“Days later a car with two state agents appeared at the studio and took me away…”

There’s almost certainly load of other stuff I should be sorting out but sometimes a piece of music places an unrelenting hand on your shoulder, and won’t be denied..

 

This is part of a record released under the name of Kosmischer Läufer in 2013 and billed as the “secret cosmic music of the East German Olympic program”. The press release that accompanied it, speaks plausibly of a lost album of motoric-inspired work by an East German sound engineer called Martin Zeichnete which was created for Iron Curtain athletes to train to. (“What few knew is that as well as doping and utilising one of the most sophisticated scientific sport programmes ever devised some more ‘esoteric’ methods to gain sporting advantage were employed.”)

I love this story and in the true “sunlit uplands” spirit of the day, I care little for whether it’s true or not (it’s not), I’m totally on board.

And as with the Beak record I wrote about a few weeks ago, it’s so fondly and craftily fashioned that I really don’t care whether it’s real or fake – we’re post-truth, remember. You could tell me it’s a great lost bootleg by Neu! (or Harmonia. Or Krafwerk. Or Cluster) and I’d believe you. (Or in reality, I’d most likely stare blankly at you, eyes-glazed, nodding like a loon…)

Go to the Kosmscher Läufer website for further elaborate spoofery (I’m particularly keen on the idea of the interview fragments scattered randomly, Stasi-style, amongst each release.)

The great news is that a further three albums of material have also been uncovered in the following five years.

Truly, we are blessed.

Strange thoughts, running through my head

I’ve done that proper teacher thing this half term – catching a head cold as soon as the holiday starts – and I’ve spent the week quilt-cocooned, surrounded by tissues and empty DVD cases, and generally feeling more than a little sorry for myself. (Even missed a big night at Castle Grim – who doesn’t want to see the league leaders and metropolitan Fancy Dans comprehensively beasted at the ‘holm of rugby…?)

I’d fully intended to do a couple of dazzling posts over the week, but eyes streaming and head pounding the dry, elegant prose for which this Blog has become known deserted me. The world will never know the shades of brilliance, the wit and the wisdom, and the ham-fisted over-exuberance that will not now see the light of day. (Although I suspect it can make a fair guess…)

As I started to feel better, I’ve been tucking into Peggy Seeger’s memoir, First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, which is a brilliant read, following as it does Seeger’s spirited wanderings across the UK, US and Europe in the late 50s and early 60s. I knew/know almost nothing about Peggy Seeger, but I can see her becoming the latest stroppy subject of a folk-muse crush that I’m currently working on.

But she’ll have to wait a bit, or at least until I’ve got this out of my system…

Lal Waterson

Apart from reading, snivelling and moping, I’ve also spent quite a lot of time listening to Bright Phoebus, a record I bought last year and mentioned at Christmas, but which has grown and grown in my mind over the months. It has an established place amongst the Great Lost Records of All Time, or did until it was re-packaged and released by Domino a couple of years ago. I’ll not go through all the details of the record, the wiki page tells you what you need to know, but if you’ve not yet bought it, I’d urge you to do so.

Released (and largely ignored) in 1972, it’s a darkly beautiful record – there are a few flights of ill-advised “whimsy” – which showcases the dense, wintery songs of Elaine “Lal” Waterson. The Watersons as folk pioneers had pretty much sung and toured themselves into the ground over the previous decade at the end of which, Norma made the improbable move of becoming a DJ in Montserrat. The natural decision seems to have been for her exhausted and dispirited siblings to go to ground.

There’s a 1965 documentary for TV made about the Watersons, three clips of which are on YouTube. They’re a great watch generally but are particularly a lovely keepsake of a world where folk smoked relentlessly, where pints and vans came with handles.

 

With my Bright Phoebus hat on, one of the things that occurs when you watch it a couple of times is how much Lal stays largely in the shadow of her brother and older sister. Norma tended to sing the lead parts and Mike seemed to lead the sparse instrumentation the family allowed themselves. Lal’s role seems to have been largely to sing “unexpected harmonies”.

