Friday, 30 January 2015

Seeing The World Through Different Eyes

In recent times, I have had occasion to reflect on how people's world-view shifts over time, and how this is affected by altered circumstances and environment.
Throughout my later teenaged years, and much of the first two decades of my adult life, I very seldom questioned the economic and social systems in which I had been raised, or many of the assumptions on which they were founded. I guess that a bit of ignorance (and youthful gullibility and impressionability) was excusable in the earlier days.  Later, my outlook was I guess a form of defence mechanism.  I had a nice mundane, shallow life, and I didn't want it disturbed or spoiled by any of these new ideas, thank you very much.

So what changed?  Well, the world itself changed a bit, but the real change was in me, my circumstances and consequently my perspective. About five years ago my life underwent a major upheaval, and I stepped off the treadmill which I had boarded after leaving school at eighteen. This permitted me more time to think, to read and to analyse. I was no longer having to react impulsively or defensively to the opinions of others, but had the space to survey the landscape at my own leisure.  Also, as a result of my changed situation, I felt I had less and less of a vested interest in the status quo being maintained, and I became more attuned to the concerns of those less fortunate. The rat race encourages us to be blinkered and self-centred, despite the façade which we may habitually erect for the consumption of friends and social media.

I wonder whether my experience has been the reverse of what usually occurs with people in their adult lives?. Do people normally become more conservative as they get older, cynical and embittered by experience of the real world, and having had the idealism slowly but surely ground out of them?   I have also known plenty of people who evince "concern" for their fellow man, but ultimately the only thing which really mattered to them was whether the value of their own house and share portfolio would continue to rise. Of course, any sacrifices needed to improve the lot of humanity would have to be made by a mythical "somebody else"....

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Italian Job (1969 movie)

I have always had a mild aversion to the misty-eyed nostalgia which surrounds this movie, the original 1969 version starring Michael Caine. English people are "expected" to embrace it as a luminous symbol of everything that was "great" about the Swinging Sixties. I have never quite bought into the hype, in a similar way that I harbour a blind spot about the music of certain pop/rock groups who are meant to embody the same spirit. I have tended to regard such artefacts as nebulous and lacking in genuine incisiveness. Anyway, I recently dug out the DVD and watched the picture again, to determine whether my reservations had been misplaced.

To summarize, the story revolves around a gold robbery in Turin planned by a gang from England. The first thing which one notices in viewing "The Italian Job" is the opulence of the visuals, the scenery and the clothing, hairstyles, cars, settings and so forth. At the same time, there is an abundance of Sixties clichés, musically, visually and otherwise.
Another thing which is worth remembering is that this movie was released in 1969, and it is tempting to ask whether the stylings and approach were out of date by then, especially when set against the deeper and less frivolous work which other people were producing at that time.
Michael Caine is likeable and confidence-inspiring as always, and the supporting cast is also admirable, including fine British comedy actors such as John Le Mesurier and Irene Handl in "cameos".
In its earlier stages, the film is very fast-moving, with numerous short and snappy scenes documenting the preparatory stages. The plot has more substance and depth to it than I had remembered, even if the dialogue is occasionally implausible. Did the Noel Coward character inspire the creation of "Genial Harry Grout", from the later BBC sitcom Porridge, or is this a long-established plot device in any crime-orientated film or book?
I made reference before to the Sixties clichés, and to the notion that the film might have been somehow "dated" by the time of its release. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that darker, more insidious imagery also plays a role here, that more typical of films from the late Sixties and early Seventies. The funeral/graveyard scene is one example. This all helps to make the film more "1969" than some popular myth might suggest. It is not all Swinging London euphoria -  there are unmistakable hints of the more cynical and uncertain times ahead.
Of course, "The Italian Job" is best remembered for the sequences in the city of Turin, and for the later scenes involving the Mini Coopers and the coach. These scenes, and the stunts therein, are brilliantly executed, although they occasionally look very "choreographed". These, and the scenes surrounding the heist itself, must have been a very intricate logistical undertaking, and it must be emphasized that, in "technical" areas such as these, the movie is excellent.
This film is often described as a "caper", which I take to mean that it is not intended as pure comedy, but not intended as deep drama either. There are definitely humorous and even semi-satirical elements to it, but also more cerebral and serious touches, and these all conspire to give it an endearingly enigmatic and ambiguous character.
This correspondent has eaten some humble pie since this most recent viewing of "The Italian Job", but I still find myself unable to become truly immersed in the picture. For reasons which are difficult to explain, it just doesn't engage me emotionally or intellectually, even allowing for the fact that it is not meant to be taken too seriously. It is still great entertainment, though, and the "cliffhanger" ending was a real masterstroke....


