David Bowie – the music never played second fiddle

It’s almost two weeks since the death of David Bowie and, if I wanted to, I could still quite easily well up. His songs touched my heart, my head and frequently – if embarrassingly – my legs. When I tried to dance to them, I mean.

Coincidentally, he was also the only artist I could confidently pull off at karaoke parties. He never mentioned this to anyone, of course.

He was by far my favourite musician. Those who know my near-obsession with Frank Zappa will question this. Whatever. They’re different, is all I can say. They’re both my favourites, and they’re both my favourites by a long way. Go figure.

One similarity, though, and an aspect of Bowie that no appreciation of him that I’ve read has mentioned, is that, like Zappa, Bowie really loved music.

No shit, Sherlock? Well, maybe. But for me the appeal of Bowie’s music is just as great when he’s not singing as when he is.

Like Zappa, he gave his musicians room to create, to let rip or to exploit a melody’s potential. He forced them into musical places they wouldn’t normally have considered. He experimented with unusual sounds and non-standard instruments. And he frequently explored music that required a modicum of patience and concentration before it bestowed its rewards.

I’m thinking of how long it’ll take to find examples of all this in his 27-strong album catalogue, when I realise that I could probably find them all in just one. Maybe even in the album I happen to be listening to right now, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Let’s have a go, shall we?

The opening vocals of the opening track, It’s No Game (Pt 1), aren’t sung by Bowie. They’re not even sung in English. When he does start singing, it sounds more like a painful attempt to bring up his own spleen. Robert Fripp’s guitar is appropriately angry and discordant. It ends with Bowie actually bawling at Fripp to ‘Shut up!’ Can you imagine a Coldplay album starting like this?

Track 2, Up The Hill Backwardsstarts in what sounds to me like 7/4 time, again with Fripp on guitar, before settling down into a stomping 4/4 arrangement. Bowie’s knocked-back, almost chanted vocals share the stage with at least two other singers. At about 2:10 the listener is hauled back into 7/4 time for Fripp to return with more of his crashing guitar work. But this isn’t the middle eight. It just signals the end of the vocals. For the rest of the song we’re treated to a minute-long guitar workout, accompanied by Dennis Davis’ thunderous drumming. The singer whose album we’ve bought isn’t singing, but we’re still listening. Do you ever get this sort of thing on an Adele album?

The album’s title track is more like a straightforward rock song, but that’s straightforward in a Bowie way. There are weird clangings, staccato electronic dog barks in a descending scale, Fripp’s snarling guitar and, again, an extended section at the end of the song (some 30% of its duration) in which the only vocals are an anthemic la-la-la-ing. The whole thing sounds very much like…no one.

But, oh dear. The rest of the tracks unfortunately do little to lend weight to my thesis. Bugger. Perhaps this whole exercise has been a mistake. Maybe I should have chosen Low. However, Ashes to Ashes does include a glorious vocal technique that I can’t imagine any other artist even thinking of doing. From 2:44, Bowie repeats his own lines in a flat monotone, like a bored church congregation responding to the vicar. It’s a world away from the girly chorus you’d expect. Best of all, this structure compels Bowie to sing the last line, a rock ‘n’ roll exclamation, in a similar style. So at 2:57 we hear his lifeless response ‘Woe-oo-woe’. Did Elton John ever try anything so audacious? Jackson? Madonna? Presley? The album throws up other examples of Bowie’s vocals being anything but run of the mill. Check out the slowed down/speeded up split vocals from 2:39 in Scream Like a Babyfor example.

Better still, take Scary Monsters off your Spotify Music Centre and play Aladdin Sane instead. The title track. That piano solo. If you want audacious, this takes the biscuit. Dissonant, seemingly random yet coherent and, to me, utterly majestic. How did it happen? Here’s the pianist, Mike Garson, talking about the day it was recorded back in January 1973.  “I played a blues solo and David said: ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for.’ Then I played a little Latin solo. ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for. ’ Then he said to me: ‘You told me about playing on the avant-garde scene in New York. Why don’t you try something like that?’ I said: ‘Are you serious?’ He said: ‘Absolutely.’ That whole solo was one shot, one take – boom, that was it. But it came about because he got it out of me.”

And here’s Bowie himself, talking to Angus MacKinnon in a 1980 edition of NME“To digress completely for a moment – I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean. Lyrics are not needed because music does have an implicit message of its own; it makes its case very pointedly. If that were not the case, then classical music would not have succeeded to the extent that it did in implying and carrying some definite point of view, some attitude which presumably can’t be expressed with words…

… the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say, which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very angry … when people concentrate only on the lyrics because that’s to imply there is no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds of years of classical music. Ridiculous.”

