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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

New Portraits Quiz

Can you name the twelve subjects in these portraits? It's a real mix - many of the subjects have a name more famous than their face.  Five of them are famous primarily for their writing, three are famous for science and there are two singers. Some of them are not shown as they usually are seen. Six of the twelve are European. Answers in a week.
Have a go; no one will get them all!
I'm listening to the rough and raw original version of Let's Stick Together by Wilbert Harrison, recorded in his garage. It needs to be played loud! Click here.
There are some excellent cover versions by Bryan Ferry, Canned Heat, KT Tunstall and Bob Dylan but I like this one best.
Incidentally Harrison re-recorded it later as Let's Work Together - not nearly as good as the first version... Canned Heat also used that title.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Sonny, my grandson!

I don't usually post much personal stuff but today is an exception. Long-time followers of this and my previous Blog may remember that seven years ago my grandson, Sonny, was rushed into Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma; a very aggressive cancer. He was in the hospital for four months and has made a full recovery after comprehensive life-saving treatment. Many of the readers of this Blog were wonderfully supportive at the time which proved to be a great help.
Sonny has been in full remission for several years now and his annual appointment is to seek out any damage done by the chemo-therapy and none has been found.
Well, this weekend is his Bar Mitzvah (akin to a Confirmation) when, according to Jewish law, he becomes a man and responsible for his actions. He is a popular, kind, loving and very funny soccer-mad boy. Naturally it will be a very emotional day and there will be a big family celebration on Sunday. The picture above was taken a couple months ago at another function. His one will be very informal. Below he is pictured with his younger sister Lois aged ten going on 30!
I'm listening to The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi's Nabucco. Very fitting and very moving. Listen here.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Painting of the Month (79) Feb 2018: David Bomberg

David Bomberg, In The Hold, 1913-14, Tate, London
David Bomberg (1891 - 1957) was a British artist, a student of the Slade School of Art and a member of the 'Whitechapel Boys'. This cubist-influenced painting was made before the First World War, and like so many others, when he returned from war his outlook and style changed.
In this picture he has retained the lines from where he had squared up his preliminary work leaving a grid of cubist-type patterning and has dissolved the image into fragments.. However the work is not abstract; left of centre a figure in blue can be clearly seen working in the hold of a ship in London docks and lower-right a ladder can be observed leading out of the hold. You have to work to see it!
There is actually a cross depicted in every single square and strong diagonals in both directions across the whole surface. In fact the longer I look at this painting the more things I see. It's a monumental piece - more than six feet along each edge.
The Whitechapel Boys were a group of Jewish artists in the East End of London during the first quarter of the twentieth century, a place of ever-changing immigrant populations. A remarkable group of artists and writers emerged from the group which included Mark Gertler.
David Bomberg: Two self-portraits and a photograph
I am listening to Linda Ronstadt's version of Neil Young's Birds. It's a lovely song which I always seem to prefer sung by a female vocalist. There is a delicate vulnerable version by the English singer Kathryn Williams here.



Monday, 5 February 2018

Great Popular Songs (6): Into The Mystic

"And when that foghorn blows I want to hear it, I don't have to fear it."
Van Morrison wrote Into The Mystic for his 1970 album Moondance. It has a beautiful poetic lyric which, like many songs of it's type, is open to various interpretations. After nearly fifty years it shows no sign of sounding 'dated' and has already been featured in at least half a dozen movies.
You can listen to it by clicking here

Into The Mystic. Words and Music by Van Morrison:
We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic
And when that foghorn blows I will be coming home
And when that foghorn blows I want to hear it
I don't have to fear it
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float into the mystic
And when that foghorn blows you know I will be coming home
And when that foghorn whistle blows I got to hear it
I don't have to fear it
I want to rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
And together we will float into the mystic
Come on girl
Too late to stop now...
So, lean and spare lyrics which are melded to the melody in a  grip so strong that a permanent atmosphere is created. The mood is mystical, magical and spiritual in feel. The words are open to several differing meanings via homophones such as "We were born/borne before the wind". Van Morrison himself expressed doubt about which meaning he intended. As with so many lyrics and poetry you can take your own interpretation.  Too late to stop now.......

