The bells, the bells…

Melbourne is host to a remarkable work of sculpture, in the form of the Federation Bells. Part sound installation, part open-air instrument, this ensemble of tuned percussion represents a quirky exercise in public access arts: not only do the Bells play three times a day (featuring a repertoire of specially-composed pieces), there are also opportunities for members of the public to interact directly with the instrument and play it for themselves.From time to time, the Bells have featured in live performances by contemporary composers and electronic musicians, most notably, Pantha Du Prince back in 2013. More recently, Melbourne artist Cale Sexton has released a wonderful album that was composed using the Bells.

There is also a mobile phone app that replicates the notation and sound of the Bells, as well as plug-ins for various digital audio workstations. For anyone wanting to learn more about composing for the Bells, there are occasional workshops and open competitions for new submissions.

Next week: New Labor?

Music with literary leanings

A few weeks ago, I responded to a question posted on Twitter about “songs named after books”, little realizing the rabbit warren I would subsequently find myself going down (social media can have that effect…).

Image sourced from L.W.Currey, Inc.

There has long been a close relationship between popular music and literature – think about the connection between “West Side Story” and William Shakespeare, for one. Songwriters are often inspired by the titles or themes of books and plays for their own compositions – “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush being one of the most obvious, and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane being one of the more lysergic…

Some bands even name themselves after literary references; William Boroughs can claim credit for bestowing both Steely Dan and Soft Machine with their monikers. (In Australia, The Triffids, The Go-Betweens and Sexing the Cherry offer similar examples of groups taking their names from novels.) And of course, David Bowie employed Burroughs’ cut-up technique for writing his lyrics, as well as being inspired by Nietzsche, Orwell and Burgess, etc.

A number of bands I listened to in the late ’70s drew on their own teenage reading as key reference texts. Groups like Joy Division, Magazine, The Cure, The Buzzcocks, The Fall (naturally!), Josef K (of course!) and even The Jam all revealed their familiarity with Penguin Modern Classics and Pan paperback editions of Kafka, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Fowles, Ballard, Murdoch, Bukowski, Plath, Nabokov and Huxley, to name but a few.

Of course, this traffic is not all one-way. Writers such as Ian Rankin and Nick Hornby, in their respective ways, have made use of musical themes and references for their novels. Elvis Costello is an interesting example of this flow and ebb of influences (conscious or otherwise). In his 1982 album, “Imperial Bedroom”, Costello name-checks books by Evelyn Waugh, Mary Scott and Emlyn Williams. In turn, the album seems to have inspired Brett Easton Ellis and Stephanie Bishop.

However, for sheer worm hole appeal, the works of Thomas Pynchon deserve a Nobel Prize for inspiring a whole thread of academic research in this area of literary influences. There’s probably a PhD thesis or two out there on this exact topic. At the risk of making this an indulgent and self-referencing blog, the band I was in from 1979-1983, Greenfield Leisure, recorded a song called “Too Fat To Frug” (the one song of ours that John Peel liked). The words were adapted from “Miles’s Song”, one of the lyrics Pynchon wove into “The Crying of Lot 49”, published in 1966. Even back in the ’60s, Pynchon was a source for popular culture, if the title of a 1967 comic is anything to go by, and a trend which seems destined to continue.

Finally, my thanks to Gary Wigglesworth for triggering this post.

Next week: My love/hate relationship with Science Fiction

 

Vinyl on the brain

In planning to write a blog on vinyl records, I was responding to recent personal experiences and insights on this topic. Then events somewhat overtook me, as I learned of the death this past weekend of Philip Jeck (more on him later). So this post has taken on a slightly different tone.

Image sourced from Vintage Everyday

The initial trigger for this blog came from the realisation that I’ve been spending more time on Twitter engaging with fellow vinyl enthusiasts – and of course, this interest has been amplified by social media algorithms and their “preferences” and “recommendations”. In my experience, most people who post content about music in general (and vinyl in particular) tend to be much nicer than those who indulge in the didactic venom and unfiltered hate speech that passes for “social commentary” these days. But this just goes to prove that you find your audience (and your confirmation bias?) where you choose to seek them.

Part of this on-line engagement is prompted by a passion for collecting, and a love of sharing. Yes, it could merely relate to showing off one’s vinyl stash, and may reveal fetishistic tendencies – but frankly, there are far worse vices. A lot of the commentary details successful crate-digging, charity shop bargains, and re-discovered hidden gems. In fact, the prospect of finding an over-looked classic, unearthing a valuable rarity, or simply completing a gap in your collection often drives this obsession. So much so, that recently I found myself dreaming of records which I know don’t exist, but in so much detail that part of me thinks these artefacts must be out there somewhere!

Like many music enthusiasts, I was first exposed to vinyl records via my parents’ and then my sisters’ collections. For a time in the late ’60s, my dad used to visit EMI on business, and would sometimes come home on a Friday having picked up a new release or two, most memorably the first few singles on the Beatles’ Apple label. I probably got the collecting bug more than my siblings, and still recall the key albums I bought with my own money: “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, and “A Clockwork Orange” by Wendy Carlos – which probably confirms my personal bias for instrumental, electronic and soundtrack music.

Then, I started playing in bands with mates from school, an interest that was further fueled by the arrival of punk rock, and the realisation that there was more to music than the Top 40 and old hippies singing into their patchouli-drenched afghan overcoats. One group I was in, Greenfield Leisure, received an airing on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 programme (the Holy Grail for aspiring musicians at the time), but mostly these bands existed on home-made demo tapes, and were only ever heard (and rarely appreciated…) by our long-suffering families. Later, I worked in a chain of infamous second-hand record stores in London, which, if nothing else, revealed some of the weirder ends of the vinyl-collecting public. It also helped expand my musical knowledge, but at the cost of a fair chunk of my paltry shop wages.

Vinyl is not necessarily the most convenient format of music – it’s not as portable as digital, and not as robust as CD. Records get scratched, they warp, the grooves fill up with dust, and the sleeves get battered and torn. So, despite advances in technology, and the huge market for digital music and streaming services, why have vinyl records endured?

The continued and renewed interest in music on vinyl cannot be explained by a single factor – this phenomenon is as multi-faceted as the genres of music people listen to.

First, whether or not driven by events like Record Store Day, limited edition releases, box set retrospectives or physical copies being shipped with download coupons, vinyl sales are steadily on the up. But as a proportion of how people listen to music each week, purchased music (physical and download formats) comprises less than 10%, while streaming formats account for two-thirds of our listening.

Second, the tactile nature of vinyl records, plus the opportunity they present for creativity in their use of artwork, design and packaging, can generate a more engaging and long-lasting experience. As someone said recently on Twitter, you probably don’t remember the first music you downloaded or streamed, but it’s very likely you remember the first record you bought.

Third, quite apart from the vast amount of artist and label back catalogue being reissued on vinyl, more and more new and contemporary music is being released on vinyl as well as digital – sometimes, there’s not even a CD edition.

Fourth, swathes of back-catalogue can only be accessed via original vinyl editions, having never been re-issued during the hey-day of CDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, even where current and past releases have been released for streaming and/or download, the vagaries of geo-blocking can mean that this digital content is not available in all territories.

Finally, the economics of streaming (and to a lesser extent, downloads) have revealed that artists receive just a tiny proportion of the subscription revenue generated by Spotify, Apple and others, which can make vinyl purchases more attractive to music fans. This dynamic has also made direct-to-buyer platforms like Bandcamp more appealing to artists and fans alike.

Back to Philip Jeck, a sound artist who transformed piles of dusty old records into a musical experience. Using techniques he gleaned from watching hip-hop DJs and post-modern turntablists, he curated (rather than composed) sound collages built up from layers of seemingly forgotten and anonymous recordings, turning them into live art. I was fortunate enough to see him perform twice. The first was in 1993, when he presented his magnum opus “Vinyl Requiem” at the Union Chapel in North London. The second was in 2008, for a much more intimate solo performance at The Toff in Town, Melbourne. In both cases, the use of streaming could not have resulted in such a strong creative process or delivered such immersive listening.

Next week: Music with literary leanings

Dead Pop Stars

Back in the 1960s, rock stars weren’t expected to have long careers. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who. Soon after, the likes of Hendrix, Jones, Morrison and Joplin joined the 27 club. Nobody associated pop music with longevity, let alone a pension fund. But now we have octogenarian rockers releasing new albums and even touring (health permitting). It’s almost indecent….

Of course, most musicians don’t go out in a blaze of glory, at the height of their career. Instead, they fade away gracefully after their 15 minutes of fame (or pursue a career in reality TV). With better management of their back catalogues (and thanks to streaming services, box-set reissues, band reunions and come-back package tours), a decent living can even be had by artists from the second and third divisions.

As we ourselves age, we may measure our own mortality against the stars we were fans of. I’m not quite old enough to remember (or register) the passing of Hendrix or Joplin, but I certainly remember where I was when Elvis Presley, Keith Moon and Sid Vicious each left this mortal coil. For various reasons, none of these untimely deaths were totally unsurprising, based on their lifestyles. I was somewhat shocked when I heard about the death of Ian Curtis – I was still a teenager, he was only a few years older than me, and I’d even spoken to him, albeit briefly, at one of his last ever gigs. But again, not totally unexpected in the circumstances.

Understandably, John Lennon’s murder was pivotal in popular culture (due both to the manner and timing of his demise), but otherwise, major rockers from the 60s & 70s have reached old age intact (but not always with dignity). Sure, there have been many exceptions, mostly thanks to lifestyle choices or misadventure. But it’s not uncommon for pop, rock and jazz musicians to live (mostly happily) to a ripe old age – in recent times, we have lost Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Lee Perry, McCoy Tyner and Charlie Watts, who each enjoyed more than their three score years and ten. Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr are still troubling the charts in their 80s (and what about Sir Elton!), while the remaining members of the Beatles and The Stones are close to joining octogenarian rock royalty.

So it was with some sadness that I read about the recent death of Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher. Not only was he just a few years older than me, but I’d enjoyed seeing his band play several times around London (most memorably, supporting R.E.M. in late 1985). I’d also met Pat a few times via a mutual friend, and he was always charming and entertaining.

Pat was one of the last “gentleman rock and rollers” – he wasn’t just in it for the money or glory (although both help to sustain a long music career). He was a chronicler of the absurd, the whimsical and the eccentric (in the nature of other English songwriters such as Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock and Julian Cope), and as epitomized by “Mr. Odd” and the self-referential “Southern Mark Smith”. Yet, despite this, he found loyal audiences across North America and Europe, where he was probably more appreciated than in the UK. (For example, a Paris-based American musician I knew at the time only became aware of The Jazz Butcher thanks to a tribute to Olaf Palme they recorded after the Swedish prime minister’s murder.)

If the calibre of a band can be measured by the songs and artists they cover, The Jazz Butcher made some interesting choices, revealing their influences and personal tastes: “Road Runner” (Jonathan Richman), “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground), “Take The Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) and “Spooky” (Dusty Springfield). And Pat was also supportive of other bands that were associated with his home base in the East Midlands, or signed to the same labels he was. In this way, and at various times, he was connected to the likes of Bauhaus, Spacemen 3, Eyeless in Gaza, In Embrace, The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Bron Area and The Woodentops.

Finally, in keeping with the times, The Jazz Butcher have been the subject of a recent reissue campaign, and there may be a posthumous album released shortly.

Cheers, Pat!

Next week: Opening Up…