those albums

Pretzel Logic by Steely Dan

Walter Becker’s death recently had me thinking about old albums.

Some people can hang on to their musical tastes over decades. I see these grey old blokes in the crowd at Status Quo gigs in their tour t-shirts, ecstatically jumping up and down; have they not listened to anything else in those years in between youth and old age? How in love with music are they?

Since Youtube, and more lately Spotify, I’m often searching for an old song I once liked only to be dismayed how bad it sounds to me now. Really I’m talking about “rock music”, the music of my youth, guitar bands, basically, usually fronted by some screaming white vocalist. I also used to listen to “soul” but that still sounds good, so it’s just my taste for rock music that’s gone. These are just odd songs revisited; I couldn’t bring myself to listen to a whole album.

So, Walter Becker’s death had me wondering if those albums I used to love still had something to say. Naturally, I’d start with Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, a masterpiece in its day and one which I thought of as a perfect album – an album without highs and lows, one with a kind of mood theme, and produced without an ounce of fat (no fillers).

I first heard the opening song, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number at school in “Christmas Entertainments” (this was a comedy sketch and music show put on every year by the entertainments society or stage club or theatre incorporated or whatever they were called). I think the band was called Double Diamond, which was the name of a crap beer, the kind that was anathema to the campaign for real ale. If I’m right, then I’m sure the lead guitarist was a teacher and the other four members were pupils (one of which has made a successful career as a professional pop musician).

The people who invented Google hadn’t even been born, so I don’t know how easy it was to track the song down then. I may have been told it was Steely Dan’s by someone in the know, or I may have heard the original on the radio sometime after. Then it was a matter of hot-footing it to the record shop and seeing which album it was on. I bought Pretzel Logic on the strength of that one song.

How to describe the album? It was unusual compared to most rock albums of the time that I don’t know if it is rock by rights. The songs seem more intellectual than most though the lyrics are somewhat obscure. I’ve heard them described as musical short-stories, each song, compact by that day’s standards, features its own protagonist, often if not entirely in the noir genre of storytelling: shady characters, down-and-outs, dealers, misfits and crooks. It’s distanced further from standard rock fare by its hints of jazz influences – Charlie Parker, Horace Silver and, of course, Duke Ellington’s East St. Louis Toodle-oo. There’s also occasional funkiness and use of horns.

It had to be at least twenty years since I last listened to Pretzel Logic from beginning to end. I think it remains a good album; timeless, as they say. And to me it’s still one of my “perfect albums”, consistently good without highs or lows.

Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number
Night By Night
Any Major Dude Will Tell You
East St. Louis Toodle-oo
Parker’s Band
Through With Buzz
Pretzel Logic
With A Gun
Charlie Freak
Monkey In My Soul

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ah, little Pluto, it’s so good to see you

imageWhen I was small, my grandfather would buy me the weekly journal, Finding Out. I remember it well. It was an educational magazine for young minds, dealing mainly with the sciences, geography, history, and the modern world, and which, if you chose to, could “build into an encyclopaedia”. (I think that could have been the phrase used in the promotional ad., though there were others – Knowledge for one, which Granddad bought subsequently – which may have used it instead.)

As required of any successful magazine, not least one aimed at children, it was packed with images. But not photographs, at least none of the ones I had. They were provided entirely by illustrators and artists. Photos, as an alternative, at that time with the technology available would probably have been too expensive. I hoped to find some examples on the web but so far have not. It’s a pity as I have a vivid recollection of some of the illustrations; a portrait of The Beatles (actually for an explanation of electric guitars); mythical and folk-lore creatures (the tokoloshe, the necromancer, the essential distinction between malevolent elves and merely mischevious pixies); landscapes of the planets (and moons) of our solar system. So vivid are these in my imagination that I needed to see them again for real to reassure myself of my recollective sanity. In particular I wanted to find an example of one of my favourite series of illustrations: landscapes on the other planets and moons in our solar system.

