I’m not all that well at the moment, and will be spending Friday through Sunday at Lib Dem Conference without internet access. I’ve also promised Andrew Rilstone that I’ll proofread his expanded Doctor Who book and get it formatted as an ebook next week.
Once that’s done, though, I’ll be getting a lot more California Dreaming, How To Build Your Own Time Machine and Liberal Future posts up, as well as a few interesting new things I’m working on.
Meantime, go and vote for Italy in the Pop World Cup…
Just a few links. Proper post tomorrow.
Paul Magrs and Stuart Douglas are going to read one pulp novel for each year from 1900 to 1999. Why not read along with them? Magrs’ first post is here
This is an album that’s been out a few years, but I only got it the other week, so I’m reviewing it now…
Frank Zappa never really considered his music finished — one reason why he returned so often to the same songs and melodic ideas, both his own and other people’s, is that he was trying to get the music right. The Lumpy Money Project/Object, an archival 3-CD set put out by the Zappa family, is a record of that process.
Until recently, the Zappa estate had no control over the main body of work that Zappa put out during his lifetime. They did, of course, receive royalties, but towards the end of his life the Zappa Records/Barking Pumpkin catalogue itself was sold to Rykodisc, so that Gail Zappa wouldn’t have to bother with administering it after Zappa’s death. The Zappa family later regretted that decision (they now own the rights again, and keep *very* tight control of anything that could possibly be considered Zappa intellectual property), but while they didn’t have those rights, they still managed to exploit Zappa’s most famous works, by putting out box sets of outtakes and alternative versions, getting round the fact that all that had been signed over to Ryko was the actual stereo masters.
The Lumpy Money Project/Object (Lumpy Money from now on), is one of those, covering the albums that are probably Zappa’s two greatest works, both from 1968 — Lumpy Gravy and We’re Only In It For The Money.
The two albums were conceived as complementary — the cover of Money had “Is this phase one of Lumpy Gravy?” in a speech bubble, while the cover of Lumpy Gravy had “Is this phase two of We’re Only In It For The Money?”, although Lumpy Gravy was originally recorded much earlier — though one was a Frank Zappa solo album and the other was by the Mothers of Invention. But while they work together very well, they’re poles apart musically.
We’re Only In It For The Money is about as close to conventional pop-rock as Zappa ever got — a collection of three-minute songs, mostly fairly straightforward, with lyrics satirising the counterculture (“I will love everyone, I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street”) while being even more scathing to the establishment against which they were rebelling, in songs like the heartbreaking Mom & Dad (“Mama, mama/Someone said they made some noise, the cops have shot some girls and boys/You’ll sit home and drink all night, they looked too weird, it served them right… Mama, mama/Your child was killed in the park today, shot by the cops as she quietly lay/By the side of some freaks she knew/They killed her too”). Zappa’s cynicism could, in later years, turn into an unpleasant, sour, misanthropy, but here it was still the cynicism of someone who hoped for better.
Lumpy Gravy, on the other hand, is completely devoid of any relation to anything else, ever — mostly performances of instrumental music, somewhere between Charles Ives, overblown Hollywood film music, and Stravinsky, performed by a mixture of orchestral and rock musicians, but with interruptions of musique concrete, and several pieces of surreal dialogue:
Spider: I think I can explain about . . . about how the pigs’ music works
Monica: Well, this should be interesting
Spider: Remember that they make music with a very dense light, and remember about the smoke standing still and how they . . . they really get uptight when you try to move the smoke, right?
Spider: I think the music in that dense light is probably what makes the smoke stand still. Any sort of motion has this effect on . . . on the ponies’ manes. You know, the thing on their neck
John: Hmm . . .
Spider: As soon as the pony’s mane starts to get good in the back any sort of mo . . . motion, especially of smoke or gas, begins to make the ends split.
John: That’s the basis of all their nationalism. Like if they can’t salute the smoke every morning when they get up . . .
Spider: Yeah, it’s a vicious circle. You got it.