So, yes. Bowie was clowns and make-up and androgyny and all that reinventing himself malarkey. But he was also a staggeringly creative musician with a Gestalt vision of what a song should be – music and lyrics coming together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

This must be my longest post ever. Thanks for reading if you kept with it. Thanks anyway, even if you didn’t.

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My 2015 Facebook Year In Review

28 Snarky Comments
34 Jokes That Unaccountably Fell Flat
7 Jokes via Timehop That Unaccountably Fell Flat Second Time Around
30 Moans About Things In General
11 Weird Comments That No Doubt Made Sense At The Time, To Someone
23 Invocations To Visit This Or That Blog, Especially That One About My Bloody Holiday
78 Links To Funny Things That Everyone Else Linked To The Week Before
4 Thinly-Veiled Cries For Help And/Or Approval
17 Bravely-Resisted Opportunities to Post A Withering Putdown To Someone’s Racist Comment
1 Failed Attempt At Above
3 Invitations To Sign A Petition, Because Petitions Always Work
1 Photo In Black & White Showing Charming Interplay Between Light and Shadow
1,348 Photos Of Me With A Drink
3 Updates Designed To Suggest My Job Is Occasionally Interesting
42 Occasions Of Banging On About Heartless Tories Etc

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

Source: The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

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The pub where ‘gastro’ leaves a nasty taste

The local boozer is having a refurb! This is good news. Like many pubs, the Royal Oak has been hit by falling trade and has also suffered a number of ‘incidents’ prompting visits from the local plod. Permanent closure and conversion into flats could have been the alternative, so any kind of determination to keep it open is a good sign.

Speaking of signs, there’s one on the wall announcing that the Royal Oak was an Evening Standard Pub of the Year back in the late ’70s. That probably meant you got an assortment of affable pipe-smoking gents who used the word ‘marvellous’ a lot.

‘Affable’ too, probably.

I hope the refurbishment plans allow for the retention of that dying institution, the separate public and saloon bars. Mind you, the distinction between the two was getting a bit blurred at the Royal Oak. The former used to show football on Sky and could get noisy, especially when Chelsea were playing. The saloon bar used to be somewhere you could escape football on Sky. Then the management adopted the retirement home model of reckoning that people needed to have TV on at all times, wherever they were. So they put up TVs in the saloon bar, and tuned them all to show football on Sky.

The pub served a range of traditional hearty pub fayre. You know the sort of thing. Burgers, steaks, pies and so on. All pretty good value and, thanks to weapons-grade microwaves, delivered to your table virtually before you’d finished placing your order.

But whatever else is changing, it looks like the food side of things will stay the same:

See that?

GASTRO PUB, NOT US!

Dubious grammar aside, I was struck by what these four words say about how the ‘gastro pub’ is perceived. Well, badly, obviously. Perhaps with a deep sense of distrust and suspicion. ‘We’ll be having none of your fancy London ways around here’ is the subtext. Or maybe it’s a veiled reference to the refurb carried out some years ago at another nearby pub, The Railway.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about drinking in pubs, it is to avoid any whose name contains the words ‘railway’, ‘station’ or ‘travellers’. Sure enough, The Railway was a seriously dodgy venue. After one disturbance too many, they shut the place down and reopened it months later with a new name, new decor, new prices and a new menu:

Does this shout ‘gastro pub’ to you? It doesn’t to me. But maybe the drinkers at the Royal Oak got terrified that their pub would reopen selling, not burgers, but black cod fillet in a Japanese tamari and manuka honey reduction, served with locally harvested micro greens.

Fair enough, but why so virulent in the denial? Why mention it at all? Is gastro food, whatever that might be, really such a terrible, terrible thing that you have to highlight the fact that customers needn’t entertain the slenderest fear of encountering any?

It’s like trying to reassure customers with signs saying things like:

SALMONELLA & BOTULISM? NOT HERE!
FILTHY CARPETS & STINKING BOGS? I DON’T THINK SO!
RISK OF UNPROVOKED GLASSING? NOT REALLY OUR STYLE!

To me, the sign is stating in a passive-aggressive way that the pub will under no circumstances serve the kind of food many people enjoy. They may as well have a sign reading:

CHEERFUL AMBIENCE? NOT US!
LOG FIRE IN WINTER? GET OUT OF HERE!
or
GOOD RANGE OF ALES? WHAT PLANET ARE YOU ON?!

I’ll give it a try when it reopens, though. Of course I will. It’s the local.

UPDATE 1: I visited The Royal Oak shortly after it reopened. Verdict: They’ve kept the good stuff (antique mirrors, unusual tiny wooden doorway through which one has to stoop to get from the public to the saloon bar, good range of beers, general layout,) and got rid of some the bad stuff (old fashioned furniture, heavily stained swirly carpet). All the TVs are still there, and they’re all showing football. There were plenty of unoccupied tables and chairs. But dim lighting made it impossible to read the paper, which has always been one of life’s pleasures, and a pair of children were allowed to run around and yell at the tops of their voices. THAT I could just about have coped with, but the constantly barking dog in the adjacent bar proved too much. Plus, the owner attempted to stop his dog barking by shouting at it. So I drained my pint and left.

UPDATE 2: Maybe I was unlucky, so I give the pub another try. This time I takeBounder (my cocker spaniel) and a backlit iPad. The place is just as empty as before. But the barman takes one look at Bounder and says that dogs are no longer allowed, except in the public bar. From there I can hear the barking dog above the sound of two teams battling it out on Sky 3 Plus Football Euro Extra, so I leave and strike the Royal Oak off of my list of locals. Shame.

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The mystery of the canopy towel

Some new neighbours arrived a while back. They immediately set about modernising and improving their 1950s semi-detached house. In the garden they repaved everything that wasn’t grass and returfed everything that wasn’t paved. They planted flowers in neat rows, sprayed the outside of the house with white paint and bought a staggering variety of primary-coloured outdoor toys and games for their two young sons.

I don’t know about inside the house, but outside everything is transformed. Their garden furniture is modern and comfortable looking. Everything is clean and contemporary. The little glass canopy they erected over their back door, for example. Nice.

It’s a bit like this. Or was.

Speaking as one with a patchy, lumpy lawn, a brick BBQ held up by gravity alone and  an old pub-type picnic table stained by bird shit, I look at what they’ve done with some envy.

And then one day in early summer I noticed that an old kitchen towel had somehow found its way to the top of their new canopy. I figured that maybe it had been dropped by someone while they’d been cleaning the upstairs windows. A towel to clean windows? Well, yes, MAYBE. Or maybe a workman had somehow contrived to accidentally throw it up there. Regardless, given the owners’ love of everything being clean and well-ordered, it would only be a matter of time before they got the ladders out and removed it.

But no. It stayed there throughout the summer, looking all grey and dirty and dishevelled. It’s well known that a good place to hide is up in a tree as people seldom examine the lofty altitudes. But surely they’d have noticed it by now. I started to wonder if it had been left there on purpose, but failed to come up with a single plausible reason.

Then a strange thing happened. Even stranger, I mean. The towel was joined by a friend.

This new adornment to the canopy is no kitchen towel. It looks more like a beach towel to me, although I don’t claim any expert credentials in this regard. If the first towel wasn’t spotted because it was camouflaged perfectly against the grey summer skies, that surely can’t be the reason nobody has noticed this colourful newcomer.

The two towels have been sitting there for more than a week now. It’s utterly baffling as to why they’re there. Any ideas? Have YOU ever placed a towel in an unusual spot? Tell me now, while I’m still interested.

UPDATE

The neighbours are having scaffolding erected. Not sure why. Something noisy and disruptive, no doubt. But the days of the towels’ presence on the canopy are now surely numbered. A scaffolder, roofer, painter, plumber, glazier, window-fitter or loft converter is bound to see the towels and remove them, isn’t he? (Or she?) I’ll keep you posted.

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Think twice before breaking into this van

‘NO TOOLS LEFT IN VAN OVERNIGHT’ is the familiar sticker on white vans up and down the country. It rarely has its desired effect, of course. A van with this message is probably more likely to be burgled than one left completely blank.

As soon as a tradesperson adds Trusted Trader, Gas Safe, Checkatrade, ECA, TrustMark or any other accreditation onto his vehicle, he’s probably increasing his chances of some wanker breaking into his van and nicking everything with a plug on it, before selling the lot for beer money at the next car boot sale.

So here’s an alternative to the please-rob-me white van favoured by painters, builders and plumbers across the UK.

The green lights are probably a bit over the top. A silly personalised number plate is optional. You certainly won’t want your phone number on the side. The key bits are 1) it’s a black van with no windows, and 2) it has PRIVATE AMBULANCE on it, which as everyone knows is a more acceptable way of announcing that this is a hearse with a dead body in it.

Now who’s going to break into that in the hope of finding the odd pipe bender or concrete grinder?

 

Pic courtesy Ivan Barefield on Twitter.

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The lady in the launderette

In the early 1980s a  job move took me to new accommodation in a flat in Hornsey, north London. By the end of the second week it was time to wash some clothes. Trouble was, there was no washing machine in the flat. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of anything in this flat. No TV or radio. No stereo. A tiny two-ring hob in a poky kitchenette. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, either. The only other occupant – the flat’s owner – was a humourless, vegetarian teetotaller. My small room contained an ancient wooden-framed single bed that made such an alarming series of creaks and groans every time I shifted position that the noise would wake me up. I ended up sleeping on the floor.

Two weeks later I’d be out of there, moving to a much more lively flat on the edge of Clapham Common. Sex, drugs, booze and noisy parties all awaited.

But right now I needed my clothes washed. So I stuffed them all into a heavy duty plastic sack and hauled it to Turnpike Lane, the local high street, where I quickly found a launderette.

I opened the door to an uncharacteristically empty shop. In my experience of using these places when living in other flats around London, your typical launderette would be full up on a Saturday. There’d be people chatting, smoking, reading magazines and lifting great baskets of steaming laundry from one machine to another. Everyone would know what to do and the order in which to do it. Crucially, they’d also have the right change for the different types of coin-operated machinery.

I never had the right change. Nor could I face the prospect of dumbly sitting there while the machines slowly did their stuff. I could conceivably zip off to the pub to while away the time, but harboured the fear that I’d come back to find I had missed the end of the washing machine cycle, and an irate customer had angrily dumped all my clothes in a tangled heap.

So I always opted for a service wash, where the attendant – typically a harried, no-nonsense, chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a floral garment made from some electrically-charged synthetic fibre – would for a nominal fee do all the heavy lifting for you. Hopefully without spending too long judging the general state of your smalls.

There was just such an attendant there in the Turnpike Lane launderette. I approach her with my sack of dirty clothes.

“Hi! Do you do service washes here?” She looks at me while she considers the question. You should know the answer to this instinctively, I think.

“Yes, love,” she says eventually. “Yes we do. You want that little lot washed, do you?” She nods at the sack.

“Yes please, that would be great.” I hand the sack over. “How long will it take, do you reckon?” She gives the sack a once-over. “Couple of hours?”

“Great,” I say. She starts to turn away, then stops.

“What, are you going to wait for it?” Well, no. That would defeat the whole time-saving purpose of a service wash. It would also be a bit odd, sitting there watching while someone you didn’t know washed your clothes.

“No no, I was waiting for a ticket. You know.” Back when people used launderettes, you needed a ticket for a service wash. Otherwise anyone could walk in and claim your washing as their own. Or there could be a bag mix-up and you’d get home to find you’d picked up the clothes of a petite 25-year-old PA. So they’d give you a ticket, normally one of those cheaply-printed tear-off raffle ticket affairs.

“Oh right. A ticket.” She puts the sack down and heads off into her little office at the back. I hear what sounds like heavy wooden furniture being scraped across the floor. I turn to have a look around. No one else has come into the shop. Curiously, none of the machines seems to be in action. All I can hear is the steady drone of the traffic outside. Eventually the attendant emerges from the office. But she doesn’t have a ticket. Instead, she’s dragging an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden step ladders. She plonks it in front of me, extends the legs outwards, rocks the assembly back and forth to ensure it’s stable and begins slowly climbing up.

I follow her progress. When she gets to about the third step, she reaches up and pushes at a ceiling tile. It moves a little. She gets both hands to it and slides it fully out of the way. Then she climbs up on the next step, and the next, until she’s in a position to climb off the top of the ladders and into a black space above the ceiling. She disappears from view.

I stare at the darkly forbidding aperture. The seconds tick by. Anyone glancing in through the window would see a 20-something man standing motionless in front of a pair of tall stepladders in an otherwise deserted launderette. My mouth starts to feel a little dry. The sounds of more objects being moved around reaches me from above. There’s a muffled thump. At least something’s happening up there, I think.

Eventually a leg appears, its foot searching tentacle-like for the uppermost step of the ladder. It makes contact. The attendant slowly descends a few steps, stops to replace the little trapdoor in the ceiling, then makes it all the way back to terra firma. Plumes of dust fly from her crackling nylon housecoat type thing as she brushes herself down. She reaches into a pocket and hands me the ticket.

It’s the customary raffle ticket. I look at the number. It reads ‘1’.

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