tiggerlion's picture

Paul Simon - Paul Simon (January 1972)

In December 1971, our house acquired its first stereo. My dad had obviously planned it for a long time. He bought separates and wall furniture to rest them on, including a large record cabinet. The speakers were placed high on the wall on either side of the front window. There were half a dozen albums, including a Status Quo, Songs For Swinging Lovers and a Fats Waller greatest hits. It was a Christmas present to the household.

I saved all my pennies and in January I went to the shop for my first album, Electric Warrior. I listened to it non-stop for months, interrupted only by Telegram Sam and its B sides, Cadilac & Baby Strange. My record buying ways were set, never to change.

At the same time, my dad purchased Paul Simon's first solo LP after splitting with Art Garfunkel. I never paid any attention, lost as I was in a world of cork-screw hair, glitter, make up and boogie. Most houses I visited had a copy of Bridge Over Troubled Water, which I saw as boring music for grown ups. When my dad managed to cleave T.Rex off the turntable, I thought the album, Paul Simon, sounded like a toned down version, with fewer instruments and smaller tunes. I didn't take to it. Even its cover of a sheepish Paul Simon hiding under his parka fur-trimmed hood was no match for Bolan's glam, rock-god pose with a huge amp.

Then, something funny happened in the summer, namely Kenny Everret. I had a small battery operated radio that I took with me whenever I walked the dog. On Sundays I could listen to the whole two hour show. One day he played Papa Hobo, then Hobo's Blues. He liked them so much he played them again. If Kenny liked it, it was worthy of my attention. Besides, I heard a snatch of the words for the first time and Papa Hobo was about Detroit, the Motor City, the home of Tamla Motown and the origin of the soundtrack to my childhood. Plus the parping bass harmonica tickled my juvenile humour.

I went home and listened to the whole album for the first time. Gradually, I began to appreciate its strengths and charms. They seeped into my pores despite the constant demands from Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Roxy Music.

It has a strange start. Simon travelled to Jamaica to enlist Jimmy Cliff's backing group and a fine set of backing vocalists, including Whitney Houston's mum. He was one of the first white artists to embrace reggae. Simon loved the sounds and styles of different music from all over the world. Here, he employs a genuine reggae band to play in a reggae style but it is still a Paul Simon song sung in a Paul Simon way. The subject matter of bereavement is unusually downbeat for the music of sunshine and Simon's pure choirboy voice retains its perfect diction and its precision. Nevertheless, it all hangs together, leaving a mystery with the title, Mother And Child Reunion. Does it mean a child has died and is about to join its mother in the after life? Why is it only a motion away? Does that refer to the lowering of the coffin? Simon said it refered to an egg and rice dish but this song is nothing to do with a Chinese meal.

There are echoes of Bridge Over Troubled Water across the rest of the album. Again, Roy Halee produces, Larry Knechtel, responsible for the gospel piano on Troubled Water itself adds a variety of keyboard touches and Hal Blaine plays drums. The second track, Duncan, has many Troubled Water elements. Los Incas who played on El Condor Pasa make a reappearance. The song itself is, like The Boxer, a story of a poor boy who has a sexual awakening. The girl he meets reads the bible, which is mentioned in Keeping The Customer Satisfied. But, its similarities to Troubled Water also highlight the differences. It's a beautifully constructed, gentle song. There is none of the bombast of crashing cymbals or sweeping strings. The production is closer and more intimate. The delivery is more heartfelt. By the end, when he is lying on his back, looking at the stars thanking The Lord for the gifts bestowed upon him, the listener is lifted by the swell of the Incas cello and percussion and carried away by the melody in the flutes.

Next, we are brought crashing down by the pessimistic Everything Put Together Falls Apart. It is a microcosmic distillation of the whole album in just two minutes. It is the point at which the album becomes more than just a collection of songs. At its heart is one man, one voice, one acoustic guitar. He may be miserable but he hums and coos gorgeously. His voice is completely exposed. Yet, even in soprano, he more than matches his absent partner. The guitar playing is precise and warm. All those years practicising on the road in the UK have paid dividends. There are a couple of tasteful flickers of electric piano and an understated harmonica. The writing across the whole album is thoughtfully and economically put together. Simon had spent the previous year refining his craft, teaching others songwriting. This particular song meanders with little changes in pace in the rhythm of normal speech. From the opening, whispered, "mmm-mm, paraphernalia" the listener is invited to lean in closely in order to benefit from the worldly wisdom being dispensed. It is beautiful.

Run That Body Down kicks its shoes off and slouches on the couch. It needs to, because both Paul and Peg, his wife, are name checked specifically and pointed at by the finger of shame. They both need a long rest. It is actually a surprising personal revelation of vulnerability for a pop star but delivered in such a languid, relaxed manner it seems unremarkable. It helps that Hal Blaine and the great jazz giant, Ron Carter, are the rhythm section. There is also a vibraphone, which I always associate with a laid-back feel but it's the guitar solo by Jerry Hahn that captures the mood best. The vocal's conversational phrasing and closing falsetto are excellent. It's the third completely different band in four tracks but the musicians, including Simon himself, are so good, they gel perfectly across nearly four minutes of pure aural pleasure.

Side one closes with a cry of angst. Armistice Day starts quietly but loses patience by the end of the first verse to become a thrashing of acoustic guitar. Jerry Hahn makes another telling contribution with an aggressive, increasingly fraught electric guitar. Horns interject pointedly. Simon wants to see his congressman. We aren't told why and he doesn't get to see him. It's a perfectly realised expression of frustration that ends without resolution.

Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard starts with a peculiar, jaunty rhythm driven by a cuica, a Brazilian percussion instrument with a round, hollow feel. The song exudes wit and charm, popping with alliterations and puns. It could accompany a performance by a group of clowns. However, a crime has been committed, so heinous that it makes the cover of Newsweek and the mama pajama spits on the ground whenever it gets mentioned. But, it is such a happy singalong, even when saying 'goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona' that it's difficult not to get carried away, especially when Simon's and David Spinozza's acoustic guitars mesh conspiratorially at the end.

I honestly believe Peace Like A River is Paul Simon's best ever performance. He is backed by a bass and simple percussion. His guitar playing is incredible. The finger speed is superquick with flourishing, complicated runs until he picks out a neat melody. It sounds almost spontaneous rather than carefully planned. His voice is delicious. He is multi-tracked for backing as a host of angels, reminiscent of Only Living Boy In New York. He displays his full range, both across octaves and across moods. The song itself is wonderful. It is a celebration of success, tinged with defiance. There is finally peace after a period of hardship endured in order to get there ('You can beat us with wires, you can beat us with chains'). The simile of the title is affecting but, more importantly, is the personal effect on Simon as an individual. He wakes in the small hours and can't get back to sleep. The excitement and joy is too acute. They say that the trick of great songwriting is to render the personal universal. Peace Like A River turns that notion on its head. Simon relates a universal struggle to a personal experience and, in doing so, reaches a wider audience.

Papa Hobo is next, which turns out to be more than just about Detroit. It captures the moment of moving on, the moment when the past is left behind and the future is embraced. That scat falsetto at the close is the sound of a bird leaving its nest. Hobo's Blues has a big smile on its face. Here is Paul Simon, enjoying himself, riffing with the legendary Stéphane Grappelli for just over a minute.

Paranoia Blues is the flipside to Me And Julio. It carries a threat through Stefan Grossman's pumped up bottleneck guitar and some throaty horns. Even Simon manages a snarl, 'Whose side are you on?' plus a sideswipe against his home town, New York City. But, there is humour in the verses. The scenarios feeding the paranoia are laughably ridiculous, especially the final one when he turns round and finds that his Chow Fun has gone. This album made Lin's Garden restaraunt in Bayard Street famous.

Finally, a lullaby, in which we are bedded down by Larry Knetchel's sumptuous electric piano and organ. The voice is sweet and soothing. However, all is not well. Congratulations depicts a relationship falling apart. There is misery, there are fights, there is blame, there is soul searching and there is a yearning. It's a reminder that Paul Simon is born out of a divorce from Art Garfunkel and problems in his marriage to Peggy. Looking back now, as the final track plays out, it's easy to see how many of the songs have been touched by the feelings generated by instability. Perhaps, Armistace Day has nothing to do with waiting to see a congressman, that friends have actually betrayed him as described in Paranoia Blues, that Papa Hobo is present day desire for a fresh start rather than a past one or the insomnia in Peace Like A River has a stress-related cause.

In the end, Paul Simon is about one man, one voice, one acoustic guitar. The man's artistry was at its most refined. His songwriting was at its peak. His voice at its sweetest and its most beautiful. His guitar picking at its most dexterous. Here is a man exposed and vulnerable creating his most personal and human work. Paul Simon is a perfectly balanced album with finely judged contributions from other musicians, safely encouraged by Roy Halee. It is my favourite Paul Simon album by far. Nowadays, I'm far more likely to return to Paul Simon than I am to Electric Warrior.

Over a year later, on 13th April 1973, I bought Aladdin Sane. A couple of weeks later, my dad brought home There Goes Rhymin' Simon, triggering another battle for the record deck. Rhymin' Simon is too stodgy and over-produced for me, but, I have to admit my dad was spot on about Paul Simon. He has been dead for twenty years now. If I need to tap into his calm, assured common sense in the face of adversity, I play Paul Simon, and, straight away, he's with me. Sometimes, music transcends mere listening pleasure.

Poppy Succeeds's picture

I call it Weatherallism

My friends! I have made an important musical discovery. I have uncovered a movement that came and went unremarked and worse -- unforgivably -- unnamed. How remiss of a music press that gave us Romo and Skunk Rock to sleep on the fact that in the years 1993 and 1994 came the apex of an open-minded and innovative era of music, when a group of DJs and producers explored possibilities laid open to them by cheap sampling technology and gleefully raided their own record collections to perform extensive surgery in the name of the remix.

Not just ‘remix’, you understand, which after all was nothing new. No. With the blueprint drawn when Andrew Weatherall deconstructed Primal Scream’s I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have to make Loaded in 1990, this was a process of complete overhaul, soup to nuts, a new, usually dubwise, and without exception long interpretation, often bearing no resemblance to the original. Some were instant classics, yet oftentimes they fell between the cracks, being too distant to appeal to bemused fans of the original nor clubby enough for followers of the DJs and producers who made them.

Hundreds of these remixes were issued in the early 1990s, often as standalone releases, often taking up entire 33RPM sides of vinyl. Yet it was in 1993 and 1994 that they were at their best and most abundant.

I’m going to retrospectively name this musical movement.

I’m going to name it in honour of its creator.

I’m going to call it Weatherallism.

The men behind the mixes: Andy Weatherall and the Sabres of Paradise, David Holmes, Leftfield, Secret Knowledge, Hugo Nicolson, Fluke, Spooky, William Orbit, Underworld, The Drum Club, Future Sound of London, Adrian Sherwood, Orbital, Leftfield, Kris Weston, Alex Paterson, Youth, and the legion of studio men who did all the hard work, only to see somebody else take the credit in pieces like this. Not to mention the bands who offered up their music for radical interpretation at their hands: One Dove, Primal Scream, Flowered Up, St Etienne, Finitribe, Lush, Chapterhouse, Bjork, Jah Wobble. A big hand to them.

