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Miles, Soft Machine and Floyd-three early landmarks, and an opportunity sought.

I’ve finished my history of the London Musicians’ Collective, which is now being proof read in draft form, and am thus now casting about for possible themes for my next project.

I have previously considered making a pitch for a contribution to Bloomsbury’s ‘33 I/3′ line of ‘classic albums’ tributes,which is now well over 100 in number - I wanted to write about AMM’s first album, AMMusic, but was informed that they were not currently (2018) seeking submissions, which I’m sure was true, but got me paranoid about having chosen perhaps too abstruse a subject (their mainstay appears to be mostly rock/pop recordings (Bitches Brew being their only jazz-related disc on offer). Maybe I’ll alert them to the plethora of great ‘crossover’ (in its best sense) product that begs for reappraisal? There does indeed seem to be a lack of avant material in general in this series. 

Whilst debating all this, I have been thinking about some pivotal albums from my final year at school (1972/3) and the possibility of pitching one of these to 33 1/3. - Miles Davis’s Live at Fillmore, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma and Soft Machine Three. Frank Zappa was the other obvious contender from this period of my musical education (Uncle Meat, We’re Only In It for the Money and Hot Rats in particular), but the earlier three have perhaps been less celebrated, although this is gradually changing? All three were doubles, and were released circa 1970, yet none have yet been featured by 33 1/3 (nor have the Zappa/Mothers discs, amazingly).

All three of these double albums mostly consisted of very long tracks, a feature that was then very much in favour, as a mark of serious ‘heaviosity’! I listened to them so much that, despite their complexity and sheer length, I know every note and beat by heart. Fifty years on, there has been some acknowledgement of the status of Fillmore, Ummagumma and Three: the first, for example, has been exhaustively  put under the microscope by jazz historian Bob Gluck, in his 2016 study (University of Chicago) The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles, which comes very highly recommended for those interested in the 1967-1973 timeline of avant-jazz. I’ve also now just discovered that there is a book devoted to Ummagumma, by a Scott Meze, called Something Else: Why Ummagumma by Pink Floyd is the Greatest Album Ever Made, the hubristic nature of which I can’t honestly endorse, but which immediately made me order it on Amazon (to my shame, as Waterstones don’t appear to stock it, unfortunately, so it represents just one more contribution to Jeff ‘Croesus’ Bezos.)

Which leaves Soft Machine Three, which has been significantly bigged-up over the past decade or so, to be sure (see the Wiki bibliography under the album’s entry), but has yet to receive the ultimate endorsement, in book form, that Fillmore and Ummagumma have been given. The Softs history is as messy and convoluted as that of the Floyd and Miles, and I’d certainly like to be given the chance to further embed their third album in the history books of genre-challenging bands.

In  Memoriam: Two More Greats Gone

The death of Olivia de Havilland, the last link with Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, at an even more advanced age than (Gord bless ‘er) the Queen Mother, has prompted me to salute two other recent losses, those of Keith Tippett and Peter Green. I ‘got into’ these two greats in 1969/70, and they were both important early influences on my future listening habits.

Rather ironically, I blogged about Peter Green only a few months back, in a celebration of Fleetwood Mac’s quadrumvirate of classic singles - Albatross, Man of the World, Oh Well and The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown) - so want to just add a few words about Tippett.

Like many, I first came across Keith when exposed to ‘Cat Food’ on King Crimson’s second outing In the Wake of Poseidon, a Cecil Taylor-ish intrusion into the shoals of progressive rock. He also appeared on KC’s next two albums, Lizard and Islands. Along with Soft Machine Three, these records pointed me in the direction of jazz music, and I soon fell inevitably under the influence of the Keith Tippett Group, and their You Are Here…I Am There and Dedicated to You, But You Weren’t Listening (such typical 70s titles!), from 1970 and 1971 respectively. Along with contemporary recordings by the Softs and Nucleus (Elastic Rock and We’ll Talk About It Later) , these were required listening for any early 70s British jazz neophytes. Tippett’s group was suffused with talent - Marc Charig, Elton Dean, Nick Evans, Jeff Clyne and Alan Jackson (the latter two also associated with the free improv end of jazz).

