Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


Just An Illusion - How Jimmy Savile is Doing My Head In

I’m losing the plot here. In the last blog, I described the cover of Dan Davies’ book ‘In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile’ and what I saw as a statuette of Christ at the reviled-one’s side, in his flat in Scarborough. It made sense, in terms of evidence of him seeing himself in somewhat messianic terms, what with all his ‘selfless charity work’ (which, as the book shows, netted him millions in sponsorship and advertising revenues streams).

In fact, the image is actually Savile’s hand and of his omnipresent cigar., and the bright red sleeve of whatever it is he was wearing.

Now then, now then. This may be proof of my deteriorating eyesight, and its potential to create illusions (i.e. a misreading of visual stimuli). Or perhaps my willingness to create a narrative, due to Savile’s Catholicism. Or perhaps the photograph concerned being dark and difficult to ‘read’.

Whatever, an analyst would have a field day here, with Savile’s phallic extension being mistaken for Our Saviour.

But I prefer to think this micro-mistake sums up how Jimmy Savile can still gaslight us all. Reading this book is so disturbing that it really does have one questioning the ‘reality’ of things.

Maybe I should just have that eye test?

Saville Unravelled

In May 1960, Tyne Tees TV started a weekly pop music show, one of the first of its kind, presented by the by-then highly successful northern ‘disc jockey’ James Wilson Vincent Savile, or ‘Jimmy’ to the hundreds of girls who he had already abused, in a series of degrading incidents across the north of England and several years. Beyond parody, the show was entitled ‘Young At Heart’.

Like it or not, the nascent pop culture was much enjoyed by, amongst others, teenage girls, that presented to Savile the opportunity and the access to this core audience, or prey. In particular, Dan Davies’ points out that Savile was an innovative DJ for his time. It sounds like he was good at it, rapidly becoming a ‘superstar DJ’, apparently pioneering, as well as the sexual assault of the female punters, the dual-deck format (Davies says that he was the very first jockey to use this format, at the Leeds Locarno in the late 50s). This is a sobering reminder that Savile did possess skills, especially with regards to the emerging youth ‘scene’, and was ahead of the game - he sold himself to the still very staid English entertainment industry, getting himself photographed with Elvis in The States, using this to trumpet his credentials to the likes of the BBC. A ceaseless self-publicist and attention-seeker, he ran rings around the impresarios of the time, especially as it was clear that he could make people considerable money. Taking a leaf out of the Wolfman Jack book, his shtick was partly learned, but mostly came naturally. On Radio 1960, his voice was ‘different’, a sort of anti-BBC received pronunciation’, “at the very start of a decade in which pop music was to transform British culture…it consolidated his position as one of the coming men in a new industry” (page 150).

Savile was hardly one of a kind, however. If we look back at that generation of DJs, it is noticable how many were later to prove to be ‘nonces’, and several received jail terms.. Savile’s abuses were clearly the most egregious, but we have to remember the subculture that provided roots for them to gain root and to thrive. As Dan Davies says on the dust cover of his book, the “burgeoning ‘youth’ scene, from the 1950s onward, fostered a culture ripe for abusive manipulation”. Being on the television was a very big deal then, with ‘starstruck’ young women easily overawed by pop muppets like Savile.

On page 197, Davies tells the tale of how The Beatles were refused entrance to Savile’s place, for a post-gig cuppa coffee, after giving him a lift home after a gig at which he was their DJ; Paul McCartney admitted that  “We always thought there was always something a little bit suspect”. These sort of connections gave him immense kudos in 1963/4, and Savile exploited these, as he was later to do with The Royal Family and Margaret Thatcher.  Knowing The Beatles was a meal ticket, and young girls would do almost anything if they thought they could gain access to the Fab Four and their like. As a final parting shot for this piece, I would recommend to the reader a YouTube creepy five-minute video called ‘Jimmy Savile and The Beatles’, to demonstrate just how far inside the corridors of pop culture power Savile had gotten by 1964 - the references that the film’s author makes to Aleister Crowley seem highly appropriate here. Just a few years later, having impressed Loius Mountbatten and Prince Phillip, he had wormed his way into the corridors of Buckingham Palace.

‘Apocalyse Now Then, Now Then’: Jimmy Savile, “it was like Tourette’s of the Soul”. Some Observations.

Like, no doubt, many others in this weirdest of times, I’ve been doing some catching up on some lengthy books that I’ve now got the time and motivation to get through. However, I’ve almost fallen at the very the first of these potential hurdles (the next two, when I get round to them, are ‘The Mirror & The Light’ and Roy Jenkins’ biography of Winston Churchill): Dan Davies’ 2014 ‘In Plain Sight: the Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile’. It’s partly because I find it hard to really concentrate, when there is really only one thing on people’s mind, but it’s mainly because I can only read about 30 pages without experiencing the need to have a bath or shower.

The Tourette’s quote above is from page 370 of Davies’ masterful account of the cesspit that was Savile’s life and deeds, and it really is most a apposite description of being dipped in Savile’s story. I also thought of entitling these comments something like ‘Savile’s Travels Unravel’, or any one of these seemingly-innocent, if rather cretinous, catch-phrases that have entered our language by means of this detestable man: such as ‘guys and gals’, ‘now then, now then’. ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, ‘owzabout that, then’, etc, etc. As a continuous read, this book makes one want to regularly cover one’s eyes, literally and/or figuratively, as the contents are so appalling on so many levels. In terms of (the complete lack of) morals and ethics, Savile makes Donald Trump seem like Mother Theresa (who herself, reading between the lines, from far from perfect). It’s hard reading, but it’s interesting to pursue one of many potential lines of enquiry, one that looks at how Savile was enabled to became a ‘national treasure’, The conclusion, sadly, is that it was partly through ‘pop culture’ and DJ-ing.

But first, mention must be made of the dust jacket cover of the book, a photograph by Davies himself, of Savile reclining on a settee, in what is presumably his (one of many) pied-a-terre in his hometown, Scarborough, overlooking the beach, and housing stock rising up the surrounding hills, to form a very attractive backdrop, behind the flat’s narrow balcony. Immediately to the recumbent ex-DJ’s left, is a statuette of what look’s like Jesus-with-cross (Savile was a Catholic).  Savile’s bright red ?cardigan forms the only primary colour in the otherwise murky environs. What is most striking, however, is the fact that it is only after several seconds, that the viewer realises that Savile is actually there at all. Like a spider in his web, he is in the center of the photo ‘in plain sight’ as the book’s title suggests, but, in another way, hardly there at all. The cover is a perfect visual metaphor for the book’s contents. The essential Savile was unknowable, existing somewhere inaccessible to the human heart or to even the most penetrating of psychologists.

Like Trump, he was a shameless liar and showman, who made a career out of seeming untrustworthy, but in an entertaining way. Both had an overriding obsession with money, power and sex, and a rampant ego that knows no bounds. Another comparison is with Michael Jackson, but Savile was in no way, shape or form a ‘genius’. He was, however, very intelligent (a Mensa IQ of 150, we are told), a factor that enabled his P.T.Barnum-ish persona to conceal a whole bag of very ugly tricks. Although the whole horror show had started in the fifties, it was around 1960, and with the emergence of the ‘youthquake’, that a previously localised sex predator turned into a national rapist, serial abuser, frotteur and general sex pest (in descending order of appalling behaviour). Especially if you were 16 years old or, preferably, younger.

To be continued. That is if I can stomach it right through to the end.

Apocalypse Now: Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

In these grim times, it’s great to have a new Dylan epic to explore. Unfortunately, on first listening to the 17-minute ‘Murder Most Foul’ on headphones, whilst walking the dog through a semi-deserted Crouch End, it’s hardly a mood enhancer, unless you find dread and paranoia somehow enhancing. “The Age of the Antichrist has just begun…” just about sums it up. No-one seems to know whether this is a precursor to a new album of original tunes, i.e. the first since 2012′s Tempest, or exactly how old it might be, (Dylan has stated, with typical laconic vagueness, that it was recorded ‘a while back’), but, whatever, it was an as-yet unreleased Dylan song, indicating that the old master is even now capable of surprising us, and this song demonstrates that he, to paraphrase Brian Wilson (whose brother, Carl, gets a mention in the text), is still “made for these times”

I’m sure that people don’t mind being reminded that epic Dylan songs.are hardly a new thing: ‘Desolation Row’ from 1965 was perceived as an absolute back breaker in 1965, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the first 6-minute 45, ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ took up a whole side of Blonde on Blonde’ (a tad overrated, imho), Desire had two lengthy narratives in ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, and, at a comparative length to ‘Murder Most Foul’, ‘Highlands’ from 1997′s Time Out of Mind.. By Tempest, he was still testing attention spans, with the title track and ‘Scarlet Town’. ‘Murder Most Foul’ sounds like all and yet none of these, and uses the 1963 assassination of JFK as a ‘frame’ to an allusive list of American legends, mostly of song and film.. It has the surreal pile-up of references of the early ‘wild mercury’ years, anchored by less non-sequitur flights of ideas than these, with a compulsive, ongoing narrative arc that pins it down to post-Kennedy cultural content, and an ‘end of days’ tone, with Bob intoning/reciting, rather than singing. The instrumentation is sparse, beginning with a sombre pizzicato double bass (Tony Garnier?) and rippling piano (Dylan himself, maybe?), and the eventual introduction of a violin (Donnie Herron?) inevitably conjures up memories of Scarlet Rivera throughout Desire.

