Archive for April, 2009

Introducing: The ‘Inconvenient’ Music Club

Posted in music on April 26, 2009 by richardblandford

 

When I think of the music that I find most interesting, much of it, when seen in the context of an artist’s career, could be described as ‘inconvenient’.  What I mean by this is that its very existence seems to defy common sense.  Either the music does not have any ready audience for it (for example, the album A Midsummer’s Day Dream by Mark Eric, which captured the style of the mid-60s Beach Boys, but in 1970, a period when the Beach Boys themselves couldn’t get arrested), or it has the potential to alienate an artist’s existing audience while not having the capacity to win them a new one (as in the case of Frank Sinatra’s Watertown, a concept album about a man’s marriage breaking up that not only sounds like nothing else in Sinatra’s oeuvre, but also like nothing in anybody else’s).

These records fascinate me so much as they are often clearly made not in order to please an audience (although that would be nice), but in spite of the fact the audience almost certainly won’t be pleased.  

They are almost perverse acts of will, existing because someone feels they have to.  They are the creative force captured in an almost pure state, and often of a visionary intensity.  Not always perfect, and not always even good, they nevertheless have their own distinctive character that shines through, making them far more worthwhile to my mind than most music that aims to please and plays it safe.

(I should make it clear that what I don’t mean is atonal or openly experimental music, or anything that sounds like a shouting tramp, such as Captain Beefheart or Tom Waits.  This music is effectively guaranteed an audience of some kind.  There are people who want to hear stuff that sounds like a box of tic-tacs in a washing machine, and if that’s what you do, chances are they’ll hear about it.)

So, this is the first in an occasional series in which I highlight albums in my collection which I consider to fall into the category of ‘inconvenient.’

First off is Paint America Love by Lou Christie, from 1971.  Christie had numerous hits in the 60s in the UK and US, such as ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’, and ‘I’m Gonna Make You Mine’.  Excellent though they were, they were essentially bubblegum (a genre that does, of course, bring you the Naked Truth).

The ‘Paint America Love’ album, however, is a different proposition.  The cover depicts Lou in red, white and blue braces with a little American flag on a stick held nonchalantly over his shoulder, and a knowingly winsome expression on his walrus-mustachioed face.  The vibe is M*A*S*H*-era Robert Altman satire.  Inside, however, Christie is seen with his writing partner Twyla Herbert, a  classically-trained clairvoyant twenty years his senior, with a feather boa wrapped round the pair of them.  The vibe here is a bit Harold and Maude.

‘Wood child, I saw the devil on his knees, I saw the angels tasting tea…’ And so the record begins, as Christie intones the dense lyrics of opening track ‘Wood Child’ over a reverb-drenched piano.  Intriguing, although there’s no real sense of where the record is going.  It could begin to sound like King Crimson at any minute.  Then, on the line, ‘And the riverboat will take you sailing on a sunday morning’, something happens.  Not just a switch from the metaphorical to the specific, but from Christie’s normal voice to falsetto.

Falsetto in pop is a curious thing.  It can be sublime (Brian Wilson), or ridiculous (Frankie Valli).  Christie’s falsetto, which was his USP on his 60s hits, is both sublime and ridiculous simultaneously.  He sounds like a chipmunk, but a chipmunk who’s seen through the doors of perception and glimpsed the infinite.

After this, Christie then alternates his natural voice with his falsetto, repeating the line ‘take a ticket and get on this boat’ in both until the song fades.  The effect is jaw-dropping and achingly beautiful.  Like The Band, Christie is harking back to a disappeared (and possibly non-existent) America, looking for a purer, more innocent time (when non-interventionist foreign policies stopped things like Vietnam from happening, although you would still have had racism and stuff, so it wouldn’t have been all good, whenever this lost era was).

Next up is the jaunty ‘Paper Song’.  ‘Everything is done electric’lly,’ we’re informed, ‘pots and pans and now astrology’.  The song is either a warning about environmental depletion, or a celebration of the logging and paper industries.  I’m really not sure.  It doesn’t really matter though as it’s irresistibly jaunty, and ends with a pathos-drenched coda of ‘penny paper, get your paper…’ sung a cappella like an old-time paper boy.