Lumpy Gravy, in its finished version, is Zappa at his most unfiltered. It’s dense, it makes no concessions to normal taste, and it seems completely structureless, though with close attention a very tight structure becomes apparent. It’s the Finnegans Wake of popular music, really.
I say “in its finished version”, because the album released in 1968 wasn’t the same one recorded in 1967, which opens Lumpy Money. The album as it was originally conceived was recorded for Capitol Records with Nik Venet (the Beach Boys’ first producer) as a Zappa orchestral project, and the original mono mix of it, presented here legally for the first time (though it had circulated on bootlegs for years) . The Lumpy Gravy that we now know came about because Verve records (who had the Mothers under contract) insisted that Zappa didn’t have the right to record as a solo artist elsewhere, and Zappa re-edited it to include the spoken and tape-manipulated material during the eighteen months or so the release was held up.
This early version, a sort of Primordial Gravy has all the orchestral music, and it’s as magnificent as ever — and quite possibly more accessible to the average listener — but shorn of the sheer bravado of the finished album, and the shock of its unconventional structures, it’s merely some very good Zappa instrumental music, about on the same level as the orchestral sections of the 200 Motels soundtrack. This was an occasion where Zappa’s obsessive tinkering really paid dividends.
This is paired on the first disc with the 1968 mono mix of We’re Only In It For The Money, which had only had a very brief release on vinyl. There are various notable differences between this and the stereo mix — backing vocals mixed up or down, reverb added in different places, that sort of thing — but the casual listener (rather than one A-Bing every track) will probably notice little difference. That’s no bad thing, however — Money is arguably the best pop/rock album of 1968, possibly of the whole 60s, and is always worth listening to.
CD two takes us from 1968 to 1984. In the mid-80s, Zappa had finally got the rights back to all his old material, and began a process of getting it all issued on CD. When it came to We’re Only In It For The Money, he decided to restore several passages that had been censored by Verve upon its original release — the lines “don’t come in me, in me” from Harry You’re A Beast, and the verse “Better look around before you say you don’t care/Shut your fucking mouth ’bout the length of my hair/How would you survive/If you were alive/Shitty little person?” from Mother People, both of which had been included only in backwards versions, to protect innocent ears. He also decided to remix it to take advantage of the greater dynamic range that CDs offered, as he did with a few other 60s albums.
Those decisions would have been uncontroversial, were it not for one other decision he made at the same time, which was to replace all the drums and bass on the album with new performances by Chad Wackerman and Arthur Barrow. At times he claimed this was because the original tapes were too damaged to use (though this was nonsense — the original masters were used for the 1995 CD reissue and all subsequent reissues), but he also said that it was to make the album sound better to the ears of 1980s youth.
The result is… odd. Even with the extra reverb added to the other parts, the rhythm section still seem to be in a totally different sonic universe from the rest of the musicians. You’ve got rubbery, direct-injection fretless bass and “sonic power” 80s drums that sound like they were recorded by Hugh Padgham while everything else could be off a Monkees record. It’s a huge technical achievement — these are hard songs to play, and playing rhythm parts to a pre-recorded track (often with a certain amount of tempo drift as well) is incredibly challenging, but the result is a little like if, when Ted Turner was told he couldn’t colourise Citizen Kane, he’d got Tom Cruise to perform the role of Kane and then inserted him digitally into the film in place of Welles, while keeping everything else the same.
It’s fascinating to listen to, but it’s easy to see why it was controversial, and why Ryko reverted to the original mix for the CDs released after 1995. (Now if only the same were true for Cruisin’ With Ruben And The Jets, which is marred even more badly by the same nonsense).
It’s on CD two, along with, astonishingly, a version of Lumpy Gravy where he did the same thing and more. Here not only do we have Wackerman and Barrow replacing all the bass and drum parts, but there are also additional parts (many of the dialogue sections are accompanied by Wackerman’s drumming) and, most bizarrely of all, a new vocal section at the beginning, where Ike Willis and Bobby Martin sing lyrics relating, not to Lumpy Gravy itself, but to Zappa’s 1983 triple-album rock opera about AIDs, race, and Broadway musicals, Thing-Fish.