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Physical Graffiti - Led Zeppelin - album review

When people are asked what Led Zeppelin's finest album was, I suspect that most people plump for Led Zeppelin II or the "untitled" fourth album.  My preference is for either the 1969 debut (my review here) or the 1975 double-album Physical Graffiti.
This is not my favourite because of the famous "marquee" tracks, which can become tarnished by familiarity anyway. No, Physical Graffiti appeals to me because of its sprawling and diverse character, epitomised particularly by Disc 2 of the CD (sides 3 and 4 on the original vinyl?).  This feel and character may have come about partly because of the timespan of the recording sessions;some of the material dates from as far back as 1970.
This record also still has the very agreeable mixture of blues and folk-inflected material, the last time that this would occur with Zeppelin, before the more "synthetic" and contemporary feel of the last two original studio albums.  The set may have the reputation with most people of being something of a monolith, but to me it is full of subtlety, variety and surprises.  It has been remarked that Robert Plant's voice is not at its strongest on some of the numbers recorded in 1974, but in a curious way this only adds to the album's appeal.
The first two sides of the original vinyl LP are more what would be termed straight-ahead Zeppelin music, with the remaining space occupied by more experimental and quirky creations. The album starts strongly with the feisty and uncomplicated "Custard Pie", underpinned by a gutsy riff and the always welcome sound of John Paul Jones' keyboards, in this instance the clavinet. Beginning a trend which would span the entire record, John Bonham's drums sound mighty.
The standard is capably maintained by "The Rover", and then by "In My Time Of Dying", a bluesy epic on which Page and Bonham once again excel in their respective departments.  Keyboards once again enrich the recipe on the driving and infectious "Trampled Underfoot". 
"Disc 1", as it were, is rounded off by "Kashmir". Now this is commonly referred to as a "classic", but I must admit that these days I find it a bit ponderous and even flat.  Familiarity may have led to my weariness about the song. To me it just lacks vitality and energy, and this opinion is accentuated by some of the material surrounding it here.
"Disc 2" is a veritable box of delights, kicking off with "In The Light", yet another song embellished by keyboards, in this case the "exotic" introduction, and what sounds like electric piano later on. Some nice sounding guitar solos also enliven proceedings.
It is now that the album becomes most intriguing.  Following the acoustic gem "Bron-Y-Aur", we come to the reflective "Down by The Seaside", in some respects a most "un-Zeppelin" track, even featuring some country-esque tinges, but fitting in perfectly comfortably here.
"Ten Years Gone" is a most powerful yet musically sophisticated number, with lovely layered and delicate guitar parts, an atmosphere of light and shade, unexpected twists and turns and poignant lyrics. Of all the longer "epic" songs contained on Physical Graffiti, this one has definitely stood the test of time.
Next up is the very likeable and rootsy "Night Flight", one of the most downright enjoyable items in the whole Led Zeppelin catalogue. Yet again the variety and texture imbued by keyboards is a contributory factor in the experience, in this case the organ. Significantly, it sounds like the guys had a whale of a time recording this song.
Eventually the record is rounded off with two more strong songs. "Black Country Woman" in many ways harks back to the informal and semi-humorous flavour of Led Zeppelin III, and is in my opinion one of the more underrated of their acoustic numbers. Another track which evokes the sense of what fun it must have been to be a member of Led Zeppelin.
The closer is "Sick Again", seemingly a slightly jaded commentary on the rock music scene or life on the road. A strong song, but it seems to me that it might have worked better live than on this version. The backing track sounds quite fuzzy and indistinct; maybe that was intentional, but one is left with the feeling that the song could have sounded better.
Physical Graffiti was the personal favourite of at least one of the musicians in the group, and I can see why. This is the culmination of all the various strands of "Zeppelin music" which had flourished since the late 1960s, polished in some areas, but also with some of the spontaneity and rough edges intentionally left in. A real summation of the band's strengths and idiosyncrasies.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Oxford History of Medieval Europe