Once the group had dissolved, she settled back down in Hull with her husband and brought up her family. The following years, however, generated a series of eccentric and grimly beguiling songs that would not lie still and which would, later, charm Martin Carthy and Richard Thomson when they heard them. These songs would form the substance of the Bright Phoebus record. The Domino re-release adds to the body by including an extra CD of demo versions of the songs plus a couple that didn’t make the cut.

At this point, I’d love to include footage of some of them, but I can only find album tracks or covers (there are a load of those – which I guess makes its own point). Lal’s voice, however, is so distinctive – abrasive, stroppy, motionless – that I think we’ll go with an original:

 

This is a bewilderingly beautiful song which manages to sound both fully-formed and incomplete at the same time – it has the feel of an authentic folk piece with vital fragments of continuity that have gone missing over the years. The cooing, clucking tones of the lovers are in spite of the forsaken, rain-swept world that is crumbling around them. Lal’s voice is harsh, but in one ear she is soothed by Martin Carthy’s guitar and by Richard Thomson’s in the other. Oboes and cellos float ethereally around the melody but the overall effect is of thoughts that are strange. The demo version is a much perkier, more self-confident affair, but the version that made the record is shrouded in doubt and misgiving.

There are other earthy gems here too – the haunting “Child Among the Weeds”, reportedly inspired by the still birth of one of Lal’s own twins, with it’s astonishing bridge vocal from friend and folk archivist Bob Davenport; also the murky, forbidding tones of “Never the Same” and “To Make You Stay”, both strongly redolent of personal tragedy.

Recently, I indulged myself and bought a lavishly packaged collection of recordings, lyric sheets and paintings called Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning which also doesn’t disappoint:

 

It’s a gorgeous collection which (along with Pete Paphides’ liner notes to Bright Phoebus) yields all sorts of clues to the kinks and idiosyncrasies of the woman – singer Marry Waterson sites her mother’s spontaneous writing style that would lead to missed meals; her refusal to correct mis-spellings dashed down at pace; brother Mike talks about her imperfect guitar stylings which caused him problems with the songs when first presented and which led to some of her stranger chord choices.

The collection also gives us an unreleased version of another of the highpoints of Bright Phoebus – the truly original, and not a little scary “Scarecrow”. On the album, the vocals are taken by Mike and they’re quite good, although distinctly folk-ground, the lost aitches make it sound blokier, pubbier and take a little of the shadow from the lyric. The Teach Me version, sung by Lal has all the folk-horror chill that a child sacrifice (again) demands. A gruesome song sung with a shudder…

Here’s a last little treasure from Teach Me with an animation done by Marry Waterson:

 

Twitter conversations (including Marry herself) tell me there’s more to discover from Lal, including a record she recorded with her son, Oliver, and records by Marry recorded with brother and with Emily Barker. All of which, I’m looking forward to exploring.

She was a remarkable lady and hers is a voice that will linger.

As we stand in line in the pouring rain…

It’s too late to do a “Best of ‘18” list now, isn’t it?

In any case, “list” might be stretching a little – at the moment, I’d only have two records on it.

Since Christmas, I’ve dabbled with a few things (narrowly missed losing my December downloads from Emusic…) but I’ve mainly listened to only a couple of records. And whaddya know, they’re both bone fide New records, not “new” but actually, genuinely released-in-the-last-twelve-months New. Oh yes.

Thought I’d celebrate my newly-regained cutting edge by doing a bit of a thing about one of them here…

BEAK>

(The other record, by the way, is the Surfing Magazines’ debut which is just great, but seeing as I’ve mentioned them en-passant a couple of times recently, I’ll leave them for another day…)

I’ve a feeling I’ve done something about BEAK> before (and I can’t believe I didn’t mention the “>” thing as well) – I remember being rather keen on all the Bristol landmarks in their song titles. But, characteristically, I may have dreamt this, so I’ll proceed, insensible, as if this is all virgin territory.

Anyway as any ninny knows, BEAK> are the current vehicle of omni-instrumentalist and studio professor Geoff Barrow and last September’s release was the band’s third record. Have a watch:

 

That’s a great video, no?

