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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.

Mark Hollis (1955-2019) - a two-part tribute

There are several, if you like, auteurs, who treated the studio as ‘an instrument’ or, in more flowery terms, as a “psychedelic burrow”. John Lennon, for one, with his grandiose demands for Tibetan monks on George Martin on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, spending his time lying on the Abbey Road floor in either a lysergic or an opiated reverie, ‘u-topiate!’, as Nick Cave neologised; Phil Spector and his Wall; Brian Wilson and his sand pit; Kevin Shields in his own darkened synesthetic mulch. To add to this, we had the Talk Talk of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, and their singer Mark Hollis’ eponymous and only solo album, the latter released in 1998 and quickly forgotten until now. 

Alan of East Finchley’s ‘Alan’s Record Shop’ told me yesterday that Mark Hollis is now going for over one hundred pounds in its vinyl format, ever since the singer passed away this Monday. This makes the cynic in me laugh, to be frank - you couldn’t give the CD away on its release (it wasn’t actual released on vinyl until 2003). As the now-disgraced Morrisey, who is heading in the opposite direction with critics. said in ‘87: “Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the songs…but you could have said ‘no’ if you wanted to. You could have walked away, couldn’t you?” 

Here’s the thing though - Mark Hollis did say ‘no’ and he did walk away after Mark Hollis, and he just might finally now get the re-evaluation from the public that he so deserves. He effectively removed himself from the eye of the public, from 1998 onward, to, as politicians tend to say when there is little other option, “to spend more time with my family”. In Hollis’ case, it was an informed decision with no back story, and the critics general opinion is that he had perhaps said all he had to say in the stunning trilogy of Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis.The rest was silence, and silence on his terms. In this, perhaps he can be compared to Tom Waits? However, unlike Waits, his is not a huge legacy, only about the same size as that of Nick Drake, but it’s one that demands attention and one that will only gain in stature now that we know there will be nothing more.Spirit of Eden is often seen as the Foundation Stone of Post-Rock, whatever that is (I’m still unconvinced as to the usefulness of the term). In some ways, the short-lived idea of ‘isoationist’ might be more apt (the Talk Talk offshoot O’rang were featured on Kevin Martin’s classic 1993 compilation, Isolationism, after all). Or even Trip-Hop, the stoner genre associated with Bristol (bassist Paul Webb later made an album as Rustin Man with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons). Or even Art-Rock? - this music at times reminds me strongly of Henry Cow on Unrest.

Hollis’s music is largely (apart from the loud bits), quiet and intimate (what could be ‘noisy and intimate? My Bloody Valentine?). One of the best descriptions is of it as “…lovely or otherwordly or even gentle, in its way as uncompromising as any apocalyptic noise music” and a “ruthless quiet”. The word ‘enantiodromi’ means ‘something turning into its opposite’ and is a good, if obscure, one to use in Hollis’s case.  “Duran Duran with nervous jitters and existential dread” also fits. Other inputs could be - Debussy and Satie (early twentieth century French masters), Eno’s ambient stuff, Durutti Column (especially the ‘sandpaper’ disc), Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain; Zappa’s late 60s  Mothers of Invention serialist pastiches on albums like Uncle Meat and Burnt Weenie Sandwich. A heavyweight bunch of possible influences but, as with all great music, Hollis transcends these and creates a thing-in-itself - rock historiography tends to bunch groups of disparate recordings together retrospectively, but it does make sense to treat Eden, Stock and Hollis as a trilogy, as they have a unity of content and presentation that makes this makes both a convenient and appropriate way to approach the summit of Mark Hollis’s achievement.

Savouring some fine old wine - Simon & Garfunkel

Some acts seem so much a part of one’s generational mind that they seem spot-welded to your memory banks. Most obviously, The Beatles - I only really developed a proper Beatles record collection when my son got heavily into them at the turn of the millennium. Prior to that, they seemed omnipresent, to be recalled at will whenever one fancied visiting one’s cortical library. Similarly, I had until very recently no Simon & Garfunkel recordings, since selling off Bridge Over Troubled Water at the height of post punk Puritanism (a daft gesture, as it was both one of the very first vinyl albums that I ever bought and remains a timeless classic to boot). ‘The Graduate’ was the very first ‘X’ film that I ever got into the cinema to see,in 1969  at the age of 14, so Mrs Robinson became an especially redoubtable track in my teenage mind, and it still sounds great, fifty years down the line.

As part of my re-immersion into sixties singer/songwriter material over the past few weeks (as recent blogs demonstrate), I bought  Simon & Garfunkel’s 1966 ‘breakthrough’ album, Sounds Of Silence and 1968′s Bookends, which is often critically cited as the best of their five studio recordings. Like savouring a fine old wine, which has been lying forgotten in the cellar, I rediscovered just how good these records are: even though both are only thirty minutes long, as was much vinyl product of the period - the aspirations and pretensions of the ‘rock generation’ were just around the corner, although Highway 61 Revisited gave advance notice of what was about to come, coming in at 50-odd minutes, including, of course, the massive Desolation Row. S & G kept it shorter and simpler, giving us a treasure trove of classic melodies and lyrics that are all too easy to take for granted as they have become a part of the weft of modern cultural history. 

I love ‘links’, and I particularly enjoyed one that I discovered for myself on the Sounds of Silence title track. In terms of warps and wefts, the link was with Highway 61 Revisited itself, and perfectly highlights the ‘little world’ that was forming in New York in mid-1965. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, up springs a thread or a connection that makes the scene of that era come to life again. The link emerges briefly at 39 seconds into The Sound of Silence, when a snare drum lick kicks up the pace of the track, after the gentle introduction of the duo’s vocals accompanied by a filigreed electric guitar (the latter being the idea of producer Tom Wilson, and it also kicked up the pace of S & G’s career to a previously-unimaginable degree). The penny dropped that the snare crack was exactly the same as the famous intro to Like A Rolling Stone, the signature opening track of Highway 61 Revisited

Thinking it all through, it all soon became blindingly obvious - Sound of Silence and Like A Rolling Stone shared the same drummer, Bobby Gregg; the tracks were recorded on the same day in Columbia;s New York studio (June 15th. 1965); both were the opening tracks of their respective albums and were, furthermore, both produced by the late very great and very maverick Tom Wilson. To complete the ‘coincidences’, the vast majority of both records were in fact produced by Bob Johnson. However, Wilson’s particular magic ensured that both tracks were, arguably, the most memorable of two memorable works. Just to recall, Wilson produced the first two Velvet Underground albums (whatever Andy Warhol claimed about The Velvet Underground and Nico), the first three by The Mothers of Invention (Freak Out, Absolutely Free, We’re Only In It For The Money) and Nico’s debut (Chelsea Girl, a greatly under-rated work). On the avant-jazz side of things, he produced the recording debuts of Sun Ra (Sun Song) and Cecil Taylor (Jazz Advance). This is a fairly unparalleled set of achievements, and Wilson was clearly an inspirational figure for both younger and more experienced experimental musicians, and it is strangely touching that he should also have been the facilitator of both such a classic ‘catchy pop song’ as The Sound of Silence and of a track which has been seen by many as the midwife of rock music and/or ’serious’ pop chart music. The ever-prolix Greil Marcus even wrote a whole book on the song, called, with admittedly less prolixity than usual,’ Like A Rolling Stone’.

It serves to prove that there is always something to be said for never assuming that you know everything about even the most well-worn of material. On a very different tack, I will have to re-explore the music of Mark Hollis, especially the eponymous solo effort, now that he has sadly passed away. R.I.P. to a most unusual artist.

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