Over a number of weeks, each edition’s back cover would carry an artist’s impression of a view from a different planet’s surface. The illustrator’s brief seemed to have been 90% carte-blanche imagination and just 10% knowledge of astrophysics. It was pure science fiction. Most of our neighbouring worlds depicted were nice places you could visit wearing a 24tog anorak, light sun cream and, for prudence sake, a second pair of socks. They had often what looked like benign, breathable atmospheres. Wispy cloud trails would drift over high mountains over which moons would rise, or set. Maybe the sky would be rendered in an odd hue of red, yellow, or green. It was totally wrong, though it made me wonder. I wonder now, whether I remembered it incorrectly. That’s why I needed to see one once more. No luck so far.

This is the 60s I’m writing about. It’s seems odd to think that that time is closer to the year of Pluto’s discovery than it is to the present day. The seed that those magazines planted in my imagination has flourished, really without me being conscious of it. I find myself utterly fascinated now with the images from space telescopes and probes, and what it all means on a human level. Actually, I find the whole thing incomprehensible: the distances, the speeds, the sizes. All, to an ordinary bloke on Earth, is nonsense. Yet fascinating because of it. It kicks science-fiction into the Kuiper Belt. Why should we bother with that when the real science easily overwelms the capacity of the ordinary mind? I used to think that science-fiction was unbounded, limitless in the human ability to imagine what could be beyond reality. But now I realise it isn’t. It’s just the opposite.

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talking about the roots in a man (zippin’ up my boots)

Richie Havens

Starting early and finishing early means that I usually catch up on Dead Folk on Fridays, BBC Radio 4. Of course, it’s not called Dead Folk, it’s Last Word but I can never remember that but I know what it’s about.

20130428-172357.jpgThis week’s ended with a piece about Richie Havens. John Lennon said that Havens always sounded like he was playing the same chord but that he made it good and funky. It often seemed awkward too, hand over the fretboard, using his thumb to bridge, standing up to play without a strap; he had his own way, no rules.

Until the programme, I hadn’t realised the 70s disco hit, (Zipping up my boots) Going Back to My Roots, was arranged around his song. He said every place he went, he heard it, and everywhere he heard it, he ran from. He didn’t know how his song could be a turned into a dance hit. You can watch Odyssey perform it on Youtube, and many versions, down the years, of Richie Havens singing it, and appreciate his sentiment. It was like splashing 15 year old Modena Balsamic vinegar over a bag of chips.

Dead Folk ended the show with this version of the song. No trademark spare yet frantic guitar here, but a driving piano (in the car, I imagined how good it would sound paired with a funky organ. I tend to do this sort of thing a lot; is it just me?). I’m too ill-informed to know for sure though it might be Groove Armada; a collaboration was mentioned. Yet it’s the voice and the simple message in the words that makes this song.

Not talking about the roots in the land; talking about the roots in the man. He wants to go back to a better self. Don’t we all feel that?

Thanks to Anne Doremi, by way of a bonus, for uploading this special version with a montage of shots by photojournalist, Stanley Greene. I wasn’t aware of him or his body of work. I do now. I can be ambivalent about photography as art but I do think photojournalism is the pinnacle of its form.

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A quick catch up on some films watched on an iPad.

The Idiots Danish

I came across this early Dogme 95 outing yesterday, listed on a random website as one of fifty most controversial films. However, I watched it several months previous. It’s obvious why it made the list.

Though the shock of the plot hits early, I found it wore off as the story developed; it became childish; then it became quite meaningful in a way. I was distracted mostly by the awful camera shake and the clumsy focus pulling than anything else. Thankfully, the crew seemed to get this out of their system, or I simply grew more tolerant, I wasn’t noticing it after a while. Then I suppose they dropped in the orgy scene (nothing simulated, allegedly) towards the end to ramp up the offence but by that stage I was driven by intrigue to see how the story panned out. I felt it punched above its weight in the final.


I read afterwards that Mark Kermode took offence publicly at Cannes, and Jonathan Ross, presumably with his film critic’s cap on, didn’t like it either. If I had known either of those things I would have enjoyed it more.