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Orient Express

Picture this: my wife and I wearing T-shirts and jeans sitting on a bench at St Anton Railway Station in the Arlberg Pass in Austria. Waiting in the station is the Orient Express. Crowds of tourists, mostly British, have come to see the famous train leave. A lady turns to me and says, as the guard blows his whistle, "Don't you wish you were on the train?"
We stand up and jump onto the train seconds before it moves off. "We are on train!" I say waving from the steps. I don't know why but we both enjoyed that moment for years!
We had booked a fourteen day holiday in Italy and shortly before we left my father had lost his eldest brother and we were all feeling quite low. My lovely wife, with out telling me, had booked the outward journey to Venice on the Orient Express. It was going to be a very last minute surprise for a big birthday (one of those that ends in a zero) but she wanted to pack a dinner-suit (tuxedo). "The hotel isn't that posh" I told her so she had to tell me about the train just two days before we left. She also arranged for a friend who had a Rolls Royce, that he used for hire-work, so at London's Victoria Station you can drive straight on the platform.
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The Orient Express waiting to leave Calais


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The Orient Express Lounge
The Orient Express Service was created in 1883 and ran continuously until the service was suspended during the First World War and again in the Second World War. Routes have varied across Europe over the years but London to Venice is the most popular one now. Original destinations were to Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Vienna and Athens. The Great War Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in a forest in Compiègne, France. That carriage was eventually restored and became a part of the current train.
Every carriage has its own designs and Art Deco patterns which are often repeated in the carpets, curtains, marquetry and floor tiles. There is steward for each carriage who looks after the wood-burning stove which provides hot water to the individual cabins which have a couch which transforms into a double bunk-bed overnight.
The first leg of the journey was on the Brighton Belle Pullman service from London to Dover then onto the cross-channel ferry in the private Orient Express lounge to Calais. From there it was onto the overnight sleeper to Venice. Next morning we woke up travelling alongside the southern shore of Lake Zurich in Switzerland. 
The train crosses the lagoon over to Venice from the Italian mainland almost at sea level and the impression through the haze is as though the train is floating on the water's surface.
At the railway station all of the crew including stewards, engineers, chefs and cleaners line up as we cross the red carpet to board the water taxi on the Grande Canal and we were off to our hotel, The Metropole.

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Leah told me after we had returned home, that the thirty-six hours on that train had cost as much as the rest of of two week holiday in Venice and Lake Garda.
You may think rail travel is expensive but it's murder on the Orient Express.....
I'm listening to Pachelbel's Canon in D played by the Academy of St Martin's in the Field, London. This music is equally enchanting when played on a solo acoustic guitar. Listen here.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Winston Churchill in Downing Street

This is the third in a trilogy of posts about Winston Churchill's residences.
10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has been voted the most famous address in the world. The well-known black door is made of reinforced steel and has no keyhole; the door can only be opened from the inside!
So it was the official residence of Sir Winston Churchill from early summer 1940 until July 1945 (and again from 1951 to 1955) but, although he had never been PM before, he had lived in Downing Street previously. In 1924 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance) and the official residence of that post is number 11 Downing Street.
Number Ten, as it was colloquially known,  was originally three separate houses built by Sir George Downing in 1682. The current property contains over 100 rooms including the Cabinet Room which has sound-proofed doors.
However, for much of the war Churchill did not live at Number Ten after it was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. He lived instead in The Annexe nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this building were the Cabinet War Rooms, now a very popular museum.

Churchill at his desk at Number Ten
He spent a lot of his time there in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached). He was swept from office in the General Election of 1945 but was returned in 1951.    I'm listening to the very jolly Arrival of the Queen of Sheba by Handel from his oratorio Solomon. Listen here. It's three-and-a-half minutes to lift your spirits!

Monday, 8 January 2018

William McGonagall




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Sir William Topaz McGonagall (1825 - 1902)

The nineteenth century Scottish poet William McGonagall was known as "The world's worst poet" with formidable justification. Many of his poems are still very popular and there is a website devoted to his works. There were autobiographies and some anthologies were published. One of the autobiographies begins thus: 
"My Dear Readers of this autobiography, which I am the author of, I beg leave to inform you that I was born in Edinburgh". That book, which sets the standard for what is to follow, was inscribed by the author as "Dedicated to himself, knowing none greater."
The fact that McGonagall has long since departed this life makes me feel a little less cruel at laughing/groaning at his work - but it can be hilarious! He was a contemporary of Queen Victoria and she greatly admired him.
This little snippet from A Tale of Christmas Eve will demonstrate his hopeless ignorance of metre:
'Twas Christmastide in Germany,
And in the year of 1850,
And in the city of Berlin, which is most beautiful to the eye:
A poor boy was heard calling out to passers-by. 

