Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Collectors

I've rarely read so much instant comment to a Guardian Blog as to Jon Wilde's piece yesterday on him buying records/cds rather than a house. Here I am, surrounded by similar piles in someone else's stately pile, and I can't go as far as regret. Brighton, as he acknowledges, was once world capital of second hand record shops, but is suffering a bit these days. I kind of think its gentrification rather than demand - though over a period of time as less stuff gets released on vinyl (or indeed CD) - less stuff is available via the second hand market - and then there's Amazon. I'm not a vinyl fetishist in any way; I bought my first CD in 1986, ("Brotherhood" by New Order) and they've given me a fair share of thrills as well as disappointments. The recent Domino reissues of albums by bands like Pavement have been as lovingly packaged and compiled as any vinyl. I still prefer the 7" or 12" single to the abomination that is the CD single - and if its, say, "The Smiths", or "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" or "Hejira" I've never replaced or augmented my vinyl copy with the CD version, yet there's a whole world of albums that CD has made available to me - particularly the old soul that Jon Wilde so loves - that I'd just not have got hold of otherwise. I miss the "2 sided album" that you only get with vinyl (ok and with cassettes, but since machines learnt to play both sides after each other that kind of got ruined) and still find it temperamentally impossible to play side 2 first, without playing side 1. Yet, having just been listening and loving an album by Tricky, "Vulnerable" from 2003, I realised I was sorely in need of the rest of his collection, and for a tenner, thereabouts, got the CDs from EBay. I reckon for certain people, certain types of music, CD, as it disappears into download, will have its own intriguing cachet. Remember how shiny and modern they looked back then? I was speaking with a friend at the weekend as she offloaded most of her books to the charity shops - feeling that she was just carting round these musty volumes from spare room to spare room - and for what purpose? She's 2 children now, and I guess her priorities have changed. I explained that in some ways my books, records and CDs were my "footprint", a sense of self that I can't even begin to explain away - the whole is bigger than the parts. And, yes, something of that is the fact that I still buy these things, and grew up in a house where books were generally absent, records were rare. And, as jobs and careers and relationships haven't quite worked out as I've hoped for, this has been a one constant. Last year, spurred on by the "Hacienda Classics" CD that came out, I thought I'd digitise some of my own favourite house records from that era. I ended up with 10 CD worth of house music - almost all from 12" and 7" singles, or from "Jack Trax" type compilations. It felt utterly pointless and yet at the same time absolutely right. I've begun to inherit collections from friends now; records and books, and sure enough, as my friend pulled up at the station she said, "have a look in the boot, see if there's anything you want." I liberated the poetry books, of course, glad to give them a good, appreciative home - even if I still don't own my own place either.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Liverpool City of No Culture

Well, its Liverpool City of No culture for me - I applied in the online ballot for 2 events, Britten and Taverner, and today got back a "you were unsuccessful" email. I'm sure its all fair and above water, but there's a sense of "why bother?" They add, "there's lots of free events you can attend", like I care about that. I'm not a great one for booking months (years?) in advance so when you try to and still get knocked back you think, "Okay, if that's how its going to be." I'd kind of thought that even though they would be popular, that prebooking would get me in to at least one of them. Perhaps there was a Manchester postcode filter, who knows? Yeah, yeah, just sour grapes I know. But like when I applied for the Commonwealth games ballot it just made me think, if my money's not good enough then so be it. With that, there were tickets going spare much nearer the event of course. After leaving things a little late for the Manchester Festival (lack of meaningful publicity in their case), I was determined to plan ahead this time. Ho hum.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cold

