christopher james

Poems and prattle

Album review: Dredging by The Levels: Live Recordings and Home Demos

Nothing will quite prepare you for the sound of The Levels. From the opening commotion of birds in flight and what appears to be the Dr Who theme thrashed out on a slack tuned guitar, this is an expedition into the unknown. Notes for Explorers: be prepared!

This instrumental outfit, led by the twangular guitar and singular vision of polymath Darren Giddings, has pioneered its own brand of west country surf. That said, they are not afraid to stray into jazz, alt-rock and Pavement-style rock and roll.

Levels image

Due to the somewhat haphazard track listing (the song titles are buried within a poetic steam of conscious) I am uncertain where one song ends and another starts, but it hardly matters. The album effectively operates as a suite with ecology, nature and localism at its heart.

References to Giddings’ previous musical adventures are apparent in the dogmatic, asymmetric guitar lines, but this band is not afraid of breaking new ground too. Bursts of jazz-infused sax, complex bass lines, rumbustious drums and spoken word sound loops are proof enough that The Levels operate far from the mundane. And they are not adverse to rocking out, with complex signatures bursting out of their introspection into foot on the floor 4/4.

Local concerns, not least the recent floods that so badly affected the Somerset Levels (hence the band’s name) inform many of the pieces. A sound collage made up of media reports cut together is particularly striking and some bad tempered riffing that bookends it hints at their displeasure that the area was somewhat neglected by government.

When all’s said and done, The Levels first recorded outing is a vital, strident, eclectic musical statement driven by a pulsing, hypnotic rhythms. It takes the listener on a journey deep into a mist filled landscape where the ghosts of musical figures past emerge then disappear across the flood plains.  It is as if the Magnificent Seven have been magically transported to Somerset and coerced into musical action by Duane Eddy.  And surely that’s no bad thing.

Find out more on their Facebook page.

All of Me – a songwriting masterclass

You’ll notice with a lot of the popular songs from the first half of the 20th century that there isn’t a lot to them. And I mean that in the best possible way. In songs such as Fly Me to the Moon and I Got Rhythm there’s often little more than a couple of verses then a repeat with a small variation. But often, what’s there is sheer perfection with every line responding melodically to the one before it. All of Me is a case in point.

All of Me

Bruces’ Philosophers Song

Emmanual Kant

He looks like he could do with a drink doesn’t he? Anyone for a song? 

The Day Johnny Cash Went Into Space

Johnny Cash

A few years back I heard a great story about one of the Apollo missions to the moon. Apparently they were allowed to take one album each. When they were well on their way, they got their tapes out to compare notes. All three of them had the same Johnny Cash album. Here’s the song and my tribute to the Man in Black… 

10 reasons why George Martin deserves to be called the fifth Beatle

As well as being a man of taste, kindness and immense musical talent, George Martin also had an impeccable sense of humour. This was essential if he was going to get anything done with the Fab Four. But most importantly, in the words of Alan Parsons, ‘he had great ears.’ He listened to the band, nurtured their ideas and collaborated rather than competed with them. It’s impossible to know what The Beatles would have achieved without George Martin, but thankfully, we’ll never have to contemplate that particular fate.

George Martin

His contributions always served the song and not himself. While we mourn the passing of the gentleman whose accent was that of an Air Vice-Marshal and whose hair resembled the floppy mop of a wizard from Middle Earth (at least later on), it’s worth reminding ourselves of ten stunning contributions he made to The Beatles’ music.

1) His rock and roll piano

Before Paul and John could play proficiently themselves (Paul was still having lessons in 1965) George Martin provided the rock and roll piano on early tracks like Rock and Roll Music, Misery, Money, Slow Down, Long Tall Sally and A Hard Day’s Night. In plenty of other bands, these contributions alone would be enough to make him a fully paid up member.

2) His rule breaking

Often portrayed as the disapproving headmaster to The Beatles errant schoolboys, George Martin showed he was as anarchic as the rest them, allowing such studio tomfoolery as the sound distortions on She’s a Woman, the super-compressed drum and bass on Ticket to Ride (said to be the invention of heavy metal!) and famously, the feedback that begins I Feel Fine. Most other producers at the time would have called a halt when the needle slipped into the red.

3) The production on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite

Responding to John’s request to make a record that ‘sounded like a fairground’ Martin pulled out all the stops for this song from Sergeant Pepper. The kaleidoscopic production is full of whizzes and whistles, steam organs, sound effects, crescendos and tumbling scales. You can taste the toffee apples.

4) The electric piano solo in In My Life

Out of nowhere, this astonishing, feather light and giddily melodic solo appears in the middle of John’s otherwise elegiac song, somehow capturing the nostalgia, colour and energy of the Beatle’s childhood. He had to sneak in and overdub it on, fearful the Beatles would disapprove of his suggestion.

5) The string quartet on Yesterday

Paul was initially skeptical about adding strings to his song; afraid it would become mawkish or treacly. To overcome this, George Martin astutely invited him to work with him on the arrangement. By playing the chords on the piano and with McCartney singing phrases that came to him, they collaborated to produce a beautifully restrained setting for an already sublime song.

