If I was to be cast away alone on a desert island (you wish), these are the records I’d like to take with me. Assuming – as they say on the BBC version – I also had a record player, not to mention a wind-powered electricity generating station, etc.
I know there are only supposed to be eight of them, but maths. was never my strong suite.
Stephen Stills – So Begins The Task
The Manassas album (released April 1972) is a masterpiece, a kind of “dilute to taste” concentration of creative juices that were pressed from folk rock/C&W groups like the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash and heavily infused the work of others such as I daresay the Eagles and so many more. For me the album eclipses any of the things he did with CSN&Y and Buffalo Springfield. This is sung by a singer/composer with a lump in his throat, shortly after his break-up with Judy Collins apparently. The tenderness of the lyrics, the singing style and the harmonies nests perfectly on a bed of electric slide guitar (I reckon) and sympathetic brushwork (I assume by Dallas Taylor, not Joe Lala). The use of suspensions, so beloved of CSN&Y and James Taylor, is responsible for a lot of the wistfulness in the chord sequence but if the use of cliché produces such a mellifluous result, why object? There’s a great unplugged solo finger-picking version here …
Mozart – Herbert von Karajan, VPO, 1958: Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550 – Movement 3, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 32, so he had just three more years to live, when he wrote this quite short symphony. It only has four movements. For me, this 3rd movement seems in a different class to the others. He’s found a sparkling line of melody from somewhere and plays all kinds of games with it. The piece divides fairly neatly into three phases (it’s no minuet, even though it’s referred to as such – apart from the quite long middle part, which is just about danceable to), with the string sections seeming to argue amongst themselves at times, the underlying counterpoint struggling to gain dominance. I get a picture of table-thumping, temporary agreement, renewed friendship, a sudden further outburst and a final resolution to peace and tranquillity. The rhythms must be part of the reason for the appeal of this amazing composition – although it’s a 6:8 time signature he uses three breves across each of the three pairs of quavers to produce the heavy “sawing edge” effect of the strings at the start. Karajan gets the pace just right in this version – it needs to be lively and there are a few ponderous versions on YouTube; and listen out for the pops from the original vinyl disc (love it). Not one to listen to before you start a long car journey on your own with no radio or stereo to get the melody out of your mind – or there again, perhaps it is lol. Like many other artists down the middle and later centuries of the second millennium, Mozart was (eventually) sponsored by the Habsburgs (of whom more another time); but he died in chronic debt.
The Beatles – She Said, She Said
This John Lennon-composed track is the Fab Four’s best-ever piece of work. You don’t need to know the background to it to appreciate the way the muscularity of the beat is set in stark opposition to the uncertainty and self-doubt of the lyric. According to Ian McDonald in Revolution In The Head, (Pimlic0, 1994), the song was spawned by an LSD trip in the company of Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, shortly after Lennon had been very bored by Jane Fonda‘s new film Cat Ballou and then been told by her actor brother Peter Fonda about a near-death experience he’d had in hospital (“I know what it’s like to be dead“). But in fact all of this translates into a protestation from a young man coming to terms with the realities of adult relationships, at the hands of an all-too-experienced woman. For me the key line is “Even though you know what you know“. To an extent Ringo Starr steals the show with his virtuoso signature drumming, incorporating unpredictable catchbeats, paradiddles and copious use of crash cymbal. McCartney‘s mostly on-beat bass intercedes just occasionally but very effectively, rearing its head for instance to underline the words “You don’t understand what I said“. At the top is the jangling mix of fuzz and Byrds-type Rickenbacker; my guess is they used Rickenbackers for both rhythm and lead here, as personally I can’t detect any sign of George‘s favoured Gretsch. A true “wall of sound” from start to finish; mostly monosyllabic narrative; and a song with genuine aural “texture”, one for your ears to really chew on. And I remember that at the time it came bottom of the list of favourite Revolver tracks in the monthly Beatles Book …
Janine Jansen – Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra
I’m really choosing the performer here, rather than the piece of music, though when a genius such as Janine Jansen applies her talents to the work of another genius, Felix Mendelssohn, it’s an opportunity to note that the most brilliant performers rely on composers to produce material which provides an adequate challenge – and this is some challenge! Mendelssohn was another composer whose life was all too brief. Born in Hamburg in 1809, he died in Leipzig in 1847, aged just 38. Fortunately Mendelssohn’s life was stuck on fast-forward for the most part: he’d written fifteen symphonies before he was fifteen years of age, for instance. At this 2011 Prom Janine Jansen seems fused to her Strad, as together they either extract or inject passionate intensity from and into their relationship with the music and the orchestra. Her facility up and down the fingerboard is quite jaw-dropping. I find my toes curling (in a nice way!) as she reaches for the highest notes and makes them at perfect pitch, with ease. She’ll be at the last night of the Proms on Saturday, 13th September, and I’ll certainly be in front of the box; if like me you missed her Proms performance of The Lark Ascending (Vaughan Williams) earlier this month, you can find her playing it by clicking here.
Avril Lavigne – I’m With You
For me this is like a mini-novel, though an unfinished one. The poor young girl is left standing on the bridge and is happy to turn to anyone for friendship (“I don’t know who you are, but I … I’m With You“). The plangent tones of the cello at the opening set the bitter sweet tone and reappear from time to time. I think the instrument is used marginally better here than, for instance, in the Beatles‘ Eleanor Rigby, where arguably the string section (which I’ve pulled out separately in the link), led by the cello(s), intrudes into the song to an extent that makes one sometimes wonder whether the singing and melody line weren’t a bit of an afterthought. Obviously the video is an essential element of this package and Lavigne’s team has always recognised the massive potential of matching visuals. They’ve gone to a lot of bother to get it right: it clearly is a “damn cold night” – everyone at the party arrives well wrapped up. The cold is a symbol of being alone in the city (cf. another Lavigne tour de force, Nobody’s Home), an emotion re-emphasised in the rugby scrum that gets underway as the vulnerable singer is repeatedly struck by cavorting dancers, to a crash of cymbals. The breakaway into the shouted “It’s a damn cold night” is in the tradition of Sheryl Crow‘s “If It Makes You Happy“, which precedes it by some six years and has become part of the langue of (mostly Canadian) singer-songwriters. The climactic moment is the wailing cry of “Yeah!”, from which point the song slides inexorably to its bleak conclusion. I do like the structure of this song; it may be predictable but in a way that’s part of its charm. She’s trapped in this situation; there’s just no way out. And still, at the end, she’s not with anyone …* Avril Lavigne is still producing excellent original work as she matures, following an amicable break-up with former partner Deryck Whibley and marriage to Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger. Her backing group is blessed with a great drummer in Rodney Howard.
Pachelbel – Canon, played by the London Symphony Orchestra
This is a musical embodiment of serenity, tailor-made for reviving the spirits, after a hard day’s night at the office. Its melodic cross-currents join with the electrical impulses in the spinal cord and steer them to calmer waters, soothing away all the stresses of the day.
Jake Bugg – Broken
This young English genius from Nottingham is definitely one to watch. My luxury on the island would of course be a solar-powered radio and I’d be listening in to see how Jake Bugg‘s career was progressing. He’s still only twenty. He favours Martin guitars (great choice) for acoustic numbers and in other tracks his amazing speed and dexterity in electric guitar playing on his Fender Telecaster is something to behold. But it’s the eccentric material and quirky vocal style which are most immediately apparent. I can almost picture him in front of the furnace, heating up a particular melodic line and then laying it over the anvil, where he bashes it into a shape that no-one else would have thought of. His vocal style is equally individual. I know he’s still being outshone by Ed Sheeran at the moment; but I predict an even bigger future for Mr. Bugg.
Fred Astaire – Let’s Face the Music and Dance
This was written by Irving Berlin for the 1936 film Follow The Fleet – and, after an ominous intro from the orchestra, how ironic, that opening line: “There may be trouble ahead”. There was indeed trouble aplenty in store in 1936. During the ‘thirties and ‘forties, dance probably played a more important role in society at large than at any time before or since, both here and in the US. Dancing was one of the ways of “facing down” the worries created by financial turmoil and the gathering political storms that would lead to war. The above static video features a version from an Astaire album. It’s quite a short song (regrettably) but, to me, very atmospheric, with strings and sometimes muted brass combining to produce an intoxicating mix. The extended piano solo takes over from the vocal quite early in the piece and I like the embellishments at the top of the scale. Actually I’m not as keen on the version in the film itself, as it dawdles a bit; but then again you can’t beat seeing it in context, with the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers partnership showing how simple, elegant choreography can still convey a lot more than could be said via a script. This was the time when the foundations were being laid that would lead to the great Hollywood musicals of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties and to an extent all the other related genres such as theatrical musicals and even, dare I suggest it, the pop video and indeed Strictly Come Dancing.
Dylan Thomas – Fern Hill
Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet (mere coincidence that he too was Welsh). His impressionistic writing style is full to bursting with image, symbolism and clever observation. To hear him read is to hear him sing. His reading style, whilst declamatory, is also melodic and highly rhythmical, leading you willingly from line to fascinating line, as though you were watching a time-lapse film of a tree covered in flower buds which suddenly begin to open and reveal their true beauty. Fern Hill is a paean in praise of memory, albeit an idealised memory. But the poet is not so naive as not to realise that time held him “green and dying”, even in his days of youth. Time always catches up. My favourite passage:
“All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark”.
When I was a young boy of eight or nine back in Caerphilly, in South Wales, I had my own fern hill. I could look out of the back bedroom window at the mountain beyond. In the middle distance was a railway line used mostly by freight trains. If you went through the little pedestrian tunnel you could start the climb up the fern-covered slopes. The ferns were taller than me and my friends, Ronnie Stevens, Chris Pritchard and Jimmy Newbury. We made tunnels through the ferns and on a typical afternoon we’d carry on up the hill, climb to the very tops of the huge, waving trees and examine the nests of the carrion crows.
Toto – Africa
Africa is a strangely hypnotic song. It’s an interesting tune and the words are intriguing. But the two components that single it out for ‘classic’ status are the use made of the synthesiser (especially the marimba feature) and the drumming. Drummer Jeff Porcaro‘s contribution to Toto‘s body of work is very important; but on this track it’s both central and (as it turns out) highly complex. The trouble he went to to arrive at the final effect is described in detail on this Wikipedia page. Insistent high register harmonies were a Toto characteristic and are shown off here to great effect; although the group went through many personnel changes, vocal calisthenics at the very top end of the range were a fairly constant and impressive feature. An apparently simple melody and arrangement belies a complex structure, the whole thing realised by highly skilled musicians.
Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra
I love the drama of Dmitri Shostakovich‘s music. There’s plenty of light and shade in this symphony but mostly it is constructed of powerful, strident melodic lines. As well as composing film music himself, he’s been such an influence on the genre generally; and there are so many ‘near-quotations’ from his work (acknowledged or otherwise) in a number of Hollywood blockbusters. I was listening to Mahler‘s 2nd Symphony recently, though, and there were distinct echoes of this symphony there … or, rather, Shostakovich had perhaps drawn inspiration from the Mahler work, as of course Mahler pre-dates Shostakovich. I listened to this symphony on my record player on countless occasions as a student and I kind of know it off by heart. That’s not because of any particular feat of memory on my part – it’s because the music is so memorable and expressive. There are certainly lengthy moments of subtlety and quietude; but often it’s bombastic and strident, using the full weight of the orchestra to press forward in an unstoppable torrent of dramatic intensity. Strings, woodwind and horns lead the way in the first movement, for instance, which at first seems to be reaching for something unattainable, using high notes and occasional dissonance. The harp and oboe settle things down for a time but a menacing tone is suddenly thrown in by piano; this leads into a frenetic chase, with the strings and horn section racing towards a march, before the canvas is widened to the maximum extent as we build to another crescendo, before the score ultimately resolves into a much more muted but deliciously sweet, extended finale. It’s this variety of emphasis and pace and the way the composer makes use of all the instrumental resources at his disposal that for me makes this piece so great.
Rolling Stones – It’s All Over Now
I was lucky enough to see the original line-up of the Stones live on the same stage (the Capitol Theatre, Cardiff) that I’d seen The Beatles a bit earlier. I saw the Beatles in August 1965 so I’d guess I saw the Stones some time in 1966. I saw them again at their first, famous and free Hyde Park open air concert, a few years later, immediately following the death of Brian Jones – the one where Mick wears his white ensemble and they release hundreds of white butterflies. I remember seeing Brian playing his white mandolin guitar at the Capitol. I think they lost some rawness after his death. Not sure the band fully recovered – he played a lot of instruments, was a highly imaginative bloke by all reports and was obviously a key creative input into the original band – but, as is often the case, “those whom the Gods love die young”. Amusing the way Mick sings “She hurt my nose open, that’s no lie” in this live TV version! This is my favourite Stones song for various reasons: its laconic message, brief, emotionless and to the point (“I used to love her, but it’s all over now“); the story-telling approach of the overall lyric; a defiantly repetitive riff in the middle eight solo by Keith; the banjo-style, finger-picked rhythm guitar; nice use of tambourine (my god, that instrument is so under-rated); and the easy vocal harmonies, which help to make the song very catchy. Charlie Watts holds the whole thing together in his usual inimitable style.
So … have you managed to get that Mozart melody out of your head yet?