Characteristics of Weatherallism
1. There are (a lot of) brackets involved, in order to denote
2. …remixes that were long, and epic…
3. ...and often contained little or nothing of the original.
4. And they were lengthy. These were tracks that grew and developed over an extended running time. So what if the main riff takes seven minutes to kick in? Pah. Anything under ten minutes is like The Undertones in this genre. Weatherall’s remix of James’ Jam J is thirty-three gorgeous minutes long, and anyway, the best of them have that deep, immersive quality, where however long they are, they still feel too short.
5. The draw was the remixer. As soon as it became clear that Loaded was more about Weatherall than it was about the Scream, the remixer was the main event, the source material unimportant. I’ve never knowingly heard a ‘proper’ song by Therapy? but I sure know and love the mixes by Sabres and David Holmes.
6. They were not necessarily intended for club play. Though made by working DJs and producers these tunes didn’t have the DJ in mind. In fact, if you a look at setlists of the era you’ll see that the sort of epic remix we’re talking about tends to crop up at the beginning and end of sets, bookends, but almost never in the main meat.
7. Retrospectively they feel like mini-proving grounds for classic albums that were to follow. During or in the wake of 93/94 came Leftfield’s Leftism, Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, Sabresonic and Haunted Dancehall, both by Sabres of Paradise, Spooky’s Gargantuan, This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats by David Holmes, and One Dove’s Morning White Dove.*

Allied to both the indie-dance crossover and the progressive house movement (yet I’d argue independent of both) these remixes constituted a breed without brief, a genre that existed primarily in the head of their creators, the DJs and producers whose ideas often outstripped their musical ability. Here was the remixer as movie director, marshalling other people’s sounds into a coherent whole. Weatherall’s mixes drew upon his deep love and knowledge of krautrock, dub reggae, electro and post-punk. Listen to his ‘Dub Chapter 3’ mix of Jailbird by Primal Scream (1994), for example, and you’ll hear a merging of the metallic bounce of electro with the echo and delay of a dub mix. The chances are that this was a marriage existing only in his head – something a proper musician might even have decried as impossible to do.

Signposts to 1993 & 1994

Jesus Jones - Bring it On Down (Liquidised Mix)
An honourable mention for Jesus Jones, who certainly arrived ahead of the pack when it came to lengthy, radical reworks. Craig Leon’s Liquidized Mix of Bring It On Down is an absolute monster, smushing but elongating the original to a ten-minute trip of riffs, echoes and effects and without a doubt pre-dating the epic remix goldrush of 93/94.

Happy Mondays - WFL (Think About The Future)
By 93/94 Oakenfold had moved to trance. However, his Goa Mix of 1994 is well worth a listen as a Weatherallism adjunct, and this remix, by offering up more club-friendly take on the original as well as adding film samples, is a clear precursor to the lengthy, progressive remixes to follow.

Happy Mondays – Hallelujah (Club Mix) [Weatherall]
And here comes the man. Note that pre-Loaded, Weatherall’s take on Hallelujah was simply, the ‘club mix’.

February 1990
Primal Scream -- Loaded
By adding this…
To this:
And this
To just a tiny bit of this
Andrew Weatherall came up with Loaded, and laid the foundations for the musical utopia upon which yours truly now ruminates with such gormless enthusiasm.

My Bloody Valentine – Soon (The Andrew Weatherall Remix)
Okay, so it completely nicks Westbam’s Alarm Clock, but… TUNE!

The Orb - A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld
I’ve put this down as a marker really, just so you know I haven’t forgotten about them.

Love Corporation -- Give Me Some Love (Andrew Weatherall Remix)
In the wake of Loaded, Weatherall is now a named remixer

Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart -- Visions of You (The Secret Love Child of Hank and Johnny Mix)
I simply couldn’t write anything about remixes without mentioning this one. Staying very close to the original, it nevertheless lowers the bass to quite terrifying depths, building slowly from Wobble’s isolated vocal and sitar to the combination of an enormous – and I mean enormous – bass drop and Sinead’s vocal at 3.37, then thundering onwards destroying everything in its path for the next seven minutes.

The small matter of Screamadelica coming out in 1991.

Future Sound of London -- Papua New Guinea (Andrew Weatherall Mix)

When I talk about tracks that are long but you wish they could be longer, I’m talking about you, you Andrew Weatherall remix of Papua New Guinea by Future Sound of London. This is a a track that’s so ridiculously liquid and emotional and like a heart bursting with love that it almost defies you not to float away.

Weatherall’s Weekender
Monsieur Weatherall deconstructs Flowered Up’s superb original, over two sides, each in excess of 15-minutes long, and it’s indulgent, excessive and progressive, and another masterpiece.

The years of peak Weatherallism, 1993 and 1994

Andrew Weatherall
At the Glastonbury of 1993, Weatherall’s Weekender seemed to rumble from inside any marquee worth entering, while Primal Scream, a band with whom he had forged the template we’re talking about here, headlined the NME stage. Support? The Orb, co-conspirators on Screamadelica. Meanwhile, earlier that day, Flowered Up had given what would be one of their final live performances, and it seemed that in the wake of Weekender and Weatherall’s remix, they would, like Primal Scream, take the Weatherallism philosophy forward with new, dubbier and spacier material such as Better Life, Breakfast in Bed and Greedy Soul. Shame, really, that they split up before all but one of those tracks would see the light of day.

The point is that that year and the following Weatherall ‘owned’, having a hand in so much of what we’re talking about here that it’s not even funny. He was behind One Dove and Sabres of Paradise (band and label), making him fully or partly responsible for at least eight of the twenty tracks in my classics list below, not including the signposts. And though as a remixer he would never again reach the heights of Loaded, Papua New Guinea, Soon or Weekender, that’s like saying man will never again discover fire because his workrate and quality has been amazing from that day to this. Two days ago, in fact, on the day of release, I downloaded his newest remix of Atari Teenage Riot’s J. One M. One. And it's lovely.
Weatherall. I sometimes think he’s my John Peel.

David Holmes
On the verge of releasing his debut album This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats, Holmes had quickly established himself as the Northern Irish answer to Weatherall, bringing to the table a similarly stupendous musical knowledge and an excitement at the possibilities offered to him via sampling. Prefiguring his film work, he mixed a passion for soundtracks with a love of the acid sound, and in landmark mixes for Sabres of Paradise and Saint Etienne, made the Roland TB-303 the world’s most heartbreaking sound. For proof, just take a listen to his remix of Smokeblech II by Weatherall’s Sabres of Paradise.

Meanwhile, his first material under his own name, the single Johnny Favourite, came out in 1994, boasting a suitably protracted and typically monumental 15-minute Exploding Plastic Inevitable Mix. But let’s not forget his production work, as Scubadevils with Celestial Symphony (be still beating heart, be still), or joining up with Sabres Gary Burns and Jagz Kooner and Secret Knowledge’s Kris Needs as Four Boy One Girl Action. Or joining up with Slam’s Stuart McMillan for Total Toxic Overload in 1994.

Sigh. All that potential. Wasted.

Can we just take a moment to remember that it was in 1994 that Dubnobasswithmyheadman was released. Like Spooky, Leftfield, David Holmes and Sabres of Paradise, Underworld were absolutely at the top of their game during this period, quite clearly working like dogs to produce not just their own work, but remix work of a breadth and length to make Dubnobasswithmy headman feel positively truncated: a 13-minute long version of Lush by Orbital. A 13-minute long Beauty and the Beast by Sven Vath; two remixes of Spooky’s Schmoo (making a kind of progressive house dream double date). By employing a distinctive drum sound most of them are reminiscent of, er, Underworld, which is no bad thing, while their superb mix of William Orbit’s Water From A Vine Leaf from 1993 is not dissimilar to the lengthy ambient piece Thing In a Book (also from 1994). Best of all, though, was their mammoth A-side take on One Dove’s Why Don’t You Take Me.

Leftfield were early adopters of the big-ass remix, and as result much of their best work came before the period we’re talking about here. Not ‘the’ best, though. Oh no. The single best remix Leftfield ever did was their re-rub of Renegade Soundwave’s eponymous Renegade Soundwave, which although it incorporates significant elements of the original, tickles them up in a massive, warehouse-shaking monster of a tune. A bassbin-bothering behemoth that when the kick drum drops at 1.56 threatens to go full-on brown sound, and by the five-minute mark has developed into a psych-electronic maelstrom. A year later Leftfield released Leftism and the next time they played Brixton Academy the bass from the gig set off car alarms outside. I’m not sure why that’s significant, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.

Shoegazing remixes
What good eggs Chapterhouse were. Having dipped a toe in the water with a solid if unremarkable remix edition of their 1991 single Mesmerise, the Reading shoegazers took full advantage of the epic remix goldrush of 93/94 with mixes of We Are The Beautiful by Spooky as well as Drum Club re-rubs of Don’t Look Now, both in 1993. Neither are spectacular, though Spooky’s Extravganja Mix will tickle your bass bits nicely. Far better is Global Communications ‘retranslation’ of Blood Music, which becomes an hour-long brooding ambient sci-fi suite, earning a portentous new title, Blood Music: Pentamerous Metamorphosis along the way.

Funnily enough, the very last track on the two-CD set of Blood Music is a dubbed-up epic, Picnic, that offers a tantalising glimpse of where Chapterhouse might have gone had they not… gone. Like Flowered Up two years before, Chapterhouse felt like a band that had been inspired by their remixers and may well have became Scream-like purveyors of Weatherllism to shoegazing types. We shall never know.

Meanwhile, Slowdive’s already brilliant 5 EP was not really improved by its Bandulu and Reload versions, so we’ll move swiftly on to Lush, another bunch of shoegazers whose brush with the remixers proved more fruitful. The Drum Club’s 1993 versioning of the band’s Stray was good, but Spooky’s mix of Undertow, thanks to a sticky bass, Miki’s wonderful vocal and a hook that’s used to give the track a feeling of real progression, earns it a place in the Weatheralism classics (below)

The Indie/Rock remix
Shouts out to Higher Intelligence Agency for ambient reworks of Body and Soul by Love and Rockets, Hugo Nicolsons’ crunchy and bruising take on Bass Drum by the New Fast Automatic Daffodils and Drum Club remixes of Tribal by Psychic TV.
Boo Radley’s Lazarus EP, meanwhile, came with a raft of top remixers, including Augustus Pablo, St Etienne and of course the ubiquitous Secret Knowledge. Though St Etienne and Ultramarine fumbled the ball on this occasion. Even by the standards of the epic remixes of 93/94. Weatherall’s 33-minute exploration of James’ Jam J was on the long side, while Therapy? and Bjork both called upon him for Sabres of Paradise remixes, while Back to the Planet enjoyed love from Orbital and The Auteurs from uZiq.

Poppy’s Weatheralism Classics

The ‘signposts’ obviously, plus from the peak years…

Secret Knowledge -- Sugar Daddy (Out of Our Brains on the 5:15 Mix)
Secret Knowledge – Sugar Daddy (Sugar Caned Mix)
Scubadevils – Celestial Symphony (Angel Delight Mix)
Ege Bam Yasi with Finiflex – I Want More (And More And More)
Death Before Disco – Ministry (Exploding Plastic Inevitable Mix)
Delta Lady - Anything You Want (The Delta Belter Vocal Symphony)
One Dove – Breakdown (Secret Knowledge Light Mix)
One Dove – Why Don’t You Take Me? (Underworld Remix)
One Dove – White Love (Guitar Paradise Mix)
One Dove – White Love (Meet the Professionals Dub)
Lush – Undertow (Spooky Mix)
Spooky – Schmoo (Underworld Mix)
Peace Together – Be Still (Sabres of Paradise)

Renegade Soundwave – Renegade Soundwave (Leftfield Mix)
Killing Joke – Requiem (A Floating Leaf Always Reaches the Sea mix) [by Kris Weston]
Jack of Swords – The Box (Black Angel’s Death Mix)
Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart – Becoming More Like God (Secret Knowledge To Hell and Back Mix)
St Etienne – Like A Motorway (David Holmes Mix)
Pop Will Eat Itself – Everything’s Cool (Safe As Milk Mix) [by Youth]
Wolfgang Press – Funky Little Demons (Sherwood Mix)
David Holmes – Johnny Favourite (Exploding Plastic Inevitable Mix)
Boo Radleys – Lazarus (Secret Knowledge Mix)
Bjork – One Day (Springs Eternal Mix)
Innersphere – Let’s Go To Work (Innersphere Mix)


Oakenfold’s Goa Mix

* Though these album were warmly received and now regarded as classics, it’s no lie to say that at the time, and taken in the context of the artists’ remix work, one or two felt like they lacked ambition. Yes. Really.

The following note refers to a paragraph I removed, but I liked the note so I thought I’d leave it in. Just don’t go looking for the parent text.

** The Sabres completely plundered this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sp1N0iArsuU for Smokebelch, and of course David Holmes’ Don't Die Yet is an almost total lift of Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg.

And finally.
This feature has not been finished, it has been abandoned. I literally have to stop writing it in order to get some of my regular life done. What began as a blog post became a feature, became a lengthy feature and you know what it's like. You have a thought that becomes another thought that becomes a bit of research and before you know it, you’re staring at a word count of over 2,800 words. So even though I must stop, I don't think of it as finished and reserve the right to come back to it, perhaps to expend on what I’ve said, add thoughts, say more about Spooky and Secret Knowledge or greater acknowledge the input of Kris Weston and The Orb, or just tinker with my classics list. Thank you for reading this far.

The Scottish Referendum: Head, heart and gut.

I was on a training course the other day. At the end of the course, the participants had to fill in one of those monitoring forms where they ask about your age, gender, ethnicity and all the rest of it. Apart from noting that there seemed to be quite a few gender options available these days, the question that gave me most cause for concern was this one:

'Ethnicity: please indicate how you would describe yourself (please tick one box).'

Among the options were ‘Scottish’ and ‘British’. I wondered which one I should pick. I had to give it some thought; in fact, I’ve been thinking about little else recently as I’ve grappled with the issue of what to do with my vote on 18th September. I’ve been thinking about the country I grew up in, about how that country has changed and about how it’s likely to change even more. I’ve been thinking about the kind of place I’d like my kids and their kids to grow up in. I’m pretty clear that there are good (and bad) arguments on both sides of the referendum debate and also believe that -whatever happens- we’ll somehow manage to get along reasonably well once the dust has settled. In the process of reading, thinking, listening and arguing about this, I’ve been trying to find some kind of peaceful resting place for my referendum vote. I’ve been waiting for a moment when my head, my heart and my gut would be in alignment; only when that moment arrived, I thought, would I know what I was going to do.

Something from years ago has been playing on my mind recently. I recall watching, sometime in the early 90s, a news item on TV about a group of young musicians who had formed what seemed, at the time, to be an unusual band. They were called Bombay Talkie and the members were all of South Asian descent, but spoke with broad Glaswegian accents. They played Bhangra music and dressed in a bizarre mix of traditional Asian costume and tartan. Some of them wore kilts and turbans; I suspect that bagpipes were also somewhere in the mix. The young men in this band spoke with clarity and confidence about their identity as what they called ‘Scots Asians’. They were completely comfortable with the idea that they were Scottish, but had roots in Asian culture. They saw no contradiction in that and wanted their music to express the push and pull of the various cultural influences they had been exposed to.
This may sound a bit soppy, but watching that news item made my heart soar. What a great place to live, I thought. And what a great time to be alive, in a country that could welcome folk from foreign lands, a country that could house them, employ them, give them opportunities and support them to the extent that -just a generation or two later- their kids could be so assimilated that they could nonchalantly mix and match their various influences to produce a vibrant musical expression of their cultural confidence. The lads from Bombay Talkie were fantastic ambassadors for their families and for these islands. I loved the fact that these young men saw no problem whatsoever in the idea that they could be both ‘Scottish’ and ‘Asian’. I felt proud to be, in some small way, part of that, part of a United Kingdom which was -in essence- a great, ongoing multi-cultural experiment, a land that had peaceably (but not without difficulty) transformed itself over the years.

By way of contrast, I also recall that the Conservative government minister Norman Tebbit made some ill-judged remarks in the late 80s about English-born fans of West Indian descent who supported the West Indies cricket team over the English one. He was critical of their decision not to support the ‘home’ nation and appeared to suggest that this was a test of ‘Britishness’ that those cricket fans had somehow failed. Mr Tebbit was vilified for what I’ll call his ‘insensitivity’ on this matter, but sadly, during this referendum debate, some folk seem willing to lapse into that same kind of thinking. I’ve been dismayed by some of the things that seemingly intelligent folk are willing to write and say. I resent, for instance, the notion that there is a ‘Team Scotland’, and that if you are not ‘with the programme’, if you are not swept away by the sheer momentum of it all, then you are somehow not part of that team. Your Scottishness is questioned, as if you somehow don’t care or haven’t thought about the issues involved in the referendum debate. I resent being told that the vote on 18th September is a ‘no-brainer’, when it is clearly the exact opposite. I resent being told that, if I were to side with the No camp, I’d be a stooge of idiotic and venal Westminster politicians, as if a decision about a 300-year partnership should be made on the basis of despising a few clowns who will be forgotten before the decade is out. I resent being told that a Yes vote is the only ‘progressive’ choice and that to contemplate saying No is to side with the forces of darkness. In fact, I’m more than resentful at all this febrile stupidity; I’m furious, because I just don’t recognise my country in some of the things that are going on just now.

Anyway … back to the tick-box option on that monitoring form.

'Ethnicity: please indicate how you would describe yourself (please tick one box).'

I thought about those lads in Bombay Talkie. What would they have done, had someone asked them to pick between ‘Scottish’ and ‘Asian’? It’s obvious, isn’t it? They would have told them to get lost, although I suspect that they would have used much stronger words.

So I ticked the two boxes: Scottish and British.

And do you want to know something? It felt good.

What's Gaelic for 'enough, already'?

For various reasons, I decided to delay watching the Scottish referendum debate, electing instead to catch up with it on media player. It turned out to be pretty much everything I had expected and I’d be surprised if it changed anyone’s mind about how they are going to vote. The most remarkable bit of the show occurred late on in the proceedings (at one hour twenty minutes into the programme, if you’re interested). A young woman in the audience –in the context of a discussion about pensions, during which some folk had raised concerns about how independence might impact on them- put this question to the speakers:

“You’re talking about putting money towards pensions, but what’s being done for the Gaelic language? As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.”

I stared at the screen in disbelief. Was it really possible that there were people walking the earth who thought that was there was a lack of funding for Gaelic?

In the last few years, the Scottish Government has spent millions throughout the country implementing Gaelic language plans and introducing bilingual signs. I know I’m not alone in believing it absurd to have imposed these policies on the lowlands, where there has been no Gaelic heritage and where Lowland Scots has been the traditional form of speech. In fact, it’s worse than absurd; it’s an insidious form of cultural imperialism. I used to think that the 'Partick /Partaig' sign at Partick train station was the most ridiculous and pretentious use of public money that I could think of. Perhaps, I would joke, before that really useful 'Partick /Partaig' sign was erected, thousands of confused folk were mixing up Partick with Habbies Howe or Ashby-de-la-Zouch. God, it must have been chaos back then! But alas, this pointless signage is par for the course now that the SNP’s Kulturkampf is in full swing.

According to the 2011 census, there were 58,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with the vast majority gathered in the Western Isles. Our nation has just as many folk who nominated either Polish or one of the South Asian languages as the one they used at home, but those folk don’t get their own signage or their own TV channel. Yes … about that TV channel. A report in the Scottish Review a couple of years ago estimated that the annual running costs of the BBC’s Gaelic language station ‘Alba’ were around £17m. That represented 29% of the total budget for BBC Scotland, yet it catered for only 1.1% of the Scottish population. Some of those figures were disputed, but a percentage point here or there doesn’t alter the narrative; Gaelic culture is already massively subsidised.

The Scottish Government (i.e. the taxpayer) funds the Gaelic Media Service. So keen are they to promote Gaelic that funding to this organisation was increased from £12m in 2010 to £18m in 2012. By any standards, that’s a generous hike. A few years ago, the ‘Scots Language Working Party Report’ concluded that:
"All media organisations, and all agencies in the cultural sector which receive Government funding, should be actively encouraged to develop specific Scots language policies.’"
The message couldn’t have been clearer: If you want to make publicly-funded art in Scotland, learn some Gaelic.

In addition to its regular Gaelic programmes, BBC Alba routinely covers football and rugby in what some might say is a cynical attempt to boost its viewing figures. Fans have to endure the absurd spectacle of games being described in Gaelic, but with all of the pre and post-match interviews being conducted in English, because -guess what- none of the participants speak the lingo. The BBC boast about Alba’s ‘growing’ audience, but the truth is that if a new free-to-air station called 'Nazi Stormtrooper Animal Experimentation Gold' started broadcasting live sport, it would also boost its viewing figures; those improved statistics, in that sense, are meaningless.

Anyway … back to that nice girl in the audience at the referendum debate. As I stared at the screen in bewilderment, I realised that I was experiencing a ‘Colonel Kurtz’ moment. Kurtz is a character in Francis Coppola’s 'Apocalypse Now', which tells the story of an American Army Captain (Willard) who is sent on a secret mission into the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam war. His task is to assassinate a renegade colonel -Walt Kurtz, played brilliantly by Marlon Brando- who has completely lost the plot and set up his own kingdom in the jungle, lording it brutally over a local tribe. Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is captured by Kurtz and subjected to a number of rambling monologues about war, heroism and the nature of morality. The mad colonel, explaining his conversion to the darkside, relates a story about the US Army’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population. He explains that his platoon had been sent on a mission to a local village to inoculate children against polio. The troops carried out their task but when they returned to the village a few days later, they found a bloody pile of tiny arms. The Vietcong had hacked off the limbs of every child who had been vaccinated by the hated Yankees.

"And then I realized ... like I was shot. Like I was shot with a diamond ... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

This realisation convinces Kurtz that his side are merely playing at war, while the Vietcong actually mean it. From that point, he starts to pursue his own agenda, free from the phoney moralistic constraints of the American chain of command.

“What’s being done for the Gaelic language?" said the young woman, firing that diamond bullet right into my skull. "As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.”

I saw, in that instant, a perfect, complete, honest, crystalline statement of an absolute truth. I realised, with blinding clarity, that that there is literally no amount of money that will satisfy special interest groups. None. However much money you give them, however much ground you concede, they will always want more. They are so focused on their special interest that they are unable to look at the world in the way that most of the rest of us do. They are incapable of any degree of objectivity, because every aspect of their experience has to go through the filter of that special interest.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with having a Gaelic TV channel. I’m all for it, although I don’t see why it should have become the BBC’s role to help re-establish a culture through the medium of television.

All I’m saying is that the next time you hear someone from a special interest group claiming that their special interest is under-funded, remember that nice young woman in the audience. In her world, ‘more’ is never going to be ‘enough’.

The day we (nearly) won the World Cup

25 years ago, Scotland hosted the FIFA under-16 World Cup. I attended quite a few of the games with some football-loving friends, having been part of the small minority who appeared to give a damn about the tournament in the early stages. During the group phase, the authorities tried to entice fans by staging ‘double-headers’ in which the paying customers got to see two games for the price of one. Even with that incentive, those early games didn’t attract much support, with attendances at some grounds barely scraping into four figures. We were among a crowd of around 6,000 at Hampden to watch Scotland open the tournament with a dismal draw 0-0 with Ghana, but public interest started to pick up as our campaign gathered momentum. Attendance at the matches had doubled by the time we played our group decider against Bahrain at Fir Park. Bahrain, as it happens, became our second favourite team because of the stylish football they played. They had a cracking wee player (I think his name was Abdulaziz) that we particularly admired. He was ‘old school’ in the sense that he liked to run at defenders, often outwitting bigger, stronger boys with his guile and skill. He reminded us a bit of Pat Nevin, although –to his credit- he didn’t actually wear a Cocteau Twins t-shirt on the field or carry a New Order limited edition white vinyl 12-inch around with him.

As the Scots fought their way to the knock-out stages, public interest grew further still. Indeed, such was the excitement that the kick off in the semi-final at Tynecastle had to be delayed, as 30,000 punters crammed into the ground to watch our boys take on a gifted Portugese side that featured several members of their so-called ‘golden generation’, including Abel Xavier, Miguel Simao and Luis Figo (who, even then, was quite majestic on the ball). That game went as many of us had expected. The technically-gifted Portugese enjoyed most of the possession and created most of the chances, but we just knew that there was something magical in the air. Brian O’Neill scored with a header from a corner and somehow the obdurate young Scots (coached by Craig Brown and Ross Mathie) held out for a nerve-jangling, backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win. The very concept seemed difficult to absorb: a Scottish football team had qualified for the World Cup Final!

So, on the warm afternoon of 24th June 1989, 58,000 folk turned up at decrepit old Hampden to see our lads acclaimed as world champions. We travelled in hope, but also a degree of expectation. As tournament hosts, we had undoubtedly got the rub of the green a couple of times (particularly against the Portugese), but we also had a fantastic young team. This time, surely, it was going to be our turn? Ian Downie gave us an early lead before, midway through the first half, Paul Dickov added a glorious second. I can still visualise –from my standing position on the old North Terracing- his stylish chip over the Saudi goalie. We were playing brilliantly. 'They might as well give us the cup now', we all thought, 'because this is going to end up about 5-0'. Not only were we going to win this thing, but these lads were going to develop and grow and become actual world champions by 1998 or 2002. It was surely only a matter of time.

Alas, there were several things that we had failed to take into account.

There was the fact that the Saudis were dirty big cheating buggers who were all aged about 25 and were over seven feet tall. Did they feed these lads steroids with their breakfast cereal back in Saudi Arabia? There was the fact that they had already come back from two goals down earlier in the tournament and (SPOILER ALERT) had also won a penalty shoot-out.

The main thing we had overlooked, however, was a metaphysical concept that -until that point- had been way beyond our ken. As innocent lovers of the beautiful game, we had not yet come to the crushing realisation that there was an immutable law of the universe stating that Scotland fans can never, ever enjoy a triumph on the world stage. How innocent we were.

After that glorious opening spell, our lads started to wilt in the heat. In spite of the Saudis being reduced to ten men –men being the operative word- we blew that two-goal lead and ended up drawing 2-2. We even missed a penalty during the course of the game. Brian O’Neill was the player who fluffed his lines and, to rub sulphuric acid in that gaping wound, the poor lad also missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out at the end of extra-time. “Oh, how cruel a mistress is fate!” I remember the guy next to me shouting at the time. Or maybe he shouted: “Jesus fucking Christ!” My memory plays tricks on me these days.

The Saudi lads may have taken ‘our’ cup, but for a couple of weeks, the country was under the spell of a brave, dedicated and talented bunch of young footballers. The Scotland team in that final was: Will, Bain, Beattie, Marshall, McMillan, Bollan, O'Neil, Lindsay, Downie, Dickov and McGoldrick. The used substitutes were McLaren and Murray.

Some of those lads drifted out of the game, but quite a few of them went on to have successful playing careers. But whatever happened to them, whatever jobs they are doing now, I hope they are comforted by the knowledge that, for what they achieved in the summer of 1989, they will always be heroes.

Armchair Electronica Volume 6: Synthesising Music in the 20th Century: It's a Classical Gas Gas Gas

What we are doing now is not important for itself but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forward and create something wonderful on these foundations.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire’s words are revealing and prophetic. Her perspective is peculiarly British; diminishing her role to that of a footnote rather than a chapter in expectation that what comes after will be more important and pleasurable than her own significant contribution. She is like many ‘backstage artists’ in the world of electronica; deferring to the composer, identifying her role more as a technical assistant than as a collaborator. In the history of electronica it has not always been easy to define the contribution of people like Delia Derbyshire; they lack the typical benchmarks of the recording artist that we take for granted today; there is no definitive album, a memorable live performance caught on film or an unmistakable trademark playing technique that young pretenders steal and use in their own playing. When living in a world of constant technical change it is only by extending the passage of time and space that we begin to appreciate how her contribution helped us to get where we are. We also have to look and listen in other ways.

It is through acknowledging her feats of ingenuity, engineering and derring-do that we realise her importance and begin to appreciate what she achieved in arranging and recording that unique theme tune to Doctor Who (composed, lest we forget, by Ron Grainer). Without its inclusion in one of the most popular television programmes of the 20th Century it is quite possible that Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop itself would only be known to a very few; consigned to muted celebration in the halls of academia or via anecdotes from aging sound engineers in dilapidated recording studios. Instead via the marvel of sound, light and images being transmitted along wires into tens of thousands of people's homes, the public were able, as one, to experience sounds (as well as sights) from another dimension and ask the all-important question: "Is that music?"

Long before the advent of the synthesiser and digital recording capabilities, the engineer, like Delia Derbyshire, was often as significant as the composer or the performer in realising the music in terms of sound, arrangement and even performance. John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No.1 would have been premiered in 1939 with two assistants on stage operating 2 turntables at different speeds. How discomforting a sight would that have been for the average concert-goer and how significant did those 2 assistants feel their contribution was to the performance?

Like many operating at the cutting edge of recording and sound engineering both before and after Word War II Delia's significance still remains elusive and unquantifiable. Often the understanding can only come from immersion and open-minded comparison with other music made before and after. It is to her credit that she understood the transient nature of her work, perhaps aware that implicit in the development of technology is the assumption that better tools and techniques coupled with a better understanding of how to use those tools and apply them will always be available tomorrow. In knowing that perhaps she found it easier to both accept and define her role within the process of recording the music rather than by the usual standards that are applied to determining the musical quality of the end product. The importance of the process in support of music rather than the musical quality of the recording is a recurring theme in the history and development of both classical music and electronic music in the last 100 or so years.

Therein lies another recurring theme; in the realm of electronica the accepted definitions of music have been stretched to such an extreme that the term "music" can sometimes seem inadequate to explain just what is going on in the listener’s head when they experience it. What is often heard is so unlike anything that has gone before that the listener finds it impossible to know how to react; the information that their senses are picking up hits a blind spot in the brain where a receptor would normally provide a sign-post for how to respond. For some of the great originators of the past their music continues to sound unlike anything that has subsequently materialised and we continue to ponder its significance or otherwise. What was once considered noise becomes music. Who hasn't reacted to music, when our mood and sensibilities are out of kilter, as "noise"?

Imagine then: what would a folk musician, a rock ‘n’ roller, a big band leader or a renowned cellist have made of the Doctor Who theme when it first aired publicly in 1963 and at what point did its alien sounds become a part of the accepted aural furniture we call music? What type of person – a child, a critic, a composer, a musician, an impresario, an Indonesian tribesman – would have been the most receptive to its strangeness? Do we really understand even today how it was made? And even if we do understand how it was made can we explain in sufficient words why it continues to sound so different, even today? And if words fail us then is it only through the music that comes afterwards and before that we can discover the why?

In 1997 the American composer John Adams made the following statement about music:

There’s a vast synthesis happening now. All genres are beginning to collapse.

The question often posed today is whether or not we have gone too far in breaking down the walls to the point that synthesis is actually creating music that is more predictable, too safe and ultimately too synthetic for sustainable human consumption. The open-ended possibilities of electronic music when combined with a hands-on approach, as personified by Delia Derbyshire, is often why a number of contemporary artists and composers consciously use old technologies and techniques – e.g. something with a valve rather than a microchip - in an effort to pursue a musical path and mode of expression that is untainted or diminished by the homogenisation of digital equipment. They think the human/machine relationship is out of kilter, dominated too much by the latter. It is an understandable reaction but its is as old as the hills. The debate continues; the advent of the affordable synthesiser, computer and digital recording equipment has primarily helped in the proliferation of simplifying the recording process rather than adding value to the compositional and performance process. Their facility as creative tools with which humans experiment and innovate has been blunted by music’s absorption as a bauble of consumerism. By going backwards perhaps these artists hope they can rediscover new paths for going forwards, ones that were missed first time round and which elude us in the omnipresent configuration of modern technology.

If genres today have, as Adams prophesised, collapsed that process started with classical music. Today we can see and hear how advances made in electronic music have cut across all music genres. The more recent history has been more about assimilation (“synthesis”) rather than differentiation through evolution, let alone revolution. One has to go further back into the 20th Century to understand how such mass assimilation of musical genres today became possible. To co-opt Delia’s words, hindsight can help us to see how it was possible to “carry things forward and create something wonderful”.

For the greater part of the 20th Century classical music and the concepts and ideas that spun out from classical music have been more significant in developing electronic music than genres such as rock or pop. Classical music was the first genre to see its potential. Before Word war II key composers like Edgar Varese and John Cage signposted and popularised the idea of utilising electronic equipment in the composition, recording and performance of classical music.

World War II brought great advances in radio and other technologies, helping to establish magnetic tape (which before the war was losing the battle to wire and disc recording until the allies saw the advances German engineers had made) as the primary format for recording. Through the 50s and 60s the race to improve technology generated competition across the globe leading to significant investment by Britain, Germany, France and the USA to build and equip new recording studios that were capable of supporting the musical vision of musical and engineering pioneers. In turn technical improvements in how music could be recorded and played back allowed composers to advance even more radical ideas for music; the process of deconstructing music could be undertaken as much through the application of mathematics as by communication of artistic intent. It’s difficult to see how Minimalism, for example, could ever have come to the fore as the driving force of classical music in the latter half of the 20th Century without the technical advances made in the studio that were able to capture the nuances, spaces and subtleties of that particular music’s acoustics. For example the San Francisco Tape Recording Studio formed in 1962 became the base camp for Terry Riley, Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich and Pauline Oliveros offering them the kind of musical palette and brushes their ideas needed for transfer to a canvas.

Electronica in all its forms - as an instrument, as a recording technique, as a method of performance and as a method of listening - was both influenced by and an influence upon classical music, more so than any other genre. Principally this is because at the start of the 20th Century there was no other genre so well established in the modern world, both nationally and internationally; established not only in terms of public awareness but also in terms of composition, arrangement and performance. Classical music at the start of the 20th Century was highly advanced and evolved; its competition for our attention and appreciation was painting, not other music. It also came with a pre-built set of rules and, more tellingly, with a set of guide notes at each stage about how to interpret those rules; i.e. in the score and in the notes of the sheet music for each musician in the orchestra. It provided the ideal figurehead to fight against in the advancement of new ideas for music. It is often the way that when two opposing parties in a debate understand what is being demanded in the way of change that the party on the receiving end of the demands are more likely to make some kind of concession by virtue of the fact that they are still able to recognise something of themselves in the metamorphosis even if it looks ugly and sounds discordant. Electronica to classical music was The Monster to Frankenstein.

How do we learn to understand and love a monster? Often a perception engendered in the listener upon first exposure to experimental electronic music is that it is an incomplete and unresolved work in progress rather than a fully realised opus. There can be a lingering sense that putting across an idea for music was more important than the musicality of the final product. In turn, as listeners, we attune and condition ourselves to particular sounds and arrangements of sounds where often we place more significance on what we recognise rather than what is alien; the familiar is more comfortable and pleasurable to us than the unknown. All too easily we can dismiss certain sounds, noises and arrangements simply because we don’t understand them and through that lack of understanding we are pre-conditioned to reject them.

Electronica isn’t unique in this respect; many people reject other music genres for similar reasons. Perhaps it is dependent on what music you were and were not exposed to as a child, before acquiring critical faculties, comparative norms and the cognitive ability to filter through an increasingly acute and subjective collection of listening experiences. What is interesting to note is that these tensions and frictions between composer and listener are not as a consequence of electronica or of electronic instrumentation but were themes being played out on the Establishment stage of classical music in the 20th Century, with arguments about what was and wasn’t classical music being made long before any recorded versions of the music were available for the public to make up its own mind about what was and wasn’t ‘proper music’. The orchestra and the concert stage still remained the epicenter of performance and critical evaluation, accessible to the few rather than the many. Into this preexisting volatility electronic equipment and new ideas for it both acted as a trigger and a catalyst for clashes in ideas and ideology. The net result was to drag classical music kicking and screaming into the modern world.

Classical music is the first music I remember hearing as a child. My favourite was Grieg’s Peer Gynt. As a child of four I was both thrilled and terrified by In The Hall of The Mountain King and even at such a young age I can remember being affected by the sadness evoked in The Death of Ase; two vastly contrasting pieces of music in arrangement, tone and emotion but both available as part of a bigger picture that has only amplified over the years with increased familiarity rather than diminished. To this day classical is still the music I turn to if I need to hear something that articulates a strength of feeling when words fall short and that is often because it has left trace elements within me from when I first experienced it. As I’ve grown older and my tastes in music have both expanded and (im)matured I’ve consciously set about mapping connections between music for no other reason than it adds a dimension to the listening experience that helps me to share my enthusiasm with other people, helps me to understand more about what music is doing when I listen to it, those trace elements acting as my receptors. My enjoyment of electronica, particularly at the more experimental end of the spectrum, feels like a natural extension of my love for classical music; I hear sounds and ideas that can make the two genres feel like opposite sides of a split single. Arriving at such opinions is not based on academic study, I’m just a fan who is in a constant state of musical curiosity and exploration.

The history of classical music in the 20th Century is one of constant flux. Established and immutable concepts of what constituted classical music have been subjected to a near continuous process of re-evaluation, resetting and sometimes outright rejection. Up to the end of the 19th Century classical music was, for the most part, an art-form that expressed a narrow and predictable concept of music. The themes and ideas that informed classical music were well-worn and if changes did occur they were evolutionary, not revolutionary. Musical ideas and influences also tended to evolve from interpretations of high art rather than from anything so prosaic as the toil of labourer, a factor worker or a simple stroll along a riverbank. There was a fixed symmetry to classical music most ably defined by the standard chromatic scale of Western music. Against this comparatively staid backdrop much of the story of classical music in the 20th century has been about composers breaking away from “the right notes in the right order” and from the precondition that the orchestra and accomplished soloist in the most elitist of public spaces were the best modes of performance and expression of the composer’s intentions. Modernism made the perspective of the classical world seem narrow and archaic.

Richard Wagner’s “Tristan chord” is widely considered to have pre-empted the 20th Century’s fixation with breaking away from the accepted tonal hierarchies of classical music; previously there was an insistence on there being a continuous harmony to the music supporting compositional experimentation with a defined set of parameters but always progressing naturally and harmoniously to a formal closure at both a musical and a thematic level. Wagner’s famous chord suggested light and dark motifs could occupy the same space and that musical progression could go in more than one direction and not necessarily either maintain or reach a harmonious resolution. Discordance – most notable in the advent of new tones and pitches in music - is a key aesthetic in modern classical music that would eventually materialise in more aggressive forms via the twelve-tone and accompanying theories of serialiasm as advocated by Schoenberg in the 1920s. Unsurprisingly Schoenberg's ideas have been seen as a gauntlet by other composers determined to prove him wrong. To steal from Kurt Vonnegut: And so it goes.

Theories of discordance perpetuated a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction of the chromatic scale that is still being played out today. It unleashed new compositional contexts and instructions for incorporating far-reaching variations in pitch and tone. In breaking through these barriers the conventions of classical music were loosened so radically that new sounds and ‘noises’ could easily and legitimately occupy the same listening space as those of the traditional orchestra and instrumentation. Silence became a sound, noise became a sound, the ambient environment became a sound. Such new and radical theories became central tenets to modern classical and avant-garde. Both ideologically and practically they paved the way for sounds and noises that were natural and mechanical rather than human to be incorporated into the process, from composition to performance. The problem for many years was often one of finding performers able and willing to translate and perform such radical ideas into sounds and music that properly reflected the composer’s vision. Visionary and highly respect conductors such as Leopold Stokwoski were critical in championing new ideas for classical music, having both the clout and the temperament required to make musicians play as the composer intended and to help audiences learn to appreciate the new sounds ringing in their ears by performing them in familiar surroundings. That said, people still were prepared to riot if the music was considered too offensive.

Initially the challenges to the conventions of classical music came from within. The new generation of composers such as Mahler, Satie, Debussy and Ravel rejected many of the norms and rules about how music should ‘sound’ and what it should represent or reflect. For them the personal space and the cumulative effect of the music on the individual was more important than the public space and the consensus of an audience’s approval; for them our minds and bodies became the internalised bandstand for performing their music in preference to the pomp and spectacle of the concert hall. Satie, for example, who lacked formal training and was therefore unhindered by preconceptions of composition or performance, created a form of classical music that was for the everyday, even the mundane. Debussy and Ravel explored dream states, atmospheres and romantic concepts unbound by the physical or classical world. Composers were increasingly turning away from the traditional high art influences of their predecessors and instead were absorbing the sights and sounds of their imaginations and the ‘shock of the new’.

However human intervention alone was not enough to drive through the changes that discordance and variations in tone and pitch demanded. New and experimental electronic instruments and related technologies were often the key to realising the composer’s vision. The theremin and Ondes Martenot were embraced by modern and radical composers because of their facility to play across and through the standard pitch and tone of traditional instruments. The development of the turntable and then magnetic tape provided a mechanism by which the process of composition and performance would not have to be totally reliant on human interpretation of the original score. Enlightened musicians and orchestras were willing to adapt their skills and craft in the light of these compositional, technical and mechanical developments.

In many ways it was the growing awareness of the musical possibilities of new sounds and noises - those of the urban space and of mechanisation as precipitated by industrialisation - that overturned basic concepts of what constituted music and acceptable tone and pitch. The sound of a radio, a telephone, a lathe or a motor car back firing were considered by agitators as equally legitimate sounds for interpretation as bird-song or the imagined voice of God and his heavenly choir of angels. Modernism and industrialisation also brought with it radical new political and cultural ideas most notably represented in the Italian Futurists and Russolo’s 1913 Art of Noise manifesto in which he expounded a ground-zero for classical music with its future based on modernity and violent progress rather than a continuation of musical dialogues based on a romanticised view of the past and the classic world. As a counter-point, and no less revelatory about signposting new possibilities for classical music, there were composers who sought solace from the increasingly rapid pace of change by celebrating the prosaic, the quiet spaces and a kind of pastoral nostalgia through their interpretation of folk songs, sea shanties and common prayer. Culturally many European nations were beginning to subsume sounds from the colonies of their Empires with Asian and African musical influences influencing many of the first wave of modern 20th Century composers and their aberrations of the chromatic scale. So many new influences were available but the mood of the world was one of discordance; war and confrontation were the norm and for the first half of the 20th century that mood reflected the way changes to classical music were often assessed and represented publicly. Conciliatory ideas such as fusion and synthesis needed a different kind of ideological, political and cultural environment that was not available until the latter decades of the 20th Century.

All of these influences – some violent like the Futurists', some subtle like Satie’s - were causing classical music to be deconstructed and reconstructed in often dramatically contrasting forms. At the heart of these contrasting and sometimes conflicting reactions to Modernism was an increasing acceptance by composers of individual autonomy and personal space as both a ballast against the tides of change and as a tipping-point to agitate and to precipitate change. Composers, like Paul Hindemith, would consciously deconstruct the orchestra, using new musical ideas in new and unusual arrangements of 3 or 4 instruments to accentuate the differences to the traditional musical motifs that had come before. Hindemith famously wove his music in and out of discordance and consonance using the contrast to promote his own compositional ideas. As composers became more malleable to new ideas and sounds classical music could function in ways that had previously been unexplored, as a salve and as a weapon in the prevailing atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty that came with living in an ever more modern and forward-looking world. Its scope and modes of expression were rapidly expanding; it could project doubt, humour, irony and even a conscious and wilful “fuck you”. It could reflect or generate a specific mood or atmosphere no matter how idiosyncratic, elusive or intangible it might be; an impression or a memory without a fixed source or reason for existing could be as captivating to the listener as music designed to reflect a specific event or based on a specific source of influence. However like Wagner’s Tristan chord there was no obvious resolution to what Modernism had unleashed and even today we are still living in that uncertain state as is music.

The concept of individual autonomy became a key theme in defining Modernism. It became a significant factor in shaping classical music both for the composer and the consumer. The invention of and access to affordable recorded music contributed to the changes that at times besieged classical music throughout the century. The evolution of recorded music – how it’s made and the devices that play it , from the turntable to the MP3 player – created a new audience of listeners who could break free of prescribed modes of musical experience and understanding that previously would have been the preserve of a small elite group of composers, performers, critics and devotees. Many composers, such as Aaron Copland, consciously adopted a populist perspective to their music, to take full advantage of the accumulative effect music could have on the masses; his 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man being the most obvious example. In turn a new language and basis for discussing and appreciating music was established that broke the monopoly of classical music as something for the formally trained and the affluent. The net result was that the listening experience became an ever more important influence on how music was made. No longer was it just for the grand setting of a theatre and concert hall, it was also something that could be kept and played over and over again in the comfort of one’s own home and mind. Composers increasingly became aware of the new possibilities for music that this new domestic environment created. It was liberating for many composers that they had alternatives to the concert hall to help them in their efforts to find and engage and audience with their ideas. This revolutionary approach to composition and performance would converge in musique concrète, a style that allowed music to be derived from any source and which incorporated the recording medium as an integral component of its composition and performance.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of considering such radical ideas as the preserve of a young man or woman until one considers that Edgard Varèse’s ground-breaking Poème électronique from 1958 was musically concreted at the ripe old age of 74 and was performed over a period of weeks to some 2 million visitors to the very forward-looking Brussels World Fair; for decades Varèse had worked through his ideas in various orchestral settings, waiting for technology to catch up with him and his ideas. His is a great example of how radicalism in classical music often predated the tools to express and perform those radical ideas to the satisfaction of the composer. It’s also sobering to note that arguably the most radical piece of music ever created by a composer had been consumed by more listeners in one place than any other piece of music performed before. Modernist composers were only too willing to latch onto the new popular public spaces such as World Fairs and exhibitions as a means of promoting their ideas.

