Monday, 24 January 2011

Tunnel Vision

The first episode of the current series of Great British Railway Journeys features a lot of stuff that appears in Subterranean City. Michael Portillo travels on the East London line, walks along Brunel's Thames Tunnel between Rotherhithe and Wapping in the company of the Brunel Museum's Robert Hulse (they may still have some leftover copies of the 250 I signed last year for Open House) and travels in the cab of a Javelin train from St Pancras to Chatham, passing through the tunnels just outside the London terminus. Even better, the series ends in Hastings. The first episode is available for the next 18 days here.

2011 creaks into gear

It looks as if I shall be doing a talk dealing with underground London in fact and folklore at the ICA on Thursday 12th May. It will be part of a fascinating-looking Strange Attractor Salon; many of the other talks will be worth attending.

I'm hoping to do something, a walk perhaps, for Adult Learners' Week the following week.

Also, following a very positive meeting on Friday evening another publishing project may be underway to which I shall contribute a substantial essay. I don't want to reveal too much about it at the moment, but as part of my research I've started reading a book about the Crazy Gang.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Fin de Siecle Time Capsule

Via feuilleton a link to the opening of a house in Moulins in France untouched for 100 years, the home of Louis Mantin, an undistinguished civil servant who inherited a fortune at the age of 42 and set about creating his then-state-of-the-art residence; comparisons with Huysmans' Des Esseintes from A Rebours are inescapable.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Mirage Men

Another book recently finished was Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington. Here finally is the (probable) truth about 99% of the 'UFO phenomenon' - it was a massive project of disinformation by the US intelligence services to disguise the development of high-tech ultra-secret new aircraft. His arguments are very persuasive, although the intelligence agent Richard Doty, whom he befriends and who would appear to have been behind vast swathes of false UFO documentation, seems to have come to believe his own fabrications. The book covers a lot of ground including the bewildering Serpo project and throws all kinds of mind-boggling ideas at the reader before concluding that UFOs are 'weapons of mass deception'. This is one of the most important books on the subject and can take it's place with Dark White by Jim Schnabel, studies by David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Bryan Appleyard's Aliens, Why are they here? and Jacque Vallee's Passport to Magonia, together with many of the sceptical articles in the late lamented Magonia edited by John Rimmer.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


To continue the Progressive rock theme I thought I should mention Italy’s most renowned exponents of the genre: PFM. Once again thanks to a generous donation I’ve had the chance to hear the Esoteric reissues of the records they put out in the ‘Manticore (ELP’s label) years’ – I didn’t own any of their work in the 1970s, only occasionally hearing them on Alan Freeman’s radio show. The initials stand for Premiata Forneria Marconi or ‘Award-winning Marconi Bakery’ – understandably they kept to the abbreviated version in the UK. Coalescing as PFM in 1970, they are still going and are playing shows in Italy this year.

Five years ago in Rome I bought a cd of Per un Amico, their second lp from 1972 and found it a lovely piece of atmospheric pastoral prog, heavy on the twelve-string guitars and mellotron with flurries of flute and violin, delicately arranged, like very early Genesis and King Crimson, but with a European classical influence. Last year’s reissues include the (mostly) sung-in-English version, renamed Photos of Ghosts, which came out in the following year on Manticore.

I was surprised at how different it was to the Italian release, and not in a good way: what sounded lyrical and mysterious when sung in Italian sounded crude and stilted in English, the production is much punchier and ‘in your face’ and the running order has been altered, with two extra tracks (inferior in my opinion) stuck in. Pete Sinfield’s lyrics have not improved with time; a typo in the reissue cd booklet means that Mr 9 ‘till 5 ‘shits his eyes’ - this song was better as an instrumental. I would definitely seek out the Italian version of this record if possible. It also makes me want to get hold of their first lp Storia di un minuto (1972), never released in this country.

Third lp L’Isola di Niente was released over here in 1974 as The World Became the World. I haven’t heard the original Italian version so I can only go on the reissued Manticore recording. Musically this is still impressive in places: the huge choral opening of The Mountain is typical of the period; Just Look Away is a very pretty tune, greatly in debt to Genesis, spoilt by the problem of singing the English lyrics; the title track is a nice piece of King Crimson bombast; Four Holes in the Ground is probably their most recognisable and catchy song, with some lively synth and a Yesalike chorus – a prog paradigm? Apparently Pete Sinfield was relieved of lyric-writing duties after this record and you can see why on Is my face on Straight? a satire of contemporary bourgeois mores that just sounds embarrassing today, it’s also the weakest track musically.

The live album Cook followed and in 1975 Manticore released Chocolate Kings, by which time the band had acquired a lead vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti. Unfortunately, despite the weaknesses of the previous singers, I find Lanzetti’s brash and more-sandpapery-than-Roger-Chapman voice difficult to warm to and at times positively off-putting. Having said that, there are some good bits on this record, the jaunty title track in particular, although the vocal is irritatingly abrasive and there are a number of arresting instrumental passages on the other four songs. The debt to contemporary progressive bands is obvious from titles such as Out of the Roundabout and Harlequin (there’s a song of that name on Nursery Cryme). Nevertheless, I keep coming back to this one. The accompanying live cd from a University of Nottingham show in May 1976 shows another of Progressive’s unfortunate traits: everything is played at far faster tempi than the recorded versions, erasing any subtlety from the music.

With a new singer and a harder sound PFM were aiming for success in America. However, it now seems very naïve when they claim that they were surprised at their failure to make a positive impression over there, after attempting to promote a record whose theme was the dubious legacy of US imperialist interference in Italy following World War Two. I really like the simplicity of the UK and US sleeve (with nods to Warhol and Jasper Johns?) apart from the lettering, a distinct improvement on the rather unsettling Italian version. There’s an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1976 on YouTube where they play Chocolate Kings, but punk was already under way and they were soon to be yesterday’s men in the UK.

It’s 1977 and they issue Jet Lag. Recorded in LA - enough to make the heart sink – it’s not very good; once more the hoarse vocals give me real problems. The only track I can listen to is Meridiani, a Zappaesque guitar instrumental – the rest are tune-free attempts at a more commercial style with a sprinkling of jazz-rock. The lyrics, written by the bass player’s girlfriend are very poor, making Pete Sinfield look like Stephen Sondheim - those to Left- Handed Theory being especially funny:

Left-handed person
Once was the sign of a witch
Now the world needs them
To teach us a different stitch

Think of Da Vinci
His ambidextrous arts
Hendrix’s guitar sang
Sweet feedback lightnin’ from Mars
And in reflection
We see the stars

Surely the only use of the word ‘ambidextrous’ in a rock lyric, although I could be wrong. After this record they seem to have given up attempting to crack the English-language music market and reverted to Italian records – I haven’t heard any of them, but I imagine they aren’t that great. Apparently in recent years they have appeared at various Prog-themed festivals.

Another contemporary ‘Progressive’ Italian group that are well worth checking out are Goblin, namely the soundtracks to the 70s Dario Argento horror films, which are not nearly as dated as the music of PFM, charming as some of that remains.

Sleeping Beauty

Having attended two pantomimes this season – after a gap of well over 30 years, the last I remember seeing were at the London Palladium: Dick Whiittington starring Tommy Steele and Aladdin with Cilla – I’m glad that this form of indigenous entertainment is still robustly alive. Cinderella at Hastings’ White Rock Theatre featured Jimmy Osmond as Buttons and was thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly lavish; Sleeping Beauty at the Anvil in Basingstoke was about half an hour too long but did star Wendy Craig and Abi Titmuss.

The latter panto made me muse on the appeal of the Sleeping Beauty tale to artists and the two English examples that immediately sprang to mind were the Briar Rose series by Edward Burne-Jones and The Maybe by Cornelia Parker (I own a lithograph of one of her Pornographic Drawings). Burne-Jones completed his series in 1890 after many years work – they are installed in the Music Room of Buscot Park, Faringdon, Oxfordshire and are truly a magical sight. For The Maybe in 1995, the actress Tilda Swinton slept in a large glass case at the centre of London’s Serpentine Gallery surrounded by items that had belonged to famous historical characters; if I recall correctly visitors were pretty subdued on my visit, - apparently every now and then someone would try to wake her up by shouting.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

East London Line Progress

News from London Reconnections on the East London Line extension to Highbury & Islington. It seems that this section will open at some point in February - I shall try to ride on it as soon as I can. I have to say that whenever I' ve used it since last year's opening (admittedly mostly off peak) the trains have been far from full. The connection to the Victoria Line should increase passenger numbers.

Sadly for those of us who still have a base south of the river, the link to Clapham Junction will not now open before the Olympics, but probably nearer the end of 2012. Funding for the extension has however been approved.

Chelsea talk and ordering books

Last night's talk at Chelsea Old Town Hall went very well. A beautiful hall, full house (around 100 I reckon) and functioning equipment, although the awkward angle I had to adopt to speak audibly into the fixed microphone got taxing after a while. Afterwards I sold every book and publication I had brought. I could have sold twice the amount, but carrying bags full of heavy hardbacks on the rush hour tube is not something to be recommended.

I've only just noticed that while there is no discount on the new edition of Subterranean City on Amazon, my distributor Countryside Books is offering a 20% discount on their books if you order online.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Music's All That Matters (Third Impression)

Many of Stump's preferences (from the 'classic' 70s period) chime with my own: Egg are one of the most underrated groups from the time; King Crimson between Lark’s Tongue’s in Aspic and Red were making some of the most aggressive and exciting music of the period – I would love to have seen one of their largely improvised live shows at that time; Gentle Giant (at least up to Freehand) were one of the most musically arresting and diverse groups featuring counterpoint, polymetry, polyphony and hocketing (‘in which a phrase is arbitrarily broken up into cells of one, two or three notes’). He also gives space to more radical avant garde groups such as Henry Cow and includes the numerous European epigones like Focus and PFM.

I also share his positive opinion of early pastoral Genesis, that soon benefited so much from Steve Hackett’s more acerbic and effects-laden guitar, but his rubbishing of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (in my view this incarnation’s high point) I find inexplicable.

Like Stump, I still think that Relayer is the best Yes record, the one that even the most committed Yes-hater might possibly warm to; Patrick Moraz was a far more jazzy, hard-edged and risk-taking keyboard player than Rick Wakeman and some of the group playing on The Gates of Delirium sounds genuinely unhinged, (pity about Jon Anderson’s ‘arseholes’ mishearing on Sound Chaser). It was to be downhill from then on. A couple of years ago in Delft I bought a mint copy of Moraz’s 1976 solo project The Story of I in a wonderful gatefold sleeve, one of the most bonkers concept lps of the time with some interesting ‘world music’ influences.

For the future I would say, although Stump doesn't, that a form of Progressive pop is emerging from the likes of These New Puritans, Everything, Everything and Field Music; in the US Deerhoof have been doing it for a while and Guided by Voices used to say they played the 4 p's: Pop, Punk, Psychedelia and Prog.

The Music's All That Matters (Second Impression)

I remember thinking around the mid-70s: ‘this Progressive rock is all well and good, but where are the new groups who aren’t made up of members of other bands, playing somewhere locally every now and then’ (I was too young for pub rock). Then, around 1977 there seemed to be hundreds of new groups competing for attention so I began to get into Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, XTC, Talking Heads, Television, The Fall and many more; the Progressive records gradually got banished further towards the back of the collection.

While punk didn’t immediately kill off prog as the mythology goes, it eventually rendered many of the mid-league groups redundant – by the early 80s the main players had either split or had decided to water down their music for the American FM market. Amongst the handful to retain any dignity were Peter Gabriel, Robert Fripp, Peter Hammill and Robert Wyatt. Stump justly lambastes the terrible decline of Genesis into ‘calculated music-by-focus-group tripe’ and the risible demise of ELP (the mere sight of the cover of Love Beach is enough to put you off listening) and the even more desperate Emerson, Lake and Powell. The shockingly feeble Sky also get a deserved drubbing - did John Williams' reputation ever recover? -I read fairly recently that he had just 'discovered' African guitar music.

The music press were obviously complicit in punk’s rise and prog’s demise, but many of the same writers had been fans previously. In the interests of ideological solidarity the fact that the Damned’s Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies were formerly huge fans of Soft Machine and PIL sonic sculptor Keith Levene had been Steve Howe’s guitar roadie were airbrushed out of the story at the time, although Johnny Rotten/Lydon famously played a track by Peter Hammill when asked to choose his favourite records on Capital Radio in 1977 (I was listening that evening and realised that maybe I should reconsider my opinion of punk). The fact of the matter is that the primary reason that prog largely disappeared by the early 80s is that the main surviving players were putting out crap records.

I knew that Steve Hillage played with Sham 69 and Robert Fripp with The Damned, but did Allan Holdsworth really get up on stage with Johnny Moped’s band in a Croydon pub?

The Music's All That Matters (First Impression)

I’ve been reading one of my Christmas presents The Music’s All that Matters by Paul Stump (revised edition Harbour 2010), an engrossing examination of that most maligned thread in ‘rock’s rich tapestry’ Progressive Rock, or prog as it seems to be called these days. I have to confess that in my early teens, along with a large proportion of my male peers, this was my preferred listening from around 1971 to 1977 and I owned many of the records mentioned in the book. Memories were evoked of the soon-to-be-passed-around album (the most immediately recognisable being In the Court of the Crimson King) ostentatiously carried around school. It has to be added that during that time one or two school chums also introduced me to the Velvet Underground, Parliament/Funkadelic (I was in the stalls for their show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 - what a riot that was) and dub reggae; things really weren’t as black and white as they were often subsequently painted.

Since the turn of the century my tastes have gravitated back to some of this music – there is somewhat less critical opprobrium heaped upon it these days and many groups I’ve heard have definitely been influenced by it, some of whom I like: bits of Mew, Jaga Jazzist, Sigur Ros, some I’m not so keen on: Muse, Radiohead, Elbow.