The Middle Ages are commonly seen as a misunderstood, forbidding and bewildering period in human history, often the subject of heated debate between differing schools of thought. One book which offers a modicum of clarity amid the confusion and fog is The Oxford History of Medieval Europe, edited by George Holmes.

To make it more digestible, the book is divided into chapters corresponding to three segments of time, and these periods are then further sub-divided on the basis of what occurred in Southern and Northern Europe within those years. Each chapter is written by a different historian.

The early part of this history tends to focus on the differences between the eastern and western sectors of the Mediterranean, and the two "empires" which dominated it. Of course, the incursions of the barbarians are very much to the fore, but it is pointed out that these arrivals were not always violent in nature, and that tactics of "inducement", or playing one party off against another, sometimes paid off. A fraught and precarious juggling act it must have been, though. I was impressed by the passages which explored the barbarians, and their power structures, customs and so forth.

This period, like most of the Middle Ages, can be fiendishly confusing, because of the numerous overlapping jurisdictions and the proliferation of pacts and deals, but the authors do a reasonable job of cutting through the morass of detail. One is left with an acute impression of the volatility of fortune, as the factions fought for power, influence and survival. 

There are some intriguing sections dealing with the waxing and waning of cities, towns and urban and commercial life generally. Often references are made to archaeological finds to support theories and conclusions.

Of course, the Byzantine Empire is a central part of the story, and this is an aspect which fascinates me. Byzantium is something of an enigma to many, I suspect, but it also has a mystique and an allure. An area which is definitely on my agenda for additional study. Here, we get a vivid idea of how the empire constantly adapted, and managed to weather most of the changes, challenges and upheavals which came its way.

From the early medieval stages in particular, one can arrive at the conclusion that things were much more exciting in the Mediterranean than they were further north. This may be true, but I wonder how much the true picture has been distorted by the disparity in the quantity (and quality) of available documented records? There is recurring emphasis on the uneven nature of events and changes, with much cautioning against subscribing to the over-simplistic assessments which are so often served up.

It is noted once or twice that whilst all the glittering and "glamorous" political manoeuvrings and advances in commerce and culture were happening, the vast majority of the population of Europe was enduring a fairly miserable and oppressed existence. The "headline" events and pastimes were the preserve of small, privileged elites. The one-upmanship and jostling between and amongst those elites was often at the expense of the downtrodden and the disenfranchised. The latter could only look on in bemusement, unable to predict with any certainty whether they would be ruled by comparatively enlightened masters, or by despots.

In lamenting the apparent degeneration or decay of some elements of culture and civilization, do we need to bear in mind that communications were almost non-existent, that word of progress and enlightenment did not spread, and that science and knowledge were still mistrusted in some quarters? The world was not yet assuming any kind of philosophical or ethical homogeneity.

Naturally, the Vikings get a mention in this history. I would have liked more about them and their exploits, even taking into account the format of this book. What coverage there is seeks to present a balanced view of their motives and their record, and gives a genuinely Europe-wide perspective on the effects of their arrival and settlements.

There is some admirable analysis of societal structures and hierarchies. This got me thinking. Back then, real freedom and social mobility were restricted to but a few, and those in the "lower" strata possessed few of the tools to attempt a remedy.  These days, with better education and modern communications, do the masses accept their lot too readily, or are they correct in recognizing that it will always be thus? Much mention of huge swathes of land (and attendant privileges) being handed out to certain "special interests".  Some would opine that after that the genie was out of the bottle, and that the root of many an ill was planted.