I've always liked writers to be on the sickly side, it seems far more achievable than this alpha-male powerhouses, meeting world leaders whilst writing their magnum opuses. But you always forget how even a simple cold is perfectly capable of stopping you in your tracks. I would add, that it almost seems designed for that very reason. In other words, I've looked ahead at the next few weeks and just about planned how I'm going to do all the things I have to do in a way that is relatively sane, but there's no slack at all built into that schedule. I woke up on Friday with a bit of a sore throat, and shook it off, but two days of irregular sneezing and now I've a fully blown cold, just ready for the week ahead. So everything is now dependent on which way the cold goes. I was - and am - looking forward to Elizabeth Baines's book launch tomorrow, for instance - but of course the hour has gone back last night, the rain's have started coming, the air will soon be filled with firework dust and ash, and I can see me hurtling into Chorlton on the 86 with a hacking cough that would disrupt the proceedings. Even tonight's 30 year re-run of the sublime "Abigail's Party" (BBC4, 10 o'clock) now feels beyond me, I'll have to remember how the video works - and fine a tape. It's hardly Robert Louis Stevenson or Keats, or Virginia Woolf or the Brontes, but there's nothing like a bit of feeling sickly for one to get back in touch with one's romantic, poetic side. I don't think I'll quite relapse to the extent that I've got "In Rainbows" on a loop, (I think the new Thurston Moore album "Trees Outside the Academy" is far better, anyhow). I suppose the upside is that if the cold gets worse I can batten down the hatches, unfreeze some soup, and surround myself with poetry books. I'm beginning to feel better alredy.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Collecting (Poems)

Ah, the nights are drawing in again and 'tis at this time of year that I sit down and begin collecting my poems together for another yearly pamphlet. Except, last year's I never quite got round to finishing for one reason or another - and this year, surely poetry has taken the rearest of backseats. But its October and the regular Poetry business pamphlet prize is always worth a look at, not that I've ever been shortlisted, longlisted or even distantlisted. but as prizes go its one of the nicest and simplest (and if the entry fee's a little higher, you only can assume its money well spent in that its encouraging poets who've enough for a little collection rather than the pay-per-poem contests that predominate.) What I like about it, is that it aims to do a real service to the poets who enter - by taking them and their aspirations seriously - after all, all pamphlets are judged anonymously, and it aims to do what all of us want, to produce a few well-promoted slim volumes as the prize. A prize, in other words, more valuable than money! And I've said before how I've become quite fond of the "pamphlet" as a way of showcasing a couple of dozen poems - not too few, not too many. Perhaps its the same amount you'd find in one of those lovely Penguin Modern Poets collections, sharing the space with 2 other like minds. I'd like to think so anyway. Perhaps Salt should inaugurate a Salt Modern Poets as a way of linking their catalogue with that illustrious past. I'd like that. But then I'd like to think that my latest "pamphlet", pushed together against the Poetry business deadline, is a valid one. You try and tell a story, putting some arresting poems at the start, creating an arc of subject and style, so that at the end, the reader would go back, rediscovering a few gems, but being impressed by the whole. As an inveterate compilation tape compiler, I'd love to be a poetry collection compiler - mine are fine, but my betters would be better (to go Ogden Nash-y on you). I think it must be the best of jobs, don't you? Compiler of the "Portable Faulkner", or of "The Essential Velvet Underground", or of "The New York Poets". Better that than "Fifty Poems about Cats" et al, where the subject matter is the only thing that matters. "Fifty Poems not about cats" would be good, mind.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

J.K. Rowling Wins the Nobel

...albeit in Ted Gioia's alternative universe.

Carving up Carver

Its interesting to hear that Tess Gallagher is to bring out a new version of Raymond Carver's famous, "What we talk about when we talk about love." This version will restore the cuts that his editor, Gordon Lish made. Critics seem to be of the opinion that the new book will do Carver a disservice - after all, it is far his clipped prose that he is most famous. I'd forgot that the book came out as late as 1981, since in my head his stories are so associated with the early seventies, working class America before and after the oil crisis. I like his work, but don't pretend to be have read all of it, and, it would be fair to say that I find some of the stories a little dated - in that they are so rooted in their blue collar past that is so different than the world we've grown up in. I imagine, Reaganomics in America was equally as devastating to that world as Thatcherism was in the UK, perhaps more so, in that we'd never had an American Dream to live up to - had "never had it good" really. So, given the more lyrical concerns of his later stories, I think we should welcome these new versions of Carver classics, stereo mixes to the beloved mono perhaps. It may well be, that the parochialism I sometimes find in a Carver story is less so in the new versions. Whichever, it will be a useful opportunity to re-read, contrast and compare.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Literary Season