I love this song for its reedy resolve and the swelling, ballooning effects fanning from Will Young’s keyboard. It makes me think of that great first Suuns record and some of the Yeti Lane stuff (both of these two seem to have gone off the boil recently). I think this might be the first time, I’ve watched the band actually perform on video and I’ve got to admit I didn’t picture Barrow as quite the drummer he is, all wrists and groovy economy. Quite the Robert Wyatt figure (without the gimp mask, regrettably). The video is a bit Dr Who, but I’m on board to be honest, and in the best traditions, the whole thing’s larger on the inside than out.

“Allé Sauvage” is a great song but it’s only one of a cluster of punchy songs that elbow their way into your face, all beery belligerence and unwelcome persistence. “King of the Castle” and “RSI” are also belting songs – lots of period electronics and motorik dynamics forced up to 11. Storming, grim stuff.

I’m also very keen on the closing pair of tracks.

“Abbot’s Leigh” is absolute dissonance explored, tightly confined and barely controlled – horribly menacing, very Centre Cannot Hold and something for our times. Wikipedia tells me that Abbots Leigh, aside from being a village in Somerset, a few miles from the centre of Bristol (of course) is also the name of the tune that “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” is set to. All very pastoral and maybe a little folk-horror. Which is exactly what the second track of the pair, and closer of the record, “When We Fall”, had already made me think of. It sounds like something that might pop up on the “Blood on Satan’s Claw” soundtrack, amidst scenes of the sun rising on fields of corn and general rural idyll, (shortly to be horribly and irrevocably interrupted).

 

If you can be arsed, you can, of course, be justifiably sniffy and talk about how derivative BEAK> sound (can’t be denied, to be honest). But why would you do this? They are clearly a massive homage to Can, Klaus Dinger, Faust… but hey! Good spot!  Now get on, enjoy the commotion, stifle a shudder, turn it up. Who knows how long we’ve got?

I mean, what else? You can’t eat music.

Amongst the empty absinthe bottles, Pringles tubes and pistachio shells, strewn about the house, something’s wrong. Having dutifully watched hours upon hours of Talking Pictures TV, and absolutely, categorically had enough of Oliver Reed’s camp thuggery, I still have a niggling feeling… Gone to enough school and office parties to take me safely through until next year, but I’ve definitely forgotten something.

True, there’s still half a chocolate orange (saved. Obviously you need something to see the New Year in with); having checked and double-checked the Radio Times, I can find no screening of Escape to Victory (and if Die Hard can be a Christmas movie…), so that’s not it. But there’s something else…

Ah! Bugger.

End of Year lists.

I knew there was something.

Seven Tinsel-decked Tings from 2018

Truth be told, 2018 has been a desperately grim year, with all sorts of indefensible shithousery going on from the people we’ve recklessly entrusted our futures to. I don’t remember a year when I’ve watched the news more obsessively, and sworn more rancorously at the TV (unless you count 2017, of course. Also 2016…). 2019 isn’t looking like it’s going to get much better either.

I don’t think the two things are linked but 2018 is a year when I’ve bought less brand new music and been to less gigs than for a long a time. No new records spring to my lacklustre mind for this year, and a glance at the more established End of Year lists hasn’t really altered my thoughts on this. I’ve seen a couple of really good live sets (Here Lies Man and Damo are the ones I’m thinking of), but not a great haul.

Having said this, my jammy grandfather clause with eMusic has meant that there’s still been a whole bunch of “new” music floating in and around the estate this year. So I’ve decided to go for seven treats from the PP music year, trying particularly to think about things I don’t think I’ve written about previously (so no Here Lies Man, Sweet Baboo or Damo Suzuki, I’m afraid) but which have been tiny candles amongst the gloom…

Spanish Warbling: Josephine Foster – “Dame Esa Flora”

