Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Quick Review Honesty Note

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 26, 2012

I’ve said I’m going to review every new book I get on Amazon. Just as a point of fact, I’ve got two books on the Kinks today, actually from Amazon, but I won’t be reviewing them – they both would be in competition with the book I’m doing, and so I can’t give a fair, unbiased review.

Linkblogging For 25/3/12

Posted in linkblogging by Andrew Hickey on March 25, 2012

What bastard stole my hour in bed this morning? I want it back!

The Canadian entrant for Miss Universe has apparently been disqualified for being trans. Gail Simone links to a petition to get her reinstated. (I don’t do online petitions myself, but you might).

Leonard Pierce talks about racism in America today, with reference to the Trayvon Martin case, while Brad Hicks talks about the law that made it possible – one that effectively legalises murder.

What you can do about the Tory cash-for-access scandal.

Millennium Elephant on who is actually worse off under the so-called ‘granny tax’.

And John Leech on the latest roadblock thrown up by the Lords in the campaign to pardon Alan Turing (and all the other gay and bi men convicted of consensual homosexual activity)
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The Kinks’ Music – Face To Face

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on March 25, 2012

A revised version of this essay appears in Preservation: The Kinks’ Music 1964-1974, available in paperback , hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) , and for all non-Kindle devices from Smashwords.

Face To Face is very much a transitional album for the Kinks. It was the first album to consist entirely of songs written by Ray Davies (though Dave Davies has claimed in the past to have written the opener, Party Line) and the band’s line-up was in transition. Pete Quaife had left the band between the recording of the Sunny Afternoon single and its release, though by the time the album was released he had rejoined. John Dalton, his temporary replacement for some of the sessions on the album, would replace Quaife after his second, permanent, exit in 1969.

It was also the first album where Davies fully explored the side of his songwriting that had been played with on Kwyet Kinks, and is infinitely better than its predecessors. This is the first Kinks album with no embarrassingly bad tracks — the worst track on here would have been among the best on any of the earlier albums. And the sound is different, too — there are more harpsichords than distorted guitars.

The problem is that this is so far ahead of the earlier albums as to effectively be by a different band, and so it doesn’t really invite comparisons with those, but with the albums immediately after it — and those albums are as far ahead of Face To Face as Face To Face is ahead of The Kink Kontroversy. The general standard of the album is very high — it’s the first Kinks album that makes a completely enjoyable listening experience from beginning to end — but not exceptionally so. There are very few truly outstanding songs here, even as there are no bad ones. In this way, Face To Face is probably close to the Beatles’ album of the previous year, Help!, a similarly transitional album and one where, like this, the band’s leader (Lennon in the case of the Beatles, Ray Davies in the case of the Kinks) was going through a severe mental breakdown from the opposing pressures of domesticity and pop stardom.

The Album

Party Line
Writer
: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

The album starts off with the song that, of all those on the album, sounds most like the Kinks of old. After the opening telephone ring (a remnant of an early concept for the album that would have the songs linked by sound effects [FOOTNOTE According to The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by Andy Miller, part of the 33 1/3 series of books) and “Hello, who is it?” (spoken by Grenville Collins, one of the three managers the band had at the time), the song goes into a fairly straightforward, bouncy, three-chord country rock song, much in the vein of the Beatles’ Carl Perkins pastiches, with a lusty Dave Davies vocal.

Lyrically, the song is a simple complaint about having to use a party line (a type of telephone service where several people would have to use the same line, and could, if they wished, listen to each other’s calls), though with a little nod towards the gender-ambiguity that the band had been playing with (“Is she big, is she small, is she a she at all, who’s on the other end?”).

Musically, it’s slightly more interesting. While the verse is straightforward — essentially a twelve-bar in G, but without the normal change to the IV on the fifth bar — and the first half of the middle section is just a shuffle between the I and V in D, the middle section then wanders between the keys of D and G for another nine bars in a rather disjointed way, coming in at seventeen bars total.

This is easily the best opener of any Kinks album so far.

Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A simple but effective song, featuring only five closely related chords and with a simple verse/chorus structure, this song works because of the emotional honesty behind it. The song is written about the Davies brothers’ elder sister Rose, who had emigrated with her husband Arthur (of whom more in a couple of albums’ time) to Australia two years earlier, and is a simple plea for her to come back at least for a visit if not to stay for good.