Many years passed (about 40!) before I re-introduced myself to Tippett’s music, and, in the past few years, managed to see him in both solo and group formats at The Vortex and Cafe Oto. A solo gig at the latter was particularly mesmerising, and I recall another at the former, which was so sparsely attended that the pianist recommended that we reconvene at his home for a more intimate experience! Such was the fate of one of our greatest pianists (Stan Tracey has also passed, and Howard Riley remains very unwell, leaving a clear field for Alexander Hawkins to assume that title), who nevertheless leaves a glorious legacy of recorded music, from Centipede, through to small group, duo (with, among many others, Riley and Tracey, and his wife, Julie) and solo material. Just look up his discography on Wiki, and marvel. An all round good bloke, yet one that apparently also didn’t tolerate fools gladly.

More Dylan Musings: ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’

Having lived with Rough and Rowdy Ways for some weeks now, it’s now clear to me that the standout track is not the 17-minute epic ‘Murder Most Foul’, but the 9-minute  mini-epic that ends the main disc, ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’. I’m not sure whether the parenthetical title is a self-reference, with Dylan seeing himself as some sort of Jack Sparrow figure, but for me it is ultimately as elliptical and ambiguous as is the best of Dylan’s massive cryptic content.

Is ‘Key West’ a moral and ethical touchstone, as were, potentially, ‘Desolation Row’ and the ‘Highlands’, or even the ‘Lowlands’ of the Sad-Eyed Lady?  “Key West is the place to be, if you’re looking for immortality…Key West is fine and fair, if you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there”. It’s also the “gateway to innocence and purity”, so its obviously quite the ‘place to be’. The accordion provides the listener with “that bleeding heart disease” (with shades of Garth Hudson, just as the shade of Scarlet Rivera is evoked elsewhere), but, as ever, what does it all mean? It doesn’t matter; it probably means an unattainable lightness of somewhere/something, but who cares when you have that warm-but-tensile, reassuring voice, basted in six decades of recording experience (and yes, I know that the much younger Paul Weller has achieved five decades of same, but c’mon, this is surely of a different order?)

I’m reminded of the New York ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (BOTT)recordings, which I know many think inferior to the finally released album versions, but ‘many’ would, in this case, be wrong. Dylan is so slippery, you think that you’ve ‘got’ him (as we all did with the initial vinyl release of BOTT, until subsequent bootlegs wrong footed us), but…’Key West’ expands over its nine minutes, and it genuinely feels like it could never end, a “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” that will eventually eat its own tail/tale. ‘Finnegans Wake’ is itself  told from the perspective of old age, just as Dylan’s later works are: Death is everywhere, manifesting appropriately and without sentimentality. Fittingly, Florida is currently one of the epi-centres of the coronavirus pandemic in America, despite the state’s idealised wish that “…winter here is an unknown thing”. Bob Dylan is one artist that continually reminds us that ‘death don’t have no mercy’. Even (and especially?) in the privileged Florida ‘villages’, which were the gone-viral scenes of hatred and division, just a couple of weeks ago (and which Donald Trump encouraged with his ‘White Lives Matter’ re-tweet).

At least one of our elders knows how to behave.

Mark Fisher and James Joyce Made Simple? Part Two.

Ian Penman was clearly a friend and a big influence on Mark Fisher’s writing. He and fellow-writer Paul Morley were, for NME fans of my own ancient vintage, hugely controversial figures of that time (1979-81), absurd as that might now sound, when music journalism holds far less of a sway for young people (rightly so, many would say). Penman’s prose was elliptical and slippery, discursive and referential, particularly to such modern French philosophers as Derrida, Lacan and Baudrillard, which irritated readers beyond belief (and relief) as most felt that he was being a clever-dick and ‘polytechnic show-off’ (the latter put-down demonstrated a degree of class-based criticism from his critics, and one which particularly offended Mark Fisher, who self-identified as a working-class intellectual).

In retrospect, this might indeed have been a sign of critics taking themselves a wee bit too seriously, but this stuff was now being taught at university level (as we have seen with my friend), so it seemed. Sure enough, a stream of academically-informed ‘rock literature’, spearheaded by the likes of Simon Frith (The Sociology of Rock, for starters!),soon began to appear, one that has shown no sign of abating. Mark Fisher perhaps represents one extreme of this, as Darren Ambrose’s list of his favourite references demonstrates. Another friend of Fisher’s, Simon Reynolds, has undoubtedly demonstrated that erudition need not be an obstacle for clear, unemcumbered communication in the field. And a best seller: his Rip It Up and Start Again and Retromania remain popular and essential reading.