I’ve managed to step up my efforts to improve my Spanish this year and am hoping to go again with this in the New Year. And one of the things that I’ve done is listen to more Spanish music. Now I’ve written before about warbly-voiced female singers in less than complimentary terms, and Josephine Foster is certainly ones of these. But hey, if she’s warbling in Spanish, it’s different, right? She has a few records out but two in particular stand out which were recorded with the Herrero Brothers. The first was a collection of songs by Lorca and a second album, Perlas, was made up of other traditional songs from various regions of Spain, including this one about Cadiz. We went to Cadiz this year and were again taken by it, so this feels right; and once you’ve warmed to Foster’s voice and are settling into the beautiful mandolin (?) breaks you realise that this is, after all, damn fine:

 

Somali Dance: Dur Dur Band

A quick look through my music of this year confirmed a couple of things: firstly, that, yes, I got very few records from this year; and secondly that I acquired an alarming amount of African music from the seventies – Zamrock, the Ethiopiques series, a lot of Somali music, and pretty much all of it from the seventies and eighties. I did already post about some of this and plugged the Likembe website back in the Summer. But one of the bands covered there, Dur Dur Band from Mogadishu, was also the subject of a new collection from Analog Africa which is just excellent.

This track which doesn’t seem to be on the new compilation or the other LP I have, rollocks along like a train (a funk train), powered by hand drums and an impossibly tight rhythm guitar. The brass is cut-throat and there’s some great twisted lead guitar work. Ah, the days when bands still wrote their name on the bass drum…

 

Japanese Clatter: Bo Ningen – “Koroshitai Kimochi”

I did also write about this bunch of androgynous oddballs after I saw them supporting Damo Suzuki at Sea Change, so I won’t go on. But every time I see clips of this, it gets more and more white-knuckle. It’s utterly out to lunch – deafening, nutty, double-jointed – all of these in a good way. What a racket.

I need a snakeskin-effect poncho…

 

The Cosmos: Terry Riley – “Shri Camel” album

OK, so this is an hour long video, so get a drink or something, but do commit yourself. The first part is an interview with the man which is complex but disarmingly low on bullshit and generally really interesting. I believe everything he says.

There was a really excellent series of shows on BBC4 earlier this year covering experimental music which introduced me to the idea of Terry Riley. I’m not going to pretend I understand everything about what he does, but the one idea that stuck me from the programs was the idea of single pairs of notes moving in and out of sync with each other and then returning to their relative positions like planets in a solar system.

This is grown up music…

 

English Folk Music: Lal Waterson – “Fine Horseman” / Sandy Denny – “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”

I seemed to spend a lot of time this year reading about folk music – Nick Drake and Sandy Denny biogs, Rob Young’s Electric Eden, the Incredible String Band book I posted about in the summer – all of it fascinating (I’ve also got a Peggy Seeger biog in the pile by my bed…). And on that theme, these two songs are remarkable:

I bought the reissue of the Waterson’s Bright Phoebus this year, which is a great record but the stand out moments all involved the monochrome tones of Lal Waterson, a singer I am ashamed to know I knew nothing about before this. It’s an eerie song that feels like it’s been passed from lip to ear for generations – misunderstood, reinterpreted, weirdly distorted – but is actually a genuinely strange original.

 

The Sandy Denny song is another thing of splendour, crafted carefully and possessing of the most achingly poignant single line choruses. Denny’s life is sad enough and beautifully captured in Mick Houghton’s book, but really you only have to hear this song…

 

Italian Horror: Goblin – “theme from Profondo Rosso”

This was the year I finally got around to watching The Exorcist and a whole bunch of Hammer and folk horror stuff. And there’s some cracking music to accompany some of these films. I’m yet to see Profondo Rosso but I like the Goblin sound track.

 

Oh go on, while we’re at it, Goblin’s theme tune to another horror movie – Suspiria.

And a new album! The Surfing Magazines “New Day”

I didn’t actually see the Surfing Magazines at Sea Change but I heard them from the warmth and safety of the beer tent. I did pop out for a couple of songs and they struck me as having a similar live act as Woods – a basic understanding of the sixties rule book and a willingness to wig out at any given moment. They were fun.

Made up of members of the Wave Pictures and Slow Club, I’m very much hoping this isn’t just a cheery side-project and that there’s more to come.