The advent of film and popular cinema also created a new medium and audience for which music could be composed and arranged. In turn the genre of ‘soundtrack music’ was established; its growth and development as a musical art-form has been influenced by and an influence upon classical music and perceptions of what classical music ‘is’. Films often had a contemporary setting and therefore they required a contemporary soundtrack to accompany them. Listening to the rhythmic propulsions of a Bernard Herrmann score – 1959’s North by Northwest or even as late as 1978’s Taxi Driver – and it’s impossible not to think back to Stravinski causing a riot in 1913 with his premier of his "demanding attention with menaces" The Rites of Spring. And yes, they did riot at that one.

Movie makers, in addition to commissioning classical composers and borrowing from the existing classical music, also created opportunities for new musical forms – jazz, blues, music hall – to be used to help create the right atmosphere and in turn these genres influenced and cross-fertilised with classical music and with the choice of instruments and technologies used to play the music in the recording studio; one need only think of Anton Karas’ zither in The Third Man, Larry Adler’s harmonica in Genevieve or Samuel Hoffman’s theremin in Spellbound. Placing untypical instruments in a new environment and context helped to break down preconceptions of what classical music should sound like and with what instruments it could or should be played.

One of the most significant soundtracks and conjunction points in the world of classical and electronic music is the 1963 Oskar Sala and Remi Gassman score to Hitchcock’s The Birds. The score was created on the Mixtur-Trautonium, It used wires pressed by the finger to play a sound. Below the wire was a plate which when touched by the wire would close a circuit and send electricity to a neon-tube oscillator, producing a tone.

By the time rock ‘n’ roll and then pop and rock music came along electronica had already established itself; bands like The Beatles were able to behave like kids in a sweetshop when it came to electronic experimentation although by today's standards they were still comparatively labour-intensive. It’s interesting to note that jazz, despite being a genre noted for experimentation, resisted the temptations of electronica until the latter half of the 1960s. Perhaps, as a genre, it had been too preoccupied with breaking down other barriers and, like most other musical genres, had to wait for the technology to become more affordable. Folk seems to have been the last genre to give in to electronica and to line up behind John Adam’s prophecy of ‘no genres’.

The 1960s and 1970s continued classical music’s exploration of electronica but by this stage the computer and synthesiser were leading the way, helping composers further refine and define their ideas. Polyphonic, as opposed to monophonic, playing and arrangements were now easier to achieve; as many notes as desired could be played, as many layers of sound as wanted could be included, the extremities were seemingly boundless, limited only by human senses and imagination rather than by the capabilities of the machine. Interesting then that Minimalism should have become the major force, reflecting once again that the over-riding theme of classical music and electronica in Modernism has been the autonomy of the individual, looking within rather than without; the same can be said for the English novel.

It is also interesting how the progress of classical music and electronica mirrors the great advances of science. As classical music was being deconstructed scientists were breaking down the building blocks of life and splitting the atom. In the same way that electronica promised a new world for music science promised new worlds and places to go in the vastness of space. Today scientists are now looking in places and with techniques we can’t actually see or understand, telling us that the atom is now some kind of super-structure to be sub-divided even more where before we thought it was the smallest part of the universe. Perhaps Minimalism and the collapse of musical genres is the perfect soundtrack to that exploration of the scientifically invisible and indeterminate; mathematics, after all, is the common language of science and music. Scientists also tell us that by breaking things down even further we will be better equipped at building wonderful new things in the future. Perhaps the comparable wonderful things will be made in music; Delia Derbyshire certainly believed it.

The following Spotify list is a primer. It's by no means exhaustive and there are many absentees on Spotify. It’s consciously male-dominated because I intend writing a feature on women and electronica for a later date. There is no logical order to the tracks chosen but they hopefully reflect where classical and electronic have converged and how one has fed off the other to create new sounds and possibilities for either genre over the decades. If we continue to believe in genres that is.


La Monte Young – For Brass
Kirsten Flagstad – Tristan und Isolde (2001 Digital Remaster), Act I: Prelude
Vladimir Ussachevsky – Metamorphosis
Igor Stravinsky – Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring): Auguries of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)
Bernard Herrmann (conductor), MGM Studio Orchestra – Overture
The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble – Edgard Varese: Ecuatorial (1934)
Aphex Twin – Phlange Phace
Philip Jeck – Demolition
Luigi Russolo – Risveglio di una Citta - Fragment, 1977 Recording
Vlado Perlemuter – Gaspard de la Nuit: Le Gibet
Nils Frahm – Kind
Erik Satie – Gnossiennes: No. 1 - Lent
Harold Budd – Foreshadowed - 2005 Digital Remaster
Otto Luening – Low speed
Edgard Varèse – Poème Électronique
DJ Spooky – Thoughts Like Rain
Karlheinz Stockhausen With Yvar Mykashoff, Rosalind Bevan & Ole Orsted – Mantra 4
Peter Schmalfuss – La Cathédrale Engloutie
Oskar Sala – Langsames Stück Und Rondo Für Trautonium
Paula Robison – The Viola in My Life: III
James Tenney – Ergodos II (for John Cage)
Basic Channel – Quadrant Dub I Edit
Halim El-Dabh – Wire Recorder Piece
György Ligeti – Atmospheres
Charles Ives – The Unanswered Question
Paul Hindemith – Kammermusik No.6, op.46/1, for Viola d'amore & Chamber Orchestra: 1. Mässig schnell, majestätisch -
DJ Shadow – Stem/Long Stem
John Adams – Grand Pianola Music: Part IB
Arnold Schoenberg – String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30: I. Moderato
Autechre – Rotar
Iannis Xenakis – Rebonds "B"
Philip Glass – Knee 1 from Einstein on the Beach
Orbital – I Wish I Had Duck Feet
Max Mathews – The Second Law
Steve Reich – Drumming: Part IV
Terry Riley – A Rainbow In Curved Air - Instrumental
Pink Floyd – On The Run - 2011 - Remaster
Aaron Copland – Fanfare for the Common Man
Michael Nyman – An Eye For Optical Theory - 2004 Digital Remaster
µ-Ziq – Scaling
Pierre Boulez – Anthèmes 2 (1997) pour violon et dispositif électronique: 2. Rapide, dynamique - II/III Libre
Raymond Scott – Nursery Rhyme
Morton Subotnick – Silver Apples Of The Moon - Part A
Leopold Stokowski – Prelude a L'Apres-midi d'un Faune - 2000 Digital Remaster
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra – Gambling Dream / Mad Proprietors Dream / Root-Top Dreams
Jon Appleton – Zoetrope (1974)
Boards of Canada – Zoetrope
John Cage – Williams Mix
Jonathan Harvey – Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco
David Sylvian – A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce - 2003 Digital Remaster
Heitor Villa-Lobos – Distribuicao de flores
Daphne Oram – Four Aspects
Toru Takemitsu – Star-Isle
Herbert Eimert – Klangstudies II
Arnold Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces Op. 16: III. Farben (Colours) – Summer Morning By A Lake
Olivier Messiaen – Fêtes des belles eaux: 2. L'eau
Kaija Saariaho – Maa (Earth): I. Journey
Kaija Saariaho – Maa (Earth): II. Gates
Oskar Sala – The Birds Endtitles

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Yesterday, Edinburgh’s trams finally started running with paying passengers on board. The first tram set off at 5am and was packed with people who wanted to say, ‘I was on the first tram.’ By all accounts, it was quite a party atmosphere.
The background to the trams is all over the internet for those wishing to look – Wikipedia has a decent summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edinburgh_Trams – but I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments here except to say that as far as major infrastructure projects go it has been an unmitigated cock-up on the procurement, project management and implementation fronts since work started in 2008. Possibly before.
The question remains however, what’s it like to ride a tram? This morning, I went to find out. Happily for me, the city centre tram terminus at York Place is all of 1.5km from my flat so it takes very little time to walk there, get your head round the ticket machine and jump on.
Apologies if the next bit sounds like a readme file but it might be relevant for Edinburgh Afterworders or city visitors. Our one tram line runs the 14km from York Place all the way to the airport but lately I read that the airport stop wouldn’t be ready by the general start-date of 31 May. This was okay with me since the airport fare is £8 return or £5 single but go anywhere else on the tram and the fare is a flat £1.50 just like Lothian Buses. From the touchscreen machine therefore I selected a £1.50 single fare, planning to do something as wildly exciting as trundle out to a shopping centre on the western edge of the city, get a coffee, reflect on my tram experience, then trundle back again.
Having gone through most of the ticketing process the machine wouldn’t take coins – even though it should – but it did take cards so I paid my £1.50 via debit card. For those who have Lothian Buses Ridacards – like Oyster cards in London, sort of – you just validate the journey by touching the Ridacard to another machine at the tram stop.
Since I boarded before 9am on a Sunday, there were only one or two other passengers on the tram and the ticket inspector was happy to chat. Yes, the airport stop is open. Yes, I could have gone there today. Yes, if you’ve paid £1.50 you can get off anywhere except the airport. Yes, they’re being quite lenient for the first couple of weeks over ticket misunderstandings but pretty soon if you board ticketless, or haven’t validated your Ridacard – because you ran to the stop and got on just before the doors closed for instance – you will be stung for a £10 penalty fare. Then, off we went.
For the first part of the route, from York Place round into St Andrew Square, down to Princes Street, along to Shandwick Place then to Haymarket Station, it feels like you’re on a funky, smooth, spacious bus. Head for the front of the tram and the driver compartment is glass walled so if you stand there you can see the back of the driver’s head, the control panel and directly ahead through the windscreen – at night I think this would make Star Trek fans very happy.
Once the tram gets to Haymarket however, it jigs off the road and goes down beside the railway line at which point it starts to feel a lot more like a train; it gets faster too.
First stop after Haymarket is Murrayfield and there will be a definite wow factor in tramming out to the national rugby stadium on the day of a game. You can imagine the pubs around the east end of Princes Street and along Rose Street emptying of rugby fans, the stops at York Place, St Andrew Square and Princes Street being packed out and busy trams depositing nearly 250 people a time at the stadium stop.
After Murrayfield come the western suburbs, Balgreen and Saughton, then travellers get a lesson in Edinburgh economics. On the western edge of the city, service industry firms and other ventures have occupied extensive business and industrial park accommodation over the last couple of decades and more. For people who don’t actually work there – effete Leith bloggers for example – that side of Edinburgh remains a mystery but its importance jumps out at you as the tram goes past the stop at Bankhead, near the Sighthill Industrial Estate, then through stops like Edinburgh Park, Edinburgh Park Central and the Gyle, the latter with its enormous shopping centre. In that sense the tram line will be good for people commuting from the city centre to workplaces near those stops.
Whatever the administrative boundaries of the city, there are practical boundaries that mark the difference between out and in. If you’re going to the airport by bus, car or taxi for example then negotiating the Gogarburn roundabout, where the bypass meets the A8 Glasgow Road, traditionally feels like leaving Edinburgh behind. This is also the site of the fairly extensive tram depot and the line goes straight through it, allowing some sense of the project’s infrastructural spend – much more so than a train-thing moving slowly through the city centre in isolation.
Once through the depot, the head office complex of RBS has its very own stop, Gogarburn, although it is on the wrong side of the road. Handily, there’s a bridge - built near the height of Sir Fred Goodwin's hubris in 2005 – so bank staff can cross safely.
After all those contrasts – city centre, rugby stadium, suburbs, great deserts of uninspired commercial and retail architecture – you get one more. Instead of following the Glasgow Road, then cutting down the airport access road, the tram line saves distance by going directly across farmland. As it turns north from Gogarburn, crossing the actual Gogar Burn, you’re suddenly in the Hobbit: grass growing between the tracks, no tarmac and surrounded by fields. It’s surreal. Then it heads more directly west again, speeds up and gets to the stop at Ingliston Park and Ride – the last before the airport – which is as far as my ticket would take me today. This is around a 1.5km walk across the big car park, down the access road and across the airport car parking to the terminal building: door to door, my flat to airport mostly on a tram but with an aggregate 3km walk, for £1.50.
The one thing Edinburgh Airport needs right now is a groundside coffee shop with a view of the runways. I had to content myself with a branch of tax-dodgers Caffè Nero that had all the ambience of a galley on a submarine. I didn’t linger. It’s also good to report that given tram-sceptic chatter about the airport tram stop being a taxi ride from the terminal building, it’s not. Even the most hard-hearted anti-trammer wouid have to concede that the stop is indeed at the airport. The ticket machines at this stop accepted coins, I paid £5 for a single back to York Place – the machines don’t accept notes – and just over half an hour later I was back where I started.
As we passed through the stops on the way into the city it was noticeable that kids on the platform, out for the morning with parents or grandparents, were waving at the driver, smiling; shoppers got on at the Gyle; tourists actually got on at the airport and used the tram instead of the airport bus. If I was to stick my neck out, I’d say there was an aura of municipal pride about the whole enterprise, despite all the problems.
One middle-aged couple from the USA who hopped on at the airport were deciding whether to sit facing forward, or not, by a window, or not, and I felt like gabbling at them, wild-eyed, ‘Don’t you know this tram only started running yesterday? Do you know how much grief it has caused in this city in the last six years? No, no you don’t. You just arrive, think it’s really cool and take it for granted!
‘Did you ever experience the airport bus, cramped, slow and stuck in a traffic jam at Corstorphine? Especially after your flight north from Gatwick had been delayed by three hours? No you did not! You. Just. Get. To. Enjoy. It. But I know how much better this is. Oh yes. Mwaah ha ha, I know…’
I resisted the urge to gabble and left them in peace to stare out the window, facing forwards.
Rugby fans will go to Murrayfield, shoppers will go to the Gyle, commuters will go to Edinburgh Park and Gogarburn, travellers will go to the airport. After all the hassle, first impressions – notoriously unreliable – suggest a transport link that might actually work. Now all that has to happen is extend it into an actual city-wide tram system rather than a line than goes from A to B to A again.

Top of the Pops, 24th May 1979: Rise of the Machines

Watching re-runs of old editions of Top of the Pops reminds me that the show could be exciting, tedious, brilliant and stupid, often within the space of forty infuriating minutes. Whichever week of whichever year you’d care to drop into, you’ll find that the charts were pretty mediocre, with sometimes only the occasional gem sparkling among heaps of anodyne rubbish. On a bad week, Top of the Pops could make you feel that the music business existed just to rub your nose in the futility of existence. On other occasions, the stars would align and the tastes of Joe and Josephine Public might roughly coincide with yours. Then you could allow yourself to believe that everything in the world was good and that pop music was a truly wonderful thing.

Once in a lifetime, you might win the lottery and encounter an episode that so faithfully reflects your musical worldview that you’ll be tempted to think that the producer had rifled through your record collection and opted to share your exquisite taste with the nation. This happened to me one evening, late in May 1979. An episode of Top of the Pops (shown recently on BBC4) featured Roxy Music, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Blondie, ELO, The Skids and a ‘new’ act that had already exerted a powerful grip on my musical imagination. I loved all of those named artists, but the new act that night – Tubeway Army, led by Gary Numan- somehow felt like ‘my’ discovery.

I had heard Tubeway Army for the first time a couple of months previously, while listening late one night to John Peel’s show on BBC Radio. Sitting in a corner of our living room with the headphones at ear-damaging volume, I would have been hoping that the show would throw up something interesting. John Peel played stuff you wouldn’t hear anywhere else and -if you could abide the default setting of 'indie bloke' freemasonry- you could usually expect to find some excellent music in among the (often deservedly) obscure flotsam and jetsam. Midway through what had been an average middle-of-the-week show, he played a track called 'Down in the Park' and duly transformed my musical world. It was a menacingly atmospheric, yet hauntingly beautiful slice of electronic pop and I hadn’t heard anything quite like it.

I couldn’t quite grasp all of the detail, but I knew that the song told a story. The lyrics seemed far removed from the bog standard new wave fare, painting a nightmarish scene in which the park was not a place for the local folk to gather and enjoy the scenery; it was, instead, part of a minatory landscape in which killers, government agents and ‘rape machines’ roamed, brutalising a cowed populace. At the end of the track, Peel said something like: "Blimey … that sounds like a Pink Floyd for the 1980s". He was wrong about the Pink Floyd bit, but absolutely right about the ‘blimey’. To a lonely teenager imagining himself at the centre of an alienated and hostile universe, Gary Numan really hit the sweet spot.

That weekend, I hunted down the 'Replicas' album and quickly became absorbed in its dystopian and decadent fantasies. It appeared to be a concept album set ten minutes into a totalitarian future in which population control was maintained by government surveillance agents, people had relationships with synthetic humans and the city was patrolled by thought police and sinister assassins in trench coats. Numan’s musical schtick was part-Bowie (particularly the Low album) part Kraftwerk, part Brian Eno, with maybe a little dollop of early Ultravox thrown into the mix.
Lyrically, it was clear that he was heavily influenced by the paranoid, hallucinatory writings of Philip K Dick, William Burroughs and –to a lesser extent- JG Ballard. For a young reader who was devouring dystopian science fiction by the bucketload, this album seemed like a perfect reflection of my view that the world was on the verge of forming a strange and unsettling relationship with burgeoning technology. Whatever was going to happen, I just knew it would involve synthetic humans, sinister government conspiracies and androgynous young guys in make-up, playing synthesisers.

Utterly mesmerised, it was the first time that I was aware that an artist’s image might be almost as important as the music. Numan had perfected an androgynous robot stormtrooper look (no doubt heavily influenced by Kraftwerk) and it made him stand out a mile in an era when most new wave bands made little concession to ‘image’, beyond wearing drainpipe jeans and perhaps a skinny tie. On that iconic 'Replicas' sleeve, Numan looks fantastic: dyed blond hair, kohl eyeliner, black nail varnish, black shirt, tie and trousers. With respect to the Replicas narrative, the cover shot is ambiguous; it’s not clear whether the guy in the room is a victim or a victimiser. Why is he dressed like that? Is he one of us, or is he one of those 'machmen'? Is he a government agent or maybe one of those synthetic humans working in the sex trade? What’s going on in the park outside his window? How come the ‘reflection’ in the window has his hands clasped together while the person in the room hasn’t?

As a growing army of teenaged Numanoids wrestled with these questions, the prosaic reality gradually emerged over the next couple of years as Gary went on to become a massive pop star. We discovered that he was actually just a shy young man (diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome) who had managed to articulate and brilliantly exploit his melancholic fantasies about alienation and androids. He was just a 21-year old kid from Slough who didn’t know much about anything. Jesus, he even admitted to voting Tory in an interview. If he’d been more worldly wise, he’d have known that that is an unforgivable sin in the right-on world of rock journalism. Needless to say, he was pilloried for years on the back of it and his relationship with the press quickly declined from ‘curious’ to ‘bad’ to ‘catastrophic’.

In spite of the various press maulings, it’s probably fair to say that Numan has had the last laugh. Two decades after it first appeared on Top of the Pops, Are ‘friends’ electric? was brilliantly re-imagined by the Sugababes for their number one hit 'Freak like Me'. He has enjoyed a recent upturn in commercial and critical fortunes and his music has been cited as a powerful influence by the likes of Basement Jaxx, Armand Van Helden, Foo Fighters, Afrika Bambaataa, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

By the time Are ‘friends’ electric? had made it onto that edition of Top of the Pops in May 1979, I was already boring my friends rigid with my ridiculous zeal for Gary Numan’s music. My ‘discovery’ of this weird and wonderful artist allowed me to feel quite smug as his song made its steady way to the summit of the charts over a six-week period, progress which –by today’s standards- seems positively glacial.

During that time, the synthesiser was transformed from being a 'progressive rock’ instrument played by classically-trained bearded blokes in capes into something quite sexy, sitting right at the epicentre of pop culture. And, without anything resembling a recognisable chorus, a strange song about a robot prostitute topped the charts for four incredible weeks. I’ll always love Gary Numan for that.

In the words of the song: “You see, it meant everything to me.”

Armchair Electronica Volume 5: A Proustian Rush and a Push and The Landscape is Ours

I switch on the animus.

I remember the day Robbie showed me how to time travel though he called it something different. I was in the garden lying on a rug in the hidden place where they could not see me from The House and I, thankfully, could not see them. Back then it was when I was alone that I did not feel lonely. Robbie understood this; only he knew how to be with me and not upset me. He was sensitive to these things as was the way in those days before the growing up.

Even when hidden I could sense The House was very close. I turned over onto my side and looked back up the garden. From my vantage point and prostrate position I could see both under the intervening low hanging branches of the trees and over the tops of the shrubs and flowers, through to the arbour gate; the portal that separated my life from theirs. It remains my favourite perspective even to this day. A sprawling clematis grew around the arch of the wooden frame and was now in full bloom, the tangled wire-frame of its flowers, stems and leaves providing additional cover from unwelcome eyes and ears.

The arbour gate swung open and Robbie appeared. His expression was blank. He stood under the arbour's arch and scanned the garden, then he slowly crouched down and sat on his haunches. He smiled and I knew then that he was pretending not to have spotted me. I was annoyed. I didn't want Robbie to play these types of games with me. I wasn't a little girl anymore. I coughed loudly to alert him that I was aware of his presence and to display my irritation. I turned onto my other side, closed my eyes and waited for him to approach.


I didn't answer him.

"Do you know what memory is?"

I sat up and looked at him. He was still smiling but his eyes were now scanning my face, checking my expression before eventually settling on my own eyes. I understood that he was trying to see into me, to gauge whether I was ready to hear what he had to say.

"That's a stupid question. Of course I do."

He sat down next to me on the rug and looked ahead. He sighed deeply and then whispered:

"Would you like to meet your mother?"

"My mother is dead." I whispered back, feeling slightly queasy.

"But would you like to meet her?" he persisted.

"Yes" I think I said, or maybe I just thought it. 1.761.891.73

Robbie activated his animus and a small keyboard appeared on his lap. A rainbow of lights hovered above the keyboard and the air shimmered around its colours. Sometimes a colour would come into sharp focus but then it would blur and disappear into the background as another colour became prominent in the foreground. At other times the rainbow twitched in the air and morphed into a ridged metallic strip composed of many shades of verdigris and grey monochrome; like a piece of weathered corrugated iron that has been worked one last time by human hand, its ridges repeatedly hammered until crudely flat. At the same moment as the rainbow switched to this long indented metal plate a crackling sound and something like the voice of a broken doll discharged from the keyboard.

"What is that?" I asked Robbie with a voice that I hoped didn't sound either too scared or too naive.

"Some might call it a trompe l'oeil but it is in fact your memory box." He stared at me and his face became serious."Where would you like to meet your mother? Here in the garden, in The House or...?" he asked.

"At The Scarp" I interruped him. I was excited now. I looked at him imploringly, "Please. Can I meet her at The Scarp?"

Robbie smiled again.

"Of course, that is such a beautiful place. I didn't know you had been there."