For the most part, I found the Italian peninsula, and the areas directly adjacent to it, to constitute the most fascinating arena here. Many factions collided there, and struggled for pre-eminence,or cobbled together compromises. The developments in that part of the world also offered a glimpse into the future - merchants, "republics", original thinking, more secular culture.

There is a relatively short, but highly readable, examination of the whole city-state phenomenon, its vitality, its deficiencies and its implications. However imperfect and tenuous they were, this was another foretaste of how much of wider Europe was destined to develop. Rightly or wrongly, I perceived that the authors were seeking to imply that the city-states were not as "progressive" as some commentators might have made out. Towards the end, there is a look at cultural and intellectual trends in the later Middle Ages.

This book has prompted me to consider reading more extensively on topics as diverse as Charlemagne, Byzantium and the Italian city-states. Overall, it is an entertaining, well-pitched and illuminating overview of a vast and intricate picture.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Led Zeppelin - the debut album - review

My music habits tend to go in "cycles", and I will get away from listening to certain bands or artists for a period of time before organically, naturally almost, returning to their work. In recent days it has been the turn of Led Zeppelin to receive my renewed attention.  Their debut album, released in 1969, still shines like a beacon due to its primal energy and its powerful immediacy. It is probably my favourite Led Zeppelin record, along with the 1975 double-album Physical Graffiti.

This release has probably endured better than most of the group's other efforts, and I think this is because of its exuberantly "live" feel.  There is a freshness, almost a naivete, about it, possibly a consequence of this being their first disc. The music exudes a rawness born of the newness of the combination, as if they hadn't yet had the time or the opportunity to over-complicate matters or burden themselves with various pressures. The sound itself possesses a clarity and a vitality which they never again quite replicated.

Of the individual musicians, all shine, but Robert Plant excels, and producer Jimmy Page admirably captures the vocalist's qualities. Some of the songs do suit his singing style - "How Many More Times" and "Dazed And Confused" spring to mind. Indeed his voice rarely sounded so dynamic and strong again with Zeppelin.  John Bonham's prodigious ability is also a prominent feature, and the fact that these two newcomers to "the big time" perform with such assurance and confidence is a major factor in making Led Zeppelin such a convincing work. The studio and musical know-how of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones is also crucial, of course.

The predominant styles which dominate the album are blues, folk and folk-rock. The blues-rock element is a continuation of the direction in which The Yardbirds had been heading.  The folk/acoustic side would be a feature of the Zeppelin sound until the mid-1970s, a fact often overlooked by the band's detractors. Page and Plant's interest in folk music, and the American West Coast sound, combined with the general musical eclecticism of the band as a whole, would ensure the diversity of the track listings.

There is a pleasing and effective mixture of epic longer songs and shorter snappier numbers ("Good Times Bad Times", "Communication Breakdown", "Your Time Is Gonna Come"). The latter's vibrant organ-based introduction is one of the highlights of the entire set. The group's musical heritage is illustrated by as much by the inclusion of "Black Mountain Side" as it is by the presence of the two blues covers, "You Shook Me" and "I Can't Quit You Baby".

Led Zeppelin's musical output would grow more "sophisticated" and "polished", but rarely would it match the spontaneity and elan which is to be found in abundance on this, their first album.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Rubber Soul - The Beatles - album review

For a long time, it was blithely stated that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the greatest Beatles album. However, reason eventually prevailed, and that particular accolade was transferred to "Revolver". It was then predicted that the consensus of critical opinion would move backwards in time again, to identify 1965's "Rubber Soul" as their finest record. That process, correctly in my opinion, has never quite materialised, but "Rubber Soul" remains an important album for several reasons.

John Lennon I think once said that this was where the contemporary influences (by which I presume he meant Bob Dylan, folk-rock and 60s soul) started profoundly affecting the Beatles' work. These influences were arguably manifesting themselves earlier, but on "Rubber Soul" they have been subsumed maturely and naturally into the framework of the group's overall sound and dynamic.