 

So there we have it, 2018. Some highlights and not too many grumbles. Here’s to the next one, God help us all…

Can’t ya hear them bells a-ringin’?

Whoo-ee!

School’s out, other stuff’s all finished, and I’m done for Christmas…

Yee-ha!

 

Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Up in the air!

Most years at about this time, I do some sort of snivelling post about feeling like I should be doing a review of the year’s releases or rounding up gig highlights, but then , regular as Christmas, I go off in some other random direction.

I appear to be powerless…

So, anyway, a recent discovery that the nothing if not unpredictable Emusic has something like 150 Sun Ra albums stacked up in its dusty shelves, has prompted what started off as a tentative toe-dipping into another universe but is now rapidly turning into something of a full-on Arkestra bombing.

The man who prompted sober social commentator George Clinton to comment “This boy was definitely out to lunch” has a pretty intimidating reputation and a somehow more daunting back catalogue that I’m unlikely ever to get too far with.

But at the same time, if you accept that this is one river the opposite banks of which you’re never going to reach (and are also willing to overlook the extending of an unconvincing aquatic metaphor), it’ll be OK, believe me. I know this because I’ve spent the weekend lolling around on my flowery plastic inflatable, figurative mojito in hand, novelty sunglasses sliding down my nose, being biffed back and forth by some of the strangest bluebeats there are. And it’s OK.

I’m doing my darndest to avoid the J word, but I should speak plainly here – these are, well, Jazz records, and this can be a bit of a problem. After spending a lot of my early twenties fancying myself a bit of a Jazz-fiend and pretty much OD-ing on Charlie Parker records, I’ve struggled to give Jazz a fair hearing ever since – the late eighties were, after all, an age when apparently rational people were buying Sade records, and, lordee, it’s a long way back from there… So, if this is a problem for you (and, I hear you…), I’ll bid you a rueful farewell and see you in the next post.

But if you’re still with me, here are seven stonking and stonkingly weird Sun Ra tracks that I’ve recently discovered…

Sun Ra

Lucky Seven – Sun Ra

Aside from the fact he was apparently born on Saturn (It’s true – I’ve checked it) and liked a headdress or two, I’m not going to pretend I know a whole lot about Sun Ra, in fact I’ve put this together with almost no research (go on, it’s Christmas…). I’ve written a few thoughts on each track as I’ve been listening but if you want some background before trying them, watch this (it really takes off at about 26:15):

 

Universe in Blue

This gawkily moody organ-led piece apparently originated from a regular spot the Arkestra had at “Slug’s Saloon” in the Lower East Side, playing every week from 1966 onwards, often doing seven-hour sets that would finish at 4:00 AM. It’s a live recording and does sound like an early hours, ghostly meander built over many months and wouldn’t be out of place weaving eerily through the corridors of Dr Phibes’ castle. It’s clunky, it’s technicolour…

Plutonian Nights

This is irresistible. The darkest of horn riffs make the hairs on your legs rise and your socks slide weakly down into your boots. There’s crafty bass and sax solos during the course of the track but you find yourself waiting for the return of that great rasping chin-jutting horn. Only a heart-breaking four and a half minutes long…

Astro Black

This is pretty unconventional… There are vocals here (although hardly orthodox) and initially a skittish double bass that scampers around June Tyson’s strident, dogged tones, but they’re fighting something of a rear-guard action surrounded by great chunks of dissonant noise and waves of industrial-sounding drone. Once the bass and vocals wander dolefully offstage, you’re pretty much on your own, left to fend for yourself in the face of an 11-minute assault of … erm… “free jazz” interplay.

Ancient Aethiopia

Driven on by thundering Hammer-horror drum beats and snarling, grandly-riffing horns, this is a gorgeous journey through the bush, led initially by twin flutes that cross paths with each other and frequently step on each other’s toes. The uneasy harmony is regularly broken by jarring percussive intrusions and only partially soothed by the sax and piano pieces that succeed the flutes. You find yourself clinging optimistically to those bass and drum rhythms and the voices that do eventually make themselves heard are not exactly promising…

Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus

Starting off like any furiously-played jazz standard, (albeit one announcing the departure of today’s commuter to the stars), you find yourself bombarded by a series of pulsing horn riffs that dance recklessly around you until you are giddy. From there the excursion veers off into less familiar bass tones, which once they start to be bowed become odder and odder. The call for the next stop brings you back down to Earth (even if “… the second stop is Jupiter, the second stop is Jupiter, the second stop is Jupiter…”)

Mayan Temples

This is a lumbering beast of a track, powered by those hoarse, bellowing horns and a gently insistent bass line. There are the twin flutes again and some weird organ and keyboard work that sounds like clinking and latterly smashing glasses. The pace never picks up and it’s another forbidding journey into an unsettling Kurtz-ian world, beset by distracting, contrary percussive work that trudges and labours somewhere off-camera. It’s another live performance, taken from the “Of Mythic Worlds” album which, on the record at least, is then followed by this:

Over the Rainbow

Yes, it’s the Wizard of Oz standard, although for the first minute or so, it’s not really recognisable as such. In fact, although the Arkestra treatment does involve it moving in and out of focus, alternating between tunefulness and weirdness, with varying degrees of the Ra-filter, he does treat it with a genuine fondness. There’s a discernible gasp of relief and applause from the audience when he allows the song a cheeky run of its own.

And there you are, seven belters from the enormous back-catalogue of an errant virtuoso. Another 140-odd albums to collect, so you’ll have to excuse me – I’ve got a rocket to catch…

It’s fackin’ Lucifer!

So, this, obviously…

 

(and yes, even though it’s been said, possibly the most effective guitar break anywhere – although I’m very partial to Jan Savage’s clunky solo on Pushin’ Too Hard…)

Sad stuff, clearly, and it’s a shame that a chap’s passing makes you realise what a great talent he was. Great songwriter, beguiling frontman and by all accounts an all-round good bloke. It got me ruminating loosely on the idea that the good too often die young (although a genuinely younger feller would presumably spit out his pint in comedy fashion at the notion that 63 is anything like “young” – but, well, these days…)

In truth the idea had been bouncing around the hamster wheel that passes for my mind for a couple of weeks.

Jah Wobble came to the Guildhall a few weeks ago and yours truly was in attendance. I’ve not bothered posting about it because (well… do I have to do this?) but also in truth pretty much everything I said here when I saw him at the Fleece was pretty much how it was this time too. Wobble was witty, self-effacing and mischievous, with a number of laugh out loud moments (“It’s fackin’ Lucifer!”), and is of course one hell of a bass player – still the only guy I know, currently playing lead bass. It was another great evening and I was glad that the springy-floored splendour of the Guildhall and the gawping masses of my hometown had been witness to the Wobble grandeur.

I’ve been reading Nick Kent’s memoirs, “Apathy for the Devil” and have enjoyed it immensely, and as chance would have it a couple of days later I came to his account of the infamous chain-whipping he received at the 100 Club at the hands of Sid Vicious. I’m not sure Kent is the most reliable of witnesses for all sorts of reasons, but it is perhaps surprising that he doesn’t really seem to bare any grudge against Vicious (indeed he went on to share a good few mattresses and needles with him over the next year or so). He saves most of his anger for Malcolm Maclaren (whom he claims directed the attack) and for Jah Wobble:

“He held an open penknife and was waving it no more than two inches from my eyes. There was dried blood on the blade and a look of pure sadistic delight in his piggy eyes… Then he stepped back allowing Sid dead aim at my skull.”

It’s an unpleasant image, and it made me remember a couple of passages in Wobble’s own book which paint him in a pretty unflattering light. I remember reading the passage where he stands on top of an old and priceless recording desk and urinates all over it for a laugh, and thinking “this isn’t great, or funny – it’s just boorish …” And it all makes you realise that for all his older, more mature affability and humility, at one point in his wilder years, Wobble was actually a pretty abrasive character. I’m not sure, you’d have felt very comfortable around him (and in fairness, he’s said this himself).

And then you think, for all the fun and dexterity of later period Wobble (his term, not mine), has he done anything better than this?

 

How good do you have to be?

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