Back from Dinard, Britanny...where they hold a British film festival every year...and have erected this statue of Hitch...but the town does not have one DVD shop...work that one out. Computer detox has lead to the rusting up of my writing brain...which was never a well-oiled machine anyway...
Ennio again – playing trumpet. But ‘playing’? Yes, if not melodically, then ...what? Here he is with Il Gruppo as I like to call them (for obvious reasons) in 1969. An album called Improvisationen. I’m not a great fan of Improv with a capital ‘I’ and all that the abbreviation stands for, but Il Gruppo have been playing on (and in) my mind for the last few days.
I first heard Ennio’s freewheeling side on the Feed-Back album. And I had a feint recollection of this group before actually listening. Now I listen. It’s a world of wonders and, to my ears, a brilliant example of the art of the improvisers.
Perhaps it was Ennio’s plaything, dashing to the studio between recording his twenty-second soundtrack of the year to allow his imagination to roam free, completely. For all his brilliance as a film composer, we soon recognise familiar structures and sounds in them. But here he is, blowing as if he belonged to the world of total improvisation. Here is the sound of surprise that Jazz is supposed to be, which is not to denigrate the art form in any way.
You cannot guess what is going to happen next, of course - piano keys are hit, and strings plucked? What is that sound? It’s part of the pleasure, not knowing what is being played, or how. Radio voices, a double bass, percussion, something being hit, and the ironically entitled ‘Light Music’, which is anything but. It’s music that is multi-dimensional, not only in what’s played, but how - something is rubbed, rustled, tapped, screwed, unscrewed...there are squeaks, drones...silence, almost...and so on. The usual stuff of Improv, you might say. Still, I urge you to give it a chance if you’re at all prejudiced against this kind of thing.
We can hear something of Ennio’s artfulness, in dissonant strings, perhaps, or fleeting moments of what sounds like improvisation, amongst his film work. But this ‘soundtrack’ is most suited to the little movies played out in our heads every night as we sleep.
Zombie (Haitian Creole: zonbi; North Mbundu: nzumbe) is a term used to describe a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli.
Zombies have started to grow on me – as if they’ve crept into the bunker during the night (as I guess they’re apt to do) and, rather than tried to strangle me, or eat my flesh, have invaded my consciousness. Yes, they’ve been there ever since I watched ‘I Walked With A Zombie’ on TV back when terrestrial stations showed more cult films. Some of them were in black and white, which caused my father to complain about how he didn’t pay his TV license to watch this old rubbish. That’s how cultured he was, bless ‘im. ‘Citizen Kane’? Rubbish! ‘8 ½’? Foreign rubbish! And so on. It’s a wonder I know my Fellini from my Chabrol. At least I think I do. Although part of me has inherited genetic philistinism, there’s no doubt. But that’s OK because, at the click of the mouse I can quickly learn and probably convince you that I know what the hell I’m talking about.
Now, zombies. I’ll be honest, I was immune to them until recently. Zombie books, Jane Austen and zombies (someone’s writing ‘Daniel Deronda and the Dawn of the Zombies’ as I speak, probably), zombie TV shows and films – nah. Well, I’m still resisting all that, but coming across the comic strip ‘Corpses...Coast To Coast!’ (1954) (excerpt below) started me hunting zombies. Guess what, they’re everywhere! Yes, people, millions are ‘hypnotized...bereft of consciousness and self-awareness’ – they’re all around us...I blame Ant & Dec...or TV full stop, because it turns me into a zombie. Yes, I sit on the sofa, glazed expression, mouth slightly open, brain in sleep mode...even (or especially) when watching Brian Cox explain the universe. I can’t win. As Harry Enfield’s TV brother used to say, ‘If it’s too hard, I can’t understand it’. Conversely, if it’s dumb, I’ve switched off anyway.
We’re all prone to becoming zombies. Information overload, trash TV, awful music, as it all seeps in we become it hypnotized. We walk, eyes wide open, to the fridge for another morsel of something, then back to the sofa. We walk the street, barely conscious, in London especially, of the architectural wonders around us. Perhaps we walk through fields, not noticing that kestrel high above. I’ve witnessed the latter many times whilst visiting the countryside. One day a Dodo scurried between two trees and into some bushes. Nobody but us saw it, and there were other people around. They are not extinct, believe me; they simply go unnoticed.
‘They Won’t Stay Dead!’ screamed the poster for Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. This is especially true of musicians whose careers should be well and truly over, but then you’re flicking through a ‘paper and damned if they aren’t touring again. Names you’d forgotten, but look, they’re back, older, greyer, fatter and fit for reviving their bank accounts courtesy of loyal followers. Good luck to them. I shouldn’t talk as if I only live for The New. Almost everything I love musically is from The Past.
So here is an album from the past, Fidenco's 'Zombi Holocaust' (1980). It’s a wonderful thing, shot through with that dark synth sound, and, naturally, some voodoo chanting/drumming. Some of it’s even in the synth-Pop mode, and even that’s OK.
‘Nasa's Gravity Probe B has produced remarkable new confirmation of some key predictions by Albert Einstein. The satellite's observations show the massive body of the Earth is very subtly warping space and time, and even pulling them around with it. Scientists were able to see these effects by studying the behaviour of four perfectly engineered spinning balls carried inside the probe. They are significant because they underline once again the genius of the great German-born scientist...’ BBC News
Here's Piero Umiliani, travelling through time and space, all the way from 1976, when he made this album in the Sound Workshop studio. The title in English is ‘Tribute To Einstein’. In light of the recent news, it seems fitting to play it.
Most of the tracks are under two minutes long. It is beautifully simple music, and is therefore a fine antidote to the complexities of scientific theory. Like its creator, it pushes all the right buttons.
I’m not sure that it’s ‘right’ to like The Eagles (by which I mean that my inner elitist lover of things obscure is prodding my conscience, ‘saying ‘Oi, don’t be an arse’) but what the hell – I relax back into the bath and soak up ‘One Of These Nights’ courtesy of Smooth FM’s ‘The 70s At 7’ show – eh? Er, hold on, that’s another ‘guilty pleasure’, although I don’t like that term because it suggests to me the club/albums of the same name populated/bought by people who have no ‘guilt’ at all about liking old mainstream Pop because they’re not fans of musique concrete or Improv Jazz to start with.
You got your demons, you got desires, well I’ve got a few of my own, and I confess they partly involve listening to ‘The 70s At 7’ show and taking great pleasure in The Eagles being played on it. OK, it’s not exactly dark psycho-trauma and perverse sexual yearnings, but it bothers me, sometimes.
What bothers me first is that I’m lured into the demographic Smooth FM aim for, precisely because by age alone I belong in it. But I’m not that kind of ‘70s person!’ I tell myself as the ads for cholesterol-lowering products and DFS furniture sales play out. I also hate half the records they play. It’s their safe, comfortable, domesticated vision of the 70s, naturally. Parliament or The Pistols will never be on the playlist. But there is the appeal, funnily enough. Pop presses the buttons other music cannot, partly because I still listen to the other side(s) of the 70s, which means the nostalgia is maximised when they play a Soul tune I used to slow-dance to with the latest girl of my dreams at the local disco. Pop is a wider world, the one outside the private space in which I began to explore deeper music. It involves school discos, local discos, Top of the Pops, and Radio One, snogging whilst chewing gum, gang fights and so on.
Yes, dear reader, I do recall such things whilst listening to Smooth FM, just as many others my age must. So the other night I enjoyed The Eagles. I was in a West Coast Soft Rock wonderland, marvelling at the vocals, arrangement and playing, just like any lover of Mainstream Music. The Doobie Brothers have the same effect. I don’t own an Eagles record, mind you, not anymore, but that too is part of the pleasure I take in Pop Nostalgia Radio. They play records I sold long ago and the return after many years enhances my enjoyment.
I don’t actually feel ‘guilty’ about this. If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be telling you.
"I played that record a lot back then. I was only 20. I was sharing a house in the Hollywood Hills with four other Scientologists and put the album on the turntable in our living room one night. I sat on the shag carpeted floor and listened. LRH was onto something and I was there to hear it. At the time I believed that if LRH was making music and calling it the sound of the future, he was Source after all, then it must be. At the time I even thought this music was kinda cool. One of my housemates gave me a look and laughed. He was older than me and far more cool and a Scientologist as well yet he didn’t have the Power of Source album in his collection. And when he told me to, “take that shit off !” I questioned his commitment to all things Scientology."
Yes, it’s L. Ron Hubbard, with his band...and they’re moving in, so be afraid, be very afraid, especially if they should move into your head. It’s 1974 and Ron is set to seduce the wild youth with his band’s special brand of crazy Jazz. Well, it’s kind of Jazz, and definitely bonkers, but you know what? I like it for that very reason. I’d like to see it released on CD and filed next to Freddie Hubbard. When the band chant ‘We’re moving in’ things get really scary; it’s almost like listening to the anti-Ra. You’ll won’t be surprised to learn that great compositional or arranging skills are not on display here, but you may be taken back by the sheer gusto with which this mob go about their business. All they do is jam over guitar riffs and rollicking ‘tribal’ drumming, basically, but do so in such a fashion that you might find your jaw on the floor, when it’s not working overtime laughing. There used to be (perhaps still is) a branch of scientology on Tottenham Court Road. The frightening thing is that if they had been blasting this out of the shop instead of standing around like idiots I might have gone in. Listen if you dare.