Oddly, it works better on Lumpy Gravy than on Money, because part of what Lumpy Gravy is “about” is its existence as something put together from different, incompatible sources. These new elements just add to the collage feel. As such, I honestly don’t know if the 1984 remix improves on the original or not — it doesn’t sound better to my ears, as I much prefer 1960s recording and musicianship to 1980s, and the original is so much a part of my musical life that I can’t look at any other versions objectively — but by going against the grain of the original, the overdubs work with it, in a way that they just don’t on Money.
Disc three is a collection of odds and ends — instrumental tracks, outtakes, bits of dialogue recorded during the sessions (including a longer section of some Money dialogue, slagging off the Velvet Underground), the single version of Lonely Little Girl (which actually has more of Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance than it does the song whose name it was released under), and that kind of thing. The best thing is the opening track, How Did That Get In Here?, which sounds like (and may well be) a twenty-five minute continuous orchestral performance that was edited down to make sections of Lumpy Gravy. It has a lot of familiar sections, but mixed among them is a mixture of atonal skronking, cheesy Hollywoodesque cues, and familiar melodic ideas in different contexts. It’s the raw material, rather than the finished thing, but there are some wonderful sections in there that got left unreleased.
You already know if Lumpy Money is your sort of thing — either you’re as obsessed with those albums as I am, or you’re not. If you’re not and it’s because you’ve not heard them, just getting the original versions is still the best place to start. But if you are, this sheds a fascinating light on their construction, and allows you to listen to them with fresh ears.
One problem I have, though, is with the liner notes. There’s a section written by Gail Zappa which, as with all these Zappa Family releases, is almost unreadable — it reads like a very nasty, cynical, advertising person trying to write in the style of the late 60s underground magazines in an attempt to appeal to that audience, and just slightly missing (I’m not saying that’s what it is, but that’s what it reads like). Meanwhile, the more fact-based notes seem to be attempting to rewrite the historical record — they say that all the basic tracks were recorded by Zappa, Billy Mundi, Ian Underwood, and Roy Estrada, and that the other members of the Mothers on the album (Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood) only made minor additional contributions.
That’s not the way anyone involved has ever told it in interviews, and “coincidentally” Preston, Gardner and (while he was alive) Black have been involved in pretty much continuous lawsuits for thirty years over lack of performance royalties and composition credits, and the rights to the “Mothers of Invention” name, while the others haven’t. (I don’t know if Motorhead was involved in those lawsuits at all, but I believe he actually didn’t play very much).
That kind of attempt to rewrite the historical record leaves a bit of a bitter taste in the mouth, especially with an archival release like this. But it shouldn’t put off those with an interest from buying this. The music is worth it.
When I went to see this show, two weeks ago, I planned to write a review that night. It’s taken two weeks, because I ended up a little more involved in the show than I expected…
Lightning Strikes was a show I’d been looking forward to for months, since first seeing a flier for it back in November. Part of the Queer Contact season of LGBT-themed performances at the Contact Theatre, it was, in part, a celebration of the music of Klaus Nomi.
Nomi, who died in 1983, was an absolutely unique performer, who came out of the New York arts scene in the late 70s/early 80s. He sang with a voice that went from a mannered, Kraftwerk-esque sprechstimme into a gorgeous operatic falsetto reminiscent of Maria Callas, performed as a Bowie-esque glam robotic alien figure, and sang a mixture of Dowland and Purcell pieces, 60s pop tracks like Lightning Strikes and The Twist, and clever post-apocalyptic glam-pop originals like this:
That song was written by Kristian Hoffman, who wrote most of Nomi’s best originals, and who was, as Nomi’s early musical director, probably as responsible for Nomi’s success as Nomi himself. What Nomi brought to the partnership was an astonishing stage presence, an overall concept (a rather nebulous, or at least never fully-articulated, idea to do with post-apocalyptic aliens), a knowledge of parts of the operatic repertoire that were then little-performed, and, especially, that *VOICE*. What Hoffman brought, as he says in the documentary The Nomi Song, was a pop sensibility, a knowing wit, and a sense of camp, along with a wonderful songwriting talent.
