Sunday, May 27, 2007

On the radio

Listening to Radio 4 while chopping carrots, I swear I just heard an elderly taxidermist saying he did the occasional job "just to keep his hand in".

Stone Age Attitudes II

So what would be an alternative?

First, abandon the usual format and agenda. Do we really need the voice over supplying a definitive coherent narrative? No. Do we really need archive footage which is sourced from over-used archives and/or already available via DVD? No. Do we really benefit from the insights of 'those who were there' when the kinds of question they are responding to are either idiotically simple or inviting the worst kind of elderly rocker nostalgia? No.

Then, adopt a different approach. Rather than see the music simply in terms of the end product or unthinkingly reproduce the star-as-genius-wild man-drop out-acid casualty, enquire into the conditions within which the music was produced. Such things as the economic-cultural-educational circumstances surrounding the young Waters/Barrett/Bowie etc.

Thus, the role of 1950s grammar school education and subsequent Architectural studies for Waters produced the bile concerning schools (The Wall) and the sense of rock music as a 'built' object (the Concept Album in other words). Thus, Barrett's post-war Cambridge days mixing modest suburban privilege with London escapism and Art college glamour. The cups of tea, children's fiction (Alice, Wind in the Willows), boredom, picnics, aunties, old pedal bicycles injected with Carnaby Street fashion, strange chemicals, girls with flowers in their eyes. A little bit later, Peter Gabriel's indebtedness to Charter House English classes for his lyrical borrowings.

Wouldn't it also be refreshing to hear from EMI's accountants? What were the deals struck? How were the profits carved up? How did touring relate to album sales? And wasn't the second Wall concert tour directly related to the Floyd's investments plummeting? Not a word on this aspect of the development of the music.

And then take the idea a step further and involve everyone - you and me or the 'them' as Waters would see us in 'Dark Side of the Moon'. These faceless faces gazing up out of the gloom swooning at The Stars. These zeroes who shelled out their pocket money and salaries to attend the concerts and buy the albums and fatten their heros' bank balances into 7-zero figures and more. What untold histories surround these groups and albums? How many girls fell for boys who looked like Bowie as a vicarious way of living the songs? How many people lived through a group's music - the 'our song' syndrome, the anticipation of the next album, the sense of solidarity with other fans, the bootleg trading and cassette swapping, the haircuts, the moustaches, the shirts, the in-jokes and rumouring and lyric decipherings?

And finally, why not enquire into the technological conditions for the music? Thinking back to my own Floyd-obsessed days (circa 1977-1980 or whenever The Wall appeared and I realised they'd lost the plot) wasn't it my uncle's B&O hi-fi system which made those opening minutes of 'Wish You Were Here' so revelatory? Surely the development of Prog Rock owes so much to the availability and affordability of 'decent' (that was the buzz-word) systems - amps and speakers that could push out enough bass, a stylus that was sensitive enough to the twinkly bits. Listening through a Dixons headphone (singular) on my Audiotronics Cassette Radio to cassettes my cousin made me just didn't provide the same experience.

There's more besides: a bedroom of your own (to adapt Virginia Woolf's phrase), a sense of parental disapproval ("what is that appalling din? You call that music?"), unfulfilled desires which found their peculiar echo and consolation in ever-building guitar solos until "that note" (accompanied by a shake of the wrist and wincing expression).

Needless to say, I am available on a consultancy basis if anyone at the BBC is reading ...

Stone Age Attitudes I

I wish I hadn't bothered to watch part two of the BBC2's Seven Ages of Rock through to the end. I knew in advance that it was going to be a predictable cobbling together of archive footage, soundbites from the ageing (yet mostly well-preserved) stars, and authentication from bought-in consultants, all smeared together with a voice-over narration that veered between self-evident truth to blatant hype. And I wasn't wrong.

The basic ploy was to see a 'dialectic' created by Pink Floyd and The Velvet Underground producing a third term: David Bowie. Bowie, in turn, bequeathing Roxy Music and the Peter Gabriel-phase Genesis.

I suppose the justification was to present the theatricalism of late 60s early 70s rock - and that any 60 minute programme was going to have be selective. However, what was left utterly unquestioned was the motivation of the development. Thus, David Bowie's craving for "success" was legitimation for the posturing and glam antics. Thus, Roger Waters' embittered feelings towards rock stadium audiences justified the gradual ossification of Floyd's music and eventual disappearance behind a wall - both literal and metaphoric. Thus, Bryan Ferry happening to have been taught by Richard Hamilton at art college meant Roxy Music had to be experimental.