‘War and Peace’(1,296 pages), ‘Atlas Shrugged’(1,200), ‘Infinite Jest’(1,088) – I’m tempted one day to go into a library, request them all, and in homage to Tony Hancock use them to stand on in order to reach ‘Lady Don’t Fall Backwards’. As long-term readers will know, I’m partial to Galton and Simpson’s joke, perhaps because it strikes a chord with me. Not that I’ve ever quite aspired to intellectual greatness in the way Hancock did, but there have been times when I’ve tried to take on literary giants, by which I mean writers of big books. After all, some of the greatest thinkers and novelists have said a great deal in relatively few words. I’m thinking Nietzsche, only because I have read him. And in fiction, Graham Greene, because I’m currently reading ‘The Quiet American’. Greene was right. He knew the length a novel should be. Big enough to contain ideas and interesting characters without excessive descriptions and a cast of hundreds.
Muriel Spark said: ‘Write as if writing to a friend and use a few words as possible’. I agree with the latter half of that statement, but I’m not sure that ‘writing to a friend’ is a great premise for novelists. It would limit the use of the English language, I imagine. Then again, it depends on who your friends are and how clever they are.
I did buy David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ once, in the days when I occasionally felt inclined to undergo a literary endurance test. I wish I had kept it because it would make an excellent missile to launch at cats who stray into the garden and I like the idea of hurling 1,088 bound pages at a marauding moggy. The weight would ensure considerable distance should I be able to muster the strength to throw it, and you can imagine the impact. I would find it funny, anyway.
So I’m reading Greene because I’m not reading Jean-Patrick Manchette’s ‘Fatale’, which has recently been published, making it only the third of his works to be translated. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this book, but sadly, all it did was to cast doubt upon my belief in him as one of the great under-translated crime writers. I enjoyed ‘The Prone Gunman’ so much that people ask for crime novel recommendations it’s usually the first thing I recommend. ‘Three To Kill’ is good too, but ‘Fatale’...well, this girl gets involved in small town society and...nothing much happens. It’s a big letdown, and the writing, allowing for translation, is not that great. On the plus side, it’s not even 100 pages long, yet I gave up, and having just looked again, I gave up merely 20 pages from the end. This really is poor on my behalf. I must go back and speed read through to the conclusion.
Greene, on the other hand, succeeds once again in captivating me, as he always did when I was working through his novels over thirty years ago. Of all the writers I’ve read and loved, along with, say, Chandler, he is the most reliable. By this I mean, like an old friend, I can turn to him and seek a kind of solace when I grow weary of literature, all the words in all the books that fail to give me what I want.
Greeneland is not a happy place to visit, being full of mostly miserable, desperate, doomed, doubt-ridden characters for whom there’s no salvation in either love or religion. And whilst in the realms of the melancholy, Robert Burton said ‘How much more cruel the pen may be than the sword’, which is true in a sense, as anyone who has read vicious comments online will know. I also think it a little cruel of New York Review Books to publish an inferior Manchette novel, letting me down as they have. But they must think otherwise, obviously. They did, however, also publish Burton’s 17th century epic, ‘The Anatomy Of Melancholy’ (547 pages), which has proved incredibly useful over the years. It currently sits, along with John Dos Passos’s ‘U.S.A’ (1,184 pages), on top of the hard drive, holding up a computer speaker. Thick books do have their uses.
One of the problems with transferring tracks from one medium to another can be a loss of the artist’s name, as I was reminded the other day when checking my MP3 player to see who I was listening to, only to read ‘Unknown’. Annoying, of course, but then, I was freed from all knowledge and it felt strangely liberating. So what?
LJ’s not too hot at naming artists, but then, she a woman – ha! She has other priorities, like being able to name a flower, in Latin. Being ‘anal’ (how did that word come to signify obsession?) about music is, on the whole, a male prerogative. It starts early. I know that girls weren’t sitting around two doors along discussing and salivating over new soul 45s like we were as young teenagers. Typically, from this pool of testosterone and tune-fuelled boys DJs are born – a bird behind the decks in the 70s? No way.
Characteristically, growing into men they do battle over the biggest/best/rarest music collections, of course. Those, that is, who persist with music. In all the record shops I’ve visited over the years, boys and men were the market – Soul Boys, Funk Fiends, Electronica Heads (that should end with a ‘z’, probably), Jungle Junkies and so on. Knowing who had made what seemed to matter. Knowing labels, bands, singers, dates, genres etc.
Nowadays I find that with the music overload situation I frequently listen to tracks without knowing the artist. But then, I’ve no-one to question me so it matters little. This can lead to problems, of course, such as getting something I already have and not necessarily going on to track down more great work by a certain artist, which is the main reason for all this knowing, I suppose. To research, find alternate monikers, perhaps. But just as too many sounds overwhelm us, so too does all that information. Yes, you can Wiki anything, anybody, and that is good, but ultimately my brain melts.
In the 18th century, Diderot said of books: "As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes." And so he predicted information overload. What he said of books can equally apply to music. I sometimes think it would be better to search for ‘truth’ in one brilliant piece of music rather than keep on scouring the sonic universe for it. But this talk of ‘truth’ in art is too profound for me. I’ll start with just making sure I know the name of the creator.
How's this for an album cover? Between the Pop-lite electronics of 'Cowboy Spaziale' and the hard minimalism of 'Automa' (played out on just synth and drum) there are various shades of vintage atmospherics. The acoustic bass-playing on 'Officina Stellare' and 'Gadget' (below) is amazingly upfront and funky. Listen hear.
I was thinking this morning. It was quite a strain I can tell you because, let’s be honest, it requires some effort and you rarely get any reward, well I don’t anyway. It often leads to confusion rather than the kind of clarity one may hope for, which in turn might lead to action, perhaps, or at least an arrival at a decision.
I should have thought more before I began writing this. I should have made notes and formulated a tightly-controlled theme that could be expressed concisely, perhaps. But then, I love Jazz and, in the back of the box where Thinking takes place there’s a small voice which persists in encouraging me to try and ape my improvisational heroes in word form. Most of the time I do that unconsciously because I’ve found over the years that to be too self-conscious can lead to the immobilisation of all faculties. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to think too much.
Incoherent, rambling manifestation of continually evolving thought can, however, have a lot more going for them than finely-tuned writing. For starters, they express the reality (or something akin to it) of what’s going on in the writer’s head. This, I know, cannot be allowed in professional publications. There is an editor whose job it is to curtail such tendencies, or simply reshape the mess into something publishable. And many (most?) folk don’t want to read the workings of a mind. As Martin Amis once said, when quoting his father, I believe, readers of novels like the author to be in control of what he’s doing just as they do the captain of an airplane. I’m paraphrasing, by the way.
Back when I thought more about Henry Miller than I do now I used to love the way he appeared to improvise on themes. To others, he needed a good editor. The most obvious example might be Jack Kerouac, who took great pride in the ‘First thought, best thought’ idea and the results are there for all to marvel at, or reject. I marvel, mostly, or used to, when I read him, which I no longer do. I no longer read Miller either. Both were big in my life at one point, and partly shaped the way I approached writing, despite the fact that I neither lead a wild Beat life of late-night bongo-playing, poetry-reading, and drug-fuelled chin music, nor live in Paris (or Big Sur) and publish novels containing raw expressions of sexuality mixed with philosophical musings of Life and Art.
I live a quite life; a fairly ordinary life, you might say. And common advice to writers is ‘Write what you know about’, but I’m not sure about the wisdom of that, considering how many of us lead very ordinary lives. Perhaps this explains the amount of dull novels on the racks. It’s quite possible, however, to write about an ordinary life in an extraordinary way, I suppose. But that is not the kind of literature I wish to read.
In another life I’d be off across Europe having adventures, meeting interesting women, have affairs with them. And men, dangerous men who get me embroiled in life-threatening situations, and taking loads of drugs, perhaps, and making loads of money then blowing it all at a casino – whilst taking notes that would lead to an action-packed yet philosophical, true-to-my-life novel.
Oh well, here I am, writing this...
An unreleased soundtrack from 1973, this is obviously Dark Horrorcore Hauntology before the term was invented, by me, two minutes ago. Complete with heavy breathing, screams (naturally), indiscernible voices, and an almost continuous drone, it’s a short but brilliantly effective creation. BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwarts Derbyshire and Hodgson work some black magic at the mixing desk, adding occasional baritone sax, trumpet and muted tribal drumming for extra depth. This is a perfectly nightmarish ambient affair.
I’ve included some Horror comic scans below for your gruesome viewing pleasure.