Le Cochon de Gaza (When Pigs Had Wings) Palestinian, Israeli, French, Belgian, German

20130420-162743.jpgA film of a French story made by Belgians, Germans and French, about Palestinian and Israeli communities rubbing along in Gaza, having to deal with a haram, a.k.a. non-kosher, windfall pig from Vietnam. What’s not to like?

An absurd plot, it was funny, entertaining, and I utterly believed all of it.

Or, at the very least, I hope this is as bad as life gets in future, for all the people in this part of the world.

The Hustler US

This would be, I’m thinking, on a list of Hollywood classics. I remembered it better than it is. Dialogue rich and shot entirely indoors, it’s more theatre than cinema. I also found it overly long.

20130420-161008.jpgPaul Newman, a huge star and forever handsome, is probably one of those actors who could be charged with always playing himself. He has presence, sure, in spades, but does he have breadth? (I write about him in the present having no idea whether he’s still around. At least he is as far as the screen goes). Anyway, there’s a great supporting cast of likely better actors, not least Piper Laurie.

This original artwork poster is quite fetching though Jackie Gleason looks like a spare part, voyeuristically creeping in on the lovers’ action. Obviously, he’s the bigger star of the time but I felt George Scott played a better part. In colour, this would be a totally different vibe.

Made In Dagenham British

If Paul Newman only plays himself then the same can be said for Britain. Britain nearly always plays television. Everything looks smaller than it could be, not least the film production’s ambition.

There was a moment near the start when I thought this wasn’t going to be the case, as the camera shot from an interesting perspective, high above the housing estate.

20130420-164431.jpgSally Hawkins is a funny thing even when serious. Uncle Bob Hoskins lent much needed weight, the cast delivered their lines, and Miranda Richardson shone brilliantly as Barbara Castle MP. It was a story that needed telling and made one proud to be British!, and wishfully a bit working-class. Even so, this is a film that should bypass DVD and go straight to TV.

Hell Drivers British

Hey! This is more like it. Though the special effects were a little towards the cheap end, this definitely had the look of a film.

20130420-154659.jpgBefore we get into the story, I was amazed by the cast that had been assembled for this team flick, a kind of spot-who before they made it. A youngish, upstart, Patrick McGoohan. Bejesus!, I hadn’t realised he was that tall. He made a hirsute Sean Connery (yes, him too; was it a toupee on his pate?) look below average stature. And little David McCallum looked like the man from Uncle’s nephew. Hah-hah-ha! Sid James in a serious role, but convincingly so, and William Hartnell – the original Doctor Who, folks! – being vile and heartless, though looking a bit like Charlie Watts of The Stones. Herbert Lom, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass….

Anyway, back to the plot. Paced, racy, lean, and thrilling – okay, allow for one or two naff film devices, this is still a very watchable movie, today. Also much historic interest incidentally recorded for posterity in this film, of a past that is vaguely recalled. My favourite scene was when our protagonist, played admirably by Stanley Baker, goes to see his family in London. He gets off a trolley bus and while he crosses the street, out of shot the bus’s electric motor can be heard straining to move on. What a lovely sound! Almost as delightful as a Sid James’ laugh.

“Heh-he-hah-hah, I am not a number!, the name’s Bond, James Bond”

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20130420-200938.jpgI was taken by this photo of the Mondrian cake in the Guardian. Then maybe not: as I write this evening, I agree with the comment which says the chocolate is wrong; it should be marzipan, or perhaps darker chocolate. Now that I find it somewhat wanting I would want more coloured rectangles too. But the idea’s still good. When I was playing around on a previous blog with my silly idea of Squarts, I came up with the Mondrian Wallpaper Sampler.

On the way home today, I wondered whether Mondrian’s was the first painting to make an impression on me. There was a copy hanging in the corridor of my primary (short trousers) school, next to the head’s office. Pupils would file past it daily on their way from the morning assembly hall to their classrooms. Though no’but a little nipper, I looked upon it with quasi-intellectual intrigue: it didn’t appear to be of anything and it hung, imposingly, sans frame. Paintings had frames.