It was Hoffman who, for example, wrote Simple Man, a song that (at least in Hoffman’s original conception, which didn’t quite make it to the record) ends with Nomi quoting the Cramps before fading out on the guitar solo from Goodbye To Love by the Carpenters. Hoffman also suggested the 60s pop covers that made up such a substantial part of Nomi’s repertoire.
Over the decades since their association ended, Hoffman has continued making wonderful music, working with a variety of wonderful musicians including Carolyn Edwards, Dave Davies and Rufus Wainwright, and releasing several albums of his own — his 2002 album of duets, &, is probably the best album of the last twenty years, a stunning meditation on religion, sexuality, and mortality. (Hoffman himself prefers his 2010 album Fop, which I’d put ‘only’ in the top five or so albums of the last five years).
For this performance, Hoffman was mostly the accompanist for Joey Arias, whose work I was much less familiar with before the show was announced, though a few visits to YouTube and a purchase of the one EP of his available on Amazon convinced me that he too is a great talent.
Arias was a backing vocalist and dancer with Nomi, and appeared with him on his most famous performance, singing with David Bowie on Saturday Night Live. These days, though, Arias performs in drag, singing torch songs and jazz, and is an exceptional singer.
The first part of the show went about as I expected — they opened with a song that Arias had written for a Cirque du Soleil show he was in for several years, then went into The Nomi Song, a song Hoffman had written for Nomi. The Hoffman/Nomi songs are clearly somewhat outside Arias’ comfort zone as a singer — they require an incredible vocal range, and also a precision of phrasing very different from the loose jazz style Arias favours — but he managed admirably, though saying at the end “no wonder Klaus died!”
The next song was You’ve Changed, and here we really got to see how good Arias is. Arias is known for his performances of Billie Holiday songs, where he manages to perfectly capture her vocal style — and I do mean *perfectly*. Unfortunately there are no YouTube videos from the show I was at, but this, with Arias performing with a full band, should give some idea how good he is:
This was, if anything, even more stunning with just a piano for accompaniment. The next few songs followed the same pattern — performances of songs Hoffman wrote for Nomi, a version of Lightning Strikes radically reworked for Arias’ range, another Billie Holiday song, and another of Arias’ songs for Cirque du Soleil.
There was a shambolicness to the performance at times — this was the opening night of the tour, and Hoffman had only arrived in Manchester a few hours earlier after an eighteen-hour flight from LA, so at times they had to stop and restart bits when one or other of them missed cues, but this just added to the enjoyment, giving a sense of spontaneity and allowing for moments of comedy where each man would blame the other for mistakes.
And then some idiot from the audience got up and started singing with them.
It was my own fault. Arias is a cabaret style performer, which means a *lot* of audience interaction, and I did know this but still decided to sit in the front row.
After Arias’ song Sex Is Beautiful, he tried to arrange some “Queer Contact” by setting up a woman in the front row with another woman, despite her being straight. After this, he asked “are there any straight men in the audience?”
Like an idiot, I said “yeah”, expecting there to be a few mumbles from the crowd — but I was the only one who said anything. Arias immediately started acting coquettishly towards me — “the only straight man here, and the only one who knows the songs” (he’d obviously seen my lips moving — I have a tendency to mouth along with songs at gigs). There was a couple of minutes of back and forth, where he discovered my name (“Really? Hickey? I had one of those just yesterday” to which Hoffman replied “I bet he’s never heard that one before.”), that I was a Nomi fan, that my accent is easily mockable for an American, and that Hoffman knew me from Facebook.