It does seem very much like the literary season, with festivals to the left and right of us, the Booker announcement next Tuesday, and Doris Lessing winning the Nobel. Last, first. Its been heartening to see so much praise for Lessing, from the literary community mostly. As is often the case with literature you'll rarely hear a politician's voice. Yet is strange isn't it? Literature remains one of our greatest assets - as well as an important strand of the economy. Lessing was a writer I first encountered at university where we covered "The Golden Notebook" as part of our Women's Literature course, and "Memoirs of a Survivor" as part of our contemporary literature class. The latter class was notable for the mediocre novels on it (David Lodge's "How Far Can You Go", Ballard's "Empire of the Sun", Murdoch's "Under the Net), and then, to read "Memoirs of a Survivor" was to be transported somewhere else. I was amazed to find such an imaginative work amongst English writing. Its still a favourite, though I doubt it would be to everyone's taste. When people talk of Lessing deciding to write sci-fi, they seem to forget novels such as this which use some of the techniques of imaginative fiction, and use them in a modern way, but aren't in any way space opera. Yet it was always there, this imagination, and its why "The Golden Notebook" endures - a long book, but with a structure that allowed it to cover many different things. But just as labelling some of her work science fiction, labelling her as a political writer is both right and wrong. The brilliant "The Good Terrorist" dissects the left of the early 80s, through the "good terrorist" of the title. Through it she exposes some of the contradictions of the left, then and before - its sexism, its mysoginism, for instance - or, the way that the "middle class" left often had such a contempt for the ordinary people it was trying to liberate. Yet Lessing is not a polemicist; like Atwood, I think she is more interested in the observation of interesting things, people and stories, and looking for a method in which to do that better. Her books will continue to be read and studied; and to form a formidable body of work that covering half a century or more of writing will take more than a Nobel prize to deconstruct.

At yesterday's Manchester Literature Festival "double header" at Whitworth Art Gallery, Roddy Doyle praised Lessing, when he was asked what he read (fiction, contemporary and the classics was the general answer). It was the first time I'd heard him read, but it was wonderfully entertaining performance. His new book - of short stories that he'd written over 8 years for a Dublin based multi-cultural newspaper, in small episodes - seems to be a perfect introduction to his writing, and a chance for him to engage more fully with the contemporary reality of Ireland - always his subject, but as he said, one that had changed considerably in the last 20 years. Veterans of Manchester Literary events await the "mad" question that inevitably occurs towards the fag end of the evening - but poor Roddy got it from the first questioner. "I really liked the story," the woman intoned, poshly, "except the ending." He was incredibly gracious in response to this, but is probably still shaking his head at it, in a bar somewhere.

I've read Doyle, though I'm not someone who reads all his books, but I've never read either Maggie O'Farrell or Booker listed Anne Enright. Although they both read very well to a packed room, I got a sense they're not my kind of books. Anne's novel "The Gathering" is about a large dysfunctional Irish family, after bad news concerning one of them, and reading it an hour after hearing Doyle, you were struck by both the similarities and differences. She read it wonderfully, yet is sounds a despairing tale, and moreover, the narrator's hatred for her own mother - her anger - was a little too raw for my tastes. In the questions at the end, there was a point made that we are more uncomfortable when a woman is angry - thinking her unstable - than a man - thinking him strong. There's an element of this, I guess, yet, it seemed about "intent." Enright seems to be wanting to explore that anger, get to the bottom of what caused it, whereas perhaps male anger always has consequences rather than causes, and that it is the consequences that matter to the writer in those cases. Perhaps the difference between an interior and exterior novel. O'Farrell's novel was about secrets as well, about incarceration, lies and families. I came out a little exhausted, thinking, is this a male/female thing or something else? I could imagine having written the Doyle story, but the dark depressing experiences of these two books, where do they come from - and why were the writers attracted to the stories, or the readers attracted to the novels? "The Golden Notebook" and "Memoirs of a Survivor" are both partly about breakdown and mental illness, but Lessing found ways of exposing those themes that still seems contemporary. I'm wondering if a readership primed by Princess Diana's public interviews, and memoirs like David Peltzer, needs its suffering upfront, raw, on the page from the start - however accomplished (and both readers seemed accomplished), the writing is that describes it.

