Friday, 21 November 2014

Bowie Top Ten (contains no Ziggy)

Inspired by James Gent's brilliant, knowledgable and tasteful reimagining of a Bowie boxset, I reckoned I could do another 50 different Bowie tracks and it'd still be fantastic.  Then I remembered I have ten days to do a major re-work of my Sherlock Holmes' novel, so decided that ten tracks would have to be enough.  

And then decided - to make it interesting - that none of the tracks could be from either any of Bowie's classic 70s albums, or from his post-Outside resurgence in the late 90s.
And I could still have done 50, you know...

1.  When I'm Five
Originally recorded as a demo in 68, this seemingly whimsical and slight tune sung from the POV of a small child finally made an appearance on mish-mash release 'Love You til Tuesday' and then promptly disappeared again, to be remembered only by Bowie obsessives.  From the first time I heard it, though, I thought it was the saddest song I'd ever heard - and thirty years of listening later I still feel much the same.  It's not a reading I've seen elsewhere so probably nonsense, but the lyrics have always felt to me to be about a seriously ill  four year old. 

Why else does Daddy shout loudly at Mummy when she says the narrator - if he's good - can go to school in August.  Why does he then burst into tears?  For that matter, what's with the headaches in the morning, and why is everyone so soppy and daft when he falls off a trike?  Finally, pleas to Jesus to make him five?  Nope - he's a goner, I reckon.

2. Conversation Piece

Another 60s demo which didn't make a contemporaneous album, but instead mouldered in Bowie's archive for a bit, then slipped - almost un-noticed - into the world, as the b-side to the 1970 re-issue of 'The Prettiest Star'.  Bowie re-recorded it for the abortive 'Toy', but I much prefer this acoustic version from 1969 which I first heard on a tape bootleg called 'Bowie Rarities' c 1982.

3.  Buddha of Suburbia
Seriously, anyone who says Bowie never recorded a great record between Scary Monsters and 'Earthling/Outside/Heathen/Some Other album from the late 90s onwards' should be forced to sit down and listen to this entire album but - to save time - just give the title track a spin.  Deliberately self-referential (both musically and lyrically, but also in its South London setting), funny and thoughtful, with a great melody, some fantastic guitar and a video where Bowie sits and strums a guitar on a tree stump, the only reason this wasn't a huge return to form was that he didn't need one of those - he'd never been away...

4.  Time Will Crawl
And just to prove that, how about 'Time Will Crawl'?  Described by the man himself as one of his personal favourite tracks, this is a single as good as anything Bowie has recorded.  It's not subtle, it's not layered and it features Bowie's shittest ever hair style, but from a decade where - random example - Status Quo managed to get into the top ten with 'In the Army Now', this is pure gold.

5.  As the World Falls Down

I almost went with Matt and my favourite track from 'Labyrinth', the awesome 'Magic Dance', and then I thought of 'Underground', for the wonderful refrain of 'Daddy, daddy, get me out of here' if nothing else - but when I was looking for that on YouTube I realised I prefered this, one of Bowie's more mannered vocals, and a genuinely forgotten but lovely ballad.

6.  Remembering Marie A
James went with the admittedly superb bleakness of 'The Drowned Girl', but personally I've always thought this was as good as Bowie ever sang.  Why is Baal not available on blu-ray, with a beautiful deluxe cd remaster?

7. Silver Tree Top School for Boys
This list is a bit 'on the trail of lost songs', I know but Bowie's own version of this turned up unexpectedly on the Bowie Record Day release in 2012, alongside 'Little Tin Soldier'.  Sadly, the version on there isn't a patch on the Beat Stalkers cover version (on which he allegedly sang backing vocals) from the 60s.  Still it's a great song and if you love Bowie's Deram stuff (and you do, don't you?), then this is a little discarded slice of that very English form of psychedelia.

8. Loving the Alien
I wasn't a huge fan of Let's Dance, with the exception of 'Ricochet' and I didn't even buy a copy until several years later when I came across it in the Bargain Bin at Vinyl Villains in Edinburgh's Elm Row, but I thought aout half of Tonight was genius from the off.  'Loving the Alien' is my favourite purely because I have a rather lovely picture disc 12" of it, but I could as easily have chosen 'Blue Jean' or 'Dancing with the Big Boys' (or 'Tonight' itself, shorn of Tina Bloody Turner).

9.  Absolute Beginners
God that video, Bowie as cool as the fags he's smoking, then the guitar coming in  and Bowie giving it 'ba ba ba oo!'  It's enough to make a grown man cry, it's so good.  The 15 year old me thought it was literally, genuinely the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Music (a fact which wasn't even ruined by a terrible, nightmare date at the movie from which is came some weeks later).

10.  Knock on Wood
No, only kidding.  That's a shit song which even Dave can't save.  Instead we'll have my current favourite Bowie track - 'Can't HelpThinking about Me'.  Bowie himself says it contains two of his worst lyrics, but given that it was his first recording as David Bowie,  the first Bowie track to be released in the States and was re-recorded for 'Toy' (as good a version, in its way, as the original).  There are whole back catalogues from mod bands in the 60s and 70s which don't contain a single better song than this Bowie throw away.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Story of Fester the Cat - Paul Magrs (Penguin US, 2014)

Spin-offs.  Those stories where what looked like a subsidiary character suddenly moves to centre stage and becomes the star.  I love them.   Frasier spinning out of Cheers, Mork and Mindy emerging from Happy Days, Torchwood springin…well, maybe not all spin offs after all.

The Story of Fester the Cat is, however, the first spin-off in real life that I've come across.  It helps that I knew Fester, and was well aware that this was a cat so full of personality that he could easily move out of the shadows of the boys he chose to let live with him and dominate proceedings.  But this book is so much more than a simple memoir, unexpectedly told form the point of view of a cat.

It's also the warmest of love stories, and the story of the creation of a family.  It's about the author's love for his partner (the grumpier of the two of them apparently), and of their home (full of comfortingly dusty corners and piles of interesting stuff).  It's about loss and anger and pain, and adventures, and fun, and frolics.  It's about shenanigans.

But what's it like to read?  Well, I read the first section, in which Fester, sick and tired and feeling every moment of his 18 years slips away (not, he is keen to point out, to anything as stupid sounding as a rainbow bridge) on a train from Manchester to Edinburgh, on the day that Maggie Thatcher died.  the word of the ex-PM's death spread through the carriages like wildfire, but I - who spent years waiting for the hideous old crone to snuff it - couldn't have cared less as big, fat, thankfully silent tears ran down my face.  It's that good, and that sad, and that beautiful and affirming - it made a middle aged Scotsman cry in public.

But it's not all doom and gloom.  Fester stuck up a tree in the back garden, or trying to eat a frog, the boys having conniptions as Fester opens his mouth and a tiny baby bird squeaks indignantly from between his one and half teeth, Bessy the Big Bollocked Stray…there's plenty in here to make you laugh, and all of it told from what is unmistakably and unflinchingly the viewpoint of Fester, not Paul or Jeremy.

In fact, I could happily read spin-offs from Fester's life too - 'The Tale of Bessy under the Arches', sy, or 'Adventures with Korky in Cheshire'.

Or, perhaps best of all - and what Fester I think would have wanted - more stories about Paul and Jeremy and what they did next...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Great Albums 35: The Defenestration of St Martin - Martin Rossiter (2012)

Bit of a turnaround this.  When I first heard this album earlier this year I dismissed it as another effort like Brett Anderson's solo LP - not a patch on the band he'd left behind.  Rossiter's distinctive voice apart, this sounds nothing like Gene, for one thing, and for another it seemed a bit, well, simple.

But Phil Craggs told me I was wrong, and for once he was right.

It needs a few listens, but I'm increasingly coming to think this is a better album than anything Gene ever did.  Which is odd - usually I like complex instrumentation and arch lyrics, whereas this is all piano and the lyric...well the lyrics are deceptively simplistic.  At times it sounds as though Rossiter wrote all these songs singing haphazardly in the bath.  The rhymes are obvious, the vocal tends to follow the piano melody and there's little by way of overdubs. 

But the lyrics often turn out to be layered and pretty bloody clever, if horribly bleak.  Maybe that's the attraction - this is an album as miserable as Beck's 'Sea Change', or Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon'.  It's not an album without humour - check out the glorious choir which appears from nowhere in 'I Must be Jesus' - but even the humour has an element of the downbeat about it ('I must be Jesus' concerns a child reflecting on his pain-filled life), and the opening ten minute ode to a shit, shit father sets a tone which rarely lets up across a handful of tracks which consider child abuse, prostitution, death and lost loves.  It should be one note, it should be earnest, but it's neither.

Instead it feels like a lost Perfume Genius album, only with a better vocalist and longer songs.  Hard to think of a higher recommendation than that.  Give it a listen, then remember it's a grower and play it a few more times - you'll thank me...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Interlude: Bowie and the Riot Squad (1967)

It's a sign of the sheer amount of stuff available nowadays that a song I've been wanting to hear for a decade was released last year and I completely failed to hear about it.  I've James Gent to thank for the heads up, because if he'd not included David Bowie's version of 'Silver Treetop School for Boys' in the imaginary playlist for what would be the best Bowie out-takes box set ever, I'd never have known that Record Day last year included the release of an EP of himself with the Riot Squad back in the last sixties (interestingly, this is presumably at the same time he was recording the Deram David Bowie LP - some of the musical and vocal choices on here are pretty familiar to fans of that great debut album).

It's a shame The Riot Squad are really not very good, though.   Another cover of the Velvets' 'Waiting for the Man', with Bowie really pushing the Lou Reed impersonation is fine, if uninspiring, and listening to Bowie as Lou Reed on perennial bootleg favourite, 'Little Toy Soldier' is never wasted time, but the backing on a solo version of 'Silly Boy Blue' is difficult listening at times - and 'Silver Treetop' is a bit rubbish really.

But skip back a bit.  'Silver Treetop School for Boys', I hear you ask (actually, I probably don't - I imagine that, of my eleven regular readers, about eight will know the track already!) ?  What's that then?

Most obviously it's one of four tracks on the ep , but it's also the 'lost' Bowie track I've most wanted to hear, ever since I picked up a copy of the Beatstalkers' 2007 collection which includes a fabulous tight, fast cover of the track. 

The Beatstalkers - apparently known at the time as the Scottish Beatles - did another couple of Bowie covers (they were managed by Ken Pitt, as was Bowie's manager too at the time) and are well worth seeking out.  The Riot Squad, though, aren't, except for those of us who would buy any new Bowie.  For us, it's worth it - of course it is!

Monday, 31 March 2014

First Men in the Moon - HG Wells (1901)

Month two of Paul and I trawling through A Hundred Years of Paperbacks finds us in England (then the moon) with HG Wells.

And, oh, this is more like it!  Only a single year further on than Jules Verne's 'Castaways of the Flag', but it feels as though some clever soul invented the sf adventure novel somewhere in those twelve months.  Admittedly it’s a very British science fiction – far more obviously the product of a specific country than Verne’s eurobland attempt, but that’s all to the good as it replaces Verne’s leaden and plodding morality tale with Wells’ big, mad, entertaining mass of bonkers science, terrific dangers and brilliantly innovative anglo-saxons. This is a novel which is intended to make the reader laugh as well as think deep(ish) thoughts, and it’s all the better for it.

Of course it Paul says below, that it’s basically Doctor Who - and even more specifically, it’s Peter Cushing in the cinema as scatter-brained old duffer Dr Who, travelling to the Moon with his new companion, Mr Bedford, a forward echo of a slightly more morally dubious Roy Castle or Bernard Cribbins, if ever there was one. It’s all there – science which makes sense in your head if not in reality, an alien society which does much the same, a not particularly clever denouement…I can easily imagine Aaru picking up the rights to this, and giving Roberta Tovey a call to see if she were free… 

As well as Who, the early chapters reminded me of Wodehouse a little – Bedford locked away in the country, just waiting to churn out a novel which will make his fortune feels like it must have some point have been the fate of Bertie Wooster or one of his Drones’ chums.  And Cavor, checked from walking the way he prefers, is exactly the sort of unworldly, eccentric scientist Wodehouse would, I think, have approved of.

Which reminds me of something – at one point Bedford makes mention of Jules Verne.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could link each of these books to the next in some way, even if the link isn’t always as concrete as an actual reference? (and if we’re doing so, more interesting to link this to Wodehouse via the characterisation than to, say, Kenneth Graham via the metaphysical peculiarities to be found in chapter 20 of ‘First Men’ – like the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter in  Wind in the Willows, it’s an odd intrusion of melancholy and spirituality, as though there was a quota of such that every author pre-WWI was obliged to fill).

Much better…

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark (Sepctral Press, 2013)

M.R James may not be as well known and excessively collected as a Poe, say, but it's not exactly a quest to find a copy of his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and its sequels - and even less so to find the handful of stories which were filmed for the BBC in the 1970s by Lawrence Gordon Clark for Christmas broadcast.

So it's not for Mr James that you might be tempted to pick up a copy of The Christmas Ghost Stories. I mean, it's a lovely looking volume, and those us who appreciate a book almost as much for the look and feel as for the contents might well shell out just on that basis.

But really, it's the added extras, the sections which relate to LGC rather than James, which will sell this book - and rightly so too. This is where small presses win out over large, where enthusiasts publishing books which they are personally committed to defeat corporate cash-ins. From a foreword by Mark Gattis, through a Basil copper adaptation of Count Magnus and introductory essays by Clark himself, by way of newly unearthed photographs, interviews and storyboards, this is a book packed to the rafters and created by someone who really appreciates his subject - and his audience.

Make no mistake, once you own this book you will never need another about these fabulous adaptations or the man behind them.

(Incidentally, for those of you who are buying just for the ghost stories themselves, these are they: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, A Warning to the Curious, The Ash Tree, Lost Hearts, Casting the Runes, Count Magnus)

Available from now.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Some books - January 2014

My favourite three books read in January (intended as something I'll do every month, but who wants to bet it grinds to a halt round about March?)

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Sometimes a book is all about the characters or the plot or the clever way in which everyone speaks.  Sometimes it's about the puzzle or the twist or even the macguffin.  And sometimes it's about the ending.

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is about the ending.  After 250 pages of confident, flowing prose, this glorious novel - ostensibly part Name of the Rose and part Big Bang Theory - ends on the most unexpected of beats, but is all the more perfect for that.  I'll say no more for fear of spoilers, but I loved the final dozen pages more than any ending in a book for ages.

There's a brilliant geek pride on display throughout, too.  Sure, some of the characters - like those in another US sitcom, Friends - are just a wee bit too good at their geek ninja skills, and the fetishisation of Google in particular is slightly vomit inducing, but these are fairly minor complaints about a book which made me grin more than once and which as, at its core, those two most fascinating of obscure pleasures - the history of printing and mega cool places in which to store books.

Recommended to me by Scott, and recommended by me to everyone else.

The Ship that Flew - Hilda Lewis

Another lovely ending, though this one is more bittersweet than happy.  A small boy buys a toy boat which can swell to any size, and travel to any point in time and space. Cue a series of adventures with his brother and two sisters, as they fly to England in the middle ages, meet with Robin Hood, and dodge dubious foreign and home grown bad guys!  The whole story comes together towards the end, and then, like Susan dodging the Last Battle, the children are all grown up and too mature for toy boats…

Written and published in the 30s, I'm forced to agree with the bookseller who pencilled 'Children's Classic - nice edition' inside my copy (which was a present from Paul, incidentally - he accuses me of occasionally forgetting books he bought me this book or that, especially when I happen to recommend the same books to him a few months later ;)

The Company of Friends - Jack Trevor Story

The best writer post-war Sexton Blake ever produced, Jack Trevor Story is an author I discovered via his Albert Argyle trilogy last year.  Witty, seemingly effortless prose (though with a touch of the sort of poorly thought out sexism so beloved of writers who learned their craft in the 50s and 60s), wrapped round a clever plot and peopled by a cast of engaging characters - throw in Blake, Tinker, Paula Dane and the rest and you're surely into a winner.

And so it proved.  Probably the best late Blake I've read.

Other books read this month:

Boys and Girls Forever - Alison Lurie
The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
Brainrack - Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Midnight Folk (abridged) - John Masefield
The Sherlock Holmes Handbook - Ransom Riggs
The Christmas Ghost Stories of Laurence Gordon Clark (separate review to follow)