"Who'll buy my pretty figures," loudly he did cry,
Plaster of Paris figures, but no one inclined to buy;
His clothes were thin and he was nearly frozen with cold,
And wholly starving with hunger, a pitiful sight to behold.
This next gem is the opening two stanzas of Beautiful Torquay. Torquay is a resort on England's south coast.
All ye lovers of the picturesque, away
To beautiful Torquay and spend a holiday
'Tis health for invalids for to go there
To view the beautiful scenery and inhale the fragrant air,
Especially in the winter and spring-time of the year,

When the weather is not too hot, but is balmy and clear. 
Torquay lies in a very deep and well-sheltered spot,
And at first sight by strangers it won't be forgot;
'Tis said to be the mildest place in ah England,
And surrounded by lofty hills most beautiful and grand. 
His most famous poem is The Tay Bridge Disaster. The dreadful events of 28th December 1879 somehow made McGonagall famous after his poem was published. I have resisted showing all of the piece but, should you feel strangely drawn, mcgonagall-online.org.uk shows all of his works. Here's how it starts:
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. 

‘Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
“I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

The thing that makes McGonagall totally ridiculous is his belief that he really was a great poet. He was self-styled as a "poet and tragedian". He loved giving recitals and failed to be put off by much contemporary mockery and derision but the odd thing is that most parodies of his poems fall flat; they just aren't bad enough!
And it's not as if we have only recently discovered how bad he was; his audiences threw rotten fish at him! Rather sadly he died the death of a pauper and ironically his books are all still in print.

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I am listening to some early Elvis Presley recordings. Currently The Girl of My Best Friend is playing. It was recorded 4th April 1960. Listen here for a treat!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Painting of the Month (78) Jan 2018: Beryl Cook

Beryl Cook: Twins
The English artist Beryl Cook (1926 - 2008) did not take up painting until in her 60s. Her work is instantly recognisable depicting scenes of, mainly large, ladies out enjoying themselves in pubs, out shopping or on a hen night. She depicted couples dancing the Argentine tango in Buenos Aires or gambling in Las Vegas. She never had any formal training and her naive style is immensely pleasing. I hugely enjoy these pictures; they never fail to make me smile. In the picture above I like the ambiguity of the title because there are two pairs of twins on display! 
Beryl was a shy and very private person, possibly putting her wish to be more extroverted into the themes in her work. She admired and was influenced by the work of Stanley Spencer (see my previous Painting of the Month here) and her style of depicting unfashionable 'everyday' things can be seen as similar to Spencer's work. The late English comedienne, Victoria Woods, described her social realism as "Rubens with jokes".
Her work fills me with joy and she is featured in many UK galleries. More of her paintings are shown below.


I'm listening to the vastly under-rated British singer Helen Shapiro, who had hits in the 1960s while she was still at school. 
Click here for Little Miss Lonely.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

A Warning on Spontaneous Combustion

This charming little verse is written in the Scottish vernacular by Stuart Mclean. I can find nothing about the author. A Google search consistently brings up the late Canadian Broadcaster of the same name or Alistair Stuart McLean the author of thrillers.

A Warning on Spontaneous Combustion by Stuart McLean
O whisky is the king of drinks,
Renowned the world o'er,
But here's a word o' caution,
Tae think of when ye pour.
There's a certain combination,
That tastes so very good,
But when it hits your tummy,
And mixes with your food.
That's when the trouble starts,
For yer pleasure hits overload,
And half an hour later,
Ye'll suddenly explode.
So there ye are in the pub,
Completely engulfed in flames,
And yer good wife's dashing home,
Tae lodge insurance claims.
Well now that I have told ye,
Don't say ye've no' been warned,
So don't try it oot yersel',
Or ye'll soon be bein' mourned. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Painting of the Month (77) Dec 2017: Stanley Spencer

