‘Eldritch House!’ – For Mark E Smith

Another one gone, this one more my era. Mark E Smith, cantankerous and often weird but fascinating frontman of the Fall.

Here’s one of their enigmatic numbers, accompanied by interpretive dance because why not?


The double-edged nature of Christmas

Christmas is always bittersweet.

Ostensibly a festival which gives hope to all human beings, tidings of comfort and joy, all that, it’s never been that kind of happy-clappy thing it appears on the surface.

Partly it is because the double-edged nature is built into the festival, into its myths. The best example perhaps is in three wise men who brought the gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The gift of gold appears straightforward enough: frankincense is more ambivalent and myrrh is an embalming ointment. It prefigures the crucifixion, suffering and the fact this child will be tortured to death.

The most memorable carols are often ineffably sad: ‘Silent Night’ is incredibly melancholy, and as a child, for years, I would avoid it.  Partly because I associated it with an episode of ‘Lassie’ in which Lassie had gone missing and Little Timmy had to sing it in the town choir. I must have been about four when I saw that.

That double-edged nature of the festival carries into the secular songs associated with Christmas, often in bizarre ways.

One of the most popular modern Christmas songs, the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, is a duet between two people at the end of every tether they could have reached the limit of: in a drunk tank, insulting each other with foul epithets (‘you scumbag, you maggot’ ‘you cheap lousy faggot’ etc) and yet managing to be somehow uplifting at the same time.

A more bizarre one is the loved and hated Snoopy’s Christmas: a childish celebration of a mythical duel above World War One’s western front between the lovable cartoon dog Snoopy and the real-life, somewhat cold and probably psychologically disturbed Manfred von Richthofen. Who was, after all, the greatest fighter ace of the First World War, whose specialty was sneaking up behind reconnaissance machines and setting them on fire – and then, if they, as they usually did, fell on his side of the lines, scouring the wreckage for souvenirs amid the bodies.

It is a deeply weird song.

Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly wrote one of the great Christmas songs, about a bloke phoning his family home from prison at Christmas. ‘How To Make Gravy’ is a song which builds and builds, emotionally: I wrote a bit more about it here a few years back. 

Christmas can be a jarring time: it is supposed to be about home, not just about physical home but also the feeling of being with someone you are meant to belong with.

The other double-edged thing about Christmas is it is poignant because you remember previous, happier Christmases with loved ones who aren’t around anymore.

Or who might be there this time but are under a cloud of some sort or other which throws into question whether they will be there next year.

That brings me to another great, non-seasonal Paul Kelly song – Deeper Water, a song following a young boy being taken swimming by his dad, to feeling out of his depth as he grows up and life’s experiences, both joyous and sorrowful, threaten to overwhelm him.

‘The clock moves around 

The child is a joy

But death doesn’t care just who it destroys

The woman gets sick 

Thins down to the bone

She says “where I’m going next,

I’m going alone….”‘

Like I say, it’s not a Christmas song in the least. But it cuts to the heart of the joys and sorrows of life in the same way Christmas can.

Setting the religion aside for those who want to take it literally, I think the great power of Christmas is, in fact, this double-edged nature.

It seems we humans need to mark these apparently incompatible things together, somehow: both joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, silly toy cartoon characters and disturbed real-life sociopaths, alcoholic abusive degradation and  uplift and hope; and, yes, a figure who has come to give hope to all humans who is publicly humiliated and tortured to death.

It is a reminder that we are all these things and that all these things – at some metaphorical level anyway –  are part of our lives.

That joy and suffering are at the core of human experience.

And that both lie at the heart of this strange thing we call love.

‘Listen now to the wind, babe: listen now to the rain….’

I wandered down along the river last night
Call me romantic? I say I couldn’t sleep
Until the first-light struck me down,,,

I remember Jimmy Barnes coming to New Zealand in the early 1990s – I think he might have appeared on Telethon or something similar.

And hearing a few folk who had met him, backstage, who had expected him to be this wild arrogant Ocker rocker…and who came back somewhat blown away. He was, yes, a wild Ocker rocker, but he hadn’t been the arrogant prick they’d expected. In fact, they’d come away gushing at how much they’d liked the guy.

He was interviewed by Wallace Chapman on NatRad, here.

The best Cold Chisel songs…well, ok, *some* of the best Cold Chisel songs..featured dual vocals by Ian Moss and Jimmy Barnes.

This was particularly so live.

This is perhaps not as well known as some of their bigger hits, but it is a great blues, off of their first album, and it was a live staple, and great crowd pleaser, for much of their career.

Ian Moss’s caramel smooth vocals are followed by a guitar solo which is as fluid and mellow as a Miles Davis muted trumpet piece.

According to band legend, this song served a major commercial purpose when played live: Barnes, who, as well as the main lead singer was also the band’s enforcer, didn’t have to be onstage for the first five minutes.

So it was when he went and collected the money the band was owed from the promoter, with his fists if necessary.

Just so long as he made it back to stage in time to add his sandpaper-voice soul to the song’s climax.

More well known was this one…Bow River.

One week, two weeks, maybe even more
A-pissing all my money up against the damn wall..

This version of Bow River is, to my mind, better than the studio version on ‘Circus Animals’, the album – Chisel’s best, for my money – it came off.

And that is not to knock the studio version, either. It’s pretty good.

But the live version takes flight higher.

