Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Linkblogging For 29/06/12

Posted in linkblogging by Andrew Hickey on June 29, 2012

There’ll be more from me on the Mindless Ones’ site tomorrow — part two of our three-part look at League 2009. Those posts are *hugely* time-consuming — there’s an old saying that when two writers write together they both end up doing twice the work, and there are six of us on this, so you can see why blogging’s a bit light at the moment. But I’m hoping to have the next Kinks post up here over the weekend, too, on why Preservation Act 1 is actually quite good, not rubbish like you think.

Anyway, links:

Red Drag Diva’s updated list of Chuck Norris facts

The Olympic Committee apparently reneged on a promise to promote a campaign against violence against women, though the Guardian, in typical fashion (it’s getting as bad as the Mail) can’t decide if it’s a campaign against violence against women, domestic violence, sexual abuse or sexual violence. One thing that really stood out to me was the claim that there’s a Home Office report showing that violence between partners increased by as much as 30% on days during the 2006 World Cup when there was an England match on. Precisely *because* this confirms every single prejudice I have against football and those who watch it, I’m fairly sceptical about this — anyone know more?

Texas Republicans want to ban critical thinking in schools.

Mark Pack on the possible ways Labour may plan to block Lords reform.

Another Mark, Mark Thompson, on why we can’t trust MPs over Lords reform.

Millennium on Cameron’s statements about what the Tories would do with benefits if they were governing alone.

Alex Wilcock on why the Tories’ ideas about censoring the web are stupid

And finally I was sad to hear of the death of Nikki Thomson, who I didn’t know personally but who was a major force in Lib Dem politics and who was a friend of many of my friends. Caron has a post about her.

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Me on the Mindless Ones

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 26, 2012
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Van Dyke Parks At The Barbican

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on June 24, 2012

I’ve not had much chance to write here for a few days because I’ve been working on the Mindless Ones’ annotations of the new League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but thought I should at least do a brief update about seeing Van Dyke Parks live last night.

Unfortunately, thanks to Megabus arriving nearly two hours late in London, my friends and I missed most of the support act, Gaby Moreno (and embarassingly when we came in we were in the very front row, so close to the stage that my stomach was actually on stage while I was trying to get past other people to get to my seat), a shame as VDP was playing piano for her and had orchestrated her music.

But while I can’t comment on Ms Moreno, what I can say is that Van Dyke Parks himself — and the whole show — was utterly stunning. I’d seen Parks twice before — once at the Royal Festival Hall with Grant Geissman and Leland Sklar (and the High Llamas as support) and then last year with Clare And The Reasons, but this was the first time I’d seen him perform with an orchestra — in this case the 32-piece Britten Sinfonia.

While the show was billed as focussing on Parks’ first three albums, which have just been reissued, it was actually a very similar setlist to the one he did last year, with nothing at all from his third album, Clang Of The Yankee Reaper, and plenty from Jump! and Orange Crate Art. The main difference in setlist was the addition of several songs from his first album, Song Cycle.

But the fact that I’ve heard Parks perform most of these songs live before is unimportant. What matters is that the songs are great songs, and Parks is a unique performer — a genuinely good human being whose basic love of humanity and the world shows in every gesture and word.

He’s also a fantastic arranger and orchestrator, and much as I’ve loved seeing him in the past with small groups, hearing his songs played as they were meant to be played, with his unique style, equal parts Gershwin, Copland and Ives but recognisable as Parks in every bar, is an experience every music lover should have.

And even though Parks is one of the four or five best songwriters alive (and has worked with many of the others), this wasn’t just a celebration of his songs (though his songs deserve celebration — he referred to himself as a titan of music on stage, and was both only half joking and entirely correct) but of the power of song itself. He talked about how he’d written Jump!, in part, as a moral lesson for children, to teach them about right and wrong, and about how in a world where only 35% of Americans accept the reality of evolution, art needs to combat ignorance.

So as well as Parks’ own songs, this set celebrated the power of songwriting, and many of the great songwriters.

The set opened with the first three songs from Song Cycle performed in order, starting with Black Jack Davy, a traditional folk song which Parks described as “the cornerstone of the Celtic tradition in the Appalachians”, performed by Daniel Rosen (from the band Grizzly Bear) and Robin Pecknold (from the Fleet Foxes) on banjo and guitar, before Parks started his own performance with Randy Newman’s gorgeous Vine Street and his own Palm Desert.

After this, I’m be getting the order of the setlist wrong, but he performed Jump!, and Opportunity For Two (unfortunately getting the words wrong and singing the second verse twice, missing the first one altogether, one of the few flaws in a near-perfect show).