If not this, I mused in the car, then it was certainly The Green Lady, that peculiar image of an Asian woman which decorated many a suburban home. A neighbour of ours had one, hanging above the curve of their stairs in clear view of the front door. The model, Monika Pon, now an elderly woman, was interviewed recently. Even she couldn’t understand why she had been painted with a greenish complexion.

As for Mondrian, well, quite recently I experienced the real thing up close and was shocked to see he didn’t paint up to the lines. That’s the other thing: the school’s copy, in my mind, in my memory, seemed so precise!

I decided to dig out the Sampler by google,

20130420-200741.jpgThe Mondrian Wallpaper Sampler.

I’m shocked to find this was uploaded on Picasa six years ago. Seeing this among some other work I did as part of my serious return(?) to drawing and painting, this means I’ve been at it for nearly seven years! I can see a modicum of progress but I think I’ve lost some of the fun. Maybe a lot of the fun!

I also saw there’s a lot I used to dabble in that I do no more. Like doodles, and cartoons, photoshop (like the Mondrian parody here), and, most significantly, photography! I was always taking photos.

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I’m reminded that I haven’t posted anything at all this month.

We have been doing exercises in free thinking creativity. I’m not sure that’s what it’s called, more like directionless expression.

20130223-135234.jpgThe idea was to make charcoal marks for twenty minutes and then switch with someone else and work on theirs, repeating the process every twenty minutes until everyone had contributed to every bit of work. It was a freeing experience but, needless to say, none of the finished pieces was a keeper.

Next, continuing with the free spiritedness as best we could, we kept to our own paper, inspired by a prompt word chosen by another. This is my result, influenced by the word, joyous. Make of it what you will, psychologically. I’d guess it started with a hint of Giotto with the circle – Joyous, Giotto? – the man who drew a circle for the Pope – but not a clue as to where the rest came from.

The previous week, I’d been introduced to a new medium for me: powdered graphite. It was tipped into a saucer and applied with a small sponge. Most of it went on the floor! When I began to get the hang of the sponge, the application was very pleasing. Like charcoal but much softer gradation through tones.

Sorry about the quality of photos, I took them while outside, applying fixative. The light wasn’t good. I can’t be bothered to photoshop them right now.

I have been watching some pretty poor movies lately, but one remarkable one. Another Danish Dogme, I’m afraid but I could write a popcorn post on it.

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The Danish Dogme genre had me pondering, not for the first time, the difference between television and cinema. Investment, obviously, but, imagining a perfect world, is there anything else?

The Italian film, Io Non Ho Paura (I’m Not Scared), is a glorious example of the cinematic. Even on the tiny iPad, there’s an experience of sumptuousness.

io non ho pauraTo begin with there’s the scenery, the immense prairy-like wheat field. A synopsis described this as the co-star as it featured so prominently throughout the film. Accompanied by the soundtrack of chirruping insects, the wide blue and gold swathes of sky over corn impress upon us the heat of an Italian midsummer.

The drama takes place in 1978, in a small rural community of families. Young Michele is one of a small gang of village kids who spend their summer doing what ordinary gangs of kids do. Play, get up to mischief, bully, tease, reinforce friendships and fall out. After a day racing over to a remote, abandoned building, Michele’s little sister realises she’s left her spectacles behind. Having been in his charge, Michele goes back alone to retrieve them and uncovers a disturbing secret. Initially fearing the find as being something ghoulish, he challenges himself to overcome his fear and return to the scene. Later, the discovery seems to be connected to the recent odd behaviour of the village adults, including his own parents, and a sinister stranger who comes to stay. Gradually, Michele is being torn between doing what he sees as the right thing and his obligations to his father and family.

20130107-221300.jpgThe acting from the young cast is superb, and the story has pace, elements of suspense and a couple of jolting moments to shake us.
A fabulous film. Watch it as soon as you get the chance.

Io Non Ho Paura, 2003

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