It is, mostly, a bloody fantastic band playing their heart and guts and balls out. And it was recorded when they were breaking up, at one of their farewell concerts in Sydney at the end of 1983.

It is one of my few personal regrets  – I have things I am remorseful about, as should everyone who has a conscience, but I think regrets are usually pointless and I try to avoid them.

But…one of those few regrets is missing them on the New Zealand leg of their farewell tour. I was, at the time, sitting in Whakatane with concussion, having written off my first car.

Pranging into a Holden, as it turned out. Colliding with the Aussies in a different way, I guess.



Where Have All the Good times Gone?

Ray Davies wrote this when he was 21. His producer apparently said it was the kind of thing a 40-year-old would write.

Personally, I was about one year old when the original came out, at the end of 1965, but when I was discovering the Kinks in the late 1970s, this was on a live album.

It’s a somewhat rocked up, stadium version, it has more bounce than the original recording, but retains the same knowing, warily ironic lyrics. I fell in love with the Kinks around this time, even though they were well past their best. It was difficult to get hold of out-of-print albums in New Zealand then, but I managed, after a few years, to scour enough second-hand bins to put together a collection.

I loved them because they were so damn different to anything else going on – even though you could hear their influence in a lot of the music of the time.

Ray Davies visited Buck House last month and arose Sir Ray.

Davies sang like an old man, well before he was one. The run of recordings from roughly  mid-1966 to mid-1969,  although spread around several different albums,  some nominally formed around “concepts”, plus a splattering of magnificent if often neglected singles,  is like a unified body of work.

A body of work completely out of sync with its times:  amid the spectacular multicolour of psychedelia and the self-conscious,  self-dramatising youth revolution of the late 1960s,  Ray Davies penned a series of monochrome songs about the world that was being lost.

“Dead End Street”, a single at the end of 1966, could probably began this body of work, although there were glimpses in some of the tracks on the ‘Face To Face’ album earlier in the year.

“Dead End Street”  is more reminiscent of the 1930s than the 1960s:  Davies’ vocal begins,  pinched and cold,  like an unemployed man huddling into a cold army surplus overcoat for warmth.

‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling
And the kitchen sink is leaking …’

The rhythm is a march: there are horns, like a northern brass band, and it calls to mind mental pictures of the Jarrow March of 1936 rather than the psychedelic “happenings” of 1966.

The video is silly, but one thing it has in common with the song is it is in black and white.

Davies’ songs from this era all sounded monochrome: they were like Ealing, or Boulton Brothers, films set to music.

‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night?’

Including, of course, the masterpiece: Waterloo Sunset. A big part of the appeal of the song is the loneliness of its narrator (‘every day I look at the world from my window’) and the imagery of the detached, solitary observer viewing the bustling crowd and the dirty old river, rolling, flowing into the night, sticks in the mind.

There’s both a distance and a clarity and a detail in what Davies is singing about – again, the imagery is monochrome, and his brother Dave’s guitar matches the mood perfectly.

And if words, and playing is gritty and monochrome, the ethereal backing vocals float away, above the busy urban scene, like Philip Larkin gazing through his High Windows, nowhere and endless.

This body of work culminated in two albums, ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire’  – the latter from a tv play by Julian Temple which was, in the end, never made.

Davies has since redone it, with a choir – there’s a live version here. It works, pretty much.

Davies said once, somewhere, that Waterloo Sunset is him at his best, and he himself as not as good as Waterloo Sunset. I recently read Johnny Rogan’s recent biography of him, ‘Complicated Life’ and this is certainly a piece of that good old English understatement. While not exactly a hatchet job, Rogan – whose earlier book on the Kinks was subtitled ‘A Mental Institution’ – does not exactly go out of his way to hide his subject’s flaws.

But it’s always the way, isn’t it? Brilliant creativity – and Davies’ influence can be heard on musos as diverse as David Bowie, the Who, the Smiths, Ian Dury, and even our own Split Enz – often goes hand in hand with a certain personal rebarbativeness of character. “A miserable little bleeder” one of his uncles dubbed him when he was a child, and there’s no doubt Davies, from childhood, was suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental illness.

There’s a good recent interview with him in the New Statesman here, where he discusses hipsters and Pete Townshend, amongst other things.

He’s clearly an awkward bugger, somewhat at odds with life. But that kind of goes with the territory, it seems.


For Kiwi Music Munff: Giant Friend – Mutton Birds

I don’t think I’m the only person who, when this came out, thought they were singing about Janet Frame. 

That, though, would have been a bit too direct for Don McGlashan. 

Someone once defined the Muttonbirds as being like the a Kiwi version of the Kinks with a touch of Twin Peaks’ undefined menace to them.

That to me is almost right. The band – and Don McGlashan’s other work, with Front Lawn and Blam Blam Blam and elsewhere – certainly get, and convey, New Zealand culture in a way the Kinks, at their peak, were able to do for the English. 

But Twin Peaks?  Hmm.  You can see it a bit in this video clip, I suppose. But really, you don’t need to go offshore to seek influcneces.  The band is  like a rock muso version of Maurice Gee’s novels, or of some of our infamous ‘Cinema of Unease’.

If peoeple still bothered to market music compilations, someone could do a very good ‘Music of Unease’ of Kiwi Music. 

In fact, of course, you could probably make one of your own.