There were three songs from Orange Crate Art, and they may have been the best performances of those songs I’ve ever heard. The songs on that album may be the finest Parks ever wrote, but I always found his own live versions infinitely vocally superior to Brian Wilson’s rather poor lead vocals on the album — but on the other hand, the album had harmonies that Parks never had live. This time Rossen, Pecknold and Moreno added backing vocals to the title track, Sail Away and Wings Of A Dove, and while they had a little trouble harmonising with Parks’ idiosyncratic phrasing (he plays with the lines, often seeing just how late he can leave starting a line), they sounded gorgeous.

The notes about tiny flaws and imperfections, incidentally, are just that — tiny flaws. They humanised, rather than damaging, the show — not that Parks’ music needs more humanising. I know of very few musicians whose music is more human and more open, more embracing.

FDR In Trinidad was preceded by a paen to New Deal liberalism, and a claim that Roosevelt should be canonised, before a dedication to the late Vic Chestnutt, who died because he couldn’t afford healthcare.

Other highlights were versions of Allan Toussaint’s Riverboat (Parks said he was reclaiming Toussaint from Elvis Costello), Lowell George’s Sailing Shoes and Harry Nilsson’s He Needs Me (sung by Moreno), as well as a wonderful version of Heroes & Villains, orchestrated like a vintage Hollywood film and with some extra lyrics I’d never heard in any version (“We’ve all had enough/Of each fisticuff/and sunny down snuff…”).

The show closed with a beautiful version of Orlando Gibbons’ The Silver Swan, a 17th century madrigal by Orlando Gibbons which is Parks’ favourite song, and with three standing ovations.

Parks said early on “America is a country which considers its musical titans disposable. And I am not disposable.”

He’s right. He isn’t.

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The Birthday Boy

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 20, 2012

At threescore and five (and five more) he’s very much alive, he’s still got the jive to survive…

 

 

The Kinks’ Music — Everybody’s In Showbiz

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on June 20, 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.

Everybody’s In Showbiz is possibly the most overlooked album from the Kinks’ early period. A rather odd double-album, the second disc is made up of live recordings, almost entirely of songs from the previous two albums (the CD reissue adds two 60s classics — Til The End Of The Day and She’s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina — but other than the three cover versions dealt with below, the original live recording contained one song from Arthur, two from Lola vs Powerman and five from Muswell Hillbillies), while the consensus about the first disc, of new studio recordings, is that it is mostly a rock star whinging about how terrible the life of a rock star is, with the occasional song that sounds like an outtake from Muswell Hillbillies.

But while this consensus is, in fact, accurate, it slightly misses the point. Putting out a live album that is almost entirely devoid of hits is in itself a fairly odd thing to do, but to couple a live album with an album of songs about how awful touring is — songs that if one has any empathy for the singer sap any semblance of joy from the live recordings that follow — has to be a deliberate artistic statement.

And while almost every rock musician of the 70s released an album about how awful life on the road was, the life of the Kinks at the time was truly awful. Dave Davies had recently had a breakdown — what sounds from his later descriptions like a psychotic episode lasting a few months — and communication between the two brothers was so bad at the time that thirty years later Ray Davies claimed not to be aware it had happened. Meanwhile, the band had by the time of this album been obsessively touring the USA for three years, trying to slowly rebuild the audience they’d lost there in 1965, and Ray and Rasa Davies’ marriage was coming to an unhappy end, leading to another in Ray Davies’ increasingly frequent bouts of mental illness.

What we get, as a result, is an album that is almost entirely about dissociation — about having no emotional connections to either one’s environment or to the surrounding people. Sometimes this makes the songs come off as affectless and difficult to empathise with, but at other times there’s a surprising beauty to the songs, although they remain in the simple style of Muswell Hillbillies, with little musical invention when compared to Davies’ work from 1966 through 69.

(This review will primarily deal with the studio songs, only looking at the live cover versions that don’t appear elsewhere.)

Studio

Here Comes Yet Another Day
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

In what sounds almost like an overture to the album, like a curtain is rising, Ray Davies here sings about the grinding monotony of the touring life, with lyrics that have little rhythmic variation but come so fast that lines overlap, over a clomping rock beat and what amounts to a single chord (in the middle eight the guitar very briefly throws in a passing IV chord a couple of times, and goes to V before the change back to the verse, but otherwise the entire thing is all on a single I chord).

It succeeds all too well in conveying the dullness and repetition of touring, as even at only 3:30 it seems a good minute and a half too long.

