Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Norman Rockwell vs. Trump’s Munch-ian Blight House

My wife and I have been looking for a substantial series to watch, a no doubt-hopeless effort to replicate the ineffable experience of watching ‘The Wire’ and ‘The Sopranos’. So, I chose ‘The West Wing’, a long-form series that seems to have gained generally universal praise. The missus dropped out of the long haul fairly early on, thinking that it was a bit too ‘folksy’ and ‘feel good’ for her tastes. How annoyingly up-to-speed she is, given the real-time changes in the White House, aka,nowadays,The Blight House or Bleak House?  I actually quite like The West Wing and its quasi-narcotic spell, but, having been made around twenty-odd years ago, it already feels like a Norman Rockwell painting, as opposed to the modern day Edvard Munch-ian horrors of the Trump Presidency. How low have we, in this case the Americans, fallen? ‘The Scream’ seems to just about sum it all up.

The Americans have always been idealists, and The West Wing’s main characters represent this - we all surely would want a family like this? President Josh Bartlett (Martin Sheen) or his Chief of Staff Leo would be the Dad of our dreams; C.J. our mum; Toby our cranky uncle; Donna, our slightly wacky sister; Sam our sexy cousin; Charlie our charmer cousin; Zoe our adorable little sister, Zoe our adorable little sister and Josh our ideal big brother. All of them exuding sheer charisma and good will. We’d all want them to cover our backs, wouldn’t we? They’re good people, period. But how would you fancy the current occupants of the White House as family?

Trump’s attitude to his daughter is dodgy at best, over-sexualised and over-familiar. That towards his sons is demeaning and hostile,all of the dysfunctional psychodrama putting me in mind of  the ‘myth’ of Chronos eating his children out of pure murderous envy.. Josiah Bartlett is saintly in comparison. But, then again, he is a fictional character! The Trump Administration is a nightmare version of that of Bartlett, all of the latter’s positive and joyful characteristics being leeched out of it. Josiah’s wife is a compassionate doctor - who/what, exactly, is Donald Trump’s wife? No-one really knows. Or really cares. Their only child seems to be a rather sinister replicant, one of the pod people that Jacob Rees-Mogg seems to have both a member of, and sadly seems to be grooming his children (including the ludicrously named ‘Sixtus’) to also join. Brrrrhhh! What scions of ugliness - Ivanka’s cold ‘allure’ (never mind  her husband’s equally robotic sheen). John Crace’s now-classic ‘Maybot- trope can be applied to this lot.

Just compare C.J.’s press briefings to those of the current era, and we can see how low we’ve all fallen. I’ll leave it to a few quotes about The West Wing: “”They could make you feel inspired about politics in our worst moments of cynicism” and “We dream of a real Commander-in-Chief who was half the president Bartlett was”. The comparison is painful, to be frank. We, and our American friends, are left with a sad refection of our joint aspirations and hopes. The West Wing is great TV, but it seems contemporary as Yes Minister (but without the nostalgic glow, as American TV occupies a never-never land of gleeful optimism).

Scott Walker - In memoriam

Like many others, I’m sure, I was taken aback at the news of Scott Walker’s death this morning. That makes two great ex-pop stars turned avantists that have passed in the past few weeks, the other being the somewhat less exalted Mark Hollis, formerly of Talk Talk.

Richard Williams, as per usual, has beaten me to it, with a lovely blog (or re-blog) about first seeing the young Scott Engels in 1965 on Ready Steady Go. Being slightly younger than Richard (just), I can still remember just how much of an impact the Walker Brothers made in the Beatles-obsessed mid-60s pop scene, all Brian Jones-haircuts and Righteous Brothers harmonies. A fantastic run of singles that remain truly timeless, from probably pop music’s greatest period. Period.

I won’t tell the story of Scott’s journey - the rock press will already be onto that. But what strikes me most immediately, in terms of narrative, is the sheer contrasts involved here. Engel’s renowned solo albums, four of ‘em from 1967-69, which is a tremendously concentrated feat in anyone’s terms, are counterbalanced by the four from 1984-2012 (Climate of Hunter, Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch), a nearly-thirty year paint-drying exercise in alienating his previous audience (apart from a few masochists like myself). Glorious excursions such as’ My Ship Is Coming In’, ‘Duchess’ and ‘Big Louise’ were eventually followed by horror-shows such as ‘The Cockfighter’ and ‘Zercon, A Flag Sitter’, surely one of the most pretentiously irritating tracks ever envisioned? I’m a big fan of Tilt, but the latter two albums remain rather indigestible delicacies only to be visited when I feel especially ‘unusual’, a mood that Withnail-ed. Two more monstrous propositions are hard to locate, but there they are, like particularly irritating gargoyles in your record collection, that won’t be forgotten and continually demand re-examination. And I thank Scott Walker for them, because they totally discombobulate (is that the word?) me.