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959) was born in the Berkshire village of Cookham which sits by the bank of the River Thames. Kenneth Grahame was inspired to write The Wind in the Willows by that beautiful and serene stretch of water. In a sense Spencer never really left the village. Many of his paintings are set there, including some of his various religious works especially of The Resurrection, a theme he returned to throughout his career. He turned the streets of Cookham into visions of holiness using family and neighbours as his models.
In an age that was beginning to be heavily imbued with the influence of Darwin, Spencer held on to his faith throughout his life. He produced his best work between the two World Wars when church attendance in Great Britain was drastically falling but he saw Cookham as heaven on Earth, a paradise invested with mystical significance.
Sir Stanley Spencer: The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-1927. Tate Britain
In this monumental work (it's 2.7m by 5.5m in size) Spencer has set the scene in Cookham Churchyard where the dead are risen and can be seen, top left, being transported up to heaven by the Thames pleasure steamers, which were plentiful at that time. In the painting Spencer can be seen naked, right of centre, while his fiance sleeps on a bed of ivy. The figure of Christ sits in the church porch. Click on the picture to enlarge or hold down 'Ctrl' and press '+' several times.
Spencer compared his emotional approach to his work with Moses seeing the burning bush and taking his shoes off; "I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observe the most sacred quality in the most unexpected places".
Below are some of his other paintings, showing his great range which had the unifying quality of seeing the sacred in everyday life:


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And a selection of his self-portraits






The English artist Beryl Cook was inspired by the work of Stanley Spencer and she will feature in my next Painting of the Month in January 2018

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Winston Churchill at Blenheim Palace

This is the second of a series of three themed posts about 
Sir Winston Churchill
Blenheim Palace near the village of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, England, is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill (1874 -1965).
Blenheim Palace had been built for John Churchill, who was created the first Duke of Marlborough after he had secured victory in the battle of Blenheim in the War of Spanish Succession (fought to halt Spain and France uniting against the other European powers).  John Churchill was the son of the first Sir Winston Churchill (1620-1688) and a direct ancestor of the twentieth century one.

Blenheim is in fact a huge country house and the only building in Great Britain to be styled a ‘Palace’ that is neither Royal nor the residence of a Bishop. Currently the Palace is still the home of the 12th Duke of Marlborough. Interestingly the title ‘Duke of Marlborough’ is the only aristocratic one deemed suo jure which means it can be inherited through the male or female line.
Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, his grandfather’s home, on 30th November 1874. When aged seven he was sent to boarding school where he massively under-achieved and “misbehaved”. These were to be characteristics of his continuing education. His parental contact with his father was virtually non-existent and with his Brooklyn-born mother Jenny,  it was “distant”. From this distance in time it does not  surprise me that he was difficult! Blenheim is located in the delightful historic market town of Woodstock and makes for a very lovely place to visit. It's full of Churchill memorabilia and is now a World Heritage Site.
When a British Prime Minister steps down it is customary for them to be offered an earldom but Churchill had the offer of the special privilege of being created Duke of London in 1955. He turned it down because, at the time, it was not possible to renounce any kind of peerage and the hereditary title would have prevented his descendants from sitting in the House of Commons.
Aerial view of Blenheim Palace
I’m listening to Sissel Kyrkjebø, the utterly fabulous Norwegian soprano, showing her effortless talent when singing Puccini's 
O Mio Babbino Caro. Listen here

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Great Popular Songs (5): Waterloo Sunset

Sir Raymond Douglas Davies, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), better known as Ray Davies, singer and songwriter of the very successful UK band The Kinks, wrote and self-produced Waterloo Sunset in 1967. In Great Britain it is relatively rare for songs to feature geographical locations, especially when compared with the USA.
Waterloo Station is one of several major railway termini in London being named after Waterloo Bridge which was itself named after the famous British victory at the Battle of Waterloo. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames.
The wistful lyrics of the song were a Ray Davies speciality. They are a bit mysterious, describing a scene from the point of view of a person apparently content to be a 'loner'. Or is he? Are Terry and Julie figments of his imagination or is he Terry. It's a strange and intriguing mix of perspectives. Ray said in a recent interview, “Of course, everyone thought “Terry and Julie” was a reference to Terry Stamp and Julie Christie, since they were immensely famous because of Far From the Madding Crowd. But actually, the image I had in my mind was of my sister and her boyfriend walking into the future”. But this was said nearly fifty years after the record was released.
Many of Davies's song have a strong social element and he is a keen observer of his world; Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Well Respected Man are typical of this vein of writing.
The song is so iconic that it hasn't been covered very often. David Bowie is a notable exception but I find his version doesn't add anything new to it.
Originally the song was to be called Liverpool Sunset because Ray Davies had a strong affinity to that city bit realised he should "write what you know" and changed the title. The guitar sound as heard in the introduction was achieved by using a tape-delay device.
Listen to the song HERE
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night
People so busy, makes me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
But I don't need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine
Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don't want to wander
I stay at home at night
But I don't feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine
Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don't need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise
Waterloo sunset's fine

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Winston Churchill at Chartwell


This is the first in a series of three themed posts about
Sir Winston Churchill.


Winston Churchill purchased Chartwell near Westerham, Kent in south-east England in 1922 at a time when he was in the political wilderness and it was his primary home for forty years - almost the rest of his life. He did not live there during the war years because of it's location only twenty miles from the centre of London and it's proximity to the channel coast.
He employed the successful English 'society' architect Phliip Tilden to carry out major improvements and enlargements. The pair eventually fell out and a long-running legal dispute ensued. I think Churchill must have been a difficult client - he was a man of strong opinions knew exactly what he wanted for the property. I have seen some of the written instructions he gave Tilden and they are very specific and rather subjective.
At the time of purchase he claimed that it was the view of the Weald of Kent a sprawling collection of rural towns and pretty villages set in pristine countryside, that he fell in love with.
The house became possibly one of the most important country houses in Europe and now has Grade I listed status. This is often awarded for historical rather than architectural reasons - definitely in this case. From there Churchill planned his campaign of opposition to Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement to Adolf Hitler. He had long been wary of Hitler's intentions.

Chartwell is not an especially pretty building being in the vernacular style; that is, local materials and design were used and not necessarily built by conventionally-trained architects. I think this gives the building character. Churchill became obsessed by the property and constructed ponds gardens, brick-walls by his own hand. A heated swimming pool and two cottages were built in the grounds. He also painted many scenes of the gardens.
The garden wall on Mapleton road, the less attractive entrance to the property, is based on a garden wall in Quebec House, General Woolf's home in nearby Westerham town in the English county of Kent.
After the war Churchill was in critical financial circumstances and some of his friends arranged a deal with the National Trust who paid him an enormous sum for the house which he agreed to leave to the trust in return for allowing him and Lady Churchill to live there for the rest of their lives. Lady Churchill relinquished the property to the trust as soon as Winston became to ill to live there, in 1962. He died in 1965.
The property has prospered in the hands of the trust and receives over 500,000 visitors a year.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Painting of the Month (76) November 2017: Vermeer

This famous painting of the Girl with a Pearl Earring  by Jan Vermeer has become so familiar as an icon of the art world that it has almost surpassed the recognition level of the Mona Lisa. Now we have another enigmatic almost-half-smile to consider. This makes this post problematic for me because I want to try to see beyond that familiarity.
Girl with a Pearl earring, Johannes (Jan) Vermeer, 1665
The popularity of the Baroque style of art had been encouraged by the Catholic Church at The Council of Trent (1545-1563) as a weapon in the Counter-Reformation's struggle against the rise of Protestantism. It was determined that the arts should communicate religious themes and direct emotional involvement. The Baroque style is characterised by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance and grandeur in the arts. This includes the use of a technique known as chiaroscuro, developed during the Renaissance, which employs exaggerated light contrasts to create the illusion of volume. This all relates to Vermeer's work. His early works were of a religious nature but he soon started to produce genre works - scenes of everyday domestic life - and continued in this way all through his career. Most of his work seems to have been located one or two rooms of his middle-class home and often featuring the same few models repeatedly. Typical of this period is The Milkmaid.
The girl in this portrait is possibly his daughter, Maria who some experts believe may have painted as many as a fifth of the works attributed to her father. Turbans were not fashionable at that time but it gives the artist an opportunity to display his skill with drapes and folds. The large amount of blue paint around her head and at the end of her scarf would have been made from lapis lazuli probably ground by the artist himself. This would have been very costly at that time and usually used in religious paintings but clearly not exclusively. The girl is captured as though looking round in mild surprise to be frozen for eternity. The pearl earring is huge and some have suggested it may have been fashioned from tin but it does seem to have appeared in other paintings. The eyes are like molten liquid, the lips are moist and slightly parted. Oh dear, I think I'm falling in love! 
Of course the novel by Tracey Chevalier and later film have helped to spread her fame over the world. After a sensationally popular world tour the picture is back home in the Mauritshuis in The Hague where it will stay indefinitely, being deemed too fragile to travel again.

                                              Probably Vermeer self-portrait, 1654
Jan Vermeer lived and worked all his life in Delft in The Netherlands where he lived until his death at 43 having achieved some local fame but he was forgotten for two hundred years after his death until being rediscovered in the 19th century. It is fair to say that he is now recognised as one the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age of painting.
He fathered 11 children. So he did have some other interests; always healthy not to be obsessed by one's work I think......
I'm listening to Mahler's Fifth Symphony trying not to think of where it was used in Death in Venice.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Great Popular Songs (4): Strawberry Fields Forever

This article is as much about a recording as it is about a truly great popular song. I know a lot about Strawberry Fields Forever because I wrote a dissertation comparing the psychology of this song with Penny Lane as a part of my Bachelor of Arts degree and did lots of research on the subject.
Strawberry Field, Liverpool, England
First, some background details. In 1966  the Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, was pressing George Martin for a new single release. They had just begun work on a new ‘concept’ album that became Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The idea behind the album was initially that they would create a retrospective biographical look back to their home city of Liverpool. The first contributions were John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields and Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane. It was decided to release the songs as a double A-sided single and they never appeared on the final album. George Martin later claimed that "it was the biggest mistake of my career". Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children’s home near to where John Lennon lived with his Auntie Mimi.
Lyrically the song is an emblem of Lennon’s indecision and uncertainty at the timer of writing it:
“Always, no sometimes, think it’s me,
But you know I know when it’s a dream.
I think er no, but I mean er yes but it’s all wrong.
That is I think I disagree.”

Further remarkable evidence of indecision is shown by a really innovative event in the recording studio. Many versions of the song were recorded over several months. After Take 7 on 29th November 1966, everyone thought that Strawberry Fields Forever was finished. Except John Lennon. After Take 26 on 21st December 1966, everyone thought that Strawberry Fields Forever was finished. Except John Lennon. John told George Martin “I like both versions. Why don’t we join them together?” However, there were two MAJOR problems; the two versions were in different keys and in very different tempos. These days that would be no problem but in the sixties the digital technology that could achieve this was decades away.
John Lennon. 1940-1980
The first version was in B-flat Major at 90 beats per minute and the second, a whole tone above, in C-major and at 108 beats per minutes. In those days 'splicing' literally meant using a pair of scissors and splicing tape!  What to do?
John Lennon, never a realist and not technically minded, left the problem to George Martin and recording engineer Geoff Emerick.
I don’t believe in miracles but what happened next was, well I would say, sensational. They had variable speed tape-recorders at the Abbey Road studios and they found that by speeding-up one recording and slowing down the other one they could get an exact match. They had very fine control over the speed (and therefore the pitch) but by the most amazing luck and ingenuity they achieved Lennon’s wish. It turned out that the differences in pitch were exactly compensated for by slowing one and speeding up the other.
When you listen to the recording (click here) you can hear the change, just about, after 59 seconds. Listening to the drumbeat is the easiest way to pick it out. The purpose of an edit, of course, is that it shouldn't be heard and a marvellous job had been done.
A by-product of this work was that it gave Lennon’s voice a smokey, other-worldly sound which really suits the song. It also left the recording in an in-between pitch not exactly in any recognised key. Although Lennon had composed it in C using a guitar the published version is written as being in B-flat. The song has an unusual structure in that it starts with a chorus followed by alternate verses and choruses and ending with a chorus which gives it a musically palindromic structure. The introduction is played on a Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that used electronic recording tape so that many different sounds could be used by pre-recording them. Some sources claimed that it was played by Lennon and others by McCartney.
FOOTNOTE: It turned out that Strawberry Field wasn't forever. The Salvation Army closed the children's home in 2005 and it was demolished in 2007. Lennon Hall now stands in it's place.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Spotlight on a Website (10): Big Think

The Big Think site is a little bit like a broader version of TED Talks. (See my article about TED here.)
Big Think has been described as a You Tube for ideas and it has sections such as Videos, Playlists, Articles, Experts and Podcasts. It's the kind of Website where you might drop in to have a quick look at what's happening in current thinking and be drawn into reading articles and watching videos and then an hour has gone by....and then another...
Recent articles have included "The Universe May Be Conscious, Say Prominent Scientists" "Addictive Behaviour Isn't Just for Addicts. We May All Be Hooked" and "Why Poetry is a Refuge for Your Brain"
And how about these video titles?: "Download Your Brain into Another Body? To No Longer Die Changes Everything", "Why A.I. Might Run the World Better Than Humans" (by Richard Dawkins) and "What Does it Mean to Fully Be Human? Opening Yourself to Uncomfortable Truths" - this video is by Bryan Cranston, yes Breaking Bad's Walter White!
I believe that most people who visit this site are thinkers who are curious about the world and possess a certain level of intelligence and so would be enthralled by Big Think.
Find it here and I hope you enjoy it.

I'm listening to The Grateful Dead. Currently its Uncle John's Band; an absolute classic that you can listen to here.