After the readings I walked home, since it was the Eid festival and Rusholme was inpassable, a sign of our contemporary reality, that rarely finds its way into fiction. I once included the local Mela in a short story, that in itself had nothing to do with multiculturalism, yet was utterly aware of the city in which it takes place. Doyle made the point that this story, the first he wrote - was about an Irish family and how they react to a stranger in their midst - but later, he began to write equally about the experience of the arrivees themselves.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Too Much Going On About Now

I'm home. I could have been at the Geoffrey Manton with Salt v. Transmission in an MMA style literary smackdown. I should have been at the Town Hall for a drinks reception for the Urban Screens Conference. But I was at the Manchester Blog Awards last night, straight after doing a presentation at Central Library, and today was at the conference until about 5; then tomorrow, after another day of conferencing, I'm going (in person? in avatar-mode?) to Lets Go Global's Second Life debut in All Saints Park. Then Saturday's some literary festival stuff, and I still haven't caught "Control." I've not listened to the Radiohead album yet. The fridge is full of dead salad (the only kind I ever own!) and I'm in the middle of mixing a new track. That's why I'm home then. There's too much going on about now - and I could feel a cold looming today (though it was freezing in the Great Hall, which might have explained it) with Manchester immersed in early morning fog. And I want to write something intelligent about the welcome news that Doris Lessing has won the Nobel for Literature but am too tired to do so.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Love Will Tear Us Apart

I'm yet to see "Control", the bio pic of Ian Curtis that opened on Thursday, but will try and fit it in during the week. In preparation, perhaps, I'm playing their music, that is, Joy Division's music. Its easy to forget - amidst all the talk of them being "legends" with that short clip of "Shadowplay" on So It Goes, or "Love Will Tear Us Apart" back in the top 50 - the way I discovered them, how they came into my life and changed it forever. My story, I once thought was unique, but since I've spoken to loads of people (mostly men, admittedly) who can repeat the same thing. It may seem hard to believe that there was a time when Joy Division weren't famous - and perhaps they always were - but music moved on quickly in the late 70s, early 80s, and the nostalgia industry had hardly begun. I was fourteen, it was the start of what must have been my fourth year - the start of preparation for O levels. Never someone who fitted in at school, I think adolescence, slow and awkward in my case, must have thrown me all out of kilter; though there's probably few or no pictures from that time. I'd been into music for a while, but a few old records - the Very Best of David Bowie, Blondie, ABBA, "A Day in the Life" - with pop music of the day heard very second-hand. Everyone at school seemed to have an older brother or sister who'd trained them in music since they were 11 or 12. Instead I was amazed by the carbon copy of the Beatles that you could hear on the Stars on 45 medley. I'd bought the album, and pause button ready had been trying to recreate my own medleys. Money was tight so if I bought a record it had to have 3 or 4 hits on it, songs that I liked, I'd never liked the ska of the Beat, or the mod of the Jam - and was even less fond of the heavy rock that most kids seemed to be into. It was into this context, that one night I happened to switch on the radio after 10.00 and hear John Peel. Whether for the first time or not - I think I must have heard it before and that this must have been a deliberate ruse - I'd somehow worked out that this was the only way to hear different music. Perhaps I saw it as a secret "crib" method, to catch up with the music before I got into the playground. He played the whole of the 4th side of "Still", the soon to be released posthumous album from Joy Division. I was transfixed. I'd never heard of them - I'd never heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart" incredibly - but this dark, dense music - and side 4 of "Still" includes some of their best songs, albeit live. Over the next couple of weeks I turned on the album charts to hear a couple of other tracks, but it was probably a month - so maybe late October, early November 1981, when I finally tracked down this starkly packaged double album at Fred's records on Cannock market. It felt like buying contraband, the word "Still" on the front - but, at £4.99 for a double, a bargain. Fred, as ever, handed it over in a brown paper bag. I took it back home and played it through headphones on my dad's stereo. Whereas he'd tolerated Beatles, ABBA, even Blondie, Joy Division, where - to him (and gloriously, to me) - all the songs sounded the same, a bass-heavy thud, with this almost incomprehensible vocal grumble over the top -for the next few years any record I'd play that was loud he'd say, "is this Joy Division?" So, "Still" is my favourite Joy Division album, partly because it was my first, and I didn't know anything about Ian Curtis being dead, not then, or that the band was no more and about to raise up as "New Order." My more savvy mate, Dave, already had "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and "Ceremony" - and would soon get "Closer" and "Unknown Pleasures" and the odd singles ("Atmosphere") that made Joy Division such a difficult band to collect. I guess, in 1981, "Still" was much more than just a new album, it was the only way of getting a Joy Division compilation. It also included this strange bluesy live cover "Sister Ray". I read the credits (Morrison - Reed - Tucker - Cale) but had no idea it was the Velvet Underground, another band I'd read about with intrigue. The live album was even muddier than the stark demos on the first disc, but with songs like "Shadowplay" and "Isolation" seemed to compile the best bits of their first two albums. I guess the stark beauty of "Closer" and the visceral power of "Unknown Pleasures" were later loves, and it was this murkiness that dragged me - and my friends towards "Still". By this time I'd begun to spend a precious few pennies on Record Mirror or - occasionally - the impenetrable NME, and must have edged towards an understanding of what Joy Division were, where they'd come from. But, remember, there was no Mojo, no internet, no mention of them in rock encyclopedias, and no information at all on those bewildering Factory sleeves. I'm looking forward to "Control" not to see my landscape - I'd have been 10 in 1977, Curtis and the rest of Joy Division were the generation before mine - which was suburban, but safer, already (post-Thatcher) undergoing change. Its interesting that its in black and white - I remember the seventies and early eighties, the early eighties in particular, most definitely in colour, a washed out colour from old photos perhaps, but the promise of new fabrics, burgundy jeans and yellow jumpers, leading to the extravagant dressing-up box of the New Romantics. Black and white was heavy metal colours; yet by the time - three years later - when I went to see my first night club gig (the Cocteau Twins at Birmingham Powerhouse) my transformation had completed, the black and white of the underground venue, and, as I walked down the stairs, the original (and now much played) version of "Sister Ray", by the Velvet Underground, played in full as the DJ waited for the place to fill up. We'd got there much too early. I was too young for Joy Division, but they were my band in a very private way, and one that over the years I've been shocked to share. I would soon see a very different New Order live, and years later, when they played outside the Town Hall welcoming the Commonwealth Games to Manchester it seemed absurd to hear my favourite, "Temptation" (7" from John Menzies, Walsall), played in this corporate square. Even this year, I heard "Love Will Tear Us Apart", played by Nouvelle Vague at their Manchester gig, and the crowd kept singing the chorus after the song should have stopped, a secular hymn, a shared experience. I'm saying, in some ways, that though Joy Division were the start of things for me, they were also the end of things as well. That lineage between the Velvets, Iggy Pop and Bowie and Joy Division was very real - but the only band to really take on from Joy Division was New Order, who went the direction that perhaps the Ian Curtis of the 2nd side of "Closer" would also have followed had he been able. I don't see echoes in the bands supposedly influenced by Joy Division, since they remain, with that small, repackaged, chaotic back catalogue, uncategorisable, still metallically modern, a band that I know many people adore - but who would, I guess, remain as impenetrable as ever to many. It might seem quixotic that "Still" would still be in my all time top ten albums, slightly ahead of "Unknown Pleasures" and "Closer", but there's something in it unformed-ness, its starkness, its murky depths that remains, for me, the essence of so much of my musical loves, desires, hopes and despairs.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

