Messin’ with the Kid – 12 from Todd.

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I have been a fan of Todd Rundgren ever since a friend of mine played me his song ‘Marlene’ which was on the B – side of ‘I Saw The Light’. Over the last few days I have been listening to a 2 CD set called ‘Go On Ignore Me – The Best of Todd Rundgren’. Now ‘best of’s’ can be a mixed bag usually made of all the songs you would not choose but also a good taster to invite further investigation. But given the sheer breadth of Todd’s work choosing 41 songs (as on this set) from his catalogue is a dauntless task. Anyway, here’s my ’12 from Todd’;

‘Wailing Wall’ – from ‘The Ballad of Todd Rundgren’ – a simple piano ballad, channelling Laura Nyro but also pure Todd.

‘I Saw The Light’ and ‘Marlene’ – two songs from ‘Something/ Anything?’ – they need no introduction from me – thanks to Gordon M. for playing ‘Marlene’ for me all those years ago – it’s all your fault! While you are listening to these examples of early pop legerdemain check out the ‘bossa nova’ version of ‘Light’ on Todd’s album ‘With A Twist’. It is, like the rest of the record, a cracker!

‘Sweeter Memories’ – also from ‘Something’ – great bluesy guitar and a drum part the composer says he stole from Levon Helm.

‘Hello It’s Me’ – the second version of this song from ‘Something’ – apparently the composer was melodically influenced by organist Jimmy Smith here – great horns by The Brecker Brothers and Barry Rogers. From the ‘pop – operetta’ on side four of the vinyl version of ‘Something’.

‘Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel’ – a 1973 single from ‘A Wizard, A True Star’ – a psychedelic smorgasbord of an album if there ever was one. Anyone looking for the pop of the previous records were in for a surprise – it took me years to get into the vinyl version but this gorgeous song (with the Breckers on horns again) is one of my favourite Todd tracks. I think all of us have felt like this sometimes!

‘Medley; I’m So Proud/ Ooh Baby Baby/ La La Means I Love You/ Cool Jerk’ – again from ‘Wizard’ – in the midst of the sonic onslaught there is this gem of a medley – wonderful voices and that Philly soul – Todd’s voices on ‘I’m So Proud’ are worth the price of admission alone!!

‘Just One Victory’ – and we are on our way – more soaring choruses and not quite the kitchen sink!

‘An Elpee’s Worth of Toons’ – from ‘Todd’ – a great curiosity this, and according to the last glorious chorus, he really wants to change the world – gorgeous!

‘The Last Ride’ – also from ‘Todd’ – great soprano saxophone solo from Peter Ponzol and the composer’s guitar solo takes it out. There is a great version of this tune in a web video with Daryl Hall in one of his ‘Live From Daryl’s House’ sessions.

‘Can We Still Be Friends’ – from ‘Hermit of Mink Hollow’ – another great pop song (excellently covered by the much missed Robert Palmer!) – listen to way that the voices are layered together – I assume they are all Todd, as with most of his records he’s a busy boy around the studio!

‘The Want of a Nail’ – from the album ‘Nearly Human’, Todd shares vocals with Bobby Womack in this r’n’b stormer – this song always has me dancing around the kitchen. The whole album is a real  return to form after an absence whilst Todd was on production duties.

So that’s my ’12 from Todd’ – nothing from ‘Initiation’ or ‘A Capella’ or even ‘Faithful’ I know but these twelve are always somewhere on my playlists – either the ones in my head or on my ‘phone – he is a pop genius who, like The Beatles’ turned the studio into an instrument in its own right, truly a wizard and a true star!!

 

Nineteen Eighty Four and all that.

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I am just re- reading the novel ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ by George Orwell. It is some years since I read it last and, if I am honest, my memories of it come mostly from the film that was made in 1984 (!) with John Hurt as Winston Smith and Richard Burton as O’Brien. The book itself is not easy to read and had many critics when it was first published yet seventy years after its original publication it has become a best seller. In his biography of the novel ‘The Ministry of Truth’ Dorian Lynskey writes of the way that the book has “not just sold tens of millions of copies: it has infiltrated the consciousness of countless people who have  never read it”. I wonder how apocryphal it is to say that sales of the book increased in the months after Donald Trump became POTUS 45!

Following Mr Lynskey’s comment above, the content of the book is familiar not only from the many variations on its theme (the film ‘V’ for Vendetta’ for instance) but also from the way that many phrases from the book have entered the language. ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’ to name just two. I find it fascinating that these phrases have given their name to a so called ‘reality’ TV show and a comedy panel show on the BBC where ‘celebrities’ decide which annoying thing they are to consign to ‘Room 101’, light years away from Winston Smith’s terrifying experience in the actual room! I wonder what Orwell would have made of his subversive fiction being used as part of the pabulum of ‘popular’ entertainment (to be watched of course on our giant telescreens!). Such screens do not yet observe us, but our ‘Alexa’s’ apparently do!