6) The whole of Tomorrow Never Knows

To move from She Loves You to Tomorrow Never Knows in three years is the pop equivalent of inventing the wheel to designing the Apollo XI moon rocket in a similar space of time. Responding to another Lennon request to ‘sound like the Dalai Lama and a thousand Tibetan Monks chanting on a mountain top’ George Martin supervised a recording like no other. It is the sound of east and west colliding like the buckling of tectonic plates.

7) Achieving the impossible in Strawberry Fields Forever

Again it was John who was responsible for another extraordinary challenge for George Martin. He asked for two different versions of his song, each in a different key and tempo to be spliced together. Pushing the studio (and engineer Geoff Emerick to the limit) you can hardly see the join.

8) The brass on Martha My Dear

This has always been one of my favourite Beatles songs, although actually it is the work of just McCartney and George Martin, who provides the sympathetic brass orchestration. It is the perfect accompaniment to a perfectly formed song.

9) The orchestra crescendo at the end of A Day in the Life

Persuading classical musicians to abandon their charts and climb up the scale to provide the totemic finale to this extraordinary song (before ending on that thunderous E Major piano chord) George pulled out every stop, and presumably every ounce of his considerable charm. This surely ranks as one of the most memorable sounds of the 20th century.

10) Side two of Abbey Road

When The Beatles came back to George Martin cap in hand after the Let it Be fiasco, he agreed to produce their next album – but only if they allowed him to do it properly. The final medley was a showcase for everything The Beatles could do: the lush harmonies, the unorthodox chord progressions stitched together by gossamer melodies, sweeping orchestration and witty interplay of voices and instruments. It was also a showcase of everything they had learnt from George Martin. Think of the pedestrian plod of Love Me Do next to euphoric conclusion to The End. It’s the sound of a band that went to the moon.

With acknowledgements to Ian McDonald’s superb book on The Beatles’ music ‘Revolution in the Head.’

 

The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

Run Away to the Circus

Ever  feel like running off to the circus? I had one of those days recently, but let’s face it, it’s not always a practical option. So I had to make do with a song. And that got it out of my system. I can’t juggle either.

How Bright the Moon

I set myself a little challenge to write a big band number. The trouble is, I’m missing a big band. So with four strings and a little enthusiasm, I’ve done my best. Your imagination can do the rest. Hit it!

Ashes to Ashes – saying goodbye to David Bowie

It still seems impossible to be living in a world without David Bowie. He was so intensely alive, so vivacious in his performance and personality that the whole idea of his death still seems slightly absurd. It’s taken me a week to collect my thoughts; every night I’ve been out running in the dark with his songs as the soundtrack.

Bowie photo

My Bowie adventure began when I borrowed his Changesbowie collection from Rugby library along with a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia. At 14, this felt like a big cultural step up from The Beatles and Tintin, and I wasn’t really expecting to like either of them. I took the tape on my French exchange and listened to it incessantly in the run-down chateaux near Nantes. It was astonishing. I couldn’t get over the thrilling swagger of Suffragette City, the lush Changes and epic posturing of Heroes. Even Blue Jean sounded pretty exciting.  Every song was like the best song I’d ever heard, which to be fair, happens all the time when you’re 14 and just discovering rock and roll.

I continued to pick up his records here and there, only getting up to speed with that incredible run of seventies albums when I arrived at Newcastle University in 1993. Sunday morning trips to Tynemouth Record fair became a bit of a ritual. One week I returned with Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and Low, with change from a fiver. They spun continually, their covers stuck with blu tac to the walls of my room.

Fellow Newcastle student, Darren Giddings, poet, musician and cultural provocateur, helped fill crucial gaps – switching me onto Lodger and Station to Station. In a pre YouTube age, he was also able to show me the man in the flesh, with a pile of ancient VHS tapes; Boys Keep Swinging from 1979 was particularly brilliant, with Bowie essaying his trade mark peacock strut inter-cut with him in drag, looking alternately like Jerry Hall, Joan Collins and bizarrely an ancient Greta Garbo. It was utter genius. Seeing that I liked this, Darren also spun TVC 15, an addictive slab of stylish funk n’ roll, which became a massive favourite (he did a great, supercharged performance of this at Live Aid).

I’ve loved Bowie ever since, including his later work in the 90s and 2000s, which I felt was unjustly neglected in favour of the Ziggy and Let’s Dance eras in the recent career round-ups. So I’m going to attempt to redress this, attempt the impossible and come up with a top five from each decade of his output:

The 1960s

Slim pickings, but here is the best of the crop. With one notable exception, these are generally curiosity value only.

Can’t Help Thinking About Me – revived for his VH1 Storytellers performance, this is a great, Who flavoured track, showcasing his higher register. Maybe a little too derivative to be an unqualified success.

Space Oddity – tapping into the zeitgeist of the moon landings, Bowie delivers his eerie lullaby come opera and his first truly brilliant song. When it blast off at the line, ‘This is Ground Control to Major Tom …’ a new star is born …

Love you Til Tuesday – Pure Austin Powers but a jaunty little song, marred only by a slightly dodgy branch/romance rhyme.

Let me Sleep Beside You – More recognisably Bowie, mellow but ultimately forgettable. ‘Lock away your childhood and throw away the key’.

Ching a Ling – Proving that any parody of the Sixties doesn’t match up to the trippy reality. Sung with an astonishing earnestness and ending with a splendidly emphatic hand clap.

The 1970s

The quality goes up to maximum; a choice of five seems perverse. If you were asked to choose thirty songs, you would still be hard pressed.

Moonage Daydream – Heart-stopping guitar, imperious crooning = total joy. ‘The church of mad love is such a holy place to be …’

Watch That Man – A glam rock stomp that crushes all competition, kicking off the Aladdin Sane album in wild style. Inexplicably missing from most Bowie compilations.

Suffragette City – Unbeatable, adrenalin fuelled rock and roll

Station to Station – the icy, industrial epic and masterpiece of stately funk

Beauty and the Beast – ‘Someone fetch a doctor, someone fetch a priest, you can’t say no to the beauty and the beast …’ Highlight from the Heroes album, with Robert Fripp’s hypnotic guitar part.

The 1980s

Less to choose from, with a nose dive in quality after 1983, but still plenty of fruit on the branch …

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – clattering kitchen sink production; menacing tone, another winner

Fashion – More mind-blowing guitar transforms a droll song into stratospheric brilliance

Ashes to Ashes – self referential, postmodern defining moment and mind blowing production; like a whole album cut up into one song.

Let’s Dance – invincible sounding, floor filling classic; Emperor Nero meets Chic

China Girl – melodically irresistible, plus the immortal line about Marlon Brando …

The 1990s

A surprisingly busy decade for Bowie, making up for a largely squandered 80s, taking in all styles from metal to drum n’ bass.

You Belong in Rock and Roll – The Tin Machine II album was generally much better than the first effort; along with Goodbye Mr Ed from the same period, this puts forward a good case for reappraisal

Jump They Say – Ultra sophisticated dance tune with expensive production; genuinely better than anything since Let’s Dance

Buddha of Suburbia – truly exceptional song from the soundtrack to the TV adaptation of the Hanif Kureishi book; coherent, South London, outsider lyric and nostalgic musical quotation from Starman  makes for a compelling coming of age statement

Strangers When We Meet – featured on both the Outside and Buddha of Suburbia albums this is thrilling retread of his epic sound, coming out somewhere between Heroes and Under Pressure – no bad thing. The Outside version is superior.

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson – with a suitably filthy riff, nightmarish feel and deadly focus, this is riveting stuff from the Eno produced Outside album.

2000s

Just two albums, both of them corkers …

Slow Burn – with Pete Townsend on guitar, this is a blistering mid pace slow burner (as the title suggests) with a soaring Bowie vocal. From the excellent Heathen album.

Afraid – one of my all time Bowie favourites, this directly follows Slow Burn on Heathen, with a Pixies style guitar sound and a perfectly pitched vocal simultaneously full of menace and vulnerabilit. Moving reference to old mate John Lennon’s song, God (‘I believe in Beatles’).

Everyone Says Hi – Elegiac, reflective, tone, genuinely beautiful melody. He has rarely sounded more better.

New Killer Star – ace, post-glam rocker with crunchy guitar and hypnotic vocal, bursting into a Technicolor chorus (from Reality.)

Pablo Picasso – brilliant Jonathan Richman cover; Bowie had not had this much fun in ages. Also from Reality.

2010s

The great resurgence, with two of his career best albums, both stuffed with gold as well as intimations of mortality

(You Will) Set the World on Fire – slashing guitar, thunderous tune, brilliantly bonkers cut up lyrics

Where Are We Now – the comeback single, with memories of Berlin, musical echoes of Space Oddity, wearily beautiful vocal, and gorgeous tune

Atomica – from the Next Day EP –  would have been one of the strongest tracks on the Next Day album; an electro rock monster with great pop sensibilities.  I’ll Take You There from the Deluxe version of Next Day album is equally good, a distant cousin of Fashion. There was clearly an embarrassment of riches from these sessions; personally I think some different track choices and re-sequencing would have made a stronger album. But hey, we’ve got it all anyway.

Blackstar – A dark, complex, brilliant journey into Bowie’s soul. Arabic sounding melody over discordant beats and riveting instrumentation

Lazarus – Riveting parting gift, with harrowing vocal, mournful sax and a heartbreaking lyrics. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven.’

And the rest is silence; thanks David. Hope you’re up there with the bluebirds; the music lives forever.

What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

Well, it’s the old question isn’t it? But in all likelihood it would stop you doing all the things you like doing.

Top hat.jpg

You’d be on the phone to your accountant, or out shopping for cars and holidays … when in fact all you really want to do is read books, write poems and play the ukulele all day, which costs nothing at all… Here’s a little song about the high rollers of this world. “On a whim we had some Pimms until we couldn’t feel out limbs…’