Maximum Consumption
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is one of several songs on the album that seem obsessed with food. In this case, over a harmonically simple backing very much in the Muswell Hillbillies mode, Davies talks about food (specifically American food — clam chowder, beef steak on rye, pumpkin pie and so on are foods that Davies would only have been eating on tour in the US) as fuel, and himself as a machine that needs refuelling — “I’m a maximum consumption, non-stop machine/Total automation, perpetual motion.”

Even the sexual innuendo here (“I’m so easy to drive, and I’m an excellent ride”) is all about the body as machine.

In the context of the album as a whole, then, this is another song about detachment — the focus in this, as in several songs on the album, is on the functions of the body rather than the mind inside it. After becoming detached from his home country and the people around him, the protagonist of the song (who in this case, as with much of the album, we probably can identify with Davies in a way we can’t always with earlier songs) is starting to think of his body, too, as something other, something separate that’s moving around independently of his wishes, a machine that requires food and sex.

Unreal Reality
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Musically, this song is not one of Davies’ best — he’s continuing here (and on much of the rest of the album) his Muswell Hillbillies habit of writing with only standard rock & roll changes, and his ideas are wearing thin. This song is almost entirely made up of just I, IV and V chords (with one brief move to ii, on the line “Because they can touch it, it’s gotta be reality”) and sounds like it was written by a computer asked to generate a Muswell Hillbillies-esque song.

Lyrically, though, this is the most disturbing of all the songs on the album, and really the lyrical key to the entire thing. This could almost have been written by a Philip K Dick protagonist, and portrays someone getting more and more detached from reality. Normal Kinks targets (the businessman in his suit and tie who seems like he’s made of plastic) merge with the strange environment of a foreign country, with its towering buildings that “reach…right up to the clouds”, and convince our narrator that he’s in an unreal world.

Here Muswell Hillbillies‘ longing for ‘authenticity’ has turned sour — our narrator is convinced that the ‘inauthentic’ experiences he’s having are literally, not metaphorically, unreal. He’s so detached from his surroundings that he worries they’re hallucinations.

Hot Potatoes
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray and Dave Davies

A five-chord song, the most harmonically complex thing we’ve had so far, though still rudimentary compared to the band’s pre-RCA work (this time with a guitar line that seems to be parodying George Harrison’s guitar on My Sweet Lord and a piano part that sounds like it was inspired by the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday), this is another one that makes the connection between appetite for food and sexual appetites, as the protagonist’s wife won’t ‘satisfy his appetites’ with anything other than hot potatoes unless he goes out to work.

The lyrics are confused and don’t make much literal sense, but again there’s an emphasis on the carnal, on the needs of the body, as the relationship between the protagonist and his wife is deteriorating.

Sitting In My Hotel
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Easily the best song on the album, this is a piano-based ballad with a simple chord structure and a return of the fragmented descending basslines that Davies had used so effectively in earlier songs. The descending bassline clearly makes Davies think of baroque music, and so we have some lovely fanfare-like baroque trumpet playing from Mike Cotton over the top.

Musically the song sounds like an experiment in writing musical theatre (something the song comments on itself, with the line about “writing songs for old-time vaudeville revues”), and has a lot in common with the more singer-songwriter end of glam — it could easily fit on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album, for example.

Lyrically, once again this is about alienation — being away from one’s friends and acting in a way that doesn’t feel natural. The protagonist wonders what his friends back home would think if they could see him “Dressing up in my bow tie/Prancing round the room like some outrageous poof” (Davies has an unfortunate tendency to associate homosexuality, theatricality and artificiality, even as he is ambivalent about the first, fond of the second, and scathing about the last).

The whole thing paints a touching picture of someone trying to hold on to his old values and use them to re-evaluate a life that seems to have gone horribly wrong.

Motorway
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A fun track, this is actually the second-best comedy country song about how bad motorway service station food is of the 1970s [FOOTNOTE The best, of course, being Watford Gap by Roy Harper] — a subject close to the hearts (and stomachs) of many touring bands then and now. Based on one chord for the most part (expanding to four chords for the middle eight), this features some nice country guitar picking in a bluegrass style, while John Dalton’s bass part is clearly influenced by Marshall Grant’s simple tic-toc root/fifth parts on Johnny Cash’s records.

Once again, though, this is a song about detachment from one’s normal life, travelling and thinking only in terms of basic bodily functions — eating cold meat pies, using filthy toilets and sleeping in cheap hotels. Davies, here, is living a life in which every sense is being battered and he’s being ground down, and once again he’s trying to reach out to anyone from his home life — “Mama oh mama, my dear Suzi too, This motorway message is sent just for you.”

You Don’t Know My Name
Writer:
Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A welcome return of Dave Davies as a songwriter, after two albums on which he didn’t have a single song, this is another song about dissociation and travelling, done in a country-rock style that sounds spookily like Ronnie Lane’s songs for The Faces (which featured Rod Stewart, an old schoolmate of the Davies brothers who had briefly sung in a band with them in the very early 60s), but with an incongruous jazz-folk flute part that makes this one of the most interestingly-arranged tracks on the album.

Supersonic Rocket Ship
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The Kinks’ last UK hit single of the 1970s, this reached number 16. Musically, it’s an attempt to rewrite Apeman, but actually has a far more convincing calypsonian feel to it than the earlier song did, with an arrangement that puts the country dobro sound Dave Davies has been using for much of the last two albums up against a convincingly Trinidadian-sounding horn section and steel drums.

Unfortunately, Ray Davies uses his comedy Caribbean accent for most of the song, as it would be quite lovely otherwise. In this song about escaping from pressures, the ‘supersonic rocket ship’ here plays much the same role that the train to heaven does in older spirituals. But unlike almost everything else on the album, here Davies is looking outward — he’s offering to ‘take you on a little trip/my supersonic ship’s at your disposal if you’d be so inclined’, making an offer rather than trying to persuade, and to someone else rather than looking inward.

And it’s a generous-spirited offer, too — an offer of a trip to a world where no-one shall be enslaved by poverty or conformity (“On my supersonic rocket ship, nobody has to be hip,nobody needs to be out of sight/Nobody’s gonna travel second class, there’ll be equality and no suppression of minorities”). Davies had always hated the pressure to conform to what was considered cool, as far back as Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, and here he explicitly places that kind of conformism on a par with the other kinds that the hip, then and now, were happier with him satirising.

There’s probably a slight element of sexual double-entendre to the lyrics, but it’s very slight, and for the most part this should be taken sincerely as being about a desire to escape — but in a more generous, open-hearted way than many of Davies’ more misanthropic songs.

So it’s a shame that with the misjudged vocal he turned what could have been one of his best songs into a novelty number, but there’s still substance here if you listen for it.

Look A Little On The Sunny Side
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Utterly different from anything else on the album, this is arranged primarily for the horn section and is vastly more harmonically complex than the rest of the record, with descending basslines, drone notes held at the top of the horn stack and so on leading to chords like a VIaug going to iv with a VIb in the bass.

It’s also practically the Kinks’ only real excursion into a music-hall style. The term ‘music hall’ gets applied to the band all the time by lazy rock journalists, but in truth almost none of the band’s songs have any real relationship to any of the many styles that were performed in the music halls — the songs that usually get labelled that way tend to have more in common with the songs written for comedy revues by people like Flanders & Swann than with the working-class music hall tradition.

This, on the other hand, could easily fit on a bill with actual music-hall songs like I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside or I Live In Trafalgar Square, at least musically. Lyrically, it’s a different matter — while the title is definitely one that fits the style, the song is actually about not letting bad reviews of your music get you down.

This song is, lyrically, pretty much thoroughly defended against any kind of critique, because it argues that no matter what kind of songs you write, a critic will always say it’s not as good as your older stuff or that you should work in a different style. Therefore, I won’t say anything about the lyrics — anything I could say about them, good or bad, they’ve already pre-empted.

Celluloid Heroes
Writer:
Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

And the studio part of the album finishes with this, one of the Kinks’ most-loved songs. Unfortunately, I have to be a bit of a contrarian here, and say that I simply don’t see what the fuss is about with this one. At six minutes and twenty-two seconds, it’s at least three minutes too long for the limited musical ideas.

It’s overblown and bombastic, and seems to my ears like an unsuccessful rewrite of Oklahoma, USA that Davies has for some reason tried to turn into Hey Jude instead. All the real emotion of the earlier song has been replaced with cloying sentiment, and it’s very much of a piece with Elton John’s Candle In The Wind, with its expressions of pity for the lives of film stars from the golden age of Hollywood.

Fundamentally, I can’t see the appeal of this song, but this may well be a fault with me — to most Kinks fans this is the band’s last true classic.

Live

Mr. Wonderful
Writer:
Jerry Bock, George David Weiss and Larry Holofcener
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A thirty-second live snippet of a song from a musical, made famous by Peggy Lee, with Davies putting on an exaggerated crooner voice.

Banana Boat Song
Writer:
Irving Burgie and William Attaway
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A brief one-minute run-through of part of the traditional calypso song.

Baby Face
Writer:
Harry Akst and Benny Davis
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A return to the Mike Cotton Sound’s trad jazz roots, with a cover of the 1926 Al Jolson song, done in an approximation of the style of Louis Prima.

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