Saturday, 18 January 2014

Where Have All The Flowers Gone ?

If you've been here before you may have noticed the reduction in illustration on some of the entries. The short explanation is that having been sued for using an image scanned from a twenty-year-old postcard in a previous entry, I have removed anything that might be regarded as copyright to anyone other than me. Well, and a couple of tickets which I didn't design. The dispute has taken over eight months to resolve and while the eventual outcome wasn't catastrophic, it was expensive enough in time as well as cash terms to make it unrepeatable.

In most cases, the absent pictures were largely there to break up the text rather than to be admired in their own right. I find long unbroken passages hard to read from a screen, but hey-ho, a bit of experimentation with fonts and their sizes may improve matters. One reader has already mentioned that they find the white-on-black hard to read. Not sure I agree, but if that proves to be a consensus it is easily remedied. Any views or suggestions on this would be very welcome via the comment button.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Technicians of Spaceship Earth - History Part 7

To most people who have heard of them, Hawkwind are the one hit wonders responsible for a chart hit, Silver Machine, in the summer of 1972. A few may also realize that the vocalist on that record was one Ian Kilminster a.k.a. the National Treasure that is Lemmy, founder and figurehead of raucous racket-makers Motorhead. All of this is true, but it is also the tip of a very large iceberg which did much to sink my capacity for rational thought in the mid-seventies.

Growing up in a nice middle class household in a nice middle class village several miles from the nice middle class city of Chester back then, opportunities to hear live rock music were few and far between. Folk-rockers Steeleye Span did make an annual visit to the ABC Cinema and I expect a few pubs hosted gigs, but at 14 I was some way off being able to bluff my way past an age check (it was possible then, as few people carried the age-related I.D. that is now de rigeur). There was at least one club, "Quaintways", in Chester that put on gigs but they seemed to be late on a Monday night and getting there and back, supposing the parents agreed, was an insurmountable obstacle. Consequently a trip to Manchester or Liverpool was required to see almost any band, let alone one you might have heard of.

Late in 1974 one of my peers announced that he was going with his big brother to a gig in Liverpool by Hawkwind. A bit of research revealed that the concert was at Liverpool Stadium. This was not Anfield but a run-down indoor boxing venue used by the dockers union for strike meetings. The gig being on Saturday January 18th 1975, this was just as well! Well, not only was Silver Machine still relatively fresh in the memory, but the band's most recent album "Hall of the Mountain Grill" had done the home-taping circuit and been found quite uplifting and different. If I'm honest, I had not been knocked out by it, but it did  fall into a sort of middle ground between the straightforward guitar riffage of the Quo and the techno-classical-pomp of ELP. 

In fact Hawkwind's musical formula at that time was largely a guitar riff supported by Lemmy's undoubted power as a bass player, over which keyboard and other electronic effects were laid to give a richer texture. A couple of the tracks on HOTMG had been recorded live, as was Silver Machine, so it was pretty clear that in this case if you saw them live they might well sound like they did on record. Experience was to show that this could not be said for all bands! Anyway (and I can't remember on whose initiative) four more of us decided that it was time to see what all the fuss was about when it came to live music. It was something of a music-press mantra that the live experience was a cut above listening to a recording and while I don't remember seeing much T.V. coverage of live music beyond brief snatches of screaming girls at Beatles concerts, there was surely no smoke without fire.

Thus a few weeks later we caught the train from Chester to Liverpool, clutching our £1.25 tickets for entry. We set off in the morning as the seating was unreserved and if you're going to splash out you want a decent view. Resigned to queuing for hours, we had not reckoned on it being one of the coldest days of the winter. Well, it certainly felt like it was. Arriving at the venue we found a small but committed bunch of largely hirsute males being properly British and queuing in a nice orderly fashion. We joined them. After about half an hour the need for warmth and a toilet caused us to pair up and start a rota of thawing out over hot chocolate at a nearby cafe while the other two kept our places. At one point one of us (no names, but it wasn't me) started to agitate for giving up and going home, but as his parents were booked to give us a lift back at the end of the night, he was pressed into staying! 

As the sun set and it got really cold, a girl just ahead of us in the queue handed round a bottle of what she described as potato wine. Now I had had wine at 14, but not much of it and certainly nothing that could have compared with whatever was in that bottle. It's not unusual for people to joke about how a drink tastes like paint-stripper or some other caustic substance but this was no joke. To this day I wonder if it was some sort of home-distilled spirit. Eastern Europe has, after all, done quite well turning spuds into vodka. Whatever it was, a couple of swigs were enough to warm the core, even if the extremities were beyond reach.

Maybe an hour before the doors were due to open, ticket touts turned up. Would we sell our tickets? At a profit? Again, one of our number was tempted but restrained. We'd suffered this long and I for one was not going anywhere. How old were we, the tout demanded, before assuring us that at our age we would be unable to appreciate the fine entertainment that awaited within. Or words to that effect. That clinched it, of course, and I still know very well not to tell a kid that they're not old enough to do something if I don't want them to do it!

Finally the doors did open and a small stampede ensued as the prospective audience jostled for what each perceived as best position. We could have been right at the front, but we decided against this. There were plenty of people bigger than us and anyway, it was clear that the stage had a projection screen behind it and you don't choose to sit at the front of a cinema.Or right next to a stack of loudspeakers three times taller than you are. This turned out to be a good call, although it also rendered the act of queuing all day largely superfluous as we probably could have ended up where we did by turning up less than an hour beforehand. Live and learn.

It soon became evident that many, if not most, of our fellow punters were planning on applying chemical enhancement to their appreciation of what was to follow. There was no ban on smoking in public places then, although tobacco was not, quite frankly, the only weed being consumed.

After a restless wait while the hall filled up, a lone figure with an acoustic guitar took the stage to an almost universally hostile reception. How Al Matthews, then a folk musician, was appointed support to a psychedelic rock band I've no idea.I guess that at the time he came cheap,but the poor guy could barely be heard above the heckling, booing and generally hostile cacophony. A former U.S.Marine, he would later become the first black presenter on Radio1 and enjoy considerable success as a movie actor, most memorably Sergeant Apone in Aliens, as well as a hit single in "Fool", thus arguably eclipsing the achievements of the headliners. So while I felt sorry for him then, he clearly didn't let it get him down.
Check him out here: AL MATTHEWS .

Another wait, during which the audience became pretty rowdy,and we were introduced to the mid-seventies gig tradition of Wally! Not sure the origin of this, bu t it would involve individual or multiple orchestrated members of the audience bellowing "WALLY!" at the tops of their voice(s). Other members would respond in kind until the hall was all calling for Wally. It can't have been anything to do with the "Where's Wally" book phenomenon, as that didn't begin until over a decade later. There was a prog-rock band of that name, but I'm not sure that had anything to do with it either. A wally was a euphemism for an idiot for some time, so perhaps that was it. If you have a theory, do please add it to the comments! Whatever the origin, it did pass that gap during which roadies intoned "One Two" over and over into various microphones.

At last the house-lights went out, the stage was flooded with smoke or dry ice and Hawkwind kicked off their show. They were still performing most of the audio-visual concept "Space Ritual" that had been financed with the proceeds from the Silver Machine hit, with much of Hall of the Mountain Grill mixed in. At this point I hadn't heard the double album of Space Ritual, partially recorded at this very venue, so I wasn't ready for the spoken word introduction and interludes between songs. These had been variously composed by Robert Calvert (then on sabbatical from Hawkwind attending to the mental illness that haunted him for the rest of his life) and Michael Moorcock, a science fiction/fantasy writer whose work I later became very keen on. By pure coincidence, when I got home I noticed that the story in the programme ("A Dead Singer" about how Hendrix was alive and well and being driven round the country in a camper van) was by the same Michael Moorcock whose book "The Lord of the Spiders" I had brought (and failed) to read in the queue. Fate or somesuch.

Anyway, the speech (poetry some would say) explained that we were off on some sort of space trip.Out of the general swirling noise of signal generators and synthesizers being twiddled with erupted one of the familiar riffs from HOTMG and.....What. A. Noise !!!

I've heard it said by a fan of a particular record (Miles Davis' Kind of Blue) that seeing a first time buyer of the album provokes some jealousy because they are about to hear it for the first time, and that experience can never be repeated. Well, likewise, hearing rock music at high volume, professionally amplified so that your diaphragm vibrates in sympathy with the throb of the bass and the high-pitched swoosh of a synthesizer threatens to knock you out for the first time is unrepeatable. Perhaps the fact that it was Hawkwind is irrelevant. Maybe any band that night would have had the same effect. Yet, for a number of reasons, I doubt it.

Firstly, while the music is fairly crude in isolation should you feel the need to analyse it, it does have power.Not quite the frenetic pace of Motorhead, perhaps, but Lemmy's bass keeps the thing moving at a tempo not far from punk rock. The synthesizer embellishments were also, if not ground-breaking, then certainly unusual and used effectively. Simon House's violin was another relatively unusual element for a rock band and Nik Turner's sax, well for better or worse, he does his own thing. As he said in the sleeve notes of the first Hawkwind album, he "just digs freaking about on saxophones"!

Secondly, there was the visual element. Credited in advertising as an act in their own right, the lighting crew was known as Liquid Len and The Lensmen, an outfit run by Jonathan Smeeton, a lighting designer who went on to work for the Rolling Stones and many others. Their trademark was the use of sequenced still pictures on rapidly rotating discs in front of high-powered projectors. These became animated when projected onto the screen behind the band. In the days before affordable video, this "flickbook" method of stroboscopic sequencing was probably more reliable and cheaper than running 16mm film projectors which seemed almost exclusively the domain of Pink Floyd. It also allowed for an element of spontaneity as the sequences' speed could be adjusted to keep time with the music. Images produced this way included a dragon flapping its wings, Pegasus (ditto), explosions and more abstract colour sequences. Now and again bright stroboscopes were turned on the band and/or audience and I also remember a "lightpipe", just a bigger version of the kind that now adorns many a Christmas tree, being run across the backline amplifiers.

Also part of the visual presentation was the legendary Stacia (Blake), a lady of imposing stature and figure who would appear on-stage and interpret the music as she felt appropriate. Although she was known for doing so nude I'm pretty sure that she kept her (admittedly revealing) clothes on for this one, although I may have missed something. To this day, Hawkwind still use dancers, although last time I saw them they were on stilts! Some of this may sound more vaudeville than rock and roll, but the accumulated effect was to give a sense of confusion and chaos which worked well with the narrative of what was going on, to the extent that that itself made any sense. The effect of the lighting and the strobing in particular, which I suspect may have crept past the legal limit, was literally mesmerising, so that it was hard to look anywhere but at the stage.

Thirdly, and I am really speculating here, there is the issue of passive smoking. I have since wondered whether, as the atmosphere was so heavily fogged with marijuana smoke, I got high on everyone else's supply. The tout who despaired at our youth also claimed that without chemical enhancement, Hawkwind would be lost on us, and yet they weren't lost on us at all. I loved every minute of it! Anyone know if that might be the case?

The show reached its climax with Sonic Attack, a dystopian rant about how to cope with "imminent sonic destruction", followed by Master of the Universe (the original version of which turned up last week on a Ford B-Max advertisement, forty years after its release). An encore of Silver Machine segued from another song and that was that.

The abiding memory is of bright flashing lights and rib-shaking volume. Quite simply, the most exciting two hours of my life up to that point. Why? Well, it hadn't had a lot of competition. A few pantomimes, otherwise not much in the way of live performance had passed my way at that point. And certainly nothing that loud or visually chaotic. Like the best books, and gigs, the end left me feeling almost bereaved, wishing it had gone on longer or even forever.

On the way out a crush developed at the merchandising stall. I didn't have enough money for a T-Shirt but spent what I had on a poster. The weight of people was gradually pushing the trestle table and those serving behind it closer to the wall. Eventually an understandably miffed Hawk-minion jumped onto the table and addressed the multitude in terms that are quoted to this day by me and and my companions. "Stop pushing", he bellowed "and ACT FUCKING CIVILISED ! It was a good natured if badly behaved crowd and his words were heeded, at least long enough for me to conclude my transaction and make for the door.

2 days later my ears were still ringing and I would bore anyone who came close with what a second-to-none Saturday I had had. And from then until now, I scanned the music press (now the internet) for news of rock shows I could not afford to miss.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Charlotte Church Gloucester Guildhall August 18th 2012

Charlotte Church is 26 years old and still deciding on a career. As a young girl, hers was labelled "The Voice of an Angel" and for several years into her teens she recorded and performed live for the great and the good, and Bill Clinton. At some point, though, she elected to turn her back on what could have been a very lucrative career in middle-of-the-road sacred/operatic warbling and plough her own furrow. She'd already made a packet, but the prospect of millions more from countless repetitions of "Pie Jesu", or recording "Charlotte Sings Barbra" for the blue-rinsed sisterhood somehow lacked allure. Supposedly she rebelled. Maybe she just grew up. Either way, she launched a modestly successful pop career with a notably catchy song "Crazy Chick", and a few years ago hosted a chat show with considerable charm and a bit of controversy. Inevitably, what with the pretty little girl turning into a very nicely assembled young woman with considerable personal wealth, she attracted the attention of the tabloid (see also "gutter") press who milked every youthful indiscretion, wardrobe malfunction or encounter with a bottle for all it was worth. That Ms. Church appeared almost gleeful, if also furious, outside the recent Leveson enquiry into press standards was hardly a surprise. Aside from that and too much publicity for the break-up of her  relationship with the father of her kids, however, she has been out of the limelight for a while. Wikipedia indicates that she released an album in 2010 before curtailing the relevant record contract the following year, but I suspect I'm not the only one who missed this completely. I therefore freely admit to buying tickets for yesterday's performance at Gloucester Guildhall out of curiosity, as it was by no means clear what manifestation of the former girl-wonder was to be on show.

There were two support acts scheduled, but on one of the hottest evenings of the "summer" of 2012, the prospect was unenticing, particularly once You Tube snippets of the candidates had been checked out, and the Guildhall's less than wonderful air-conditioning had been discussed. True, this meant that more than half of the gig was spent in the pub, but at £12.50 a ticket this was no catastrophe, and the chance to linger in a couple of pub gardens has been a rare one this year.

