Friday, March 31, 2017

1976 was peak Abba

To the modern listener, 1976 is pretty much peak Abba: this is the year of Mamma Mia and Dancing Queen reaching #1 in the UK charts. 

Oh, and Fernando too, which is even odder than I remember it being. More of which later.

Image by AVRO (FTA001019454_012 from Beeld & Geluid wiki) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons 

Although the monster hits continued till the end of the decade, this is the year of their latterly career-defining songs - the evergreen floor filler and the one that they named the jukebox musical after.

What's most impressive to me is that each of the three songs crushes all-comers in different contemporary styles. Mamma Mia is the acme of 1970's glam pop, Dancing Queen shows them effortlessly incorporating a kind of Scandi-disco into their repetoire and Fernando is a very good example of the decade's bewildering fondness for terrible holiday balladry.

I'll be honest here, I don't really care much for Fernando. But even then, it rises above its genre by featuring a lyric about Mexican revolutionaries, which I hadn't even picked up on till now, assuming to my shame that it was just about good times down by the Med. Now a crypto-political lyric is a very 70's thing to do, to be sure, but it also shows that the simple image we have of Abba as happy-go-lucky Swedes in jumpsuits doesn't entirely cut it. 

Our unfortunate tendency to reduce a band's discography down to one or two songs does mean though that both the other 'Abba standards' here have been heard far too much. There was a time when I used to sit out Dancing Queen at student discos - comfortably my favourite song of the three now - because any joy in it had been worn out through sheer repetition. 

This is the odd paradox of writing incredibly well assembled, catchy pop songs - they'll both get you played and overplayed. It's a shame, partly because it means that other great Abba tracks get comparatively neglected (I'm particularly fond of the sublime and ridiculous Gimme Gimme Gimme), but also because it tends to neglect the depth and breadth of what they achieved

It also reinforces the snobbish critique of Abba as purveyors of (at best) superior throwaway 70's Europop. As if this was easy to do, let alone in a second language! But as my investigations of 1976 are discovering, it seems to have been the Brits who were mainly responsible for producing the glut of mid-decade kitsch in the charts

So while Abba, specialists in all styles, reflected the music around them, they've survived in the collective consciousness to the present day because they also happened to be very, very good. To put it concisely, if a little strawmannishly, you can't blame Abba for punk!

Now, go off and listen to Dancing Queen. See that you have a boogie round the house while you do.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Finding your feet again: Alcest's Kodama

The advance word on Kodama was that it was both a return to form for Alcest and a return to heaviness after 2014's (literally and metaphorically) becalmed effort, Shelter. Both are true, with slight qualifications. 

Kodama is unashamedly a rock album, offering a kind of blackened stadium sound bigger yet more intricate than what has gone before. It's reminiscent at time as much of Gilmour era Pink Floyd or 80's U2 (especially the guitars) gone prog as much as mainman Neige's beloved shoegaze. The odd blastbeat and harsh vocal aside, you'd be hard pressed to place it inside the boundaries of metal, though.

Genre purism aside, Neige shows he still knows his away around a catchy riff and, yes, the Alcest party trick of cutting everything out mid-song to showcase a bit of reflective guitar work is still present and correct. Winterhalter's drums are high in the mix, contributing to that big ol' clean progressive sound. The muted choirboy vocals, more than ever, thankfully save the record from the pomposity that might otherwise befall it, given the production values.

Lyrically and thematically we're back on the usual magic realism, this time with a Japanese twist, but it's all done in Alcestworld with such melancholic sincerity and consistency that I tend to find it endearing rather than otherwise. And the fact it's all in French, low in the mix, helps reduce the snark potential too.

None of Kodama is quite as immediate as say, Écailles de Lune, but it's pretty much been on constant rotation here since Christmas. It might be more a variation on an established theme than Shelter, but it's turned out to be an immensably likeable one. I'm not sure we should be asking Neige to turn out similar albums for the rest of his career, but if this is the sound of him finding his feet again then I very much like it indeed.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Death metal Somerset Maughan

Currently enjoying Europe In Winter by Dave Hutchinson (write-up of his entire Fractured Europe trilogy possibly forthcoming), not least for writing like this.

"Juhan was wearing skinny black jeans, a black T-shirt and a massive black leather jacket with jangly silver zippers, which hung from his shoulders like the wings of a pteroactyl. In appearance, it was as if Somerset Maugham had, in the final years of his life, decided to take up death metal."

Douglas Adams would be proud.

Health-geekery March 2017



Or maybe you didn't, but in any case (with apologies to the Utah Saints) here's the latest list of health and social care links I compile on an occasional basis. 

As ever, the inclusion of a link doesn't mean agreement, just that it's made me go hmm (with further apologies to C and C Music Factory).


MND Association new audit tool for health and social care services based on the NICE guideline launches.


New report from Neurological Alliance based on patient survey finds services to diagnose, treat and provide on-going care are failing patients across the spectrum of neurological disorders.

Budget 2017

National Voices response.

Care Quality Commission

The CQC want to hear about your experiences of poor health and social care - also some useful information about complaining to a service and whistleblowing here too (via National Voices).

Care firms

BBC investigation finds that lack of money is prompting firms to end their care contracts with councils.

And the case for regulating homecare, courtesy of the Guardian.

Continuing Healthcare

Threats to CHC in Leicestershire and the threat of reinstitutionalisation (via MND Association).


Report on delays in wheelchair provision - quotes from Muscular Dystrophy UK and Wheelchair Alliance.

Northern Ireland election and coalition-wrangling special

Worries for charity sector funding in Northern Ireland in the absence of a 2017/18 budget due to election limbo (NICVA).

A handy list of new MLA's (NICVA again).

Analysis of election by Stratagem consultants

Video about Northern Ireland's GP crisis.

Local government nerdery in Wales

Want to read the Welsh Government's consultation document on local government, including its positions on joint working with health, council mergers etc, Thought so.

Devo Manc 

Progress report from The Health Foundation.

King's Fund trifecta

Quarterly NHS monitoring report.
The role of housing in Sustainability and Transformation Plans.
Elective waiting times target may not be reached for first time this year.  

Beds and delayed transfers of care

Good summary report from the Nuffield Trust with charts
And... as a complement, bed data from the BMA for each part of the UK

New palliative care awareness-raising campaign

Know About Me (Dying Matters)

Brexit and health

Record numbers of EU nurses quit NHS (Grauniad)


Good summary here of Project AMBRoSIA on the MND Association's Research blog - the Association's biggest ever research project to date.


Did you know more than 1.2 million older people are chronically lonely? Lovely campaign from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness running till mid-April. 

Teh datas

Call for a Health Data Lab to improve outcomes (NPC, backed by various charities including the MND Association).

Health Inequalities

Did you know Coventry was a Marmot City? If you think it has something to do with small furry animals, read on and be corrected (RCN Community Health Nursing Journal).

And finally...a giant spreadsheet of increased payments for adult social care from the 2017 Budget 

Just the figures, but if anyone notices anything interesting please share.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

More contenders from February 1976

There are some more tracks from February that will get the extended treatment on the blog - the gods of Nostalgia know well that with three number 1's in a year I can't not write about Abba. I just can't bring myself to write a contemptuous post about Mamma Mia, because it (and the band) deserve better.

More prosaically, I just can't bring myself to write anything at all about another number 1, December '63 by the Four Seasons. Sorry, fellas.

Meanwhile, here are some hits to note in passing.

Inside America - Juggy Jones - instrumental floor-filler, in some respects more indicative of where disco was going than the outrider fabulosity of Love To Love You Baby. Nice cowbell, and more information about mastermind Juggy Murray can be found here.

George McCrae - Honey I - if you loved his earlier classic Rock Me Baby, than George and his, er, honeyed voice have a similar piece of work they'd like to introduce to you. Simultaneously funky and effortless.

Forever & Ever - Slik - glam fluff which sounds like it's going to be a great lost piece of psychpop for the first 45 seconds of church organ and backwards chanting, before the actual song starts. Notable mainly for being the first appearance of late 70's/early 80's pop Zelig Midge Ure and for being one of the few chart-toppers this year you've probably never heard of.

No Regrets - Walker Brothers - lachyrmose-realist country break-up ballad notable mainly for relaunching Scott Walker's career after the first round of wilderness years in the early 70's. Scott being Scott, he then used it as a springboard to make songs about torture in Latin America two years later. 

Itchycoo Park - The Small Faces - my attitude to this song can best be described as grudging admiration. For all that it is irritatingly twee, it does have a great pre-chorus and chorus where Steve Marriott can really let rip with that big old voice of his. And it's probably a more accurate account of the Summer Of Love - getting stoned at the local Rec' - for most people than any more earnest offering.

What it's doing in 1976 though, other than making a quick buck on the nostalgia market, is anyone's guess. Helping to inspire the mod revival at the end of the decade?

C W McCall - Convoy - Evidence of the UK record-buying public's enduring secret fondness for country music. Especially if it's about a nihilistic cross-country trip by an army of truckers taking the law into their own hands (see heavily annotated lyric here). So influential it became a film, any resemblance to the current state of US politics is purely coincidental.

Love To Love You Baby and the rise of proto-disco

Alright, that's quite enough art-rock. Time to cross the disco Rubicon.

Listening to music from 1976 means working my way through a lot of what I think as proto-disco. The funk and soul rythyms of the mid-1970's are heading towards the insistent pulse of four-on-the floor, the sound towards the ecstatic release of disco, but we're not quite there yet.

Donna Summer's Love To Love You Baby is too slow, to sinuous to be disco as it was later codified, but as the herald of both an emergent genre and a new medium (the 12' extended edit) it's second to none. Even if it's barely a wakka-wakka guitar away from soundtracking an adult film.

A thought not remotely helped by the thought of co-writer Georgio Moroder's moustache. Brrr.

Like most works of genius, Love To Love You Baby has absolutely no right to work as well as it does. The song is a deeply silly one seemingly born of the participants mucking about in the studio, with single-entendre lyrics delivered in a breathy whisper by Summer, topped off with additional moaning and groaning, perhaps for clarification purposes for the particularly obtuse.

It takes the previous year's more delicate but thematically similar Inside My Love by Minnie Ripperton and makes it look positively understated. In fact, the BBC refused to play or even initially to promote Love To Love You Baby - that's how outré and scandalous it was deemed to be. In your face, Sex Pistols!

What makes the song more than a Carry On Affair? First and foremost, it's Donna Summer. The purity of her gospel and musical theatre-trained voice means the song gets away with a lot more than it could than with a more grounded vocalist, of course. But the contrast between the voice and the lyric also pushes LTLYB into the innocence/guilt, spirit/flesh, push/pull dynamic that's powered so much great art, high and low.  

Not to mention a whole lot of great dance music over the years.

And then there's the extended 12' version. As a 7' LTLYB is a good novelty record by a great singer, but it's when Moroder and his crew extend it out to nearly twenty minutes of baroque dancefloor commentary, strings, flutes, Europop choirs and breakdowns circling around Summer that the song takes off, transcending its own limitations.

Great songs have a knack of suspending time and whenever I hear the long edit of Love To Love You Baby I never want it to end. Yes, I can feel a new genre coalescing around your ears. Yes, I would love to have been there when people first heard and danced to it for the first time.

But above all, I do not want it to end. I rewind or refresh and play it again.