Wasn’t that the name of a record label or some series of records back in the eighties? Still. It’s a good reason for listening to music. And I don’t mean just pop music. There was a time when I was listening to the soundtrack of the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved with some regularity, and that’s not just an intellectual exercise You can look at that music through a technical lens. Well… maybe you can, but I’m not equipped to do that. I’m not a classical music buff (the only other classical CD I own is Mozart For Dummies) and I don’t know enough about the make up of classical music to wax academic about it, nor have I listened to enough to be able to dig through a large accumulated volume and mine the nuggets as I fancy I can do with some other genres.
But there’s incredible emotion in Beethoven’s music, and at times a deceptive aspect that seems fairly simple but might not be (probably it’s just not obviously ornate). “The Moonlight Sonata” as performed on that CD – just a piano, no strings – is a masterpiece of what I understand as elegance: entirely sufficient, yet nothing extraneous. But more than that there is a massive, transporting emotional payload to the piece. “The Emperor” is very, very nearly as good.
The recording might sound quiet to listeners who are used to rock records, but that’s because of the way it’s recorded (which is probably not unusual for a classical record) with a very wide dynamic range so that when the orchestra steps on it you get the swell in volume and the impact that confers. When Murray Perhia is playing the “Moonlight Sonata” then he can similarly deploy the range that gave the Piano Forte it’s name.
These things are all part of the pleasure, though the melodies (Beethoven has fabulous melodies) and the emotion are the real joys that the instruments and the recording and the conductor’s presentation serve to maximise those.
There was a time when I didn’t have many records, nor the availability of listening opportunities that I now have. Music was bought on vinyl discs. Long players (albums) were 12 inches in diameter (singles were 7 inches) and the equipment you needed to listen was bigger than that. I couldn’t imagine the situation I now have – over a hundred old long players on a device that I can fit into a shirt pocket. Listening to music required the time and the place and the equipment.
Back then music seemed more precious. There! I have confessed. I don’t think this was so much a function of the technology as a function of my limited means and library. When I got to listen to Joan Armatrading’s eponymous third album or Neil Young’s Decade I did so with intent, with intensity. And I did so often because let alone a device that would hold a hundred long players I didn’t own anywhere near that number. Those were the days when I learned to love music. Quickly I learned that not all of it was magical. Some records, some musicians just didn’t pack the same punch. The more I listened, the fussier I got and the more the scope for disappointment grew.
And the more I started treasuring the real satisfaction that the good stuff could bring. And although I could try to justify my choices out loud somehow the real magic was …. magical. You couldn’t really prove it or explain it in words (well… I couldn’t) but I knew it when I heard it. And I didn’t think too much about it or analyse it.
For a while I listened to prog rock acts such as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I felt that should have been somehow superior, but it became apparent that technique by itself was not enough. Then, on my own personal timeline (anachronistic to say the least) I “discovered” the blues and then just as I started figuring that out punk happened. The blues informed me about feel, Punk drove home the need for energy and passion.
Then I started working in the music business, writing for the only proper music newspaper in South Africa and working with the remarkable Bob Anderson who in a time when the local white music scene was reducing in scope and packed with show bands (some of them very good, but still show bands) playing disco covers ran a club in Hillbrow, the Boogie Barn, that provided a stage for rock bands that played their own material rather than covers. That club was an oasis, but soon it wasn’t the only one (thank goodness) as imitators opened up and the dark tea time of live music didn’t last too long. But I started getting academic about music: I had column inches to fill and gigs to market.
Bob’s club alarmed the management at the Chelsea Hotel. He rented their basement space, and the club was busy and the bar did well for the owners (we took the door, and only the door). But the mix of hippies and punks alarmed them and they wanted us gone. They wanted cabaret instead, proper music for sophisticated people. In particular they wanted Taubie Kushlick putting on shows of Jacques Brel’s music. But there was a lease and as long as Bob played the rent on time (and he was fastidious about payments) they couldn’t just get rid of him. But they could make life inconvenient and the club got turned over to Taubie Kushlick during the days for rehearsals, and we’d come to open up and find everything rearranged and a piano in the middle of the dance floor.
Bob and I went there early one day to ask La Kushlick if she could put everything away before leaving. It seemed only proper. She said that well she did, I said that I was forever manhandling the piano out of the way and that suggested that, in fact, she wasn’t taking care of these courtesies. She turned to her piano player and said “Philip! Punch that boy in the nose!” Philip walked up to me, looked me in the eye and said “I’m going to punch you in the nose.” I asked him to put the piano away first. They spluttered and scowled and grumbled, but the piano was put away and they started leaving the place in better order. And Philip never punched me in the nose.