I thought that would be it, a little bit of banter, tease the straight man, on with the next bit. And Arias dedicated Simple Man to me, and they did a wonderful version of it. But then, after the song, Arias beckoned me to the front of the stage. I thought he was going to try to embarrass me with some sort of flirtation, which would have been fine (I don’t embarrass easily, and if I couldn’t take a joke I wouldn’t look as ridiculous as I do) but then he told me to get on stage — and had me sing three choruses of Simple Man, solo, to Hoffman’s piano accompaniment, before getting hugged by Hoffman.
Now, for those who’ve had the good fortune not to hear my voice before, I’m a bass, and I have an unpleasant nasal voice (think, roughly, Ringo Starr impersonating Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and you’d have some idea). I am not a natural singer, is the point.
And this is what I had to sing:
Amazingly, I apparently hit some right notes, and my falsetto didn’t kill anyone. I returned to my seat to more jokes (“he’s going to go off and masturbate about that later”).
The rest of the set — including a cover of White Room by Cream, and a lovely version of God Bless The Child — passed in a bit of a blur for me, but was every bit as marvelous as the earlier part had been.
And then, on the last song, After The Fall, Arias called me up on stage again. This time I was sharing a mic with Arias, who has a much more powerful voice than me, and so I literally couldn’t hear myself and kept to bassy rumblings, and I took the final bow between the two of them.
It wasn’t *quite* the final bow, of course — there was an encore with a stunning version of Life On Mars, done as a duet between the two of them (as was After The Fall — most of the other songs had Arias as sole vocalist).
After the show both Arias and Hoffman spent time chatting to people, and I got to have a long talk with Hoffman, who was far more interesting and friendly than he had any right to be despite him clearly being practically dead from exhaustion (I was my normal tedious self), and a briefer one with Arias, who was regaling a small crowd with tales of working with Bowie and hanging out with Warhol.
Even if I hadn’t been part of the show, I’m fairly sure this would have been the best gig of the year, only six weeks into it. I can’t recommend seeing either Arias or Hoffman, together or separately, highly enough.
Just don’t admit to being straight unless you can hit the high notes.
(This is from memory, I may be getting the order wrong)
I Love Your Eyes
Sex Is Wonderful
God Bless The Child
After The Fall
(encore) Life On Mars
I’ve several times asked for recommendations for fiction by women writers, because my fiction reading is over 95% male, and that’s not good, either for me or society. Unfortunately, most of the recommendations have been people I’ve just bounced off.
But today I realised something obvious — I’ve been asking for SF/F writers, especially, because the vast majority of what I read is SF/F, but there’s a much better description of the kind of stuff I want, one I’ve referred to several times in the past — what Lance Parkin refers to as “the Gray tradition”.
The kind of thing Lance is talking about there is by far my favourite fiction reading. Lance has a long list in the top post there of the common characteristics of the books he’s talking about. I’ve excerpted below the ones that — I *think* — are the things that most appeal to me, but do read all the posts there, they’re all worth it:
Have an intrusive narrator, even one who appears as a supporting character in the story.
Be a metafictional narrative – one that points out that it’s a story, foregrounds fictional contrivances, features existing fictional characters, is about the power of storytelling.
Explore philosophical issues, usually ‘large’ ones such as the existence of God, the nature of reality or what it is to be human, rather than everyday ethical dilemmas.
The protagonist is introspective – a Hamlet type: pessimistic, self-analytical, someone with an elaborate imaginative life, who feels trapped by duty.
History is often a lie, or something extremely important has fallen down Orwell’s memory hole. We, the readers, can see something is wrong. The characters accept something as ‘normal’ that we would find beyond the pale.
The protagonist has perhaps had glimpses of another world – either something incongruous has happened: he might see the authorities drag someone away, or is aware through media reports of some immense, distant struggle.
Books are important – often as artefacts of a time before the current system was in place, but other books can represent the official (or accepted) account of reality. Unlike television reports or computer files, books can not be edited or amended.
Reality can be edited, your memories – and those of your loved ones – can’t be trusted.
The universe can be characterised by the phrase ‘polymorphous perversity’. The hero and his allies are often extremely diverse ethnically, in terms of age, in terms of sexuality, class and so on. The villains tend to be more homogenous – blank faced, identical, uniformed, one race – but there are also malevolent forces that are truly polymorphous – shapeshifters, beings that steal identities or animate corpses, or have no fixed form.
They tend to be disdainful of wealth and power, with the rich seen as decadent, obsessed with acquiring money over any ethical concerns. The rich are often humbled, their palaces demolished.
There are ‘also people’ – machines, creatures or simulations of people. Many are benign, even paragons. There’s a darker version, something soulless, or purely mechanistic (and often insectile).
There is mysticism, but pains are taken to explain that this is not irrationality. Magic represents an alternative operating system for the universe, or an extremely advanced technology. It operates through ritual. The author of the book believes – or at least has said in interview, which of course needn’t always be the same thing – that they believe there’s some truth in this as a worldview.
The protagonist comes to see beyond the everyday world, sees a vision of our place in the universe and instantly understands that we are, as Plato said, shadows on the cave wall and that there is a large reality or series of realities.
Our universe is a simulation, copy or dream existing within a higher structure.
Some form of drug is often employed to get to this realm. If not, there’s a literal doorway.
The protagonist often comes to understand, or has the instinctive sense, that even those who have previously known or inhabited the higher realm do not fully understand it. That there alternatives to the Manichean struggles the ascended masters talk about.
If our hero meets ‘God’ at some point, there’s a pretty good bet that it’s not – even if its a benevolent force, it’s either something that thinks it’s God or an avatar of God rather than the whole being. Usually it’s a malevolent being trying to trick our hero.
Frequently occurring words: God, Infinite, Simulation, Knife, Real, Layer.
Some of the books Lance talks about fitting into this genre are Lanark, the Narnia books, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Invisibles, most of Philip K Dick and Alan Moore’s stuff, the works of Borges, Iain Banks, Lovecraft, and Michael Chabon.
Some that I’d add that seem to me the same kind of thing, though of varying levels of quality — Cerebus, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross’ Laundry novels, most of Robert Anton Wilson’s stuff, Lewis Carrol, Stewart Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool, some of Vonnegut, Bryan Talbot. And sort of proto-Gray-Tradition people would include Blake, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde.
The only problem with this is one of the *other* characteristics Lance points out as being common to all these books:
Be written by men
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Several of the writers who’ve contributed to recent Obverse anthologies — I’m thinking especially of Elizabeth Evershed, Kelly Hale and Helen Angove — have done stuff which has the same *feeling* to me as many of these books, and I’m sure the forthcoming women-only Faction Paradox anthology will have a lot more, as Faction Paradox is, as much as anything, just a label saying “this kind of stuff” (my own forthcoming Faction Paradox novel fits almost embarrassingly into the description Lance gives).
But… there’s not much I know of. Susanna Clarke sort of fits, but her only novel so far came out ten years ago. Holly keeps recommending Scarlett Thomas to me, and having looked at the synopses of her novels she definitely seems to fit, but I read her nonfiction book on writing, Monkeys With Typewriters, and found her writing persona to be revolting — narcissistic, omphaloskeptic, and patronising towards any fiction that isn’t “literary” for the narrow definition of literary that gains the approval of the Observer’s books editor. I’ll probably try reading her sooner or later, simply because she does seem to fit my tastes perfectly other than that, but that book *really* put me off.
Are there any other women who write this sort of thing? There *must* be — I know enough women who *like* this kind of thing that there must be at least *some* women writing it. But of course, it’s entirely possible that if there are, it’s being labelled in a completely different genre to anything I’d normally look at. For all I know there’s some wonderful metafictional postmodern platonist romance novelist out there who is as highly regarded in her genre as Alan Moore is in his.
And if there is, I want to read her stuff…