Musically, the main points of interest are the pseudo-baroque harpsichord part by Nicky Hopkins, and the way the vocal is doubled during the minor key chorus sections by what sounds like at least two guitars, the bass and possibly a piano faintly in the mix.

The whole is somewhat reminiscent of the Zombies, who had been having some success with similar keyboard-based minor-key songs, and points the way forward to the baroque pop sound of albums like Da Capo by Love.

Dandy
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The first of the ‘social comment’ songs on the album is a jaunty, bouncy part-attack part-celebration of a womaniser who is probably based on Dave Davies, and is catchy enough that it was a massive hit single in Europe, as well as a hit in the US and Canada in a soundalike cover by Herman’s Hermits. While Ray Davies sings the song with relish (especially the line “two girls are two many, three’s a crowd and four you’re dead!”) it’s a rather minor piece.

It is the first of several songs on this album and around this time, though, to feature sections with a descending scalar bassline under a held chord, something that becomes a minor compositional tic of Davies’. This probably either suggested, or was suggested by, the line “while the cat’s away the mice are gonna play”, as the bass melody under that section is reminiscent of Three Blind Mice. This subtle integration of music and lyrics is something that most listeners will never notice but which greatly adds to the sense of cohesion of the song, and is a sign of Davies’ increasing maturity as a songwriter even on a relatively slight song like this.

Too Much On My Mind
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

As a song, this is a return to the repetitive, simple style of Tired Of Waiting or See My Friend, but this rather lovely song about suffering from anxiety is saved from sounding like a throwback by the arrangement, with Nicky Hopkins’ skittering harpsichord perfectly evoking the feeling of unwanted thoughts running through the brain, while Rasa Davies adds beautiful high harmonies to her husband’s lead. A definite highlight of the album, even if there’s less to analyse than some of the other songs.

Session Man
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

An extraordinarily intricate piece of baroque harpsichord, very much in the style of Bach, links the previous track with this one (in fact I wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover it was based on some minor work of Bach’s, though it doesn’t ring any bells and follows a similar progression to that of the rest of the song), before the band pay a backhanded tribute to its player, Nicky Hopkins. Lines like “No overtime, no favours done, he’s a session man” and “he’s not paid to think, just play” sound quite harsh, but given how much Hopkins’ keyboard contributes to this track, and how universally liked he was by the band, one has to assume they are mostly tongue in cheek.

Rainy Day In June
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Easily the strangest track on the album, this is quite unlike anything else Davies – or anyone else for that matter – was doing at the time. Starting with a peal of thunder (another of the leftovers from the linking sound effects idea), and keeping an A pedal in the bass throughout almost the entire song, this has a ponderous, depressing feel as the low A turns half the major cycle of fifths the song is built on into a sequence of minor chords.

The lyrics, though, are what makes this really different. This is a dark, impressionist series of glimpses of a fantasy world under some kind of attack – “The demon stretched its crinkled hand and snatched a butterfly/The elves and gnomes were hunched in fear too terrified to cry”. It’s utterly different from everything else on the album, and from everything else in 1966. One suspects it’s a picture of Davies’ mental state at the time.

A House In The Country
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Sung by Ray Davies in a hoarse voice that sounds almost more like his brother Dave than his normal singing voice, this is one of three songs on this album which appear to be about the same character (who may be at times a cruel caricature of how Davies saw himself at his worst), who is defined entirely by his possession of a large house.

Each of those songs are sung, though, from a different view point, and in this almost proto-punk attack, staying on three chords for almost the entire song, we have the character as seen from the viewpoint of an envious outsider who’s “gonna knock him off of his throne”.

Holiday In Waikiki
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

An amusing trifle, this simple ditty starts out with vaguely ‘Hawaiian’ sounding music (Sandy Nelson-esque drums, ocean sound effects) but soon becomes a typical Kinks track of the period, only the ‘Eastern’ bent notes on the lead guitar suggesting anything exotic.

Which makes sense, because the song itself is a satire about how the truly different has been packaged, neatened and commercialised, so a holiday in Waikiki now consists of PVC grass skirts, overpriced ukuleles, shacks selling Coke and hula girls from New York. Reducing the Hawaiian elements to a couple of signifiers but otherwise just ploughing ahead with a straightforward Kinks song makes perfect sense in this context.