This is certainly a more "mature" record than "Help!".  The latter indisputably contains some great songs (the title track, "Ticket To Ride", "Yesterday", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"), but much of the rest is shallow by the Beatles' standards. Of course, certain non-musical "lifestyle" factors had been at work since 1964, and it could be that on "Rubber Soul" the band had finally worked out how to best channel and harness these to generate creative energy and focus.
It almost goes without saying that the lyrical content was growing more experimental and varied. By late 1965 even the "love songs" display an enhanced worldliness and sophistication. It would take further spiritual awakenings and the introduction of other stimuli, before the full flowering of the "Revolver" period would emerge. That said, The Beatles were already exhibiting that uncanny tendency to be in tune with the way in which the socio-cultural wind was blowing, without being seen to "force the issue". Songs such as "The Word" are evidence of this.

There was also a sense that this album marked the next phase of the group's evolution, Beatlemania as such having reached its zenith on the preceding American tour. On "Rubber Soul", The Beatles exude the confidence of people who have begun to master the studio, whereas on the previous records they sound as though they are still chasing something. Psychologically, they are already entering the post-touring mentality and ethos, beginning to expand their horizons and explore new territory.
I'm not sure whether this album has historically been perceived as a "Lennon" album.  The songs which have lingered longest in the popular consciousness ("Norwegian Wood", "Nowhere Man", "In My Life"), were his creations. On the other hand, Paul McCartney's presence looms large, not just in his songwriting contributions, but also in his vocal and instrumental versatility and ebullience, which always enriched and enlivened the other members' songs. To me, it genuinely feels like a collective effort, as indeed would "Revolver".

There is still some filler here, but it is superior filler, and by and large it does not tarnish the overall impression of a strong album. If anything this is despite rather than because of the running order; the record does rather tail off, with weaker material predominating towards the close.

This is probably my fourth favourite Beatles LP. "Abbey Road" is glorious pop/rock with added poignancy, "The White Album" is a sprawling and engagingly chaotic document of its times, and "Revolver" is an effervescent case of the Swinging Sixties merging into the counter-culture and psychedelia.  "Rubber Soul" cannot claim that kind of cogency, but it is nevertheless a satisfying listening experience.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Books About Music

In recent times I have got out of the habit of reading books about music, concentrating instead on history and fiction. However, the arrival of the New Year may persuade me to dust off some of the music-related titles on my shelves. Here are a few of my favourites.

One of the best reference works I have encountered is the fairly monumental AllMusic Guide To Rock, which summarizes the works of a huge diversity of rock, pop and soul artists, giving album ratings as well as brief reviews. Each act is also accorded a brief biography, and there is also an effort to summarize each genre and sub-genre. The sort of book in which to become happily immersed, both to rekindle old tastes and to develop new ones.

As far as scholarly works are concerned, Ian MacDonald's "Revolution In The Head" has a deservedly high reputation. Basically an analysis, song-by-song, of the music of The Beatles, cross-referenced with the social upheavals of the Sixties, it is a riveting read, and it fully merits the acclaim which it has been afforded.

Another Beatles-related book of some import is "The Complete Beatles Chronicle", written by Mark Lewisohn.  Meticulously researched, it basically lists, in chronological order and in remarkable detail, what the Fab Four were doing on each day during their career, whether it was a concert, a recording session, a radio show , a television appearance or something else. Lavishly illustrated, this is another engrossing read, and a reminder of just how frenetic the Beatles' schedule was, especially in the period 1962-1964.

Also well worth seeking out is "Waiting For The Sun", a chronicle of the Los Angeles music scene by Barney Hoskyns. It does not just concentrate on the "obvious" artists, but explores the development of various musical sub-cultures, the careers of influential people, and also the changing character of the music industry itself.

As far as biographies are concerned, Johnny Rogan's books out Neil Young and The Byrds are hugely comprehensive and enjoyable.  Recommended too are Philip Norman's book about The Rolling Stones, and Barney Hoskyns' work dealing with the story of The Band.

Dave Marsh's "The Heart Of Rock & Soul - The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made" is a strident and thought-provoking work, not for the faint-hearted, but impossible to put down once begun. It probably helped to jolt me out of some of my musical complacency and inertia, even if I didn't agree with all of the author's opinions.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to do some reading....