In Praise of Amises

It is with a sigh that I read that Terry Eagleton has criticised the Amises in his new book, according to the Independent, via Ready Steady Book. This is all 2nd and 3rd hand of course, and Terry's an old hand at self-promotion for his somewhat endless stream of books, yet there's something disconcerting of this Marxist critics continued criticising of writers, in the case of both Kingsley and Martin Amis, for their politics (and personal life), rather than their books. But of course, Eagleton's take on literary criticism always seems to be pop-cultural lite, leaving the book at the door as soon as he can, and then going on about his same old tropes. I'm far more interested in Kingsley Amis than I ever will be in Terry Eagleton, and the description of him as "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals" doesn't ring true from what I've read. Its a reductionist reading, partly of a (deliberate) persona, and partly retrofitting contemporary mores to earlier times. Yet, I can only defend the books, not the man, and they have far more humanity, and humour, than this preposterous description would admit. Yes, "Stanley and the Women" is a misanthropic piece, but its one of his very worst novels as a result. As for Martin, it should be obvious that his politics are the least interesting part of him; somehow he needs the big threat, the big subject, to kickstart the baroque satires of his best fiction. Our interest in both father and son is for their writing, primarily their fiction. Eagleton, 9 books this decade and counting, doesn't interest me in the slightest. A quote from Eagleton's Manchester University profile reads "'Pure' literary theory - Formalism, semiotics, hermeneutics, narratatology, psychoanalysis, reception theory, phenomenology and the like - have taken something of a back seat these days to a more narrowly conceived theoretical agenda, so it would be agreeable to see a resurgence of interest in these regions." Not sure what that keen Grammarian, Kingsley, would have thought of these being called "regions" (like the North West or the Midlands perhaps?), but its the "agreeable" I like. I was lucky enough to avoid theory during my university literature career, and actually read the books, not the meta-texts about the books. It still seems the only correct approach.

Robert Wyatt, English Treasure

With a new Robert Wyatt album out next week, I thought I'd dig out a little piece I wrote about Wyatt, close to being my favourite artist - with a personal selection of his greatest at the end.

ROBERT WYATT - ENGLISH TREASURE

Robert Wyatt is a unique artist, without comparison within rock music of the last 40 years. As the drummer and occasional singer with sixties avant-rock band the Soft Machine, he had a place in one of the pivotal times for music. Musical friendships formed at that time have endured, even if the so-called “Cambridge scene” that gave up Soft Machine, Gong and Caravan and their various alumni, seems self-indulgent in retrospect. Soft Machine, along with the Pink Floyd, were leaders of the psychedelic avant garde of late sixties London, performing at the famed UFO club, and, over a period of 4 albums becoming a concert and late night radio fixture.

Part of Wyatt’s appeal is that although as a musician and singer he is far closer to the improvised jazz scene, he has always shown both a pop sensibility and an affinity with certain elements of rock music. That he played with Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties, has worked frequently with the rock guitar greats Dave Gilmour and Robert Fripp, and has recorded songs by Neil Diamond, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Chic, shows a remarkable breadth of appeal and influence; yet throughout this, the percussive expertise, the nods to improvisation, the innovative if apparently na├»ve piano playing, and mostly one of the most uniquely stylised and recognisable vocals in twentieth century have created a consistency that has survived and surpassed all fashions. Running in a wayward parallel path to British pop and rock music of the last four decades, Wyatt has emerged periodically, as almost a reminder of so much of that music’s shallowness. Whether it was his top 40 hit from the early ‘70s covering the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, the anti-Falklands Costello song “Shipbuilding” from the political charged early ‘80s, or the surprise 2004 Mercury Prize nomination for his “Cloudcuckooland” album.

My own acquaintance with his music began in an unexpected way. Every week, Radio 1 would play the new singles, and usually they would be predictable, unexciting, and bland. One week, it played a song called “Grass.” I only heard it on the radio the once. It had an Indian styled percussion, a voice that was English-accented, deadpan, and woefully unprotected by the mix, and strange, yet poignant lyrics. I remembered the name, Robert Wyatt, but in those days pre-CD, pre-internet, it was impossible to find the record. When I did, on a Rough Trade compilation of singles, “Nothing Can Stop Us” I was devastated to find that none of the other songs sounded a bit like “Grass.” Yet, over time the album became an unexpected favourite, prompting me to seek out his ‘70s work, in particular the album “Rock Bottom” and his post-Soft Machine band Matching Mole.

After he left Soft Machine, with some rancour, he created an avant garde solo album “The end of an ear” before coming up with a new band, Matching Mole, so-called because it was an English hearing of the French for Soft Machine. That first Matching Mole album included “O Caroline”, a beautiful ballad, that remains one of my all time favourite songs. Yet, this was as nothing to “Rock Bottom.” An album unique in the pantheon, it’s six songs are orchestral in scope, pastoral in feel, and a mix of immense sadness and inescapable hope. Wyatt, shortly beforehand, had become wheelchair bound through falling off a balcony, drunk. Instead of ending his career, it somehow began it. Unable to live a “normal” rock star life, the convalescing Wyatt, supported by his partner Alfreda Benge, (a painter who painted most of his album covers), created one of the masterpieces of ‘70s music. “Progressive” but also timeless, its mixture of sophisticated musical textures, and plaintive childlike lyrics and singing, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 1974. The next Virgin album “Ruth is Stranger Than Richard” was more of a jazz album, though it did include “Soup Song”, a typically humorous song about er… soup.

By this time, Wyatt was becoming increasingly politically active and engaged. As a singer exploring different styles he took influence from around the world, and although he was mostly sceptical of music to “change the world”, he saw that music could come out of struggle and reflect that struggle for the wider world to see. Increasingly during the eighties and nineties his music would reflect this world-view. Covers of “The Red Flag” and the “International” sitting besides songs dedicated to East Timor and even the soundtrack to the anti-vivisectionist movie “The Animals.” As a singer and musician however, this activism has never obscured the need to entertain. Rather, Wyatt seems similar to the protest singers of previous ages, reflecting the concerns of his audience, or of the age, but remaining, first and foremost, a musician. And if some of those equally committed singers such as Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, have dipped out of direct polemic, as their influence has reduced, for Wyatt, it seems that his almost negligible commercial presence (his recordings have generally appeared for the independent labels Rykodisk and Rough Trade), has allowed this continued freedom to operate as a lone political voice. Rarely able to play live, his “help” has been frequently offered via guest appearances on a large number of recordings, from Phil Manzenera’s “Diamond Head” album, to Working Week’s “Venceremos” single, to Ultramarine’s “United Kingdoms” album. Being a Robert Wyatt fan has involved keeping an eye on the sidetracks and back alleys of contemporary music.

Since “Old Rottenhat” in 1985 he has, to some extent, had a more regular career, albeit with quite long gaps between albums, with “Dondestan”, “Schleep” and “Cloudcuckooland” being careful, considered works, each one being welcomed by anyone who has ever been beguiled by his remarkable voice.

My personal Robert Wyatt "best of"...

SHIPBUILDING Single
Written specifically for Wyatt by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello it was possibly the only explicit anti-Falklands song to receive airplay and make the charts.
KINGDOM “United Kingdoms” CD by Ultramarine
The UK dance scene had fractured by the mid-90s and more ambient/pastoral sounds were as welcome as harder beats. Ultramarine inspiredly collaborated with Wyatt on their 2nd album “United Kingdoms.”
TEAM SPIRIT “Ruth is Stranger than Richard” CD
“Ruth…” is a sophisticated jazz album from 1975, like an English Steely Dan, and this driving rhythmic track is its standout. Features Eno on “direct anti-jazz ray gun” (which clearly failed!)
LULLALOOP “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” was a surprise near-hit in 2004, being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Essentially a “double album” it was Wyatt’s most complex and achieved work for years. Written by his wife, Alfreda Benge, this track features Paul Weller on guitar.
A LAST STRAW “Rock Bottom” CD
“Rock Bottom” from 1974 is almost impossible to extract from, its 6 long songs forming a beautiful whole. The album was produced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd.
FREE WILL AND TESTAMENT “Shleep” CD
Signing for reissue label Rykodisc after years on Rough Trade seemed to cause a renaissance for Wyatt, 1997’s “Shleep” a quietly pastoral album.
I’M A BELIEVER Single
The unexpected Monkees cover was an unexpected 1974 hit, but the BBC infamously wouldn’t let a singer in a wheelchair appear on Top of the Pops in case it upset the viewers. A follow up cover “Yesterday Man” was almost as good, but didn’t make the charts.
O CAROLINE “Matching Mole” CD
The most traditional track Matching Mole recorded, it shows Wyatt’s soon-to-be more apparent romanticism to the full. It’s also one of my favourite songs of all time.
FOREST “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” is a suite of songs, of which “Forest” is one of the most affecting, with backing vocals by Eno and guitar by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
GRASS “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
An Ivor Cutler song, and my own introduction to Wyatt. The deadpan south-east accent and intentionally hilarious lyrics show the lighter side to Wyatt’s muse.
INSTANT PUSSY Smoke Signals Live by Matching Mole CD
The scat-sung track from Matching Mole’s debut recorded on tour in Europe in 1972.
FRONTERA “Diamond Head” LP by Phil Manzanera
From 1975 and a hidden highlight of his career, co-written with Roxy Music’s Manzanera on his 1975 album “Diamond Head” this is an early sign of his interest in latin rhythms and voices.
WINDS OF CHANGE “Cloudcuckooland” CD
The politically charged days of the mid-eighties saw a number of collaborations of which this joyous track, with the SWAPO singers from South Africa, produced by Jerry Dammers of the Specials AKA, was a highlight.
SEA SONG “Rock Bottom” CD
The opening song of “Rock Bottom.”
AT LAST I AM FREE “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
A Chic album track that had Wyatt not decided to cover, may have stayed in unexpected obscurity. The lyrics clearly had political currency, but it’s the beauty of both song and vocal that astound. Liz Fraser would cover it in a similar style for Rough Trade’s 25th anniversary.
THE AGE OF SELF “Old Rottenhat” LP
Essentially his first proper album since “Ruth…” “Old Rottenhat” is a series of glorified home recordings, mostly politicised.
LOVE Uncut Magazine Lennon Tribute CD
A recent cover version of a John Lennon solo song that perfectly matches song and singer.

