" is bestowed are often harmed or blighted in a different way. An inheritance or bequest can be a mixed blessing indeed...
Some of the "Orwellian" imagery is very potent, and was of course very in vogue in the early 1940s. Such aesthetics may not be particularly fashionable these days, but they would be just as apposite, as many of the themes which gave rise to that backdrop are as relevant and prevalent as ever; the depredations of the state and big business, whether separately or in concert. It strikes me that somebody should make a 21st-century equivalent of Citizen Kane. The raw material is plentiful, even if the age of reclusive and eccentric media moguls appears to have passed.
On the subject of media moguls, it occurs to me that we no longer have campaigning and crusading newspapers in the style of Kane's New York Daily Inquirer. True, a paper may occasionally get its teeth into an emotive and pressing issue, but this tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Even if the motives are occasionally questionable, such campaigns have the capacity to do good and challenge the existing orthodoxy, and make those in power uncomfortable. Those who undertake things for selfish reasons still sometimes leave some positives in their wake..
It can also be argued that the picture poses a question about wealth "for its own sake" and wealth as the gateway to power, as pursued by some of Kane's adversaries, and wealth as a means to an end, but what those "ends" are is left largely unresolved, and their promise unredeemed. Much of the "philanthropy" which we see is aimed primarily at making Kane loved by individuals close to him, or by the public at large. People who feel misunderstood simply become more defensive and insecure when attempts to ingratiate themselves are shunned.
During the newsreel segments at the start, we see the "Noah's Ark" analogy in Kane's zoo. What symbolism here I wonder?  More evidence of a siege mentality, or the conceit of a man who continued to believe that he was doing the world a favour by his activities?
With each viewing Citizen Kane becomes slightly less dazzling and awe-inspiring to me, but the more pessimistic and grim an impression of the human condition it leaves. This may simply reflect my own shifting attitudes. All the same, it is still a diverting and startling piece of cinema.