When I first read the book it was as straight science fiction set in a future age of totalitarian rule but the book is far too subtle for that one reading. I am fascinated by the similarities between Orwell’s book and that other newly popular dystopia Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’; both are set in a ‘possible’ future but could about any present, both Atwood’s afterword suggesting that ‘Handmaid’ is a historical document and Orwell’s appendix on ‘The Principles of Newspeak’ give both books a weight that I feel reaches beyond mere ‘fiction’. Orwell’s book is a powerful indictment of the pursuit of power for its own sake. During one of their encounters in Room 101 O’Brien says this to Smith; “But always….there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”. That last sentence is one of the most famous in the book, but O’Brien also says this; “Power is not a means, it is an end”. Perhaps Orwell is reminding people of what happens, of what is probably happening now, when a government oversteps its bounds and destroys many of the freedoms we take so much for granted. When O’Brien shows Winston his reflection in the mirror towards the end of the book I was not only reminded of the death camps in WW2, but also the repeat of that atrocity in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It is perhaps naive to think that we could learn for the horrors of the past, but as someone has written, if we cannot learn these lessons we are doomed to repeat them. Treblinka, Srebrencia or even the US/ Mexican border, in a sense we do not need fiction to remind us of the dangers that Orwell warned us about.

Somehow this book has transcended the post war Britain that Orwell knew; the rationing, the bomb sites, the rocket bombs – or ‘steamers’ in the novel- and the spectre of totalitarianism. It has spoken to me recently, no matter how harsh and uncompromising its voice is. This is one reason why I have read George Orwell over the years – I may find what he says to be difficult and inconvenient, but I still need to hear what he says. ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ is not an easy read (and its ending is light years away from a conventional ‘good end’), but it is an necessary one. The writer Timothy Garton Ash underlines its importance in these words; “His final masterpiece….enthralling and indispensable for understanding modern history”.

(‘Nineteen Eighty Four is a Penguin Classic, Dorian Lynskey’s biography of the novel ‘The Ministry of Truth’ is newly published and looks well worth investigating. My reading of the novel was illuminated by D.J. Taylor’s biography ‘George Orwell – The Life’ published in 2003).

Off to see the Wizard!

I must have been about six or seven years old, sitting in the darkness of the Davenport cinema in my home town. It was a school trip from the Convent High School I attended and I was in the cinema to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’. All I really remember about this first viewing was the way that Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West) terrified me so much that I watched most of the film with my school cap held up to my eyes – I wasn’t really able to appreciate the finer points of this almost surrealistic film, but that green face and the mocking laugh provided the fuel for many nightmares!

Through the years I have seen the film many times eventually watching it with my own children. It has travelled with me, not just because of that earlier, traumatic, viewing, but also because its themes are universal; there is the orphan Dorothy’s escape from the (monochrome) Kansas of the early section of the film, her meeting with Professor Marvel (one of five parts played by the actor Frank Morgan!), and her eventual arrival in the (technicolor) land of Oz. There are the perennial themes of loss, a longing for home, and the importance of friendship. One of the truest themes in the film is that way that each of Dorothy’s companions already has the qualities that they are looking for (do I really need to enumerate them?), all they need is the courage to own them. And I feel that it is no accident that they, and Dorothy, discover so much about truth and lies in the course of a journey along a yellow brick road!

The film has rightly garnered a great deal of critical acclaim though the years, despite its troubled genesis, yet for me every time I watch it I am almost that child again, marvelling at these dangerous visions, frightened half out of my wits by a wicked witch but also captivated by the images and the story they tell. This film is so important to me that when an English building society decided to use a sequence from the film in an advert and digitally added another actor into the sequence I thought that the barbarians were not just at the gates, but had smashed their way into my personal citadel of dreams!

And yet despite that cavil, the film remains. Like all true art every viewing reveals something new whilst reminding me of my own first experience of watching films. Follow the yellow brick road indeed!

(This post was inspired by the memories of another writer Luiza Sauma who wrote about her experience of the film in an article in The Guardian newspaper on the 15th of June this year. The article is  called ‘Return to the Yellow Brick Road’).

Night and the City.

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It is maybe a modern conceit to say that everyone has ‘a soundtrack’, songs and pieces of music that sum up an exact period in a person’s life but there is something about certain pieces of music that have that ability, as it were to seem to suspend time. I only have to hear a song by Labi Siffre called ‘Make My Day’ and I am back in the hallway of my first real girlfriend’s house waiting for her to come out – it is like I have never lost that queasy mix of nervousness and anxiety (it is still a good song though!). Similarly, I only have to hear Frank Sinatra sing and I am immediately transported back to the house I grew up in and my teenage dismissal of his voice contrasted with my father’s appreciation – sometimes the arrogance that thinks that rock music is superior will only take you so far!

But here I want to write about a piece of classical music that takes me back to a particular place. I first heard Aaron Copland’s ‘Quiet City’ on the radio late at night – almost at once its quiet grace summoned up early morning car horns and steam venting from gratings, a city (New York?) either looking for sleep or waking up to a new day. It struck a chord (!) with me and I could not get the yearning mix of cor anglais and trumpet out of my head. The next time I heard it was going to be on the radio I taped it (missing much of the beginning – I wasn’t quick enough!) and it was only much later that I was able to afford a CD of Copland’s music that included this glorious piece. Apparently Copland originally wrote it in the 1930’s to accompany a play by Irwin Shaw called ‘Quiet City’ about a man who abandons everything he values to marry well and to move up in society but who is haunted by the sound of his brother’s trumpet which calls up his own previously abandoned poetic aspirations. I find the duet between trumpet and cor anglais immensely moving (they remind me a lot of the oboe that threads its way through one of Thomas Newman’s themes in his soundtrack to the film ‘The Adjustment Bureau’) and the sustained strings that hover around the duet speak to me of potential, of something becoming, whether dawn or a growing sense of uncertainty. The music is melancholy and uplifting at the same time. I have always felt it a shame that although Aaron Copland is rightly feted for his other work (‘Appalachian Spring’ and ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’), this piece is perhaps not as well known as it should be.

‘Quiet City’ is so beautiful that in the right context it can move me to tears – it has a quiet grace and a certain dignity. I love the way that the principal instruments mirror each other as though involved in a stately dance and the whole is evocative not just of a place but of that strange experience of half hearing something on the radio when half asleep, catching just a snatch of something that repays further hearings when awake.

(I tried to find a photo to fit this post, the beautiful monochrome shot from nextvoyage may not capture the atmosphere of Copland’s piece but it has a sort of urban glory that is all of its own!).

It’s that song (again).

Waiting for a bus the other day I heard a familiar song. It was blasting out of speakers above the entrance to a restaurant – the song was ‘Escape (The Pina Colada Song)’ by Rupert Holmes. It seems to me that I have heard this song all over the place in recent weeks. It has become one of those staples of movie soundtracks from the first ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ to any number of romantic comedies, and it lays claim to being Mr Holmes most popular song. In his wry sleeve note to the 2000 compilation of his ‘Greatest Hits’ the composer notes; “Although this particular recording has come to be an audio icon of the seventies…..it was actually the number one record of that decade and held that position into the eighties, meaning that ‘Escape’ was at the top of the charts for two decades without interruption”.

However, for all the ebullience and popularity of the original record (two drummers, anyone?) it is not actually my favourite song to come from ‘The Holmes Line’ – that accolade belongs to ‘Studio Musician’ from his third Epic recording ‘Singles’ released in 1976. Apart from giving an insight into the anonymity of the session musician (think ‘Sessionman’s Blues’ by Clive James and Pete Atkin with an LA sheen) it displays many of Mr Holmes’ talents; the slightly careworn vocal, the clever lyric and the sumptuous arrangement, these are things you might find on any of his records. This is intelligent pop music that denies any of the convenient labels that can placed upon it – is it rock, pop, or firmly middle of the road?

Holmes’ first album ‘Widescreen’ (1974) was a real revelation to me. Here was an accomplished and intelligent writer and musician with a firm sense of his craft who wasn’t above the occasional pastiche – witness the sublime ‘Second Saxophone’, or the radio spoof ‘Psycho Drama’ with its tongue in cheek evocation of old radio dramas (apparently RH is an avid collector of such shows). I still own the original vinyl album, and an awfully expensive import CD (this was years before the recent re – release of his first three records in a lovely set with the obligatory outtakes and a helpful commentary). As much as I retain an affection for these records, that affection has grown since I discovered (from the liner notes to the new set) that Rupert enjoyed C.Day Lewis’ marvellous novel ‘The Otterbury Incident’ as a child, by coincidence, one of my favourite books!

In fact all his recordings are worth investigating if you are looking for intelligent music that entertains and amuses – as well as being backed by tremendous energy and ability. In fact in terms of studio craft many of his records remind me of those masters of irony Steely Dan in their meticulous production and unexpected r’ n’ b touches!!

Should you desire it, a useful taster would be the 2000 compilation released on Universal’s ‘Hip -O’ imprint, it takes you from ‘Second Saxophone’ to ‘Town Square and the Old School’ from his album ‘Pursuit of Happiness’. The final word here should come from the composer himself, commenting on his role as a story teller; “I hope that some of these songs may sound a sympathetic note in you and I trust whatever images they may conjure are yours and yours alone”.

(Apart from the compilation mentioned above Rupert Holmes’ first three records were recently re – issued last year as a three CD set by Cherry Red Records. And a great time is guaranteed for all!)