What needed to be examined was the sheer egotism of these performers. Scrape away the blarney and you find some pretty basic motives: i) I/we want to be famous (whatever that really means); ii) I/we want to have plenty of sex/drugs/alcohol; iii) I/we want to be very rich indeed. At no point did any of the commentators or the voice over question Floyd's lyrics on 'Money'. How could Waters or Gilmour really sing their lines with a straight face as their bank balances soared into millions and millions of pounds? And as for The Wall, wouldn't it have been easier to simply sack the roadies and cut the equipment budget and play a few clubs? Waters might have found that a crowd of thirty genuine fans might not have been so repellent to his fastidious taste.

I was especially annoyed by the predictable treatment of Syd Barrett - simultaneously glorified and patronised. Words such as "madness" and "lunacy" were bandied around as tokens of artistic authenticity. That Syd went "mad" proved he was a "genius". I doubt he saw it that way. Furthemore, to then argue that 'Jugband Blues' was total chaos and evidence of his mental collapse, doesn't really stand up. Listen to it, see the performance, and you realise that he's being very shrewd indeed. Unlike Waters whose knee-jerk reaction to rock stardom was to become vitriolic and to devise even more absurdly inflated spectacles, Barrett took the contradictions into himself. The deadpan manner, the deliberate non-cooperation, the artistic suicide were all - conscious or unconscious - responses to the massive commodification of rock, the hook-up (one could argue perversion) of a genuine libertarian musical energy to a capitalist machine intent on channeling the creativity into product. Without wishing to sound glib, Barrett was perhaps the one 'healthy' member of the Floyd - although you get the impression Rick Wright has always felt uncomfortable on his piano stool*.

No mention was made of what Barrett was intending to do with the Floyd - by all accounts return it to an experimental 'underground' group. (This doesn't sound "mad" to me). No mention was made of Barrett's (and the early Floyd's) connections to groups such as Soft Machine or their work with Delia Derbysire (ex-Cambridge music student and BBC Radiophonic experimenter). Why? Because this would trouble the seemingly self-evident 'progress' (I use the word ironically) of small-time psychedelia to big venue stadium rock. Or, to put it more cynically, music which was exciting, was part of a scene shared by musicians and audience but didn't pay to music which was laboured, regurgitated night after night to an audience who were 'there for the beer' and which translated into Big Money and Share Portfolios and Property Speculation and Private Jets and Alimony to Pay Off First Wives ... Well, which would you choose, eh?

(to be continued)


* Wright is on record stating his passion for Bill Evans. His own tunes - to my ears - always suggest a hankering for the intimacy of a jazz club. Pink Floyd Live at the Village Vanguard, now there's an idea...

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Channel tunnel

Had enough of trains and funerals and more trains and a woman talking incessantly throughout the journey back to Brussels (" and it's like ... and I say like ... and like ... like, you know ..."). On and on and on. I noticed that by the end of the journey everyone in her vicinity was wearing earphones. There are times when only an iPod will do.

Still, a space in the day to read Graham Foust's new volume 'Necessary Stranger' with Miles Davis' 'Jack Johnson' sessions like, you know, playing, like blotting out the, like, drivel ...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Roger McGough Feature!

Strolling down the South Bank, Friday afternoon, Belgianwaffle encounters Legendary Liverpool Poet Roger McGough!

In fact, other than the Foyles publicity agent & official cameraman, I seemed to be the only person aware of the Celeb in our midst. Oh well. Here's to fond memories of reading - rather furtively - 'Summer With Monika' in the Westminster Lending Library (circa 1979) when I should have been doing some 'healthier' pursuit before Prep.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Spam in my Inbox

He has made himself into an imitator of non-existing men.

Early morning

I have been swimming more in the past 12 months than in the previous 42 years put together. Looking in my notebook, I see that since February I have managed 53 swims - averaging 3 to 4 visits per week.

Little by little you start to feel part of a community, a select club - especially the early morning swims. Go along to the pool at 7am (8am weekends) and there will be a group of men and women mostly in their seventies or eighties (even nineties) already queuing up to get into the changing cubicles. There are the routine greetings - handshakes, kisses, jokes, nods of acknowledgment. The younger swimmers - I'd say executives en route for a day in the office - are less chatty, eager to get in-get out and be on the road.

This morning I manage to be first in the pool. It's an amazing sensation plunging through the unbroken surface of the water and Cocteau's Orphee inevitably comes to mind. You become pure movement: arms, legs, lungs, a rhythm of strokes and kicks. Is it the reptilian brain reasserting itself? Or a return to our fish ancestry? Certainly it feels good.

And wasn't it nice, also, to be greeted by the German lady (who we'd always assumed was rather fierce), each syllable heavily accented: 'Bon-jour Yo-nat-an'. These two words conferring membership to the club!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Belgianwaffle will be in the UK ...

.. as of Thursday 17 May until Sunday 20 May with the younger Wafflette.

So any of our UK readers who feel like a coffee/lunch/wander along the South Bank/perusal of the bookshelves get in touch soon!

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Oh, and another thing ... that word "ylem" ...

I notice the liner notes to the Zappa album state "This is Zappa Family Archival Matter In Living Ylem" (each initial in bold - thus: Zappa F-A-M-I-L-Y).

So - being pretty illiterate in Physics I bung "Ylem" into Wikipedia and get this:

"Ylem is a term which was used by George Gamow and his associates for a hypothetical original substance or condensed state of matter, which became subatomic particles and elements as we understand them today. It reportedly comes from an obsolete Middle English word that Gamow came across while thumbing through a dictionary, which means something along the lines of "primordial substance from which all matter is formed." Restated, the Ylem is what "thing" Gamow, et al, presumed to exist at least immediately before the instant of the Big Bang. The term has come into disfavor.

The Big Bang theory currently assumes that the universe in which we exist began from a "singularity" (a near-dimensionless point) that somehow came about and exploded, converting into the first subatomic particles and lighter elements (hydrogen and helium, possibly some lithium). "Time" as we know it, also began with the Big Bang.

In distinction from a singularity, the Ylem had finite size, with mass equal to the whole of the present universe. It is conceivable from what we now know (and George Gamow, et al, didn't), that the Ylem might have been a Bose-Einstein condensate. But "size" has meaning only relevant to some dimensional referent. Therefore, in absence of anything else existing, the Ylem can be considered to have been a singularity. Thus, Gamow's theory and current creation theory are reconciled."

Once again - Zappa bites the crux of the biscuit. I repeat: there is no single poem, there is no single song.

Why Zappa still matters

There was a period in my life when I spent large amounts of time listening to Zappa's music - a peculiar concatenation of circumstances: irregular employment, the release of his back catalogue on CD, loneliness, many hours to fill, a room in an empty house ... The music entered the blood stream via the ears and pores. It is no exaggeration to say Zappa's music provided the rhythm to my days.

These days it is different. I listen to less music. What I do listen to tends to be snatched during solo car journeys or else through headphones between 9-11pm. Zappa's CDs stand on the shelf but don't draw me in quite the same way. New releases are no longer a major event: tired compilations in a desperate effort to pique the curiosity of iTune-dependent teens.

Which is why I avoided 'Trance Fusion' up until now. In fact it is much, much better than I had assumed.

However, I'm not going to do a Wire-style review. Instead, suggest two issues concerning Zappa's music.

First, that it is 'pure product' and yet 'not-product'. Second, that there is no 'one' album.

By which I mean, no one thought more clearly and thoroughly about the conditions (internal & external) of the record or CD than Zappa. The very title of an early issue - 'We're Only In It For The Money' - made it abundantly obvious that Zappa knew what rock music meant in terms of audience, marketing and sales figures. Yet, at the very moment Zappa worked within the given consumer logic of recording-packaging-distribution he found ways to 'skew' the system. Thus, his own labels, mail order business, ironic strategies in cover art, cover statements, dialogue and insinuations ("we've gotta come up with some new shit!").

And then, to take the second point, there is no 'one' album or - more stupid still - Best Of or Greatest Hits. The Project Object - Zappa's ongoing work-in-progress (aka 'Conceptual Continuity') denied any such submission to commodification. Any one song might be mutated across albums, live vs studio takes and then further re-assembled and 'tweezed'. Since I've been reading Spicer recently - another West Coast 'Voice' - it's hard not to make the jump from his poetics to Zappa's rock aesthetics. Just as there is no single poem, so there is no single song. (And I'm not so sure but there are other very interesting affinities between the two figures - let's take the radio for a start).

Which is a roundabout way to explain why I bother to post a review on Amazon about this new CD. It's irrelevant whether it is/is not one of Zappa's best CDs. What matters is to get within the Project Object. Be carried (away) by the music. Hear one glorious chord and search for the 'original' track - which is probably a composite of drum/bass/guitar/vocal parts from different occasions with further meddling - and delight in discovering it occurs on this and this and this album which in turn turns you on to the tracks segued just before and after ... and so on. And before you know it, you'll be devoting every waking hour (and your dreams) to this fabulous music.

Who was it that said the present day composer refused to die?

. Driving into work the other morning with 'Village of the Sun' playing & humming & drumming along  & think...