Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sulk: Associates' intense little jewel

It begins with 3 minutes of what sounds like end credit music for an 80's TV show - perhaps a provincial soap or minority interest sport. Its synthy brass and fussy disco drumming in no way prepares you for what happens next.

Track Two starts with thirty seconds of atmosphere, like the noise from a litter-strewn clearway late at night. Then a piano refrain to a marching beat. A guitar interjects with a sound like a stunned ox.

Finally, two minutes in - the voice starts. Somewhere mid-Atlantic between New York house diva and European cabaret turn, it's a tenor wail singing about ripping one's hair about by the roots and planting them in a garden to wait for Spring.

It's 1982. The voice is that of Billy Mackenzie, the album is Sulk, the band are The Associates, with Arrogance Gave Him Up's instrumental followed by No's tale of obsessive love forming probably one of the oddest opening one-two punches to a successful pop record ever.

But then it escalates further before it calms: Bap De La Bap is yodelled, shrieked electro-funk, barely in control of itself. Gloomy Sunday approrpriates a jazz standard and wallows in glorious pathos. Nude Spoons is goth with a jaw-harp rythym and a lyric about drugs/finding a Roman coin in the River Tay (McKenzie was from Dundee) delivered in a hysteric's falsetto.

Via the palette cleansers of Skipping and It's Better That Way, Associates finally deign to give us the singles, seven tracks in. Party Fears Two - AKA the one that still gets played on the radio - is a great New Romantic 80's pop song, while Club Country is a disco-fuelled outsider's dismissal of the same scene as sneering, selfish and cruel. Another light entertainment instrumental finishes the whole thing off.

Together with Billy's voice and the inventiveness of the backing tracks (kudos to main foil Alan Rankine) this pushme-pullyu attitude to pop is what makes Sulk so great. All the songs on the album are great pop songs, but on their own terms. They can't be reduced to the sound of a single scene; all sonic affiliations are subverted by that voice or by the next instrumental curveball. It's an intense little jewel of a record.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The versatility of Chim Chim Cheree

It's something of a triumph of chutzpah that the official version of Chim Chim Cheree in Mary Poppins works as well as it does. The less said about Dick Van Dyke's accent, the better, but he performs the heck out of the role. And certainly finds the mixture of bravado and sadness that this song requires.

I mean, check this lyric:

Let's face it, Chim Chim Cheree (by songwriters extraordinaire the Sherman Brothers) is a defiant workingman's urban folk number if ever I heard one, even if it started life in musical theatre (and indeed Wikipedia notes similarities to traditional Yiddish folk song Tumbalalaika).

There's this amazing tension (or ambiguity) in the entire song between acknowledging the hardship of the chimney sweep's life and the insistence of the 'lucky sweep' on reaching across social strata to those who might consider themselves his better. 

If you can get past the Van Dyke factor, it's not only a great piece but it's also surprisingly amenable like many folk songs to a variety of different treatments. Here are some of my favourites - there are many more listed on the Wikipedia page for the song.

Joe Pernice (Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers etc.) is perhaps the best demonstration of Chim Chim Cheree as imagined folk, as he strips the song back to a simple strum.  

Folk fact: the song is also seemingly quite popular with accordion players as well if You Tube is anything to go by.

One of the things I hadn't appreciated either until Wikipedia pointed me in the direction of covers by Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane was the crossover between the golden age of musicals and jazz standards. Both covers couldn't be more different - the one vocal/order/groove and the other instrumental/chaos/fragmentation, but they're both amazing in their own way.

I mean, I never thought I'd have Dick Van Dyke to thank for introducing me to John Coltrane. But here we are.

And from another tradition entirely, how about Chim Chim Cheree as a beautiful Japanese psychedelic rock ballad by Plastic Tree, from an entire compilation of J-Rock Disney covers?

Sadly, no metal version that I'm aware of as yet, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Health-geekery Autumn 2017: season of mists and mellow linkiness

A seasonal, occasionally updated round-up from the depths of my Outlook read folder and my liked Twitter posts.

As ever, being included here doesn't necessarily mean I agree with it, just that it was sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded here.

'We’ve assessed the extent to which services are or are not person-centred. We found that despite 20 years of policy promises, care coordination is still not prioritised, there is a lack of care planning, and involving people in decisions about their care is still poor in the NHS'

Research by Dr Rod Jones - same day stay admissions drive growth, but length of stay is increasing

Social care

Latest Guardian article about social care in crisis but with a) useful opinion research cited and b) links to the work of Future Care Capital on a 'care covenant' for the future.

'Social care meltdown' new survey of social workers by Community Care Magazine, supported by the Care and Support Alliance (plus blog by CSA Board member Robert Morritt on this at Conservative Home)

Disability Benefits Consortium report calls for an urgent review of Personal Independence Payment (PIP)

The problems with universal credit (Nicholas Timmins, Institute for Government)

Care homes

New research from Healthwatch 

Centre for the Modern Family research finds we underestimate the cost of residential care for the elderly significantly (link to FT article)


Lancet article on possible impacts of Brexit on health and health services


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Notes on a divided kingdom, part 1

This post starts with Marx, although he's really only a jumping off point for talking about the present day. It eventually gets to the point, so please do bear with me. :)

No more 'merely human solidarity'

I've been reading an old (1940) but thoughtful book - Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station: a study in the writing and acting of history. It looks at 'the revolutionary view of society' as expressed by different nineteenth century thinkers, especially Marx and his socialist succcessors. 

Basically, it applies the techniques of literary criticism to political philosophy, which makes for diverting reading even if you don't agree with the conclusions.


What Wilson is very acute on is how Marx and Engels helped to move the radical 19th century Left away from the universal citizenship of 1789 into a far more polarised space based on class. Here is his gloss on the Communist Manifesto.

'All men are no longer brothers; there is no longer any merely human solidarity. The "truly human'" is that which is to be realised when we shall arrived at the society without classes. In the meantime, the elements of society which can alone bring about such a future [...] in proportion as they feel group solidarity among themselves, must cease to feel human solidarity with their antagonists. Their antagonists [...]  have [themselves] irreparably destroyed that solidarity.' (p162)  

In other words - we don't have to talk to our opponents, but when we do we don't have to play nice. We don't have to deal fairly and honestly with them either: any relationship with them is pragmatic at best, rather than founded in common ground or a good faith dialogue.

Oh, and they started it.

Not inherently a left-wing position

Now, what Marx and Engels advocated and what they actually did on a daily basis is a fair way apart. But let's assume for the sake of following this line of thought that they were entirely serious about this redefining of the civic community to exclude members of opposing classes and groups. And let's face it: finding examples of this from Marxist-Leninist parties isn't exactly the hardest task to set a historian.

To avoid the rabbit hole of discussing one hundred and fifty years of history though, let me hastily clarify: I've started with Marx (with an assist from Wilson) because of their candour and clarity of thought on this point, not because they're describing an inherently left-wing position. From broadly the same period, I could have brought up Bismarck's anti-socialist law or the behaviour of the opponents of universal suffrage to make a similar point about the right.

Anyone, it seems, can un-person anyone.

And on that sad reflection, let's switch our attention back to the UK of the present.

Does this feel like 'human solidarity' to you?

Consider discussion of Brexit and its aftermath. Think of the toxic atmosphere that surrounds any conversation on immigration or the internecine warfare that passes for discourse on Twitter. Consider the adoption by some of bad faith arguments and trolling as a political tactic, the sheer difficulty in having a broad-based conversation about class, race, gender or sexuality without these behaviours manifesting.

I'm not singling out actors here from any point on the political spectrum, as that would be counterproductive to what I'm trying to achieve. I'm simply outlining a perceived trend.

Rather my question, channeling Wilson, is this: does this look like universal 'human solidarity' to you?

I thought not.

What it does look like is a willingness to exclude people from the civic community. Or at the very least, to use the languages of exclusion and bad faith, even if only in self-defence.

Wrestling metaphor incoming 

We have to acknowledge it's not all like this. There are organisations advocating for dialogue and social cohesion such as the Jo Cox Foundation, politicians of all parties and administrators at all levels working together and getting on with the job of serving the people. These are some of the things that give me hope for the future.

Yet, if UK democracy were a wrestling ring - which in many ways it is, what with the posturing, silly costumes and heel turns - it still feels to me like we're now jumping the ropes and battering our adversary with the chair way too often.

And that cuts to the heart of the matter. In the long run, a stable democratic society with an effective government depend not only on the willingness of each group, each individual to participate and follow the rules, but also to support everyone else to do so as well. We've known this since at least 1776 - it's old news - even if it's been honoured in the breach on many occasions.

But whether by passion or strategic design, if the current level of rhetoric keeps ratcheting up, if exclusionary behaviour continues to rise, if internal or external exile starts to look like a safer option than participation, then my fear is that UK democracy (or at least its current iteration) will eventually find itself in a crisis it cannot withstand.

"Yeah? That’s just like, your opinion, man"

Two concluding comments and caveats.

First, I'm going to be compiling a postscript to this post with any research or evidence I can find on this subject, whether it supports my reflections or not. This is one of those rare occasions when I'd actually like to be proven wrong.

Second, there's a lot more that could be said (and has been said) about all of this, including the long history of marginalisation on the basis of race, class, gender or sexuality. I've also stopped short of suggesting any action at this point. This sort of small-scale artisanal blogging can only eat the beast one piece at a time, so hopefully you'll bear with me as I go.

And perhaps it goes without saying, given that this blog has a comments section, but all reflections and recommendations are most welcome.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Too good to leave to the critics: Can and I Want More

In the space of nine months, we've lost perhaps rock music's greatest rythym section in Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, the engine of late 60's/70's German experimenters Can.

The best attempt to explain Can I've ever read (annoyingly I can't remember the writer responsible) basically says this: on paper you'd expect them to be a band only a critic could love, but they're so annoyingly good they're wasted on music nerds.

And as someone at least half-way to music nerdery, I'd agree with that wholeheartedly.

Yes, Can sometimes noodled on for 15 minutes or more in the way that prog rockers often do. Yes, their members included students of avant-garde composer Stockhausen, hardcore jazz musicians and non-singers taking a turn on the mike. Yes, they liked a bit of music concrète.

But from all these influences and their collective talents they jammed out, and then tightly edited, a bunch of short tracks, which if you squint at them a bit funny, are some of the best experimental pop songs of the 70's: Spoon; Vitamin C; I'm So Green; Moonshake and I Want More, their solitary UK hit in 1976. Don't believe me? You Tube is currently streaming latest their singles compilation, so see for yourself.

The longer, more experimental tracks can be great too, but that's an argument for another time.

The other thing that helped Can break down barriers is that they were very, very funky indeed: Jaki Liebezeit stripping down jazz technique down into a series of endlessly unfolding drum loops; Czukay's bass - never two notes where one would do - holding down the groove and creating space for the other players. 

This love of funk and jazz meant they were also unlikely early adopters of disco rythyms on  I Want More (listen here).

Eminently danceable, for three and a half minutes it comes on like the best sort of mutant glam disco. These ears find echoes of War's Me And Baby Brother (a belated UK hit earlier that year), which might just be me, but perhaps also indicates the ballpark Can were aiming for here. By this stage in their career, they didn't have a steady lead vocalist, so I Want More also features all the band chanting the lyrics in unison to slightly sinister effect like a German Funkadelic.

And if you think there's a lot of repetition of the title in the chorus, I direct you to the B-side ...And More, which extends the workout to a full seven minutes, bongos and all. Bliss.

Postscript: I discovered Can when I was out as a foreign language student in Germany, thanks to a fellow student who offered to make me a compilation cassette, which I subsequently wore out exploring the streets of my university town with my Walkman. I'd heard nothing like them before, and to some extent still haven't. So if by some miracle you're reading this, thank you Ralf for this game-changing gift. :)

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Judging Spock, judging you

Unclear whether Spock is standing in front of a red curtain or an 8-bit 3D canyon effect.