To cut an out of control story short, last weekend I got tired of listening to things that were new to me with a view to understanding and then explaining them. I decided to just relax a bit and listen for pleasure. Maureen was going to be out at a farewell party for a friend, so I could be self-indulgent about things.
First up was Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son. This was my introduction to Simpson, and I remember being struck actually by facets of his technique – which is formidable. The clarity of his playing, and the sustain he could get even when playing acoustic guitar. The way that every note would ring clear, with no blurs or buzzes in his hammering on and pulling off. And all of THAT allowed him to put a lot of detail into his arrangements and the listener to hear it all. The effect is quite remarkable, and although he mostly stays away from superficial flash it seems to me that few players are in his league. And above all of that is the story telling in his music. He writes his own pieces, but he plays a lot of covers too – always well chosen and with a good story. Simpson sells you the story in the song and decorates it with his guitar playing.
On this album he saves the best for last. “Andrew Lammie” marries a gorgeous melody to a shocking story of an honour killing. Simpson’s delivery is measured – never histrionic but always conveying the emotion in the tale. Masterful. Great technique, but not for it’s own sake.
On the Thursday night I’d heard Jonathan Taylor (better known as a TV actor) perform a set of Paul Simon songs at TJ’s club. He opened with “The Boy In The Bubble” and did it well, but without the lop-sided drive of the original or the calculatedly awkward, stumbling rhythm that Simon gives those awkward lyrics and especially in the last verse.
I hadn’t listened to Graceland for some years, but Taylor’s performance had left me with a hunger for it. Simon has a lot of great songs, but the two-disc “best of” set that I have suggests that he may not have a lot of great albums. Amongst all those great, well crafted, clever hits there is a fair bit of filler – even on a compilation. So you get “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Love” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” but also lesser pieces like “St Judy’s Comet” and “Duncan” (both of which recycle hooks and gimmicks he’d used on better songs). But Graceland has quality in spades with several of his best songs and no real clunkers. It’s unlike anything that he’d produced before, and despite the political furore around the making of the record (Simon recorded most of the base tracks in Johannesburg, and then flew South African players to London and New York to play on other tracks) it was a massive hit and revived his career after a flop album (Hearts and Bones, which deserved better) and opened up new avenues for him.
The album owes as much to technology as its township jive roots, with Simon and his engineer of choice Roy Halee slicing up and reassembling the original tracks to work them into songs that probably didn’t sound like that much like what was originally recorded. But the building blocks are loaded with energy and unusual grooves (well… for Simon and western pop audiences) and the results retain the original drive.
Johnny Clegg’s manager Hilton Rosenthal invited many of the players (Simon not being well acquainted with the South African township music scene) and his choices are inspired, particularly Bakhiti Khumalo on bass who gives several tracks a sense of movement as well as a solid underpinning (the aforementioned odd groove on the opening track, the throbbing drone of the title track and elements of both on the hit single “You Can Call Me Al”).
It’s an intriguing album, somehow with the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The juxtaposition of raw but not unsophisticated township sounds with synthesizers and processed drums is easily apparent, but Simon’s instincts are unerring and he makes it work repeatedly. I have no idea what he’s singing about much of the time, and apparently neither does he. He abandoned his usual song writing methods for this album (he’d hit a dry patch so they weren’t working for him anyway) and descriptions he gave in subsequent interviews reveal an unquestioning stream of conciousness approach that sounds like some kind of channelling. Maybe it’s this mix of calculation and “let’s see what happens” that provides the magic, but magic there is. Again sound is important – Halee and Simon craft a beguiling sonic setting for the songs that serves to draw the listener in.
Last up was World Party’s resolutely retro Goodbye Jumbo that sounds like every sixties and seventies record you can think of mixed together, yet has a heart all of it’s own.
Albums are more than just a bunch of songs recorded more or less at the same time and more or less in the same aesthetic ball park. The best albums have a flow, build to a conclusion with care taken to the sequencing of the songs, and this album is a fine example. The concluding sequence is hugely satisfying: “Take Me To The Top” is all rhythm and groove with proto-rap vocals; “Love Street” is near psychedelia with a lyric that is pure sixties without falling intro pastiche or cliché. “Sweet Soul Dream” is rich with mystery and mysticism and longing for something transcendent and has a rich but simple melody. The arrangement builds to a great climax with fiddle and whistle restating the melody. Finally there is the loud, electric, “Thank You World” that summarises the ecological and pantheistic themes that run through the record and builds to a loud climax before dropping down to a single voice and guitar which closes the album perfectly.
And wouldn’t you know it: When you try to describe and explain the magic somehow it gets less magical, more mundane.
It’s fun writing and reading and talking about music, but sometimes you just need to shut up and listen to it and feel it. And just enjoy it without reason.