This song is unfortunately rather spoiled by a bad mix — one of the few on this album that sounds like the bad mixes producer Shel Talmy had inflicted on the earlier albums — with the vocal almost inaudible.

Most Exclusive Residence For Sale
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The second of our looks at the owner of an expensive home is the weakest of the three. This time our stately homeowner has been bankrupted, turned to drink and been forced to sell the property, and we see him from a neutral perspective, neither attacking nor sympathising. While there’s not much to say about this song beyond that, and it’s one of the weaker songs on the album, it’s still head and shoulders above almost anything on the first three albums, showing just how much Davies’ songwriting had advanced.

Fancy
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A return to the pseudo-Indian sound of See My Friend, this has a hypnotic, dronelike effect thanks to the repetitive guitar part and sliding bass, and one of the best of Davies’ simple, repetitive melodies.

The lyrics are quite extraordinary, seeming to be simultaneously about longing for connection to other people (“if you believe in what I believe in then we will be the same always”) and pride in keeping distance from those same people (“they only see what’s in their own fancy”). This is wrapped up in the narrator’s mind with sexuality, of an ambiguous nature (“no-one can penetrate me” being the crucial line, but also “my love is like a ruby that no-one can see, only my fancy”).

It’s not a song that submits well to analysis, but it’s one of the most gorgeous, strange songs Davies ever wrote, fading a way on a haunting note that sounds like nothing so much as a didgeridoo.

Little Miss Queen Of Darkness
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Another fairly minor track, but one that nonetheless shows the skill with which Davies was now able to blend fairly nuanced character studies with music of a wide variety of genres. In this case we have a rather poignant portrait of a woman with something missing in her life after the man she loved left and turning to hedonism, set to a pastiche of 1920s pop music.

The most interesting feature of the track is actually a mistake — in the instrumental break, the instruments fall in and out of sync with each other. Mick Avory has said [FOOTNOTE In an interview at http://kastoffkinks.co.uk/Mick%20Avory%20interview%20part%202.htm ] that this was because he recorded the drum part in the break as an overdub, and Shel Talmy wouldn’t let him do a second take, saying it was good enough. The sound of the band drifting out of sync, only to come back together before the next verse, is actually much more impressive than it would have been had Avory played the part as he intended.

You’re Lookin’ Fine
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A rather dull, plodding track, the only one on the album that could easily have fit on the first three, this song is based on a bass riff half-way between Money and Peter Gunn, but not as catchy as either, and the only musical point of interest is a change to a VIIb where normally one would expect a V. The lyrics, meanwhile, are just about seeing a woman and telling her she’s looking fine.

Sunny Afternoon
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

And tying all the themes of the album together, both musically and lyrically, we have this, one of the band’s biggest and best hits. Starting with a descending bass scale in D minor under two chords, recalling the more interesting use of bass in tracks like Rainy Day In June and (especially) Dandy, the track is in the style that rock music critics usually refer to as ‘music hall’, despite having absolutely no resemblance to actual music hall music, a sort of laid-back, loose-swinging feel based on strummed acoustic guitar and barrelhouse piano.

The lyrics once again refer to a rich man slowly becoming dissolute, though this time they’re sung from his point of view (and Davies is writing at least partly about himself and his newly-rich rock star peers), as he bemoans the taxman taking his yacht away (at the time the top marginal rate of income tax was 95%. This was not very popular with rock stars, who had generally been very poor until recently and didn’t like their money going now that they had some).

The song is wonderfully good-humoured and catchy, and Davies is self-aware enough that it is targeted more at Davies himself than at anyone else — the protagonist here is complaining, but knows he has no real problems. It deservedly got to number one, and is still one of the band’s most loved songs.

I’ll Remember
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Unfortunately, rather than end with Sunny Afternoon, which perfectly sums all the album’s themes, Face To Face ends with this track, which belies its name by being an utterly unmemorable piece of standard early-60s pop, a throwback to 1964 with a simple I-IV-V jangly verse. It’s not a bad track, but other than You’re Looking Fine it is the weakest, and it’s a bathetic closer.

Bonus Tracks

Dead End Street
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Musically very similar to Sunny Afternoon in style, this dark minor-key piece, with its prominent trombone part, could almost be the dark flip of the Beatles’ Penny Lane, but came out several months earlier than that track. A grim, haunting piece of social comment, it sadly still rings true today — lines like “I’m deep in debt now, it’s much too late/We both want to work so hard but we can’t get the chance” have only increased in relevance over the years.

Accentuating the feeling of helplessness and being stuck in a dead end, in the chorus the bass (played by Dave Davies on a standard bass and John Dalton on a Danelectro, a technique probably picked up from the records of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, both of whom did this on many occasions to have an especially thick bassline) keeps playing a four-note descending riff, but it starts on the third note, so it goes from F# down to F, jumps back up to A, then G, then repeats over and over, while the notes in the top of the chord stay essentially the same (the progression is D7/F#-F-Am-Am/G, so there’s an A and a C in the chord throughout the chorus). The feeling we get is of being stuck in one place, going round and round trying to find a way out but always ending up back at the start — a feeling only amplified by the fact that the entire last half of the song is made up of repetition of this musical material, with few words other than “dead end street”.

While Shel Talmy is the credited producer, Ray Davies actually produced this himself — unhappy with Talmy’s production of the single he took the band back into the studio and rerecorded it with a radically different arrangement. Reportedly when Talmy heard it he couldn’t tell the difference.

Remarkably for a song with such a grim message, this went to number five — and would probably have been even more successful had the BBC not refused to show the promo film for it. A pioneering example of music video, this was a wonderful mixture of Eisensteinian bleakness and broad pantomime comedy, apparently supervised by Ray Davies himself, which centred around a troupe of undertakers taking a corpse away from a terraced house. Some of the sketches Monty Python did about undertakers three years later bear more than a slight resemblance to this video.

By this point, the Kinks were at their peak — everything they released for the next four years or so would be wonderful.

Big Black Smoke
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The B-side to Dead End Street, it shows how far the band had progressed that this was B-side material, as at any point before 1967 it would have been at least considered as a single. As it is, it’s a very good minor track, based around a bouncy country rhythm, with yet another descending chromatic bass-line with a stationary chord on top (this time the Em – Em/D# – Em/D – Em/C# – C7 that opens the verse and the Em – Em/D# – Em/D – Em/C# that ends it), and another bleak social commentary lyric, this time about the plight of homeless runaways. The subject of homelessness was clearly in the air at the time — I’d initially thought this was inspired by Cathy Come Home, but while researching this I found that Cathy Come Home was broadcast only two days before this song’s release.

The song begins and ends with another of the examples of musique concrete style effects that Davies had been experimenting with — church bells at the beginning, joined by the sound of town criers at the end.

This Is Where I Belong
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The B-side to Mr. Pleasant, this sounds like an attempt to write in the style of Bob Dylan ca. Like A Rolling Stone – it’s a very harmonically simple song, built around guitar arpeggios and a Hammond part that sounds almost exactly like the arrangements Dylan was using, and Davies practically does a Dylan impression on the middle eight.

Lyrically, it’s just a simple, touching love song. Nothing hugely special, but easily good enough to have been many other bands’ A-side at the time.

She’s Got Everything
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

An unsuccessful attempt at a dance song, this is by no means bad as such, but it’s a throwback to their earlier work. The fact that even the band were unimpressed can be seen by its release history — while it was recorded during the Face To Face sessions, it was left off that album and the subsequent two, before being released as the B-side to Days two and a half years after it was recorded. Still better than most of the band’s 1964-65 work, it’s uninspired and uninspiring.

New MindlessWho post

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on March 19, 2012

This one’s on Day Of The Daleks. I have the flu, so I’m not quite coherent – I may have inadvertantly equated Nick Briggs revoicing the Daleks with the Baader-Meinhoff gang. But I may not. Why not read it and see?

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Shada, by Gareth Roberts and Douglas Adams

Posted in books, Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on March 17, 2012

(Continuing my policy of reviewing every new book I buy and read, I’m crossposting this to Amazon UK)

It’s difficult to know how much information to give in a review of Shada, the latest in the BBC’s line of Doctor Who prestige hardbacks, because it’s aimed at at least three different, though overlapping, audiences – Doctor Who fans, Douglas Adams fans, and people who would, when in a bookshop, be interested in a book about Doctor Who if it’s got the name of someone they recognise on the cover but wouldn’t otherwise consider themselves a fan. I am, of course, a member of both the first two groups.

In the late 1970s, Douglas Adams (who almost everyone reading this will know was to become the best-selling author of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Dirk Gently series before dying too young) wrote three scripts for Doctor Who, as well as script-editing the TV series for a year. The first of these, The Pirate Planet, is a passable romp, while the second, City Of Death, is often regarded as the single best story the TV show ever did. Shada was the third, and was meant to be broadcast at the end of the series Adams script-edited, but filming was stopped two-thirds of the way through because of strike action, and the story was never completed.

It’s not quite as lost as the publicity material around this book suggests – a VHS release about twenty years ago, now long-deleted, with Tom Baker doing linking narration, and a remake as a cartoon for the BBC website featuring eighth Doctor Paul McGann (the soundtrack CD of which is available from Big Finish for five pounds, and is well worth getting) mean that many of us have experienced this story in a relatively complete form already. However, it is true that it was never completed in the way Adams intended – and it’s also true that Adams was unhappy with his scripts and thought they needed more polishing – so it’s a perfect candidate for novelisation.

Gareth Roberts, the author of the book, will be less familiar than Adams by a long way, but is a reasonable choice for the job. I’m not a huge fan of Roberts’ work, but he’s what is generally called a safe pair of hands. He’s written for Doctor Who on TV, audio dramas, novels and comics before, including a novel (The Well-Mannered War) featuring the Fourth Doctor, who appears here, and his usual style is a sort of whimsical mildly parodic SF that is clearly influenced by Adams.

Roberts is nowhere near the writer that Adams was, but he doesn’t need to be for this. What he *is* good at is functional storytelling, and structure, two things that were among Adams’ weaker points. So while he keeps all the plot beats and important scenes from Adams’ script, and at least 90% of Adams’ dialogue, he fixes at least one big plot hole, completes a sub-plot that Adams seemed to start and then give up on, and provides a lot of back-story and character motivation.

For the most part, Roberts’ inventions fit perfectly with the Adams material, to the point where I’d challenge anyone unfamiliar with the source material to say what came from where. And it’s still recognisably the same story – the story of Skagra trying to turn the entire universe into his own mind in a Darkseid-like fashion, and of his search for the ancient Time Lord criminal Salyavin, and how the Doctor gets involved with this when visiting his old friend Professor Chronotis at St Cedd’s College, Cambridge. Reading it at times does feel spookily like reading a ‘new’ late-period Adams book – like a third Dirk Gently novel. (The first Dirk Gently novel, of course, used some characters and dialogue from Shada, along with the basic plot of City Of Death).

There are a couple of places where it goes wrong, though. For the most part, Roberts’ prose is functional, but he occasionally tries to ape Adams’ style, with predictably poor results. Adams’ tics are very easy to emulate, the sensibility behind them much less so – Roberts actually feels far more like Adams when he’s not copying his prose style but just telling Adams’ story.

Also, the jokes Roberts adds in the descriptive passages are nowhere near up to the standard of those in Adams’ dialogue, and often descend into an almost Peter Kay like “Remember the late 1970s? Things were slightly different then, weren’t they? What’s that all about?”. The occasional pun (the status quo one stands out in the memory as particularly bad) seems to be put in more because this is ‘a Douglas Adams book’ and therefore has to be funny, rather than because it makes any kind of artistic sense.

Even less excusable are the occasional continuity references, thrown in merely in order that people like myself will recognise them – “Wow, the Fourth Doctor mentioned the Rani!” There are quite a few knowing winks to the status of Doctor Who as a national institution, as well, which quite frankly just feel smug (and a rather more forgivable single one acting as a tribute to Adams).

But this is, fundamentally, nit-picking. What we have here is the best actual story Douglas Adams ever wrote for Doctor Who, adapted as well as one could reasonably expect. If it’s not as funny, clever, or exciting as it thinks it is, it’s still funnier, cleverer and more exciting than it has any right to be given its tortured genesis.

If Amazon allowed half-stars in reviews I’d probably give this three and a half, because it’s not going to change anyone’s life or make anyone think differently about the world. But it’s a very pleasant way to spend a few hours, and that’s still worth a lot, so I’ll round up to four.

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