It would be easy, at this point, to just luxuriate in Scott 4 (about which Thom Yorke has held forth, as a big influence on the oiky fifth formers Radiohead), so I’ve just played it - the wife says that ‘’he has a totally distinctive voice’’, but isn’t a huge fan. And now I’ve put on Bish Bosch ‘’, just to punish my earlier easy option: ‘’ Whilst plucking feathers from a swan song’’ is about as understandable as it gets. I still can’t decide whether I love or hate this record, and I’ve had it for seven years. I’m actually tempted to say that it’s a more difficult proposition than Trout Mask Replica, to be honest. Ultimately, it’s a colder and less humorous (although it tries, farts and all) album than TMR, I think, but, goodness what a piece of work!!

I hate to say it, but what equivalent artists are there today? Scott leaves eight totemic solo albums, his Walker Bros legacy, and a few very interesting side projects such as the Pola X,soundtrack and the Sunn O collaboration, Soused, which will stand as his final work, until the undoubted posthumous wave of ‘unreleased material’ emerges over the next few months ‘’….on their hands - at last- a dead star’’, as Morrissey said, but i prefer the ‘Zircon’ summary, ‘’It’s so cold…infrared…what if I freeze…and drop..into the darkness?’’ Good old Scott, never one to follow the pack.

Jack the Ripper. 2 of 2

Another Ripper rock riff that I’ve just remembered was a track by The Band of Susans called ‘Elizabeth Stride’, named after the third of the ‘Canonical Five’ (even this sounds like the name of a potential Bad Seeds spin-off?) to be found, on the same night that the body of Catherine Eddowes was also discovered. Hallie Rubenhold brilliantly reconstructs the life stories of Stride, Eddowes and the other three murdered women, and their tragic tales portray social conditions that have not only not gone away, but have become re-instituted in the welter of the many and various welfare and social care cuts/ ‘necessary rationalisations’ instituted in this country since 2010 by the Conservative Party’s wet dream of ‘austerity’.  Universal Credit is but one example of the headlong flight back toward the ‘Victorian Values’ ideology so trumpeted by Margaret ‘There Is No Such Thing As Society’ Thatcher and John ‘Back to Basics’ Major. Ian Duncan-Smith is merely one of the many keen heirs of this underhand method of punishing those deemed ‘unworthy’ of the state’s bounty.

 I’d like to just create a few bullet-points, in no particular order of importance, to illustrate a few of the factors that affected the five women concerned in ‘The Five’, factors that are still at play in 2019, and that seem to becoming more pronounced every day:

  • The paucity of ‘safety nets’. All it took to ‘fall out of the system’ was a significant change in life circumstances, e.g.the death of a spouse, especially of the main wage-earner, usually male; the birth of yet another child, allied to which was the poor awareness (and strong societal condemnation) of birth control methods; sheer ‘bad luck’, a factor that affected all of The Five, in one way or another; loss of employment and, linked to this, of a decent place to live; poor health, including unrecognised mental health and alcohol/drug dependence issues. As we can see on the streets of our cities today, people are increasingly losing their accomodation, and being forced to sleep rough, which, as Rubenhold makes clear, was a completely accepted feature of the Victorian London landscape, as it is now of ours.
  • Mysogyny in all its scum-coloured manifestations was at the heart at how The Five were judged (and found wanting) by the patriarchy that made and implemented the laws that represented the double standards of the day. One of Rubenhold’s main points is that all the women were labelled as ‘prostitutes’, despite evidence to the contrary in most of their cases. The mysogyny infected laws around divorce, separation, adultery and extra-marital dalliances in general. the #MeToo’ movement’ of today would have shocked and appalled the entire Victorian legal edifice which ensured that women were punished for perceived sexual and behavioural incontinence. If you the use of/dependence on alcohol to sexual independence, you were definitely beyond the pale. Alcohol issues affected all five women, but the concept of treatment (outside of religious rehab) barely existed then, and the nightmare world of the workhouse and the casual wards awaited those who stepped out of line, and out of the male-dominated marketplace of financial renumeration for the various ‘services rendered’ by women of the day
  • Allied to the notion of  financial transactions was the fact that marriage can be recast as a form of indentured labour, which included sex on demand for the husband, something that he was legally entitled to as part of the’ deal.’ The ‘prostitute’ label was a clear signifier that our five were considered by their male judges as ‘bottom of the pile’ in societal terms. The patriarchy had no other framework to help it understand how a woman could be sexually independent of a significant male other. Domestic violence, still a huge issue today, was just one obvious manifestation of the control/coercion formula that was largely accepted (if loftily disapproved of by the more affluent and fortunate, even if DV occurred in their own houses, which it did).
  • The horrendous statistics for infant mortality in Victorian times are clearly laid out by Rubenhold, who reminds us that most of these women had several children, of whom a significant amount died young. The concept of post-natal depression was unformulated then (although the middle-classes had the handy ‘neurasthenia’ diagnosis to explain away significant changes, particularly in women). The awful toll that continuous childbirth and death inflicted on the mother of Catherine Eddowes, for example, makes for difficult reading  - gone at 42 years of age, Catherine senior had nevertheless reached the average age of death ” for a woman of her class”. There still exists, even in today’s society, significant discrepancies between the age of death of the average person from somewhere in, say Oldham, and that of a person from, say, Kensington.
  • Finally (far from it actually, but this is all we’ve got time for), the issue of housing looms large throughout ‘The Five’. Unscrupulous and greedy landlords, substandard buildings, public health infringements, etc, etc, have an uncomfortable resonance with one of today’s biggest societal problems, and one that has been, very conveniently, sidelined along with much else, by the morass of Brexit. And, throughout it all, there is evidence that the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ (which The Five certainly were members of) is getting larger and larger. Look forward soon to Trafalgar Square regularly ‘housing’ over 200 rough sleepers, a phenonenen that was commonplace enough at the absolute epicenter of the British Empire at the height of its power and self-importance. Yet this was a time that some still look back towards with a bogus, yet dewy-eyed, faux nostalgia. O tempora, o mores!, as Boris Johnson would no doubt say.

Jack The Ripper - a fresh and welcome perspective. 1 of 2.

I don’t tend to blog about books, especially books that aren’t about music, but sometimes I feel the need to talk about the ones that especially move me. One such is the just-out  The Five: the Untold Story of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. From the refreshing lack of the word ‘victim’ onward, author Hallie Rubenhold offers a fresh re-examination of the Ripper ‘case’ and the unfortunate  women who he came across and killed in such cowardly ways, and from a feminist perspective at last. Its a shame that it took a mere 130 years for such a study to emerge, but here it is, and what a fantastic work of social history it is. However, for of the purpose these blogs, I will bring the book into focus alongside the way that the Ripper mythos has impacted on the rock music world. A micro-perspective, but one that mirrors the macro.

The counterculture has made use of Jack the Ripper over the years, even to the extent of portraying him (and we will assume that it is a him) as a curious kind of anti-hero, just as Charles Manson has become such a creature in certain quarters. Or at least a topic of fascination, inevitably, among men. Enter, predictably, good old Nick Cave, with his ‘Jack the Ripper’ from 1992′s Henry’s Dream. He’s trying to be ironic, obviously, but here we go: “I got a woman…She rules my home with an iron fist, I got a woman…she screams out Jack the Ripper, every time I try to give that girl a kiss”. It’s a powerful Bad Seeds track. but Cave’s shtick is tiresomely double standard, the’ got’ female accusing the male protagonist, in hyperbolic fashion, of carrying murderous thoughts and intents, all for the cause of a rollicking bit of rock and roll, pelvic thrusts optional.

Now, I’m as big a Cave fan as the next person, but my problem with him is his rather tedious fascination with violence against women, especially in the 90s. He couched it in ethno-musicological terms as’ Murder Ballads’, but come on, these were excavated women-killing numbers added to some home-grown ones, most absurdly represented by the beyond-parody, attention-stripping ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ from Murder Ballads itself. Utter nonsense, and it still amazes me when this record gets highly rated, as I think its one of Cave’s weakest projects. He followed it by the sublime Boatman’s Call, showing that he could appreciate and venerate the female sex, as opposed to exploring methods of eviscerating them.