Alexis Petridis’ great review in today’s Guardian explores, in some detail, the multiple references (mentioning interesting comparisons to ‘American Pie’ in the process), as does Richard Williams’ blog, so I won’t dwell on these, but would point out how Dylan now sounds more like Mark Knopfler than the south Londoner himself. I honestly can’t picture myself listening too much to this important ‘new’ song, as it’s far too close to the bone, in these days of a rampant Covid-19 (the death toll having quadrupled over the past 24 hours, from 181 to 759). The observation that I most want to make, however, is that Dylan/Zimmerman, who will be 80 years of age next year, is still as capable of unleashing a devastating contemporary commentary, as he was with ‘Masters of War’ in itself, itself now nearly 60 years old. Compare this ‘leader of men’ with the likes of Trump and Bojo. And weep.

Vinyl vs. CD:  The NATO Label

So here I am, as instructed to do by our flummoxed-looking PM, at home in partial self-isolation (owing to my immuno-compromised condition, having had a liver transplant ten years ago). At least I have some companions-in-misery, i.e. my wife and youngest daughter, but, like most people, I would imagine, I’m thrown mostly back onto my own resources. In my case, these are dominated by music, films and books, and digging into the arcana of my collections of these media. Delving into my vinyl, I rediscovered an obscurity, released on the French NATO label, and, by a circuitous route, dug out my only compact disc on the selfsame label. I found myself comparing, in microcosm, the two formats. This is what Covid-19 has reduced me to.

I briefly discussed NATO in the chapter of my book about 70s free improv, Convergences, Divergences & Affinities, which concerned the music’s record which it was described thus:”Founded in 1980 and still producing music today, it specialises in conceptual and literary albums”. It also featured plenty of material by English musicians such as Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill, who put out several discs in the early early eighties period on NATO. One thing that I didn’t mention in the book was the high quality of its album presentation and artwork. This particular (and only) NATO vinyl that I have was donated to me by the late Jak Kilby (one of whose photographs is featured inside the sleeve), and glories in the title Erik Satie: Sept Tableaux Phoniques, and features adaptations of Satie compositions by the likes of Beresford and Coxill, as well as Tony Coe, Dave Holland (the other DH), that is) and Phil Wachsmann. It makes an interesting comparison to the Vienna Art Orchestra’s The Minimalism of Erik Satie, especially as both were made in the same year,1983. I’m not here to review the album, just to comment on what a pleasure it is to look at and handle its 12″ gatefold sleeve (most vinyl lovers are fetishists really), its front and back covers protected by a cellophane sheen, with a strong visual heft (inside there are artist photos, a Picabia portrait of Satie and a 1921 photo of the composer playing golf with John Quinn, and lots of other goodies to pour over), reminding me of time spent as a teenager obsessing over album covers by the likes of King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Also,there are loads of text explaining the project, in French and English, by the musicians. Much thought obviously went into these covers.

My only NATO digital product, Deadly Weapons, is by a postmodern dream team of John Zorn Steve Beresford, David Toop and French chanteuse Toni Marshall. As can the Satie tribute, this project risks being accused of po-mo clever-dickery, but, if so, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable and entertaining experience, and, again, the presentation is first-class, for the same reasons outlined above. It might appeal to the Zorn completist (although the notion of ‘completing’ the discography of John Zorn is as ludicrous as that of having every Merzbow product!),and would fit comfortably next to some of Filmworks or Naked City or the likes or Spilland, with their jump cuts and stylistic pin-balling .But the much reduced size makes it much less of a commanding item, even if it is encased in a durable gatefold format, with, once again, a cellophane laminate protecting the cardboard, making it much tougher than the dreaded jewel-case. And the jiggery-pokery of having to squeeze the admitted-comprehensive text sheet from out of the main body of the sleeve? Too much hassle, man.

It’s no contest, really, is it? I really want to avoid sounding like those YouTube vlogers, mostly middle-aged white men like myself, who bang on about the superiority of vinyl BUT…in terms of the packaging as a whole, never mind the sound quality, vinyl wins hands down. We have to remember, having said all this, that not every label has the exacting standards of NATO. Many pop and rock album sleeves were, and remain, lazy and  complacent, and certainly don’t bring the joy that this small French label engenders.

Another self-isolation project is reading the Dan Davies biography of Jimmy Savile. I’m sure that I’ll have something to say about that particular door stopper.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby