Archive for October, 2009

Inconvenient Music Club: Robin’s Reign

Posted in music on October 25, 2009 by richardblandford

RobinsReign.jpg image by plaxico81

In 1969, Robin Gibb left the Bee Gees.  Although they had just recorded their arguable masterpiece, the psychedelic epic Odessa, he and his brother Barry had clashed over the choice of A-side for their latest single, and Robin was rumoured to perhaps not be in the best of ways.

Nevertheless, his solo career got off to a flying start with his single, ‘Saved By the Bell’ going to no. 2 in the British charts.  The accompanying album, Robin’s Reign, with the lone Gibb brother standing in full Royal Guardsman’s regalia on the cover, did less well.  As always in the world of Inconvenient Music, there’s a reason for that.

A track-by-track analysis of the album would be pointless, as by and large they all do the same thing.  Never getting above mid-tempo, the mood is generally mournful, with relationships crumbling and hard facts faced at every turn.  Occasionally, whimsy breaks out, when the eponymous heroes of ‘Mother and Jack’ go to see the Emperor in order to stop their house being knocked down.

The album’s appeal isn’t really found in its songs, however, good though they are.  Ultimately, its most striking quality is its overall sound.  Drums are often absent, the beat kept instead by a primitive drum machine.  On top of this are thick string arrangements, and on top of that, a choir, all the members of which being one Robin Gibb, overdubbing himself, and on top of all that, Robin’s lead vocal, quivering with more vibrato than Marc Bolan sat on a washing machine.

Listening to the album is like bathing in a warm, thick, melancholy soup of sound.  It’s surprisingly relaxing, although you wouldn’t want any getting up your nose.

More than this, it feels like a tremendous act of will on Robin’s part; a fragile soul producing something eccentric and glorious because it simply has to.  It’s an orchestrated MOR answer to Skip Spence’s Oar and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, although it never gets as excited as either.  The terminal heartbreak would later be echoed in the oeuvre of Daniel Johnston, while the funereal pace would be taken down a notch by the moribundly odd outsider musician Jandek.

Like Brian Wilson, Robin Gibb was, briefly, an outsider artist who operated on the inside of the music industry.  Then, while a second solo album Sing Slowly Sisters was left in the vaults, he rejoined the Bee Gees, and it would not be too long before disco changed their path forever.

With his brothers or by himself, Robin would never again make anything that touches on the strangeness of Robin’s Reign.  Long out of print, it still occasionally haunts car boot sales and record fairs, a reminder of a sad, sweet moment when the disco ball was definitely not spinning for Robin.





Learning From Edna Welthorpe

Posted in Books, Life on October 22, 2009 by richardblandford

Some green ink, yesterday.

I’m trying to break a bad habit.  No, not the one you’re thinking of.  I have no intention of breaking that one, however shameful and disgusting you might think it is.  I mean, it’ s my life, isn’t it?  And it’s not like the anteater really feels anything…

No, the habit I am talking about is reading the comments underneath opinion pieces on newspaper websites.  I just can’t resist it.  If I read an article that’s even vaguely thought-provoking, I have to see what people are saying about it.  And often, what they seem to be saying can be roughly summarised as ‘GGGRRAAAARGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!’

After reading message upon message filled with bad feeling, intolerance and pure blind rage, the world often seems a bleaker, more cruel place than it did before.  But time after time I go back for more.  Yes, I have become addicted to green inkers.

The phrase ‘green inkers’ originated, of course, in the pre-internet age, when correspondence to newspapers of an overly angry, obsessional and seemingly deranged nature was observed to be for some weird reason to be often written in green ink.  These letters were generally treated at best as sources of humour for the recipients, or at worst inconveniences to be ignored.  They very rarely, however, made it to the letters page of any publication they were sent to.

With the arrival of the internet, all that changed.  Now, with the opportunity to add comments to articles, the green inkers could display their bile for all to see, as long as they stayed vaguely on topic and didn’t threaten to kill anybody.  Consequently, any attempt at expressing an opinion in a popular publication with an online presence is now often met with an awe-inspiring public wave of negativity, running from sneering contempt to the plain strangeness of paranoid thinking, where anything can be seen as part of a plot by the government to punish people with reggae, or make fun of people in wheelchairs through the medium of dance.

The upshot of this is that the green inkers now have a much louder voice than they’ve had since Mary Whitehouse had the ingenious idea of mobilising them as a campaigning army back in the sixties.  On the one hand, it’s a great demonstration of free speech, albeit one that can be quite grim to wade through.

It does, however, also create a false impression of what people actually think, while discouraging others of a more moderate and timid sensibility from saying anything at all.  It’s sometimes hard to remember, when reading these shrill missives, that the vast majority of people who read any given article aren’t going to bother commenting on it.  The views at the bottom of the page aren’t a cross-section of all the thoughts the piece has prompted.  It’s just a cross-section of the views of those who could be bothered to type something.

Now, I’m not saying there shouldn’t be lively debate, and the issue is complicated by the fact that even the broadsheets run opinion pieces and blog entries that are clearly designed to wind people up as much as possible (the late Steven Wells was a master of this, over at the Guardian music blog).  Also, sometimes the piece in question is so vile in itself that nothing but contempt is appropriate.  See: Jan Moir.

But wouldn’t it be great if, in general, it was all gone about in a more civilised way?  Then, many who might have something to say but are scared off by the sheer intensity of some posters’ style of expression might feel more inclined to put forward their thoughts.  The key, in my view, is to recognise the spirit in which something is written and respond in an appropriate manner.  For example, if some idiot journalist writes a thinly-veiled hate-piece about a minority group, tell them that their attitude is disgusting.  If, however, someone puts forward a thoughtfully constructed argument about an issue, the conclusion of which you happen to disagree with, just point out the flaws in their argument and present a counter-argument.  Don’t jump down their throats for daring to exist on the same planet as you whilst in the possession of an opinion that in some way differs from your own.

I was thinking about all this because I’ve been reading the diaries of the playwright Joe Orton.  While the diaries themselves contain some things that are unpalatable (No Joe, don’t sleep with underage Moroccan boys!), in the appendix you will find what I consider to be some of Orton’s finest achievements.  There, collected together are the various letters Orton wrote under the pseudonym of Edna Welthorpe.  In this guise, he wrote to various organisations, individuals and publications, railing against home shopping, raspberry pie filling, Juke Box Jury, and his own plays.

The Welthorpe letters are hysterical, because she is the ultimate green-inker.  Her world-view is blinkered, uncompromising and egomaniacal.  Because of this, she can never be satisfied.

This is worth remembering, I think, when navigating the reams of mean-spirited verbiage online.  There’s no way you could ever make these people happy.  They don’t seem to do happiness.  Writing a nasty comment in a box and posting it is probably the closest they get to pleasure.  Equally, it’s not very much good arguing with them, as admitting they’re wrong doesn’t appear to be in their arsenal either.

As it stands, the best way to deal with the new online breed of green inkers 2.0 is the old-fashioned way.  Ignore them.  Unfortunately, that essentially means ignoring the forums for reasoned debate that they’ve set up camp in.  Oh well, I guess somebody’s got to compromise round here.

Choices

Posted in Books on October 22, 2009 by richardblandford

Recently I’ve been getting more and more into just picking up second-hand books from charity shops that I’ve never heard of before, but look interesting.  Although they very rarely turn out to be lost masterpieces, they generally have some odd quality about them that you just don’t find in books that manage to stay in print and gain a reputation for being of merit.  While those are usually as worthwhile as people say they are, they’re often good in quite a boring and predictable way.  Charity shop purchases, however, often have the capacity to make you re-evaluate your personal understanding of what ‘good’ is.

Choices by the actor Liv Ullmann is perhaps such a book.  Her second volume of autobiography, it details the slow disintegration of a relationship with a partner she calls Abel, while her role as Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef changes her life.

Much of the book is given over to what Ullmann witnesses while in her official capacity.  It’s well-written and very moving.  Between this, however, we have conversations between Liv and Abel where they pull apart their relationship like it’s a toad in an American high school science class.  And what conversations they have.  Here is an example:

“Abel, I am alone.”

“Sometimes I am afraid that you need me only as a confirmation that you can love and be loved.”  He wipes my eyes and holds me close.  “I love you.”

“You told me – ‘use me’.”

“I told you – ‘take me’.”

“Abel, why are you always so angry at me now?”

He says quietly, “I’m not.  You and I, we live so impatiently, with such lack of understanding.  You and I are dreamers, both wanting the impossible to happen.

“My hope is that, through you, I’ll lose my past.  I promise I won’t leave you, unless I grow certain that we two shall never be like one.  Without a past.

“Though if I leave, I’ll never look back.  I’ll leave you with no regret.  I’ll dream no more, but I’ll have no regrets.”

We are both silent.

Does anyone fancy a pint?

Some stuff that happened

Posted in Books on October 14, 2009 by richardblandford

File:Giacomoleopardi1837.jpg

Giacomo Leopardi in one of his lighter moments.

Just a couple of things I’ve done over the past few months I’ve forgotten to mention.  I was a guest blogger at Scott Pack’s Me and My Big Mouth blog a while back, talking about 19th Century miserablist poet Giacomo Leopardi, and his somewhat odd collection of stories, Moral Tales.  Go and have a look at it here.

The Swiss Family Robinson

Also, a while back I wrote the script for a graphic novel adaptation of the tedious, unloved children’s classic The Swiss Family Robinson for an Indian company called Elfin Kids, now reborn as Campfire.  The finished book has now hit the shelves, in India, at least, although you can order a copy here, or you can buy an electronic version from Scribd (which has a preview).  The artwork by Amit Tayal is great, and it’s worth buying it for that alone.  The final script doesn’t really resemble what I actually wrote that much, but you can just about see what I was trying to do, if you squint.  Anyway, it’s out there, but you don’t need to consider it part of my official canon or anything.

Been on holiday. You got a problem with that?

Posted in Life on October 1, 2009 by richardblandford

Inside St.John's Co-Cathedral, La Valetta

Just back from a week in Malta.  Not the sort of place I’d normally choose for a holiday, but we were staying in someone else’s timeshare apartment, so it was pretty much a free holiday.  Don’t want to bore you too much with holiday stuff, as other people’s holidays tend to be terribly boring to hear about, but there are a few things I found interesting there that I nevertheless want to sear onto your brains via the medium of language.

The first was the hotel itself.  It had done a deal with the timeshare company that meant that it’s representatives had a permanent office onsite, right next to the swimming pool.  The scam they would pull was that they would accost holiday-makers in the street, telling them they’d won a prize.  All they had to do to pick it up was give them an hour of their time, which would be spent, of course, verbally pummeling them until they bought a timeshare they would later regret.

Sitting by the pool, you could see a steady traffic of timeshare salesmen, dressed in smart black trousers and nice shirt in 30 degree + heat, escorting their victims to and from the office.  They had the air of desperate men, as if they’d wandered out of a David Mamet play, their faces a strange purple, the combined result, I should imagine, of an Englishman in a climate he was never designed for and excessive alcohol consumption.  Every so often, a tourist would walk out in a huff, and the salesman would run out apologetically, begging them to come back.  It was all rather seedy, although undeniably fascinating to watch.  Malta noir.

Another thing that was interesting was St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta.  Normally I’m not huge on cathedrals unless they’re particularly spectacular, but this one was notable for not only containing two masterpieces by Caravaggio, but having been built for the Knights of Malta, an organisation of arch-mentalists who ruled the place from the 16th to the late 18th Century, when they were kicked out by Napoleon.  During this period, they policed the Mediterranean, fighting pirates and pesky Turks, with Malta acting as their super-special gang HQ.

St. John’s Co-Cathedral is essentially what a place of worship would look like if designed by the SAS.  There are memorial plaques in the floor for fallen knights, decorated with skulls not as a reminder of the inevitability of death, but just as a sign of how hard they were (below).  Portraits of the knights look down at you from the ceiling, with all the reservation of pissed venture scouts in a rural pub.

Most bizarre of all is the memorial of one grand-master, in which his services to the enslavement of the people of both Asia and Africa is immortalised in marble (above).  The building is still a functioning place of worship, so one has to maintain the respectful behaviour this demands whilst confronted with possibly the most hateful and inherently un-Christian object you could possibly come across.

Other things of interest in Malta are the semi-famous buses, which are old models from the US and the UK, shipped out there in the sixties and still going.  There also lots of old cars out there and still working, living rust-free in the dry heat.  A metal-flaked gold Cortina caught my eye at one point, looking particularly marvelous.

There are a number of prehistoric sites there, including the oldest free-standing structure in the world, and a museum that displays the things they dug up in these places, which are pretty amazing (below).  Unfortunately, I went to what was the probably the least interesting prehistoric site, and not only that, the bus timetable for there and back was very misleading.  Worst day of the holiday.

Anyway, those are a couple of things I saw.  And that’s it for holidays until next year, when I shall by staying in my own timeshare apartment in Hull.  Now that was one deal that definitely wasn’t a rip-off.  Still twenty-seven years left on it, but I don’t think I’ll ever get bored there.  I’ve got a spare room if anybody feels like joining me for a week or six.  Anybody?  No?  Oh well.