Post

There's another postal strike today. It seems a weird inconvenience in the world of email. (The internet doesn't strike.) And I'm all for a better postal service, better post offices etc. and would probably even be able to tell the government how here it was continuing get it wrong. And so sympathy for striking posties aside, it is an inconvenience for us writers. Last time, I was sending some poems to a poetry magazine and whether that was the reason or just coincidence, my SAE got separated from its parent and returned empty a few days later. This time, I was thinking of putting together an entry for a pamphlet competition (I'm off for the day), and now think, oh, what's the point? since the post office will be closed and the boxes sealed. With writers being one of the last groups who relies on the post its a bit annoying. Not as annoying as the "lost parcel" from Amazon of course. Rather than use reliable Royal Mail, they've started using unreliable Home Delivery Network, for some of its deliveries, and its been stuck in their Farnworth depot for a week. They didn't leave a card (though they said they did, must be all those card thieves at my flats) or any other way of arranging delivery, and even though Amazon have contacted them, not a dicky bird. It's annoying thats all. Annoying.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Houses of the UnHoly - Like Punk Rock Never Happened

Radiohead's last album "Hail to the Thief" was predicated on George W. Bush being a trickster and a huckster. Yet Radiohead themselves know a little about the old P.T. Barnum. No longer popular outside their large fan base, their new album, like Prince's is available for free (or nearly) as a download that you can "pay what you want" for. Yet, knowing their (ageing) fanbase might like the convenience of MP3, but also likes the physical touch of product, they've announced that "In Rainbows" will also be available as a special edition release. Not since the mid 70s and prog-rock has such lavishness been expended on the packaging. For £40 you get the download, the CD, the album as double 12" vinyl, another CD (b-sides? Out takes?) and a lavish box. Bypassing record labels and the like (though inevitably using the fulfilment services of that same record industry, rabid fans (and are there any other sort with Radiohead?) will be forking out the equivalent of 5 chart CDs for the physical product. You have to admire the two-way street here - its free (for the music) but a fortune (for the package.) Radiohead have been here before of course - Kid A and Amnesia was essentially a double album ripped apart to maximise income. Yet like a huckster in a temporary shop on Oxford Street, selling you something you don't want, with the promise of giving you a bargain, Radiohead will surely pull the wool over their fans eyes, so shocked to be given such short notice of the new album. The download is available in ten days, the package just in time for Christmas. It will be a beautiful thing, like an edition of McSweeneys, but they're the ones pricing the lavish package as a thing to die for (or fork out £40 for.) What I say is: Pay nothing. Make your own packaging.

OverCultured

Whichever way I look at it, I go to on average one cultural event a week, and that's often enough, or all that I can manage. I feel very uncultured sometimes - not catching this programme, reading this book, or going to this concert or play. I'm almost pathologically allergic to festivals - all those options in such a short space of time - oh, and I've got a day job. But last Saturday went to see Hoi Polloi at the Lowry, Monday caught "Atonement" (the movie) and last night saw Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express at the University. Theatre, film 'n' rock then. No wonder I don't get time to write much. How on earth does Mark Lawson do it? Does he clone himself or something? Ah, think of all the cultural roads less travelled through making those particular choices. So, its with some foreboding that I've preregistered for the Liverpool 08 festival of culture, putting my hat in the ring for concerts by John Taverner, and, excitingly, Britten's "War Requiem" at the Anglican Cathedral. I rang a friend up to say, what are you doing next June? And she said, "why, are you getting married?" Yep, booking a ticket that far in advance is long enough to meet someone, fall in love and arrange the wedding. I could be anything or anywhere by then. But I guess its good to plan ahead. Start thinking like this and I could get my cultural itinerary fixed for the next year or so.