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.