The next three tracks, ‘The Best Way to See America’, ‘Chuckie Wagon’ and ‘Waco’, continue the Americana theme, celebrating the country in all its vastness.  Sample lyric:  ‘Waco, turn down that radio, you got six more brownies left till you get to Ontario. You call your cousin when you get to the border now, she’ll put you up for the night…’

Side Two opens with ‘Campus Rest’, a lush instrumental interlude.  Following that are two songs, ‘Lighthouse’ and ‘Look Out the Window’, which respond to  the unrest of the time with both anxiety and hope.  The album is no longer looking back, but staring at the America of 1971, wondering if it’s all going to work out for the best.

Of course, things must get better, because the alternative is George W. Bush.  But how to bring about a resolution to the country’s apparently irresolvable conflicts?  The answer is, as ever, love.  ‘Paint America Love’, Christie pleads on the title track that closes the album.  And the way he puts it, it sounds like a good idea.

On release, ‘Paint America Love’ sold to not many people, and Christie descended into drug addiction (although not without recording the fine follow-up, Beyond the Blue Horizon in 1974, the title track appearing years later in the film ‘Rain Man’).

‘Paint America Love’ was never going to find an audience, at least not in 1971.  It strayed too far from Christie’s home turf of high-intensity love songs, and although it shared a world-view with the then-huge California singer-songwriter scene, it maintained a precise and thickly-orchestrated bubblegum sound, mostly arranged by the magnificently-named Ronnie Frangipani, rather than the looser acoustic feel fashionable at the time.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, it’s Christie’s take that now sounds fresher, and his earnestness is far more endearing than that of, say, James Taylor or Crosby, Stills and Nash, who these days come across as smug, bordering on punchable.  To some ears, they probably did at the time as well.

The album has been out-of-print for years, and I had to order my copy over the Internet for many pounds (before finding a mint copy in a second-hand shop for just three quid several years later).  It has, however, finally now been reissued on CD.  You should buy it because it’s good.

The Oddness of Charlie Shedd

Posted in Books on April 18, 2009 by richardblandford

fail owned pwned pictures

 

Like many, I was intrigued by this book that appeared on the legendary Fail Blog this week.  Why would anyone write a book with this title?  And just who is Dr. Charlie Shedd?  I had to know.

Well, it turns out that Dr. Charles W. Shedd (1915-2004) was an American Presbyterian minister and, according to the official website, ‘a master communicator  of homespun wisdom’.  ‘The Best Dad is a Great Lover’ is not an argument in favour of extreme wrongness, it seems, but a presentation of the simple truth that a good father should be loving, and therefore a good ‘lover’.

Shedd wrote over forty books, the quality of which I cannot possibly comment on having read none of them.  What I did find striking, however, was his talent for a really zinging title.  He really did have a knack for it.  Here are a few of my favourites.

 

How To Treat a Woman

The Exciting Church Where They Give Their Money Away

Grandparents: Then God Created Grandparents and It Was Very Good

Celebration in the Bedroom

The Fat is in Your Head

I’m Odd, Thank You God

Bible Study in Duet: Charlie and Martha’s Melody For a Happy Marriage

If I Can Write, You Can Write

The Stork is Dead

Talk to Me!

Penii

Posted in Life on April 12, 2009 by richardblandford

Recently, I wrote a light-hearted post about passive-aggressive popmeister Morrissey that happened to contain the word ‘penis’ in its title.

Since then, my dashboard informs me that people have been reaching this blog using some rather unusual terms in their search engines.  A few are just plain repulsive, and the individuals responsible would be well-advised to hand themselves in to the local police station for questioning, but the majority are relatively harmless (I think).  So if you’ve reached this page with some weird search term involving the word ‘penis’, I can see what it was you were looking for, and am laughing at you.  Ha ha ha, I’m going.  At you.  And your silly penis-themed search.  Ha ha ha.  I’m doing it again.

Anyway, here’s a selection for your perusal.

penis

deformed penis

morrissey penis

penis disappeared

real penis of men

paris penis

penis in public

english man’s penis

deformed two penis’s

sweet penis

penis the world

penis pictures next to rulers

kurt russell penis

rare penis

penis de napoleon

penis painting

deformation du penis

microphone that looks like penis

my male penis

insanity penis

sunburn on penis

kevin bacon’s penis

penis disorder

penis around wrist

fox’s penis

structure of descended penis

large human penis

my big penis

strange penis

And my favourite…

penis of edmund of narnia

At Last… The Bexhill Book Countdown

Posted in Books on April 11, 2009 by richardblandford

The De La Warr Pavilion – a fascinating building in an otherwise tedious town.

 

Regular readers of this blog (all seven of you) will know that I have been working through a small pile of books purchased in a rather good second-hand bookshop in the somewhat grim, slightly spooky, unnervingly religious but generally dull seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea last year.  Many (although not all) of the books became the source material for rather better-known films.  Just where my head was at that day, I guess.

I have now got to the bottom of the pile and can rank the books in reverse order of merit (which I know, is what you’ve all been waiting for).  So, without further ado:

 

6.  Odd Man Out by F.L. Green

Automatically last due to the fact I couldn’t finish it (a failure that still haunts me to this day).  Fascinating concept of an IRA man on the run, but the story is ineptly told in a dead style that has lost all power to communicate.  This turd was polished until it shined like gold by the great director Carol Reed.

 

5.  Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Quneau. 

Mainstream bestseller by the experimental author about a feisty girl let loose in Paris.  Its humour depends on a style of punning wordplay beloved of the French for which there is no direct English equivalent.  Like the lyrics of Serge Gainsbourg, it’s essentially untranslatable.  Unfortunately, that didn’t stop someone from having a go anyway.  Every sentence caused me pain.

 

4. The Graduate by Charles Webb

An unexceptional novel in many ways.  But how many authors ever come up with a single character as iconic as Mrs. Robinson, or a concept so powerful as this one?  Most writers are lucky if they manage something like: ‘There’s this bloke, and his family has a secret and he finds it out, and they live by a lake, and someone throws something in the lake, or they find something in the lake, or something…’

 

3.  Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys

Portrait of the inhabitants of the eponymous seaside town, by visionary eccentric (second division).  Stimulating, engrossing, frustrating and boring.  Often on the same page.

 

2.  Vertigo by Boileau and Narcejac

Original French source material for classic Hitchcock film.  A taut suspense tale in its own right, with interesting cultural differences that distance it from its Hollywood make-over.  The writing team were also responsible for the story that would become Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, which is just as intricate and inspired.  Most of their books have been out-of-print in the UK for years, or never even been translated.  Maybe an enterprising publisher should buy up the rights and kick-start a Boileau-Narcejac cult.

 

And the winner is…

1.  The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.

Bicycle-centred tale of startling weirdness that helped inspire TV show Lost.  Goes to show that to do ‘odd’ properly, an author needs to be in complete control of their material.

 

After all that, I’m feeling a bit fictioned-out, so have got some non-fiction books on fairly random subjects out of the library.  Don’t think I’ll talk about them here because I don’t feel like it.  

Alright, I admit it, they’re all from the ‘Mind Body Spirit’ section and are about spotting angels in clouds above A&E wards.  Books on this subject are, of course, beyond criticism.

The Graduate

Posted in Books on April 10, 2009 by richardblandford

 

 

It’s difficult to see the novel that lies behind the film of The Graduate, the last book in my Bexhill-on-Sea purchased reading pile, because Charles Webb’s original text from 1963 essentially is the film.  Not only is there very little in it that didn’t make the script, but it’s written with an economy of style that borders on miserliness, while it lacks any presentation of characters’ interiority, so that we only see its protagonist Benjamin from the outside.  We have no access to his thoughts, and so its only from his words and actions that we can understand who he is.  And from that evidence, who he is ain’t that special.  Without the performance of Dustin Hoffman to give him some sort of vulnerability, this is simply the story of an over-privileged brat who deserves a good slap.

If, by some quirk of fate, you haven’t seen the 1967 film version, The Graduate is the story of Benjamin Braddock, who walks straight out of university and into an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner.  He then falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s characterless daughter Elaine for no discernible reason, who also ends up falling for him, equally unfathomably.

The back cover blurb of the reprint describes it as ‘anti-establishment, anti-youth’, but it’s really nothing of the sort.  The establishment actually comes out of it quite well as, despite its banality, it’s presented here as having a core set of defendable values.  If anything, The Graduate is an anti-youth novel.

Benjamin rejects everything his parents have prepared for him, but despite his top university education, he can’t come up with any sort of informed argument as to why, fobbing them off with faux-naif petulance.  He then mysteriously readopts his parents’ values in time to hypocritically judge Mrs. Robinson, before embarking on a course of action that manages to shaft absolutely everybody.  There’s a fascinating subtlety here, but you can’t help but feel that Webb could have done more with it.

Overall, The Graduate is high on concept and potential, but low on execution, only truly coming alive when Mrs. Robinson makes an appearance.  Another example of a middling novel providing the source material for a good (although in my view, not great) film.  Maybe all bad novels are good films in their chrysalis stage, just waiting to be adapted and turned into a beautiful butterfly.  L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth is, of course, the exception that proves this rule.

Weymouth Sands

Posted in Books on April 6, 2009 by richardblandford

John Cowper Powys – A right mentalist.

 

A few years ago, I went on a short holiday to Dorset, and found myself in a local museum of questionable interest (I went to quite a few museums on that holiday, as every time I was asked what I was doing for the day at the B&B breakfast-time inquisition, unless I said that I was going to one of the area’s attractions of historical or natural interest, I was given a look by the landlady that suggested that I may as well have shat on the full English).

Anyway, in this museum, just as I was beginning to wilt under the weight of unwanted local knowledge, I stumbled across a display about the author John Cowper Powys, who lived in the area for a time in the 1930s, and his totally mental-sounding books.  I liked the sound of them, and decided to read something by him at some point.

Then, on another holiday in Bexhill (I am slowly making my way up the South Coast, inch by inch, although I do have to say the weekend spent in Southampton dockyards was a disappointment), I came across a rather interesting bookshop, and bought a big stack of books that I have been working my way through this past half-year.  Amongst these was Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys.

Weymouth Sands, published 1935, is actually one of his less mental books (The prize for that must go to late work, All or Nothing, in which a cosmic wanderer ambles through space with his enormous dong thrown over his shoulder.  It’s a children’s book.).  It tells of the lives of the inhabitants of Weymouth over the period of a year, including such figures as a mystic who preaches on the sands and is followed by a flock of young girls, a vivisectionist/psychotherapist, and a music hall comedian.

Weymouth Sands is not an easy novel to read.  It’s very long, and is written in a style that’s not only out of fashion now, but would have been considered somewhat Victorian in 1935.  Indeed, you could take apart every aspect of Powys’ use of language, build a series of workshops around it, and give them the title ‘Things to Avoid When Writing a Novel in the 21st Century’.  Omniscient narration, wandering and multiple perspectives – you name it, it’s here.

Fashion, however, is the enemy of true taste, and so wherever the out-of-fashion lurks, it is our duty to run up and sniff it to see if it’s really off, or just a bit strongly-flavoured, with perhaps too much garlic.

All in all, I found Weymouth Sands is a good, stimulating and unusual book.  It’s oddness, though, is both its strength and weakness, and it’s an oddness that ultimately stems from the eccentricity of the author himself.  

Powys was a very odd chap indeed.  This article by Lawrence Millman tells you exactly how odd (My favourite anecdote he includes being that Powys used to tap his mailbox with his head because he thought it would make the letter go better).  As with most creative figures whose eccentricity borders on madness (such as William Blake, or the artist Henry Darger), he did not possess much of  an ability to self-edit.  Coherence, conciseness or considerations of stylistic good taste seem not to have concerned Powys.

Consequently, Weymouth Sands is a fascinating but frustrating read, with metaphysical longueurs that would try the patience of practically any reader suddenly giving way to moments of startling character, as schoolgirls develop lesbian crushes and the local eccentric loses his moustache  to a gypsy.

Several things occurred to me whilst reading.  The first is that the book shares a quality with the art of British Surrealist artists who were contemporary with it.  Just as Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth painted inanimate objects as if they have some mysterious intelligence, often, incidentally, in a seaside setting, so do Powys’ characters relate to aspects of their environment in the same way.

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

Edward Wadsworth, The Beached Margin, 1937

Edward Wadsworth, The Beached Margin, 1937

What I also thought was that it was one of those rare books that doesn’t so much tell you a history, but a geography.  What I mean by that it is that while most novels present their characters moving through time, progressing from incident to incident, Weymouth Sands is more about how their inner world is tied up with the location in which they find themselves.  Although it tells a story of a sort, for the most part it just hovers, as characters go about their lives in the town of Weymouth and surrounding area.  It’s similar in that respect to Joyce’s Ulysses, or Dylan Thomas’ radio play Under Milk Wood.

Ultimately, although I spent much of the book wishing Powys had a tighter style and more self-discipline as a writer, I reached a point where I came more accepting of his diversions, and even began to see them as somewhat necessary.  If the book can be said to be about anything, it’s about the characters’ inability to penetrate the minds of others, and to understand the bigger mystery of the world in which they find themselves.  Powys’ godlike narration acts as a stand-in for the knowledge that the characters cannot access.  It may not be that easy to read, or even that comprehensible, but within the logic of the novel, I think it’s important that it’s there.

Next in the Bexhill-on-Sea book-pile, we finally reach the bottom.  The Graduate by Charles Webb.

They love it, They love it not, They love it…

Posted in Books on April 3, 2009 by richardblandford

shrugging.jpg shrugging image by shaynekeator   

Reviewers of my second novel.

 

When my second novel, Flying Saucer Rock & Roll, was published eight months ago, the general reaction in press and online reader reviews was one of overwhelming indifference, more or less along the lines of, ‘Reasonably amusing, doesn’t really go anywhere, didn’t like the end.’

Although the book did what I wanted it to, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that it wasn’t one that people seemed to warm to that much.  Not the nicest feeling in the world, but then it wasn’t like I’d written the script for ‘The Hottie and the Nottie’.  Nothing to do but brush myself down, move on to the next thing and hope that it fares a bit better…

Recently, however, there’s been an interesting twist.  Out of nowhere, I’ve been getting quite a steady flow of unsolicited messages from various people saying (in summary) that they very much liked the book, identified with it and understood fully why the story has to do what it does.

Not only that, but there have been various positive blog reviews popping up.  As mentioned before, comic book writer Rol Hirst gave it a very positive write-up, while this week, top book blogger Scott Pack wrote about it, giving it four stars out of five, and author Denyse Kirkby also discussed it, giving a fascinating reading in relation to the issue of Asberger’s Syndrome.

So it looks like I’ve written a book that can communicate after all.  Still, it came as quite a surprise to find that what I thought was a fairly innocuous novel about teenagers playing in a rock band would attract far greater public displays of malignant bile in my direction than writing about a compulsively masturbating, homophobic, verbally abusive, sociopathic Elvis impersonator.

It’s considered bad form for writers to respond to their critics (although Dan Rhodes, a man known to say nice things about me when asked, does just that on his website).  I can’t resist, however, drawing attention to a couple simply for humour value.

The first comes from the reviewer of the Leeds Guide, who claimed that ‘it will engage a certain reader from a certain generation who doesn’t have much time and thought to invest in fiction that delves deeper than reminiscing about the records we used to like.  More Corduroy than Radiohead.’  Which rather suggests that although he’s recommending the book to a certain portion of his readership, he has nothing but contempt for that portion.  If I was living in Leeds, I’d feel so glad to have my taste filtered by that chap!

The prize however, has to go to a certain regular poster on the Guardian Book Blog, who responded to a piece I was asked to write about bands in novels with a quite lengthy tirade, telling me that, ‘The truth about rock is different from what you try to put over and you may make money out of it but you promoters should for a moment open up your ears and listen to those whose health you ruin. rock is an arrogant pretentious and sick movement and thrives on abuse.’

When some other posters made the mistake of not taking her entirely seriously, the whole thing escalated into a gargantuan free-for-all that has to be read to be believed.  It’ll take a while to get through it all, but trust me, it’s worth it.

So if you haven’t read Flying Saucer Rock & Roll, why not give it a go.  You might love it.  You may just think it’s all right.  Or you could be thrown into a rage of such astounding fury you’ll feel compelled to splurge it all over the Internet.  There’s only one way to find out.

Flying Saucer Rock 'n' Roll

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.