Stump’s analysis of many of the lps (Prog was ‘album music’ par excellence) is informed by musical knowledge and a familiarity with twentieth century classical composers, many of whom are new names to this reader. He also makes the point that the vast majority of rock ‘music critics’ then, as now, are woefully bereft of any technical knowledge of music and retained a preference for blues based tunes; even today most of them prefer to analyse the lyrics rather than tackle the thorny issue of how the music actually sounds or achieves its effects; from their ranks, possibly the late Steven Wells succeeded best in his manic metaphor and adjective strewn hyperbole, unfortunately the records he championed were invariably awful – Skunk Anansie anyone??

Stump also makes a good case for prog as the perfect musical form of postmodernism, especially in its 80s incarnation (I had jumped ship by then, never hearing the likes of Pallas, Twelfth Night or IQ, although I did go and see Marillion when I was bored one night in Rome in 1985 – whatever you may think of them, and I was never a fan, I suppose you have to admire their audacity for flying directly in the face of fashion). The effect of Live Aid in boosting the careers of many rock bands that had almost been written off at that point and concomitant rise of the cd also initiated the remaster/reissue industry, which kept the music business solvent for a couple more decades.

He charts the crossover into rave and ambient, principally by Steve Hillage and Gong and the far dodgier rise of New Age music to light an aromatherapy candle to. His in-depth knowledge of foreign prog has made me keen to hear some of the records, but experience has made me more resistant to many of their period charms. From his extensive list I’m interested in hearing Germany’s Anyone’s Daughter and Japan’s Mr Sirius.

There’s also an interesting, but probably superfluous, section on ‘Progressive telly’, obviously a personal obsession, mainly about children’s programmes, which featured pastoral, pagan and hippy themes, such as The Owl Service, Ace of Wands and Children of the Stones, which I remember and Sky and The Moon Stallion, which I don’t.

The best music books not only incorporate biography and analysis but also examine the business side of the equation and attempt to situate the musicians in their historical context. Stump emphasises the importance of the economic situation of the mid-seventies and the now largely forgotten fact that many British musicians and ‘celebrities’ were tax exiles, distancing them from their home fanbase – a crucial factor in the rise of punk. The increasing emphasis on technology meant that the bigger groups were locked into a ruinous circuit of acquisition of ever-more expensive and flashy equipment (especially keyboards), lighting rigs, and amplification for playing the huge stadia in the US market and spent longer periods of time in the studio honing their audio ‘masterpieces’. I recently read a quote from Kevin Godley saying that he and Lol Crème had been ensconced in the studio for so long creating their epic folie de grandeur Consequences that when they finally emerged in 1977 the musical landscape had totally changed and ‘everyone was wearing bondage trousers’; unsurprisingly the triple lp didn’t do well.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Bestsellers of 2010

Had a look at the Nielson Top 100 Bestsellers for 2010 in Saturday’s Guardian and didn’t find it quite as depressing as the lists from recent years. Stieg Larsson and Stephanie Meyer dominate the fiction – I already suspected that from a quick scan of the reading matter on any London bus or tube carriage.

At least the celebrity ‘autobiography’ fad seems now to be finally fading (no sign of Jordan) and ‘misery memoirs’ are no longer bestsellers (there will undoubtedly be enough misery to come in 2011). Similarly the ‘interesting trivia’ collections such as Schott’s Miscellany also appear to be a thing of the past. I felt a warm glow of satisfaction when I read that Jeremy Clarkson doesn’t feature at all, a similar fate befell Chris Evans’ heavily hyped autobiography, although no doubt it shifted thousands more copies than the new edition of my book and he trousered a considerably larger advance. The appalling Russell Brand’s Booky Wook 2 (truly a comic for our times) scraped in at No.97 but still made over £1million.

What is depressing for me is that a mere 18% of the total consists of non-fiction and that small percentage includes cookery books and autobiographies; only one history book, by Bill Bryson, and nothing on science and religion. I have no idea of my own book sales over the last year but, if the past is anything to go by, my earnings next year will continue their downward trend – and I’m an author who actually occasionally ventures out of his study to promote them; 190 people attending a talk does not necessarily translate into good sales.

There is also the personally dispiriting experience of seeing my books far less often on the shelves of the nation’s few remaining bookshops than I did even one or two years ago. I can remember the exhilaration and pleasure that I derived from walking past a bookshop in, say, Fleet Street and spotting Subterranean City, shortly after publication, in the middle of the window display; many of these shops now no longer exist. Supermarkets aggressively market the same small group of bestsellers and booksellers such as Waterstones have drastically pruned their stock of titles that only sell a handful each year. Amazon demands such huge discounts that many smaller publishers can no longer deal with them. There still seems to be a life for small publishers targeting a niche market in limited editions, but times are only going to get tougher as the generations that no longer read books gain dominance; at least I don’t have to rely on my writing to survive, unlike some scribes I know.