Still, we made sure we were in the Guildhall in time for the headliner at 9.30 p.m. She was not on time, but as she had been billed to appear for only an hour, this left a bit of flexibility. By now a couple of pre-released tracks from a forthcoming e.p. had given some indication of what to expect, namely rock. Sure enough, as her five-piece band swung into action and she tweaked computer gizmos on the floor to add her own backing vocals, the sound was indisputable rock. Mostly up-beat, sometimes angry and professionally executed, the songs were not, for the most part, very memorable. An exception would be "How Not To Be Surprised When You're A Ghost", a tune for which a video recently appeared on YouTube. I thought it better than the video and maybe it was telling that it was a relatively restrained song that required singing rather than shouting. One song was dedicated to the charmless former News Of  The World editor Rebekkah Brooks and it was revealed that the bearded guitar/violin player to her left was the current boyfriend (although we did wonder if this designation is changed on a nightly basis to wind-up the gentlemen of the press)! It was a fun, energetic performance of unexciting material, but there was no doubting the lady's continued ability as a singer and performer. With better material, and maybe a bit more variation within it, the rock diva badge might be hers for the asking. And she's still half my age, so plenty of time to sort it out.

The show lasted less than an hour, which would be O.K. for a festival spot but was on the border of cheeky for a headliner. She insisted that she doesn't do encores, but filling things out with a more tuneful ballad or some familiar cover versions might have been an idea. Also, it may be considered admirably uncompromising in well established acts like Bob Dylan and Neil Young to fill a set with unheard material, but as a relative novice, albeit with an established pedigree in other styles of performance, the "here I am take it or leave it!" approach may not pay dividends. And I'm not sure I'd have chosen that outfit for her either,  but she's her own woman!

An interesting job application, further work experience required.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

WOMAD Sunday July 29th 2012

I went to WOMAD three years ago, to catch a rare Peter Gabriel performance ( Along with my wife and ten-year-old daughter I had a very enjoyable day (although the latter started to develop swine-flu symptoms as the day drew to a close), yet I hadn't been back until last weekend. I was tempted in the meantime, but the fact is that unless you are a serious "World Music" buff, which I'm not, most of the bill comprises artists with unfamiliar names from unfamiliar countries who may or may not make a noise I want to listen to. This makes £65 a head for a one day ticket, and £195 for three one day tickets an unpalatable gamble. I was tempted this year by the prospect of Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters headlining the Sunday, but then I'd seen them in May, and the coffers are looking a bit depleted to say the least. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago WOMAD offered a draw for free tickets to those who "liked" one of their Facebook entries. Hardly a chore, and I did like it, so nothing ventured etc., and the next day I received an e-mail telling me I had three tickets for Sunday, which given that the aforementioned daughter still gets in for nothing meant that we had a day out in prospect for all four of us, at no cost. If you believe in karma (the love you take is equal to the love you make and all that), then I'd put this down to the not inconsiderable few bob I've spent over the last forty years on Peter Gabriel's records, videos and concert tickets plus a few more on other releases by his Real World record company. As a founder of WOMAD I'm sure it was his waves of positive reciprocal karma that drew my name out of the hat. Then again, it might have been luck.

Following the apocalyptic downpour at Jodrell Bank a few weeks ago, the prospect of another open-air event in our green and pleasant land was greeted with muted enthusiasm by the rest of the troops, but I conceded that if it was pouring with rain we could delay our arrival until Mr. Plant's performance was imminent. Happily, though, Sunday dawned brightly, if rather cloudier than during the brief heatwave of the previous week. There remained the challenge of bringing two teenagers to functionality on a school holiday Sunday, but we got there in the end, and by 10.00 a.m. we'd arrived at Charlton Park in Malmesbury and claimed our wristbands.

A pleasant ten minute walk through the camping area saw us enter the main arena which was festooned with the brightly coloured flags that are now de-rigeur at any festival. They do lend a special quality to the field (you don't see much more than a forlorn Union Jack in most public places). I don't know what they cost (the same ones do the rounds through the summer, with new designs appearing each year), but I would welcome their spread outside the festival circuit. But then maybe they wouldn't be special any more.

There were a couple of classes in Yoga and Tai Chi underway, but otherwise the various stages were not due to gear up for a while,so there was time for a bit of exploration, a browse of the market stalls and a peep at Carters' Steam Fair.The kids judged this potentially more scary than their recent rides at Alton Towers as the machines' working parts are so much more obviously displayed! Aside from stalls selling food stuffs from fish curry and jerk chicken to doughnuts and ice-cream, folk are peddling those clothes that might seem cool at a festival but will languish in a cupboard when you get home, jewellery and domestic ornaments. Then there are hammocks, eco-friendly washing-up liquid and, of course, music and related publications. Some are also trying to sell ideas. One stall will inspect your skin for the wrong sort of mole while next door they'll teach breast examination, both commendable. Equally commendable but alas, I believe futile, are the "Free Tibet" campaigners. Yes, China should allow Tibetans self determination. Will they? Not unless hell freezes over, and no amount of well-intentioned hand-wringing will alter that. The Scouts next door are having a raffle. The atmosphere is akin to that of a village fete and The Sun Is Shining! Just when you think things can't get any better, the beer tents open up and the first major musical performances get underway. Beer is £4 a pint, i.e. a bit overpriced, but it is at least "real", even at the general arena bar, while the Real Ale tent offers a wider menu and the Siam bar has half a dozen ciders to try. No, I didn't, but in theory you could!

Now for the music.The acts may be unfamiliar, but there is no doubting the quality control that goes into devising WOMAD's bill. Unfortunately with three or more stages in action at one time there is an element of luck to whether you see the "right" ones. Buying a programme was a wise move, as the potted biographies give some indication of what's in store. Still, would you know what to expect from a band whose music hales from Tajikistan? O.K., clever clogs, so where is Tajikistan, then??! Yup, north-east of Afghanistan, and judging from current news reports (airport closed, "hundreds" believed dead), it's about as safe. This may be why The Alaev Family, who performed from noon in the blue Siam tent, have lived in Israel for two decades, rather than their ancestral homeland. No, let's not get into debating whether as Israelis they originated in the levant before being dispersed to Tajikistan and reclaiming their Zionist birthright. This is supposed to be about music, and musically they draw their repertoire from Tajikistan and the Bukharan region of neighbouring Uzbekistan. Confused? Well, when it came down to it, they sounded remarkably western at times. I suppose the overall tone is middle eastern, with three generations banging away on frame drums, but the presence of keyboards, a fiddle and straightforward bass-and-drumkit over which unintelligible but passionate chants are intoned gives it a peculiar familiarity. I was reminded of seeing The Fisherman's Friends doing their sea shanties and oddly at one point an off-beat rhythm turned the proceedings into a Madness-like ska style. So what if we had not a clue what they were singing about? You got the drift that the energetic performance reflected some common emotion and the sense of fun being had up on stage infected a sizeable crowd enough to reward them with a good ovation. A very good start to the afternoon.
Alaev Family

We drifted over to the main open-air stage for the majority of a set by Urbain Phileas, who comes from a small French island in the Indian Ocean called Reunion. I was tempted to watch Irishman Damien Dempsey in the Big Red Tent but on the basis that he's more likely to cross my path again, and has a reputation for miserable songs such as might depress your spirit, he lost out to M. Phileas.
Urbain Phileas

Urbain Phileas and his small band play maloya, a musical combination of call-and-response vocals (ideal for a bit of audience participation) and basic percussion which might quickly pall if played in a clinical way, but a bit of charisma goes a long way. Banter between stage and audience, much of it in French, and extrovert presentation of the performance (why bang an oil drum with your hands when you climb onto it and stamp out the rhythm?!) consequently made for a fun time and another enthusiastic audience.
Seckou Kouyate & Joe Driscoll

We wandered off to find some lunch, and having chosen to go Creole gastronomically, found ourselves close to the Charlie Gillett stage, one of the smaller ones, but drawing a disproportionately large crowd. The act was Joe Driscoll from New York in partnership with Seckou Kouyate from Guinea. The former speaks no French, the latter no English, but without getting too soppy about the universal language of music, the sound they make does support the notion that speech is an over-rated form of communication! There are words - Driscoll's background is rap and beatboxing- but the extended instrumental passages featuring his acoustic guitar and Kouyate's kora, both fed through effects pedals, at times achieved harmonies that might belong on a Carlos Santana album from the mid-seventies. To me, that  is not a bad thing, by the way, and the fact that they had drawn an audience of all ages has to suggest they were getting something right. Fusion in music is great when it works, terrible when it doesn't, and cross-cultural fusion doubly so. This permutation seemed to have cracked it.
The Pine Leaf Boys

Slightly more familiar territory next, with The Pine Leaf Boys, a five-piece cajun band from Louisiana. Well, they sing in English and the musical format and instrumentation are familiar, but despite Gloucester's annual Cajun & Zydeco festival, it's not a sound I hear very much. On what was now a sunny afternoon and with a few glasses of Bath Gem ale soaking gently into my brain, a bit of cheerful up-tempo and dare I say it, light-weight music accompanied with some slumping on the ground to read the programme was an appropriate prescription. What the Pine Leaf Boys do is not original (the set features Jambalaya and a Jerry Lee Lewis song), but it is good for the heart and performed with absolute enthusiasm, competence and, I suppose, authenticity. Sometimes that is a lot more than adequate.
Keb' Mo'

Keb' Mo' may have come from Compton, birthplace of NWA, but you wouldn't know it. He has played the blues for President Obama and now it was my turn to be impressed. Again, as a formula there was nothing innovative. The man played his guitar and sang a bit. Both his voice and his strings had a credible and unlaboured tone. His is the cool, restrained an un-flashy approach that works best for me. No question he's a fine guitarist but the crux is expressiveness rather than impressiveness. I'm sure he could show off, but mostly he doesn't. Of the performances I saw it may have been the most conservative in that it sounded exactly as I expected it to, but it was also one that I'd have liked to have gone on for longer.

Over the following hour we wandered some more and saw a little of the parade organised (as far as I could tell) to exhibit the artwork resulting from various workshops held over the weekend. Accompanied by samba bands, the artists (many of them children) carried their handywork around the arena in a low-key procession, mercifully spared any rain but slightly challenged by a stiffening breeze.

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club continue the legacy of the original band made famous by Ry Cooder and the movie of the same name. Understandably few of the original members, many of whom were elderly when they came to the world's full attention, are still with us, but the remaining stalwarts are now surrounded by representatives of the next generation tasked with continuing to popularise Cuban music.The Latin beats at its core mean that standing still is not really an option once the band gets going, and some of the audience, so substantial that it spilled out of the open sides of the Siam tent, were attempting "proper" dancing. Your correspondent was content to wobble his overweight carcass from leg to leg, but by my standards, that constitutes dancing! An hour-long set was about right.Unless you are a serious fan, the tunes do start to blur together, but the Orquesta probably gleaned the biggest cheer of the day and were one of thopse acts that you feel privileged to have seen. The latter part of the show featured Omara Portuondo, an original Buena Vista vocalist "of mature years" to be as delicate as I can, who was utterly charming and more than willing to shake a tail-feather, even though walking on and off the stage was evidently a challenge. Unforgettable.

Over on the open air stage,the penultimate performance from Senegal's Omar Pene was already underway by the time the Cubans were done. His compatriot Youssou N'Dour toured extensively with Peter Gabriel in the Eighties, and while he has a remarkable voice, I always found his music hard to like despite hearing it several times. (That's probably a statement to get you on some kind of grisly ritual WOMAD punishment!) Omar Pene's work seemed more accessible. Still verbally untelligible, its arrangement seemed to draw a little more on western influences. Maybe that's a sell-out, but if Mr. Gabriel can borrow from Africa it seems fair enough for Africa to do some borrowing of its own.

As the crowd thinned after Omar Pene's departure I made my way through what remained to within a body or two of the crush barrier stage centre. Despite a clear indication on the WOMAD website that photography is prohibited during performances, I found myself in the midst of gentlemen with heavy telephoto lenses. Reluctant to repeat the Jodrell Bank a-removable-lens-does-not-a-professional-camera-make debate, I had just packed my little Lumix pocket camera, which does at least have the advantage of fitting in your pocket! There was still well over an hour until Robert Plant's scheduled arrival at 21.40. The crowd were mostly affable enough until a young lady of European accent (and attitude) tried to barge through to the front a few minutes before showtime. We may be legendary for our willingness to queue, but us Brits don't take kindly to queue jumping or other disruption of what we perceive as the natural order. That wasn't quite how the Scottish photographer next to me put it, and while the girl felt that being "not from here" excused her behaviour, he explained that manners are universal and she needed to acquire some. Others chipped in, but she was going nowhere so I spent the next ninety minutes supporting my weight and resisting most of hers! Guess that means the hip replacement has bedded in, then. One day she'll realise that a pretty face gets you a long way, but not everywhere!

That's Juldeh's ritti
Never mind. The Sensational Space Shifters were upon us and from the off it was apparent that the reflective, restrained performance at Gloucester Guildhall was not to be repeated. A bigger stage did allow the band to throw themselves around a bit more and guitarist Justin Adams in particular took full advantage of the fact. This was for the most part a rock band performance and while Juldeh Camara's ritti (hey, I found out what it's called at last) drags the sound in a less mainstream direction, Led Zeppelin fans should not have been disappointed. The set list was shorter than at Gloucester, and broadly similar, although the temporary absence of Patty Griffin, fulfilling commitments elsewhere (thanks Jessica!), definitely shaved an element of subtlety and harmony from the proceedings. The songs may have remained the same, but the order was significantly shuffled and the arrangements toughened up. Robert Plant himself was a little more talkative, at one point accusing Peter Gabriel of cheating at tennis, while praising the WOMAD concept. As the just-past-curfew encore of Gallows Pole drew to a close it was hard to argue with his enthusiasm. O.K. I did have the rose tinted spectacles of someone with £195 more in his bank than a non prize winner, which helped, but if WOMAD exists to broaden musical horizons and encourage multiculturalism it does work in many ways. Only the business side of it bothers me. Those ticket prices are probably unavoidable but another year or two of austerity may also make them unsustainable. While BBC Radio 3 broadcasts part of the festival, the money assocated with television coverage may be the only thing to rescue its long-term future. If Sky Arts can splash out on the Cambridge Folk Festival and even the past-its-sell-by-date Cropredy, they really should be persuaded to have a look at WOMAD. It doesn't just sound different, it looks different (HD Colour was invented for it).

Anyway my thanks (and those of the family) to WOMAD for the tickets. A Grand Day Out.

P.S. My general comments about WOMAD 2009 are on my original blog here:

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Jodrell Bank Transmission 002 June 23rd 2012 featuring Elbow & Guests

As a kid in the late 60s I grew up about forty minutes' drive from the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. It was the biggest movable radio telescope in the world when constructed in 1957 and still is third biggest. At the time of the Apollo moon landings its visitor centre boasted a planetarium and extensive permanent displays which reflected the worldwide fascination with astronomy provoked by NASA'a endeavours. Sadly, a fickle public lost interest just as quickly and the space programme went from a source of justified American pride to white elephant almost as soon as Neil Armstrong got dust on his boot. Likewise Jodrell Bank's status has declined from national must-see visitor attraction to eccentric nerd-magnet. The planetarium has gone and the remaining visitor centre is a fragment of former glory. I used to love visiting Jodrell Bank, with my primary school, Sunday School, Cub scouts and on my birthday, so to see it downgraded in this way is a source of some sadness. Of course, its research continues and its scientific importance is undiminished, but Joe Public has largely forgotten about it.

Anyway, last year someone had the bright idea of organising a music festival in the shadow of the telescope, in tandem with a popular science exhibition featuring lectures and displays based around the visitor centre. Flaming Lips headlined above British Sea Power and others and despite some teething problems (insufficient catering and toilets seem to have been the main gripe, along with the car park exit queues that are pretty much guaranteed at such events), it was deemed a success.

This year two consecutive one-day concerts featuring Elbow on the Saturday and Paul Weller on Sunday were announced, the former selling out at once. In retrospect, making such arrangements for what would normally be Glastonbury weekend and therefore notoriously tempting to the Rain Gods may seem a little foolhardy, but at the time the chance to see Elbow do a full set (they only had an hour at Glastonbury last year) was too tempting. Furthermore, Elbow are one of the few acts that all four family members would willingly travel to see.

Unless you live in another country or have been sedated and/or detained for the last couple of months, you will know that the British summer of 2012 has been characterised by severe precipitation. It has chucked it down across the nation so that pockets of flooding have cropped up in almost every corner. By the time we set off from Gloucester on Friday afternoon we were armed with weather forecasts that were, as Guy Garvey remarked the following evening, positively biblical. By the time we were settled in our Premier Inn (Lenny Henry's absence duly noted), it was pouring and it continued to do so for much of the night. On Saturday morning brief but heavy showers continued and so by the time we pulled into the concert car park, normally a dairy field, at 2 p.m. it was already pretty soggy.

The concert took place in an adjacent, gently sloping field, itself next to the Lovell telescope. A short path led to the "Science Arena", the permanent visitor centre with temporary exhibition stands and a few catering outlets set up around it, everything dwarfed by the dish which occsionally twitched and swivelled, as if to show it was paying attention. One wag had fixed a sign to the fence warning of a £10,000 fine for mobile phone use, which is normally banned, but the restriction had been lifted for the weekend. We met at least one person who had been fooled, however! Having checked out the bar (Robinson's Build A Rocket Boys bitter, produced in collaboration with Elbow, was the primary tipple on offer), we went to visit the exhibition area. Unfortunately, in doing so we missed opening act Willy Mason. This was not intentional, although I'd have to admit that research the previous day had led me to believe that his was the set I was least bothered about. No disrespect to his material, but having been underwhelmed by various earnest troubadours with acoustic guitars trying to attract the attention of a fieldful of apathy, it seemed least likely to work in the context. Those we spoke to who did catch his performance said it was good but sad (as in depressing songs). Perhaps not an ideal opener. Anyway, the same research had led me to expect better things of  the bill's next offering,


I'd have to admit that I was pretty much oblivious to Ms. La Havas' work until I knew I was going to see her, at which point I checked out some video and downloaded a couple of singles. The publicity made much of a newspaper quote describing her voice as the best to have emerged since Adele, but I'm not sure the comparison is fair or accurate. You have to do something remarkable as a singer these days to get noticed amidst the crushing volume of competent but forgettable warblers who spring out of the woodwork to appear on T.V. talent competitions at the annual drop of a hat. The voice matters; Amy Winehouse and Florence Welch are two which are unlikely to be mistaken for anyone else, however what both those ladies, and Adele owe their success to is a combination of pipework and material. Lianne La Havas is blessed with a very good voice, which I'm reluctant to compare to another for fear of misleading, but it's probably her material that will get her noticed. There are some break-up songs, which perhaps invite the Adele comparison, but her style has more of a  blues edge, enhanced by her plucking away at the deeper end of an electric guitar for much of the time, both with and without her unobtrusive backing band. One song was a duet with, and co-written by the aforementioned Willy Mason, but for the most-part she relied purely on her own charm, talent and tunes to win over the majority of those paying attention. I hope most of us have heard of her by Xmas - her album "Is Your Love Big Enough?" is released on July 9th.


were next up. They are one of those bands who seemingly exist as a vehicle for one member, in this case Simon Aldred, whose Lancastrian twang was a bit of Garvey-lite for those awaiting the headliners with growing impatience. The weather was mostly behaving itself at this stage and I watched the set from one side of the stage from which I could only see Aldred and the keyboard player, but I'm not sure it mattered. Although I had liked a couple of the tunes I'd downloaded, the performance was subdued and lacked any movement or excitement. The crowd approved for the most part, and in isolation each song was worth hearing. Unfortunately it was difficult to pick stand-out tunes, however and the tempo barely varied. O.K., I was bored.
I had the chance to see Cherry Ghost in the considerably more intimate setting of Gloucester Guildhall not long ago but missed it. I might go next time, as although I was underwhelmed in a field with several thousand people in it, a more intense context might bring greater rapport between artist and audience, and this member of the audience and the material. The Mrs.and I agreed that Cherry Ghost sounded "almost there" but needed a tweek to cross the line. As mentioned before, I'm reluctant to dismiss professional musicians who are clearly having some success and devoting their lives to its pursuit, just because I'm not that blown away, so as before, I'd just wish them luck...


Now this lot I had heard a bit, what with spending a fair amount of time listening to BBC 6Music. I'd even downloaded the whole of their most recent album and was looking forward to hearing what they sounded like live. Unfortunately, as the final support they were doomed to perform in front of a swelling crowd that was getting excited about seeing Elbow and all too indifferent to whatever they had to offer. Short of disembowelling a large mammal onstage or employing a troupe of naked dancing girls, they were going to face an uphill struggle just getting noticed. Polite applause was about the limit of what they received in the way of encouragement and I was far too busy containing my desire to throttle the drunken fools directly in front of me to catch every nuance of their show. It crossed my mind that were you to flick through their record collections you'd probably find some early XTC and a bit of Talking Heads. It proved difficult to concentrate on the lyrics, which I suspect are important to their work and while I enjoyed what I heard, for much of the time I was hearing but not listening due to the growing distraction of the aforementioned inebriate imbeciles. Hey-ho. Suffice to say that offered the chance to see them again I would take it, as the performance had a bit of raw energy as well as musical intrigue.


As I mentioned, I had seen Elbow at Glastonbury last year,and they were probably the highpoint for me, which is no criticism of several other acts, but reflects the fact that their style and songs suit a big venue. Compared to the Pyramid field at Glastonbury, the 10,000 capacity at Jodrell Bank may be a mere bagatelle, but it's still an awful lot of people spread over a large area of land. To make those people feel engaged, when to some you're just a bloke in the distance, blurred by the rain falling in the way, takes some doing. Yes, there were giant video screens integrated into the stage, but these alone can sometimes devalue a concert into a mass telly-viewing, in which you realise that you are watching the screen more than the people you paid to see. One special touch at Jodrell Bank was that the set opened with singer Guy Garvey instructing the telescope operator to face the dish at the audience and, as night fell, images including the live feed of the concert were projected onto its white surface. Still, a projected image alone still amounts to watching television, and Elbow managed a lot more than that.

From the outset it was apparent that the sound was going to be top notch, despite the additional challenges presented by the elements. The bass in particular had that diaphragm-rattling quality which challenges you to try and ignore it, but across the spectrum the music was clear as a bell. Visually significant was a runway out from centre stage which went maybe half way to the sound/light tower that lay at the midfield point. Within a few seconds of taking the stage, Garvey was down this runway, encouraging waving and singing and effectively shrinking the gulf between stage and crowd. Later on the other band members joined him, under umbrellas, to perform one song. "Electric instruments and rain - what could possibly go wrong?", he asked. Nothing, happily!

Unsurprisingly the setlist was based around the two most recent and successful albums, The Seldom Seen Kid and Build A Rocket Boys, although earlier work was represented and indeed the title track to Leaders of the Free World, for which Garvey briefly strapped on a guitar, was one of the many highlights for me. Notable by its absence was the long awaited tune written for the BBC's Olympic coverage, making me wonder if it's been scrapped as we have already been "treated" to the Muse offering to be played at Olympic events. (N.B. The day after this was originally posted the BBC used a minute of the theme in the middle of the European Football Final, with the full debut promised for 7.30 p.m. June 3rd).

As a band, especially live, it is hard to fault Elbow on musicality. They are tight as you might hope for a group that have played together for over two decades, yet where for some bands longevity seems to require that members are showcased during a protracted solo or some other diversion from collective effort, this is not so here. Garvey is the frontman, but the strength of the playing behind him prevents it turning into a Guy Garvey and sidekicks show, or the nightmare noodle-fest of soloing which proficient musicianship sometimes spawns elsewhere. His voice belies his stature - from such a figure you might expect a Tom Jones bellow, but the subtlety and range, even in the context of a rain swept singalong, is outstanding.

The songs, many of them literally anthemic and therefore suited to the mass singing that took place, are also poignant and personal in a way that more traditional rock anthems (We Will Rock You and its ilk) are not. Indeed, they deserve to be sung, not chanted as if from the terraces

Garvey continued to jog down the runway regularly throughout the performance which started with the heavens zipped shut, but not for long. Less than half an hour in, they were duly opened and while the deluge that followed may not have been as apocalyptic as the one that lasted the duration of U2's 2011 Glastonbury appearance, it was plenty heavy enough! The songs came thick and fast, but there were a couple of devices that allowed the band a brief rest. Garvey explained that his cat is named Jocelyn Bell-Burnell in honour of the woman who discovered pulsars but inexplicably failed to receive Nobel recognition for it, and showed off a picture of said moggy, duly projected onto the telescope. As at Glastonbury, a toast was made, this time to a band member's new baby. Every now and again the singer would stick his head out from under the shelter of the stage to check if it was still raining (it was, mostly) and to show solidarity with his audience, as he put it. Fireworks drew the main set to a close before predictable encores of The Birds and One Day Like This, both sung robustly by the band and a crowd which was long past minding how wet it was. I can't remember audience participation being invited to not only be louder but to include "more harmonies" before, but it duly obliged, even if some of those harmonies were a little speculative. More fireworks and that was that.

 Jodrell Bank was Elbow's "home game" of the summer, closest to their origin in Bury. They may have made a special effort because of the homecoming element,or indeed to compensate for the weather, but whatever the reason, at the risk of stating the obvious, One Gig Like This A Year Would See Me Right.
This weekend's hot ticket is for one of three 70,000 head sell-outs for the historic (i.e. lucrative) Stone Roses  reunion gigs in Manchester. I would have no hesitation in giving up my ticket, if I had one, for a repeat of Elbow at Jodrell Bank. Remarkably, that goes for the two teenagers (13 &15) who came with me, as well as the long suffering better half.


We trotted back to the car to find ourselves surrounded and made precious little progress for half an hour before suddenly being directed out via the coach-park, a lucky break which may have spared us another couple of hours in the field according to some later online comments. Of course the organisers couldn't be blamed for the weather, but the car-park marshalling took a while to take control, and it might have been worth blowing a bit more cash on metal tracking to reduce the number of vehicles that got stuck. Unfortunately the site is adjacent to only one main road and therefore doomed to bottlenecking. Good intentions led to plenty of buses being laid on, but at a prohibitive cost. If another event occurs (the following day was cancelled through health and safety concerns and the sheer impracticality of getting cars onto a car park already pock-marked by previous sinkings), it must surely be planned on the basis that the worst will happen rather than the hope that it will not.

My personal gripe has to do with the security people on the entry gate, who denied access to my camera on the basis that it has a detachable lens. You may have seen such cameras in the shops. They are aimed at amateurs and owned by them. The pre-concert rules issued by the promoters contained a ban on professional equipment, but no serious professional would use my camera. In the meantime our crack security jobsworths let through numerous high resolution smart phones and concealed cameras (my error was honestly displaying it on the way in, apparently). Hence I must apologise for some slightly ropey images here. There are plenty of good ones to be found online, though, and the promoters claim that a DVD of the event will be released, although this has yet to be confirmed elsewhere. Again you can see quite a few clips on YouTube should you wish. I refused to let the killjoys spoil my day, but do allow myself the vindictive hope that they all contracted trench-foot in the mud over the next day or so...

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dancing About Architecture - a digression

That last piece about ELP was about as negative as I've managed so far. This would be unusual for professional music journalism.

I mostly read the glossy monthly mags, Uncut, Mojo, Q, The Word, that sort of thing, these days, but not regularly. They're expensive so I pick and choose according to content - a feature on Frank Zappa or Pink Floyd may enhance your circulation in this corner of Gloucester by 1, while extensive naval-gazing about Britpop will keep the shelf full. Throughout the late seventies, however, I bought the weekly New Musical Express - then a newspaper rather than the mag. it is now - religiously. Much of the writing was witty and, by the standards of the day, a little risque, which was and remains a selling point for spotty teenagers. While I was in the sixth form punk rock arrived and changed the content, attitude and staff of the publication. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill were drafted in as revolutionary young guns with attitude, an attitude which was sometimes downright obnoxious. When Pete Townshend's Empty Glass solo album arrived in 1980 one track, Jules and Jim, was a blunt attack on the pair referencing their view that Keith Moon's death two years earlier didn't matter. Ironically it was Townshend, or at least The Who, who indirectly broke my allegiance to what had been my bible for the past 5 years.

Following Moon's death in September 1978 it was announced with almost undignified speed, that The Who would continue with Kenney Jones, formerly of the Faces, on the drumstool. Eventually, on 18th August 1979, I travelled down from Chester with my sister and A.R. to The Who And Friends Roar In, their first major concert (bar a couple of low-key warm-ups) since the enforced change in personnel, an 80,000 ticket sell-out at Wembley Stadium. Sometime I'll get round to writing a full account of the show, but for now let's just say that while Jones was no Moon and the Greater London Council shut down the much anticipated laser show, the vast majority of the 80,000 enjoyed themselves. They sang along with every song (there was no new material) and cheered as loudly as any crowd I've been in. Strange then, that the following Thursday the N.M.E. carried a review which was disparaging to say the least. The writer may have been at the gig, but the impression given was that he was way too cool to admit that these dinosaurs had any validity in 1979 and so might as well have saved himself the bother. 79,999 paying Who fans had a great time, but the clown from N.M.E., with his free ticket, probably adorned with a coveted access-all-areas pass, felt obliged to write the band's obituary. It was not a great show, but nor was it the abomination described. With Chester a relative backwater for music, we did rely on John Peel and music journalism to tell us what was new and worth hearing. If The Who had lost their street credibility, while the one-dimensional now-you-hear-them-now-you-don't likes of Sham 69 were somehow overflowing with it, I don't need to stay cool, I thought. And I stopped reading N.M.E.

The monthly glossies are written by many of the people who once worked on N.M.E., although Parsons is now a novelist and Burchill is what the profession calls a "commentator", although I could suggest a few other words. The magazines deal extensively in nostalgia, covering the endless re-issues, "newly discovered " archives (stuff deemed unworthy of release when it was recorded) and live reformations that generate a chunky portion of music industry revenue. Of course, they also endeavour to be down-with-the-kids by featuring this month's bright young things, of whom some will turn out to be the revered dinosaurs of 2040! Overall, though, the tone is largely positive with negativity mostly reserved for reviews of recordings which may or may not warrant it. Still, if you believe reviews of any kind, caveat emptor! A couple of years ago I bought an album (British Sea Power) solely on the strength of rave reviews. Never again.

This isn't to say that I'd deny anyone an opinion, nor expressing that opinion in writing for money, but the pinch of salt once taken has become larger over the years. I had always thought the line "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" was coined by Frank Zappa. FZ certainly used it, however a snuffle around the internet suggests not only that others including Elvis Costello have used it, but that similar expressions have been knocking about since 1918. Have a look at   for a fascinating bit of research.

Anyway, whoever started it, they were right in the sense that music is an emotional experience and while D.H.Lawrence may have come close, emotions really elude verbal description. Now, that kind of argues for making myself redundant from this endeavour, "a music blog from Gloucester U.K." as it says in the title. However, going back to the beginning of this entry, what I'm after presenting myself is a largely positive and (subjectively) truthful account of what music has meant and does mean to me, rather than any kind of point scoring arrangement. As an amateur, for a start, I only really get to see shows and listen to records properly that I have chosen to pay for. I could "review" stuff on the radio or from Spotify, I suppose, but that's not a prospect that excites me, nor you, I dare say. Consequently what appears here is biased, but in the opposite direction to what you'd expect from many of the professionals, in that I like some aspect of the act I go to see or I wouldn't go to see them (support bands excepted). So if I tell you that I really like the recent Richard Hawley record, Standing At The Sky's Edge, that's because I do, but you might not. If I say his next record sucks, though, it will be because I thought it would be good on the strength of this one and as a fan I am disappointed. Similarly, if I can't hear the words at a gig because there's a chimp running the sound-desk, I'll moan because I was looking forward to hearing something I know I like already.

I suppose my point is that I really don't see the benefit in music journalism which, like that review of The Who in 1979, is written from a pre-conceived perspective, unless that perspective is also pre-declared. The pretension of objectivity cultivated by the music press which relies on the patronage of record companies and promoters for advertising, review copies (which regularly find their way to the capital's second-hand record shops) and free tickets for their existence, renders the content suspect. That's not to say that it's corrupt, but open to question, certainly.

A footnote to the N.M.E. tale is that the paper and others like it would regularly set up a band as the next big thing, only to knock it down with a "backlash" to coincide with the next tour, the second album or whatever. They would even joke about the impending backlash before it happened. At least, that's how I remember it. Sometimes the backlash may have been deserved. Often the records and/or gigs referred to remained unheard in the depths of Cheshire so we just had to take their word for it. Happily that is no longer the case. Aside from the proliferation of broadcast media that make new music and its authors more accessible in 2012 (6Music, web radio, numerous T.V. channels), there are ways of listening to many new releases legally (Spotify), partially (iTunes preview button) or illegally (naughty downloads). Artists also promote new material while avoiding the established system altogether, by posting on YouTube, MySpace and others so that the influence of printed words has diminished significantly. Maybe that's why the tone seems gentler than it was 35 years ago?

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Welcome Back My Friends - A History Part 6

O.K. so where was I? Ah yes, a gibbering mass of hormones in search of a purpose, banging his head to Status Quo. As I mentioned, in a prehistoric version of file-sharing, my peers and I were in the habit of lending and borrowing L.P.s, often just for the one night needed to make a cassette recording. By the end of the decade the record industry was spending plenty of money advertising the slogan "Home taping is killing live music", but it wasn't. In fact, had it not been for home taping, we wouldn't have heard half the records we did at the time, and so would not have been so keen to go and see the artists responsible in concert. And any guilt I may have felt at the time (can't recall much, to be honest) has since been assuaged by the purchase of any of those recordings that were worth the bother, on at least one legitimate format, sometimes two or three.                          

Of course, not every record I heard made a positive impression and more than once I would be put off a band I later came to like by an unrepresentative sample. Being introduced to Yes by the sprawling and incomprehensible pretension of their Tales From Topographic Oceans double album made pretty sure that I avoided them like the plague and consequently missed out on their spectacular mid-seventies live shows, Roger Dean sets and all. This was remedied at the N.E.C. in 2004, but I was converted more than twenty-five years earlier by the Yesterdays collection which features more digestible early songs and a stonking cover of Paul Simon's America. Since then I've grown to enjoy much of their back catalogue, even segments of Topographic Oceans, but I'd have to plead guilty to a mistaken first impression. Likewise Genesis. I heard a snippet from The Return Of The Giant Hogweed, not their best effort, and spurned them until a Radio One broadcast of an edited Lamb Lies Down On Broadway show, one of the last with Peter Gabriel. Thus I never did see a "proper" Genesis gig, although I saw Genesis Lite with Phil Collins singing a couple of times.

Almost inexplicably, the next step in my musical obsession came with Emerson Lake and Palmer. O.K., you can stop laughing now. Hindsight has not been kind to ELP. While they pop up to milk the cash-cow of former glory now and again, to all intents and purposes their career as a band was already facing death when I first took an interest in them. This must have been just after the release of Brain Salad Surgery, their fifth album, blessed with an H.R.Giger (he of "Alien" fame) cover and an opening track in the hymn Jerusalem that barely qualifies as rock, pop, or anything modern. Again my initial impression was less than favourable, having been lent their live version of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition. It wasn't all bad, but it did feature an interlude in which Keith Emerson's melodramatic performance might have made for visual entertainment, but in purely aural terms resulted in simple cacophony. He was given to throwing his Hammond organ around and making sqealing noises on a Moog synthesizer with a gadget called a ribbon controller (as heard on the Osmonds' Crazy Horses). All quite amusing to watch but on a record...nope.

Anyway, my misgivings were largely dispelled when I heard Tarkus, partially a concept album about an amphibious mechanical armadillo with canon that encounters other mythical beasts. These included the Manticore, a fusion of lion and scorpion, that was to become the trademark of ELP's own record label. Re-reading that description, I do have to wonder what they were on to come up with the idea, what the record company were on to let them record it, and what I and plenty of others were on to give it a second glance. Well, I wasn't on anything in 1973 when I first heard it, but it was, in its way, intriguing. Leaving the silly story aside, the music was a lot more complex than anything I had heard at that point. Greg Lake's voice, which the press would like or, more often, loathe for its choral purity, did sound like what I had been brought up (taught, in the case of the church choir) to think of as proper singing, and you couldn't argue that they were less than very  accomplished musicians. In retrospect they were pompous, pretentious and even ridiculous, but I managed to find plenty of reasons to like them, some of which I might still defend.

I do theorise that to a degree I liked them because I thought there was a chance of my father approving more of them, with their pseudo-classical flourishes, than he ever had the Beatles let alone the Quo. This was sophisticated music played by a college trained keyboard player with his technically outstanding drummer (percussionist if that sounds better) and refined vocalist. My father, old before his time, would have no truck with them, though, nor any other contemporary music style, although he did grudgingly acknowledge that Carl Palmer could play the drums. This was handy, as I was beginning to aspire to a spot of drumming myself, and that wasn't something that was going to come cheap.

For my 14th birthday (May 1974) I received Trilogy, ELP's 4th album released in 1972 and as a special treat was allowed to listen to it (once) on the "stereogram" in the living room rather than on the "Black Box" (an ancient wood-encased dansette-style turntable) that I shared with my sister. As mentioned in an earlier entry, the stereogram had its two speakers fixed so close together that no real stereo effect was achievable, but I remember the excitement of hearing what  was to me a new recording. It ends with Abaddon's Bolero, an eight minute instrumental  that builds from virtual silence to a screaming racket of synthesized noise which ensured the disc was removed promptly and not allowed near the living room again!

That summer I bought the Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends: Ladies And Gentlemen - Emerson, Lake and Palmer triple live album on the day of release (August 19th according to Wikipedia). It contains live versions of virtually all of Brain Salad Surgey and Tarkus and a few other tracks, and released at a budget price (£4.99 was the cheapest I could find), it was a tidy way of getting a large chunk of the back catalogue for myself on a shoestring. The main drawback was the sleeve. The previous year Yes released the Yessongs package, another live triple but adorned with Roger Dean artwork which I was already accumulating on my bedroom wall. You didn't have to like the record to like the sleeve. All summer, since "Ladies and Gentlemen" was announced, I had imagined an equally lavish production, hopefully with lots of (preferably colour) photographs of the band AND THEIR EQUIPMENT. I had seen glimpses of Carl Palmer's custom built two-ton drum kit in magazines but wanted more detail. The stainless steel drums had been extensively engraved with artwork while the reverse of the two gongs that hung behind him (!) had  a dragon painted across them. I knew this because he'd described in an interview how the whole thing revolved during his drum solo and strobe lighting focussed on the dragon. This I had to see! Well, if you've ever seen the package on CD or even in its original vinyl, you'll know I was disappointed. Cheap and particularly nasty. Naff typeface, cheesy die-cut interior and just one dark, blurry photograph of the whole stage set up as seen from the back of an arena. No poster (even Status Quo gave away a poster with "Hello") or booklet. Shoddy crap, in fact. It remains my nomination for worst album cover of all time, and every time I see it I'm reminded of how let down I felt. Of course I played the records to death, especially the extended Aquatarkus on Side Three and Carl Palmer's drum solo on Karn Evil 9 but there was a lesson there.

Clearly the band, comprising three egotists who were as likely to compete with each other as with any force outside their association, had very little interest in the packaging of their product or the punters who might invest in it. As I said, as a band they were already on their way out, their next project being a collection of solo material with a small garnish of band tracks. "Works" as it was titled with typical immodesty had some good stuff on it, but in truth would have been better released as solo albums, and the tour-with-orchestra that followed it went down as one of the great follies of the late seventies. It did include a couple of earlier solo singles - a straightforward piano boogie cover, Honky Tonk Train Blues from Emerson and the Christmas single I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake, which remains one of my favourite seasonal efforts.

While Ladies and Gentlemen didn't make me give up on ELP (that accolade goes to their dreadful Love Beach record, released in 1978 in a misguided last ditch stab at mainstream success, which even the group members slagged off as a contractual obligation) it did leave a bad taste. Music fans are spared the obligation to lifelong allegiance with which most sports fans consider themselves saddled. Eventually I got hold of a pretty cool (I thought) picture of The Drum-Kit from their record company, but in the year (!) it took them to reply, I had largely lost interest and moved on.

I would still defend ELP as musicians who, despite the faults of pretension and maybe over-ambition, produced some exciting innovative work. Much of that work sounds dated, but back in the day Emerson was one of the first keyboard players to push the use of synthesisers as far as he could, while Palmer's synthesized percussion on Brain Salad Surgery was surely ground-breaking.
I suppose that they were a progression for me, as the "Progressive rock" genre was for rock music, in that they weaned me off "straightforward" pop songs onto the possibility of more complicated constructs. Of course, I was a bit slow to spot the deceit in the notion that complication automatically implies quality. Given the choice of saving Tarkus or Never Mind The Bollocks for posterity, it would have to be the latter. Yet before I encountered ELP, I had heard very little jazz (almost none of it modern) and pretty much assumed that popular music genres, pop, rock, folk or whatever were duty bound to conform to the verse-chorus-4/4 time convention. Focus had suggested otherwise but they were too easily dismissed as an aberration or novelty act rather than indicators of evolution.

 Age has withered the tone of Lake's voice and having stumbled accidentally on a broadcast of a show recorded a couple of years ago, I harbour no residual desire to see them collectively, although I would still pay to see Carl Palmer show off. According to Wikipedia, both he and Emerson have suffered physical problems related to their music (back pain and repetitive strain respectively) so perhaps even there, I would be better leaving it an unfulfilled aspiration. I would have to acknowledge the many hours I spent listening to them with pleasure before I realised that it should be guilty pleasure. Ironically, some time before the punks were to decry the folly of prog rock, I was ready for my own reaction, which was to go In Search of Space...