I have been a lover of James Joyce since first attempting the Himalayan task of making sense of Ulysses from 1974 onward (I’m too aware of my own intellectual frailties to attempt Finnegans Wake, although two friends have claimed successful ascents). I admit to having found the much-decried ‘Coles Notes’ (i.e. ‘Idiot Guides’ of the time, for O and A Level students), but Anthony Burgess’ book has proved difficult and challenging for me, 46 years on, even after having read many other Joyce exegeses. I’d certainly recommend Frank Budgen’s (who knew Joyce well) James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses (1934) and even James Joyce’s Odyssey (1981) by Frank Delaney (with contemporary  photos!!) over Burgess. Writing for the Ordinary Reader is far form easy, and Burgess demanded considerable ancillary reading and knowledge from such a reader.

As does Fisher’s writing. Unlike Reynolds, he clots up his prose with the bindweed of multiple referencing to the figures of modern French and Eastern European philosophy, psychoananalysis (with no explication, for just one example, however simplistic, of Lacan’s relationship with Freudian thinking). This is writing for what we called, in my day, ‘pseuds’. Name-dropping for the sake of it, names of which the Ordinary Reader is liable to make little sense of (my wife undertook a Philosophy course, and still couldn’t make sense of the likes of Lacan and Derrida, and she’s far from stupid). What’s it all about, Jacques?

In the end, this is complex material, perhaps over-complicated by an inability to communicate relatively straightforward ideas through a comfortable, and comforting, network of jargon? However, I must commend Fisher’s writing about mental health/illness (a subject that I have considerable experience of, as, tellingly, did Fisher). These writings bear the witness of truth, and it shows.

Mark Fisher and James Joyce Made Simple? Part One.

I’ve started reading again, after three months of lockdown, when I mainly watched a myriad of YouTube videos, and managed to complete a first draft of my modest history of the London Musicians’ Collective. So, my recommenced reading has been kick started by a re-reading K-Punk, the collected writings of the late Mark Fisher, and a first reading of Here Comes Everybody, Anthony Burgess’ 1965  ‘Introduction to James Joyce for the ordinary reader’. It is this idea of the Ordinary Reader that interests me most here.

Burgess wrote this in his Preface:

“ The time is coming for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake to be made available for the paperback audience that already knows his earlier, more orthodox, fiction. This audience needs the guidance of a sort of pilot-commentary, and that is what my book tries to be”.

Remember that this was the era of Paul McCartney’s ‘Paperback Writer’, which presupposed a growing audience of educated working class readers, one that ‘needed the guidance’ of paternalistic and patrician Virgils such  as Burgess, who one would have thought would be ideal, what with his Clockwork Orange of three years earlier, with its working class protagonists and their own particular meta-language. All this aside, it would be interesting to have heard  hear the reactions of the ‘average’ Ordinary Reader to this Introduction to Joyce, back in 1965.

Jump forward to 2018, a year after Fisher’s death, and as his editor,Darren  Ambose, sought to reassure potential readers about the contents of this weighty (about the same length as Ulysses) compilation of the hyper-referential critic’s work:

“Some of his references and allusions are undoubtedly challenging and potentially intimidating -Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Marcuse, Adorno, Althusser, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Jameson, Zizek, Zupancic, Badiou, Beradi, Lacan - but his writing is never marked by the zealous pedantry exhibited by so much academic writing in the theoretical humanities”. I count myself a reasonably informed Ordinary Reader, and yet I hadn’t even heard of at least four of these ‘names’, making it, at least in my terms, a ‘specialist’ read. Just like, I’m afraid, is  Ulysses, which has nevertheless always remained my own personal favourite book over the past five decades

“Theoretical humanities” and “academic writings”?   Ambrose rather disingenuously gives himself away right at the beginning, just as Burgess did with his ‘paperback audience’s need for guidance’ pat-on-the-head comment. Fisher was indeed an academic, with his PhD in Philosophy from my own alma mater, the University of Warwick, and his Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU.) Which is all fine, but hardly lets the Ordinary Reader know what’s in store in terms of potential difficulties with the jargon and specificities of Cultural Studies literature..

I well remember, back in 1977, when I and my circle had completed our undergraduate degrees at Warwick (which was far less well-regarded, at least academically, back then) and we were all wondering what to do next; and one of our own revealed that he was going to Sheffield University to do a further degree, in Cultural Studies. We all asked ‘WTF is ‘Cultural Studies’ when it’s at home? Two years later, we all began to find out, when Ian Penman started to write for the New Musical Express, our bible at the time.

To be continued.

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