Telstar!

The quality of a song can often be reflected in the number and variety of cover versions it prompts. Think of tunes that have become jazz standards, or key songs like “Yesterday” or “My Way” which have become some of the most covered compositions in the pop canon. Sometimes, the original can be overshadowed by a later interpretation, to the point where it becomes the definitive recording. (For me, John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” outclasses both the original and later, more popular renditions). Too often, though, cover versions are pale imitations, mere pastiche or karaoke cannon fodder for TV talent shows.

One of the first records I am conscious of hearing at home and playing on the family Dansette is “Telstar” by The Tornados (the 7″ version with the deep blue Decca label, and distinctive striped orange and white sleeve). Although the main melody is quite simple (and total ear-worm), the original 1962 version features strange noises and curious effects, while the overall instrumental tone is appropriately other-worldly. Both of its time (reflecting the emerging space age) and timeless, “Telstar” has given rise to numerous versions, and thanks to the current lock-down in Melbourne and the wonders of YouTube, last week I killed a few hours searching and compiling this playlist.

I’m sure there are many more tributes out there, but this list comprises 20 or so key recordings I came across during my internet trawl:

Chronologically, the first couple of tracks on the playlist are quite faithful renditions by The Tornados’ contemporaries, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. (Strangely, the latter put out a later, and rather pointless “updated” version.)

The record’s initial success led to a vocal version by Bobby Rydell which has a certain naive charm. This in turn inspired (directly or indirectly) a couple of wonderful European vocal recordings – by Slovenia’s Marjana Deržaj and Finland’s Laila Halme. They both stay just the right side of kitsch, and bring some unique elements of their own.

These vocal recordings are followed by a cluster of orchestral/easy listening renditions, typical of the time both in style and context: there’s Billy Vaughn‘s big band recording, featuring sax and guitar; The Hawaiians‘ exotica; and James Last‘s cheesy string arrangement. All great examples of the hits of the day played in styles to suit all tastes…

We shift gears for The Pyramid‘s ska take, followed by Al Casey‘s faithful version from the early 70’s, that features an interesting opening. Also around this time came Hot Butter‘s sanitized synths, that feels like a missed opportunity to go further out in space…

If we take “disco” to be a broad church, then the oddities by Venus Gang and Ovni would just about qualify in that category – while The Shadows‘ early 80’s take sounds like those awful Stars on 45 records.

Also in the 80’s, we find a couple of versions that are either ironic, or so post modern it hurts. The Models‘ 1981 recording attempts to add some new wave atmosphere, while Ad Infinitum‘s 1984 effort is notable for coming out on Manchester’s very hip Factory record label. (It also features a tongue-in-cheek piano bar version on the b-side.)

Finally, a couple of more recent versions that each add another dimension. First, from 1997, Takako Minekawa‘s neo-loungecore interpretation (very on message for the time), which would appeal to fans of Saint Etienne and Stereolab alike. Lastly, from 2014, Bill Frisell‘s restrained but lush slide guitar that presents a fitting tribute to this classic space age instrumental.

[“Telstar” cover versions that I wish existed: the outake from Bowie’s “Low” sessions; Kraftwerk’s 1975 sound check from London’s Festival Hall; Esquival’s bachelor pad stylings; Jacques Loussier channelling Bachian counterpoint; and Marlene Dietrich’s vocal rendition…]

Next week: Living in limbo
 

More Music for Lock-down

Last year, as Melbourne was entering its second, lengthy lock-down, I listed some of the music that helped to sustain me during the endless days of working from home. Now, as the city faces another (twice-extended) 4 week lock-down, music is one of the few pleasures still available….

My updated list includes:

Eduard Artemiev – Solaris (Original Soundtrack) A science fiction film from 1972, and in the vein of JG Ballard or Brian Aldiss, it concerns the strange psychological illness that afflicts scientists on-board a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The slightly claustrophobic electronic score is offset by a number of compositions by JS Bach. Note the early Zoom call and all-day PJs featured in the accompanying stills from the film.

Various Artists Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986 Perfect antidote to lock-down blues, this compilation of mostly up-tempo numbers reveals more depth below the shiny surface – the arrangements, choice of textures and compositional structures make this more than just easy listening. (Released by the excellent Light in The Attic label, there’s also a second volume, plus related compilations that focus on the more ambient and experimental end of the spectrum.) Definitely a mood-enhancer.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Drauf Und Dran The prolific Roedelius has released one of the most sublime albums of his lengthy career – which is saying something for an artist closely associated with ambient and minimalist styles. A piano-based album, with very few electronics or effects, the clarity of composition and playing make for a brief but welcome respite from the mental fug of lock-down. In a similar vein, I would also recommend Brian Eno’s soundtrack to the Dieter Rams documentary, and Eno’s recent work with his brother, Roger, the albums Mixing Colours and Luminous.

Mogwai – ZeroZeroZero Another soundtrack, for the TV series of the same name (which I have not seen). Like the Solaris soundtrack, the music is more about the atmosphere than the narrative, and all the more powerful as a result. Also worth mentioning is Mogwai’s recent studio album.

Khruangbin = クルアンビン* ‎– 全てが君に微笑む Khruangbin are a band whose music I heard on a couple of sampler albums, without knowing anything about them. Playing an infectious blend of instrumental Funk, Psychedelia and Dub Reggae, this compilation brings together a number of their early singles (including inspired covers of Serge Gainsbourg and Yellow Magic Orchestra). Rather beautiful for these monochrome times.

Michel Legrand – La Piscine Yet more soundtracks, this deceptively lightweight but lush album, featuring just the right amount of economic violin solos by Stéphane Grappelli (who could let his virtuosity get the better of him), recently got a re-boot for Record Store Day, so it’s pretty hip at the moment. Other soundtrack and library music compilations I have been delving into include Adventures in Soundtracks, The Music Library and Unusual Sounds. Mostly reflecting the anonymous/unsung world of studio session composers and players of the 60s and 70s, most people would recognise at least one or two tunes, if only from their use as samples in other records.

Greg Davis – Somnia Finally, a work of stillness and contemplation – built on sustained drones and minimal instrumentation, this album nevertheless manages to generate immense depth and emotion. Again, perfect listening in this stilted yet listless environment of lock-down, curfew, social isolation and pent-up frustration and sorrow. (Also check out the Davis’ contemporaneous work, Diaphanous.)

Next week: Startupbootcamp Sports & EventTech Demo Day 2021

The Fall – always different, always the same

During the latest Melbourne lock-down, I have been revisiting the music of The Fall. A strange (or should that be Kurious?) choice, but at a time when you feel like ranting (or mithering) at the absurdity of it all, The Fall make perfect sense. It might not always be comfortable listening, but sometimes you need a bit of grit and gristle as a catalyst to move on.

When exploring The Fall, it’s hard to know where to begin (and, just as importantly, how to end). Although they emerged from the 70’s punk movement and were associated with the Manchester music scene, The Fall identified with neither. But if punk hadn’t happened, and without that link to Manchester, I doubt they would have got as far. They out-lived all of their contemporaries, without the tired reunions or desperate comeback tours of their peers. Perhaps only Wire or Gang of Four can claim a similar longevity, but they both had long periods of inactivity.

Named after an Albert Camus novel, The Fall were not afraid to acknowledge their influences and interests, in particular those of their core founder and only consistent member, Mark E Smith. Scattered across lyrics, album covers, sleeve notes, press interviews and side projects, it is possible to find references to literature, art, theatre, dance, philosophy, politics, psychology, spiritualism and the occult. Elements of Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett, Edgar Allan Poe, Aleister Crowley, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Blake, H.P. Lovecraft, Luke Rhinehart, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Jarry and Kurt Schwitters can be found strewn across The Fall’s output.

This should not be too surprising: during a 40-year recording career, The Fall released 30+ studio albums, 60+ singles and EPs, and more than a hundred live albums and compilations. Integral to their recording career are the two-dozen sessions The Fall recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program. (Peel was an early champion, and often cited them as his favourite band – he is also credited with the quotation that provides the title of this blog.) It’s the sort of discography that will keep fans busy for years – and represents something of a licensing headache for record labels and music publishers alike.

The Fall’s prolific (and challenging) body of work only came to an end when Smith died in early 2018, although the posthumus re-issues and compilations have continued with almost indecent frequency – I hope his estate are keeping tabs.

Of course, with that sort of work ethic, quality control can suffer. Smith was equally feted and feared for his wilful determination and unwillingness to conform. His refusal to compromise or comply with current fads and fashion was certainly an admirable trait. But this steadfast and stubborn control over his content reveals a weakness – the absence of any discernible editorial oversight means that there is a law of diminishing returns, especially in the band’s later years. Although it must also be acknowledged that even on the last few albums, there was something of a return to form.

When Smith died, he was honoured with an obituary in the Washington Post, which must have had more than a few readers perplexed – (Mark E who? Marquis Cha-Cha of course!). Smith would have loathed/laughed at the attention. He had a love/hate relationship with journalists, but he also understood the value of the media to reach his audience, especially in the pre-internet heyday of the UK’s weekly music press (the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds). At the same time, he could be dismissive towards certain sections of his fans, although he saved most of his bile for other bands, especially those whom he felt were mere plagiarists.

Trying to summarise what The Fall represent musically is no easy task. Their antecedents can be traced to 1950’s rockabilly, 1960’s garage rock and 1970’s glam. In terms of outlook and attitude, it’s possible to discern similarities to American groups such as Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu, and German bands such as Can and Faust. Yet another reference point might be their choice of cover songs, ranging from The Kinks to Sister Sledge, from Hank Mizell to Lee Perry.

Another way to approach their music is to break it down into chronological chapters: the post-punk and dense sounds of their first few albums, the rapid evolution into art rock and neo-pop in the mid-1980s, the brief period with a major label in the early-19990s that saw a transition to a more electronic sound (and mild flirtations with techno and big beat), the peaks and troughs of the middle-aged years, and then the erratic coda in their dotage that showed glimpses of former glories. But this hardly does their back catalogue justice. If you asked fifty fans to list their top 10 tracks by The Fall, you would get as many different compilation albums.

I was fortunate to see The Fall in their early- and mid-1980s peak – so my own preferences mainly stem from that era – the run of albums that comprises “Grotesque (After The Gramme)”, “Perverted by Language”, “Hex Enduction Hour”, “Room to Live”, “The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall”, “I Am Kurious Oranj”, “Bend Sinister”, “This Nation’s Saving Grace” and “The Frenz Experiment”, plus the myriad singles and EPs dotted around those releases.

If pushed, I’d have to say my favourite track is “Leave the Capitol”, from 1981 – to me, it sums up what The Fall represent.

Next week: Eileen Agar – My Brush With Surrealism

Decay Music

As Melbourne returns to normal post lock-down, I’ve been attending some live music events around the city. The most recent was a performance of contemporary Australian compositions written mainly for percussion, including a piece entitled “When Only The Walls Can Sing” by Mark Pollard, performed by members of the Melbourne Conservatorium.

When introducing his work, the composer referenced the notion of “decay” in music, whereby sound waves continue to reverberate indefinitely, albeit in decreasing magnitudes of volume and resonance. Incorporating recordings of works previously performed by the Conservatorium, this 2020 composition is also a reference to our enforced isolation during the pandemic, when many people only had the four walls of their homes for company.

The concept of “musical decay” appears in many forms. Examples include:

The physical degradation that occurs with each playback of a recording (both analogue and digital), as exemplified by “The Disintegration Loops” by William Basinski

The idea that all sound is potentially infinite – given voice by Gavin Bryars on “The Sinking of the Titanic”….

…. and continues even when no-one can hear it, as suggested by “On Hold” by Photay.

The half-heard music that inspired Brian Eno’s early ambient and tape-loop experiments on “Discreet Music” ….

… and the related “systems” composition of Michael Nyman’s “Decay Music”

For musical archeologists, look no further than Philip Jeck’s epic installation piece (and related albums), “Vinyl Requiem”….

… and compare this to similar works by L.Pierre on his final two albums, “Surface Noise” and “1948”

Given the melancholic nature of “decay”, the “final” word probably goes to the conceptual work by AM/PM, that samples and amalgamates “The Ends” of certain records, to great effect.

Next week: RONE in Geelong