"I haven't." I answered abruptly and sensed that I should explain myself to him. "I just know it from books I've read in The House; her books and those written by others. I also saw it briefly in a film my uncle showed me last summer. You weren't here. It was the day you crossed the train tracks. Uncle put on the film and from behind the projector he told me what the images meant. He was like a narrator; it was strange the way he spoke, as if his voice was part of the film but at the same time it seemed as if his voice was inside my head and nowhere else. He said that my mother had found The Scarp by accident when she had been on one of her special walks, the ones where she left her animus in The House so no one could find her."

As I spoke the rainbow and keyboard seemed to freeze momentarily and the air around them became even more distorted. Robbie placed his fingers on the keyboard and told me to close my eyes.

I am walking across a moorland towards The Scarp. It is early morning but already I can feel the heat of the sun even as I feel the cooling dampness of the dew around my lower legs. I can see my mother in the distance, motionless but not lifeless. She has her back to me and I know instinctively that she is standing at the very highest and sharpest edge of The Scarp. I will be with her soon. I want to run but looking down I see that the heather around my feet is insistant I walk. I look back up at her and am about to call to her when she turns around. I see her face and stop walking. She is looking at me but there is something wrong with her expression. She starts shouting at me. At first I can't hear what she is saying so I start to walk again. My legs are getting colder and wetter. I look down and see that there is shallow water where the heather used to be. I can run to her now. I am getting nearer. As I approach more swiftly I can hear her voice. She is screaming at me.

"Go back child, go back. Oh my God. Go back."

I stop but realise as soon as I do so that the sudden absence of movement is not voluntary. I cannot move even if I wanted to. My legs are numb from the cold. I look down one last time and see that the shallow water has given way to a muddy pond into which I am sinking. I look up at my mother and cry out: to her, for her. The air shimmers between us and I realise there is no sun, only grey clouds. She has turned away and once again stands motionless on the edge of The Scarp.


Hallock Hill – Villages of the Black Earth
Hong Kong In The 60s – Empty House, Lonely Mouse
Anna Meredith – Rhododendron
Björk – Hidden Place
Múm – Green Green Grass Of Tunnel
The House In the Woods – Bucolica
Epic45 – We Grew Up Playing In The Fields Of England
July Skies – Distant Showers Sweep Across Norfolk Schools
Jane Weaver With Demdike Stare – Europium Alluminate
Langham Research Centre/John Cage – 4'33 No. 2
Leyland Kirby – Polaroid
Belbury Poly – Portals and Parallels
Minotaur Shock – The Downs
Ekoplekz – Outercountry
Boards of Canada – In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country
China Crisis – Jean Walks In Fresh Fields
King Of Woolworths – Kite Hill
The Advisory Circle – Here! In The Wychwoods
Kemper Norton – Windwept
William Basinski – Melancholia I
The Lowland Hundred – The Bruised Hill
The Memory Band – Facing the Granite Country
These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Ariel Pink – Cemetary Suite
Black Mountain Transmitter – Drawn In Silhouette
John Cage – In a Landscape
Harold Budd And Brian Eno – Wind In Lonely Fences
XTC – Chalkhills And Children

1.761.891.73There is a definite and noticeable glitch at this location which may have arisen when transferring the event from the original recording. The original recording is now lost so the glitch cannot be repaired. Please do not attempt to repair the glitch as it is evidence that the original recording once existed. Thank you for your understanding.

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Barclay, Desmond, Lebedev, Murdoch & Rothermere

Passing thought
Our political system is dysfunctional: centralised, unrepresentative, seen as corrupt, not trusted, a means for senior politicians and public servants to attach themselves to major corporations, in thrall to and partially created by the media. It’s also legitimised by our media. Media ownership is therefore important, as are editorial standards and editorial norms. Partisanship, balance. So I was wondering who owned the media these days, how concentrated that ownership is.

Look at the world of print and the latest ABC figures and the ownership situation is grim. The top ten paid-for dailies, in order, are the Sun (2.07m), Daily Mail (1.71m), Mirror (960k), Daily Telegraph (520k), Daily Express (490k), Daily Star (480k), Times (390k), i (290k), FT (230k) and the Guardian (just 190k). The big version of the Independent sells barely 60,000 these days – and I’ve excluded Scottish titles given they have no purchase south of the border. The figures are rounded but they still give you the gist.
As for Sundays: Sun on Sunday (1.67m), Mail on Sunday (1.56m), Sunday Mirror (930k), Sunday Times (840k), Sunday Telegraph (420k), Sunday Express (420k), the People (370k), the Star (290k), Observer (210k), Indie on Sunday (100k).
The precise nature of ownership, or influence, could be spelled out with the procession of publishing companies and subsidiaries but I’ll spare you the details. In essence, there is a tiny group of very influential individuals that owns a significant chunk of the UK press – or they have a controlling interest or influence over the public companies that own the publishing companies that publish the things we buy at the newsagent. This has been known for a long time of course – this post simply updates the facts.
The central players are Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch (Sun, Sun on Sunday, Times, Sunday Times), the 4th Viscount Rothermere (Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, a near quarter share in the London Evening Standard, the Metro free paper), David and Frederick Barclay (Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph), Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev (nearly three-quarter share in the Evening Standard, i, Independent, Independent on Sunday) and Richard Desmond (Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star, Daily Star Sunday) although it was recently reported that Desmond might be selling some titles.
It’s actually easier to ask if there is anyone or any organisation in the top ten who isn’t called Barclay, Desmond, Lebedev, Murdoch or Rothermere – and there is. The Scott Trust owns the Guardian and Observer; Trinity Mirror owns the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, the People, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail north of the border, also a whole host of local papers throughout the UK.

It is important to bring some balance into this description of media ownership. Going by print alone the conservative voice dominates, almost overwhelmingly so. Introduce newspapers’ efforts online and the picture changes a little. Figures I found from the UK Press Gazette from summer 2013 say the real heavyweights online, in order, are: Guardian/Observer, Mail/Mail on Sunday, Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph, Mirror/Sunday Mirror/People, Independent/Independent on Sunday, Sun/Sun on Sunday.
This allowed the UK Press Gazette to come up with a combined figure – print plus online – for the UK’s biggest media organisations of this type. That leaves the Sun/Sun on Sunday on top (the Murdochs), then the Mail/Mail on Sunday (Rothermere), free paper Metro in third (Rothermere again), the Mirror/Sunday Mirror/People (Trinity Mirror), the online figures boosting the Guardian/Observer into fifth (Scott Trust), Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph (Barclays), Times/Sunday Times (Murdochs again), the London Evening Standard (Lebedevs-Rothermere co-ownership), Independent/Independent on Sunday (Lebedevs again) and the Daily Express/Sunday Express (Desmond). So that’s slightly better for the Guardian and Observer, and Trinity Mirror is still a vital player, but the same right-of-centre names keep cropping up and this doesn’t even take into account some key cross-media ownerships for the likes of Desmond or the Murdochs.

The conspiratorial space alien lizard people control what we think
Well, up to a point Lord Copper. If the only source of news in the UK was newspapers, or their online versions, then we’d be in trouble – or at least only ever informed by a process that fits the commercial interests of the Barclays, Desmond, Lebedevs, Murdochs, Rothermere and, fair enough, Trinity Mirror. (The Scott Trust is a special case as it was set up to guarantee the editorial and financial independence of the Guardian.) But where do people actually get their news? Mostly, the television.
I looked at BARB figures from the end of last month – lists of top 30 programmes by channel – and easily the most-watched news programmes were the regular ones on BBC1 usually attracting more than 4 million viewers and sometimes more than 5 million. By comparison, the main ITV news was getting somewhere in the region of 3-4 million viewers, dipping below 3 million sometimes. I did hunt for the Sky News figure but that didn’t even seem to feature in any top 30, not even ‘Others’ which had everything from Liverpool v Chelsea (Sky Sports 1, 2.7 million) to Family Guy (BBC3, 800k). Either I’m making a real error here or Sky News audience figures aren’t that great.
However, the television news figures do make newspaper circulation figures look rather weedy. Yes, the Sun and the Daily Mail sell loads, yes their online versions are important, but nothing quite has the clout of the BBC1 news at 6pm or 10pm, or the ITV news at 6.30pm and 10pm.
Then you have to think about BBC radio, local radio and local newspapers. La Cinque Famiglie may have a big say in what we read, they can set agendas, but there are alternatives. If you venture wider than these islands, you start to realise how important these alternatives are.

Chinatown – yes I got distracted
The BBC online is remarkable and no other media organisation in the UK comes remotely close. When you’re thinking about news in the era of the internet, then simple ownership of UK-specific newspapers and websites is all very well, very important in the UK, but it’s not hard to access foreign television, radio and internet feeds so I was wondering who had global reach. What are the biggest international news websites? Handily Wikipedia has a page with the 100 most popular websites ranked by Alexa Internet which is owned by Amazon and specialises in web traffic and ranking.
The top few sites are much as you would expect with the top three as at February 2014 said to be Google, Facebook and YouTube. Look down the top 100 searching for sites specifically dedicated to news, in a loose sense, and you get Sina Corp at 11, MSN at 31, the BBC at 54, Ifeng News at 66, AOL at 69, CNN at 71, ESPN at 78 with sports news and the Huffington Post at 84.
A brief click through to Shanghai-based Sina Corp suggests it’s currently in trouble with the Chinese government because 20 articles and four videos with “pornographic and lewd content” were found recently somewhere online for which it was deemed responsible. It won’t be closed down though, simply curtailed.
There are fuzzy boundaries when talking about news and media in this environment. YouTube isn’t a news site as such but the BBC publishes content there. Meanwhile Sina Corp is all about infotainment and the Chinese equivalent of Twitter so it’s hardly bold, independent reportage from the land of the free. Generally however, it was salutary to find that the internet’s biggest newsy presence was a Chinese language venture that I’d never heard of, that MSN ranks significantly higher than the BBC, or that the Huffington Post has more global presence online than our own looming, agenda-setting Daily Mail. Told you I got distracted.

It’s about the independence referendum of course
The real reason I was looking into all this was an internal meander about how media ownership, or influence, interplays with the British non-constitution, the dysfunction at Westminster and first past the post. I didn’t get anywhere near working that out, for the moment, because I got so sidetracked by the facts and figures.
If we take my bien-pensantism (hello Lando!) out of the picture and look at where the national debate is reflected back to the people, in terms of news and analysis, then it’s certainly the BBC and ITV – driven by notions of objectivity and balance, in context – but also in print and online publications owned, or directed, by very few people. If it wasn’t for Trinity Mirror and the online success of the Guardian/Observer – honorable mention for the Independent here too – then pretty much everything in print and online that went UK-wide, or the dominant numbers at least, would be actively conservative in thought and deed. Given a gathering disenchantment with politics that’s manifesting itself in simple solutions to complex problems (Scotland, let’s bugger off and sort ourselves out, Westminster’s beyond help; UKIP, expel the foreigns and we’ll all live happily ever after) then a media conservatism that simply wants to see the right people in Number 10 just isn’t helping.
As an aside, it’s interesting that no mainstream paper in Scotland has come out as pro-independence until a few days ago when the Herald declared for Yes. Then again, Scotland’s traditional heavyweight broadsheets (the Herald from Glasgow, the Scotsman from Edinburgh) are shedding readers at such a catastrophic rate that this could be seen as a last, desperate bid to find a readership before it hits the wall. It no longer has anything to lose where La Cinque Famiglie probably do, not least influence and advertising sales. And that’s probably enough for now…


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