Tom Waits, an equally titanic modern presence, explored serial killing in his nineties projects,the Blood Money/Alice albums, as well as  the Woyzeck play with Robert Wilson. Not The Ripper exactly, but exploring similar territory. We even had Spinal Tap’s ‘Saucy Jack’ to provide us with a fun house mirror to our unhealthy interest in the first Victorian serial killer.  Writer Alan Moore’s (very great) ‘From Hell’ further bedded down the mythos, into incalculable depths of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy tropes of staggering complexity that Johnny Depp’s film of the same name could only feebly approximate.

But it was all from the male gaze, inevitably. So now here comes Hallie Rubenhold, with a new take on this most obsessive of subjects, one that has acute resonance with our own times. Still, even 100 + years on, when we might be forgiven in thinking that the social problems of the 1880′s slums of London’s Eat End might have been consigned to history. On reading ‘The Five…’, I realised that these problems have never really gone away, and are still alive in the Conservative Party-dominated England of our present day. This was yet another wake-up call for me, and I can only recommend most  strongly a book that can exert such a call. I will further explain in the next blog..

Mark Hollis tribute, part 2

Hollis was born six months before me, just into 1955. He spent the middle third of his life living the pop life, with the first and last in obscurity, and has thus become the J.D Salinger or Thomas Pycheon of the music world. His music is as enigmatic as his life..

Track 4 on Mark Hollis is called ‘A Life, 1895-2015′, the life in question being that of Roland Leighton, the boyfriend of Vera Brittain, killed in France in the Great War.  WW1 was one of the popular subjects of the 60s counterculture - rarely spoken about by their parents/grandparents, the Baby Boomers were fascinated/repelled (as we still are today?) by its relegation by their elders to the realm of the ‘Best-Not-Spoken-About, You’ll Upset Your Grandad’. Yet the fascination still leaked into the New Romantic generation, as it had done with the Hippies (tracks on The Pretty Things S.F.Sorrow Is Born and The Zomlies’ Odessey & Oracle being but two examples of the paisley/khaki crossover). The Hollis tribute makes it yet one more acknowledgement of that period’s hold on the English (in particular) imagination, and Englishness is very much something that defines the singer/songwriter under discussion here.

‘English pastoral’ has been part of the counterculture from the Canterbury scene onward, and Rob Young’s’Electric Eden’ has covered this subject in great depth and perspicuity. The criticisms that could be laid against Mark Hollis and its predecessors are that they are rather dry and desiccated, with some ‘rustic’ touches through the use of harmonium, two bassoons, violas and Mark Feltham’s ‘avant-garde harmonica’(very effective!), and with the ghosts of David Bedford and Mike Oldfield refusing to be laid to rest. I would use the same caveats with regard to Mark Hollis as I would with ECM vinyl - this is a quiet, subtle album and every click and scratch will be multiplied, so make sure that your record player and speakers are up to it.  But its still strange that this album didn’t see vinyl till five years after its initial release. Wonder why?

Mark Hollis was apparently part of a two-album Polydor contract, in tandem with Laughing Stock. Given Lee Harris’s involvement, the latter was rightly be sold as a Talk Talk recording, “improvisations stitched together after the fact”, which returns us to the studio-constructs mentioned at the beginning of this composite blog. The ultimate ‘trilogy’ can be compared, again with rock-critic hindsight, to Radiohead (massive fans of Talk Talk) and the Kid A and Amnesiac experimental reposte to the huge success of The Bends and OK Computer. The best of the studio jazz community participated on these recordings, including Henry Lowther, whose muted  trumpet gives this music such a distinctive flavour (and whose full story will surely be told some day?)  and bassist Chris Lawrence, one of the great generation of low end jazz masters from the mid-sixties. Hollis’s vocals, like those of Thom Yorke who shares the same ball park, seem to be wrenched out of him, his words wavering, apologetic. and fragile, tentative and almost neurasthenic. ‘Vocals’ seems an inadequate word.

Is ‘The Daily Planet’ a tip of the hat of Love? ‘A New Jerusalem’ is almost’ west coast’ jazz, with hints of Jimmy Giuffre and Shorty Rogers, but ultimately the music on Mark Hollis seems destined to constantly fall towards silence as its modus operandi. If it was a film, it would be ‘The Bicycle Thieves’. It might be more appropriately released on ECM Records, with a title like ‘The Drift’ (Scott Walker is another artist brought to mind) ‘’the most beautiful sound next to silence’’.  Hollis himself said ‘’I’ve always been of the belief that to play one note well is better than to play two notes badly’’ and this tenet is thoroughly born out in these sui generis works of art. I just hope that many more listeners will be tempted to explore these records.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby