A growing appreciation for Quadrophenia (the album)…

who_quadrophenia_1763

Another week, another excellent BBC documentary revealing the story of a classic 70s rock album: a few week’s back it was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here; last week it was Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane; this week it’s The Who’s double album Quadrophenia.

When Quadrophenia was first released, back in 1973, I liked the album but didn’t rank it amongst my favourites. Over the years, though, I’ve found myself returning to it on a regular basis, with a growing appreciation. Despite a good friend of mine extolling it’s virtues for a long long time, I’m not quite sure why it took so long for me to fully grasp just how well crafted Townsend’s lyrics are – their vivid portrayal of charater and strong sense of place. The compelling, evocative melodies have always moved me, particularly the two instrumental medleys which feature the four main themes of the album, but now they seems so much more powerful.

A particular element of the album which I find increasingly rewarding is the outstanding bass playing of John Entwistle (who also arranged and played the horns). Unlike many rock bassists, he utilises the whole range of the instrument, regularly contributing beautifully expressive melodic lines, at other times providing a punchy rhythmic energy to the band. Just listen to his virtuosic playing on the album’s first musical track, The Real Me (turn volume and bass up to max!):

Scott Faller comments on this track in his tribute a Entwistle:-

During his life, occasionally, John would get the chance to step into the forefront of the band taking the lead on songs. By lead, I mean driving the song rather than just singing. Perfect example, The opening track (second actually) to Quadrophenia, The Real Me. John absolutely drives this song. Pure conviction and with a bass track that just cooks. It’s an unparalleled performance in Rock, even to this date. This, to me, isn’t just a “flash of brilliance”, this was just his opportunity to show what he is really made of.

Although I still don’t really appreciate much of The Who’s other output, Quadrophenia now sits comfortably in my list of top rock albums. Here’s Townsend:-

“We didn’t make that many albums, in fact I would say that we only made three landmark records; Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia,” he said. “I’ve always felt that Quadrophenia was the last definitive Who album. I’ve always regarded it as a very ambitious album, but what got away was the story.

Advertisements

Bowie, Ziggy, and my teenage years…

Ziggy-Stardust

Thanks to an older brother’s fairly extensive record collection, the soundtrack to my ’70s teenage years was supplied by the likes of King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Bowie, Black Sabbath, John Martyn, ELP, The Beatles, Hawkwind, Jethro Tull, The Stones, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Hendrix, Yes, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, and many more. The fact that said brother is just now in the process of booking tickets for us to see tribute band Think Floyd (yet again) indicates that this is the kind of music which I still enjoy, all these years later.

Early musical obsessions, with their irresistible tug of nostalgia, tend to be resistant to cool, detached evaluation; but mustering as much objectivity as I can, I think my musical heritage stands up pretty well to re-appraisal: I still find inspiration from the musicianship, ambition, and inventiveness of so many of the bands and artists of that era.

While some of the paraphernalia surrounding the music may have dated, the BBC4 documentary on Bowie’s Ziggy era – David Bowie and the Story of Ziggy Stardust – brought back all the excitement of hearing the Ziggy album when first released.  The now famous clip of Bowie’s Top of the Pops appearance, singing Starman, still takes me straight back to when I watched it as a youngster – a time when I was pretty much gripped by all things Bowie.

Stuart Maconie writes in The Mirror:-

The image that everyone remembers, the one that’s seared into the national consciousness, is the one of Bowie, wonky grin, stick-thin and ­carrot-topped draping a limp, louche arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulders, pulling him into the embrace of the harmonies, the near kiss of Starman’s glorious chorus while mums all over Britain tutted over their knitting and dads in lounge doorways muttered something unrepeatable.

More than the image, though…:-

…many others had found Bowie and his song [Starman, from the Ziggy Stardust album] so transfixing, so spell-binding, so utterly different that it cast the rest of the charts into sharp relief. This was stranger and darker and more joyous all at once.

 

The Ziggy story is itself a little convoluted – alien rock star comes to the dying planet Earth to save humanity but gets a messiah complex and is eventually destroyed by black hole-jumping entities called The Infinites who have landed in ­Greenwich village.

 

…what really counts is the music. Euphoric, dramatic, plaintive sci-fi ballads played with swagger and pout, warm and seductive but at the same time surreal and dangerous.

All these years later, that ‘surreal and dangerous’ album boasts a blue plaque. As mentioned in this BBC article, the plaque marks:-

the spot where [Bowie] was photographed for the cover of his album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Talking of Bowie album covers, his next release – Aladdin Sane – is perhaps even better:-

album-David-Bowie-Aladdin-Sane

 

Aladdin Sane is probably, with Ziggy Stardust, my joint favourite Bowie album. The BBC4 documentary reminded me about one of the great musicians who made a particularly powerful contribution to the album – the fantastic jazz pianist Mike Garson. The famously anarchic solo on the title track still astonishes and delights. Here’s a nice description from

Chris O’Leary about that track (on his Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog):-

All of this [the first part of the track] is prologue for Garson’s solo. Garson has already undermined the verses, playing spiky lines that crash against Bowie’s vocal and Mick Ronson’s rhythm. Now he performs a magic trick.

 

Garson, in Trident Studios with Bowie, Ronson and producer Ken Scott, was asked to play a solo for “Aladdin Sane” over a simple set of chords (A to G to A, repeat indefinitely). Bowie gave Garson no guidelines, just told him to play what he liked. Garson did, and Bowie shot down his first two tries (a blues and a Latin-tinged solo). Bowie told Garson to go further out. On tour, Garson had told Bowie stories of the ’60s New York avant-garde jazz scene—of watching free jazz hierophants like Cecil Taylor. That’s what I want, Bowie said. So Garson sat down and played, off the top of his head and in one take, what is likely the finest rock piano solo recorded that decade, if ever.

 

Garson’s solo, at first listen seemingly random and chaotic, has a structure—it moves from dissonance and disturbance to the reassurance of memory, then breaks apart again, churning and spinning, until it’s finally yoked back to serve the song. The first chorus (2:04 to 2:21) opens with Garson playing a jarring four-note pattern that disintegrates, splintering into pieces; the second (2:22 to 2:40) is mainly his long, manic runs along the keyboard. The third (2:41 to 2:57) is a list of quotations—”Rhapsody In Blue” and “Tequila,” likely others (maybe a hint of “On Broadway,” which Bowie sings a part of in the outro). The fourth (2:58 to 3:15) kills that indulgence with three bars of furiously pounded chords and ends with the saxophone wending its way back; the fifth (3:16 to 3:33) is the return to earth, as Garson, bowing to time, plays the bassline midway through.

If you are interested in hearing more of Mike Garson, he has an excellent solo album – The Bowie Variations – where he plays jazz versions of Bowie music.

Also, if you haven’t heard the late Mick Ronson’s solo album Slaughter on 10th Avenue, I highly recommend it.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

zero-degrees-of-empathy-a-new-theory-of-human-cruelty

A fascinating book.

The opening sentence:-

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.

This book tries to…

…examine why some people become capable of cruelty, and whence a loss of empathy inevitably has this consequence. This book goes deeper into the subject than I have gone before, by drilling into the brain basis of empathy and looking at its social and biological determinants, and it is broader too, by having a close look at some of the medical conditions that lead to a loss of empathy.

Importantly:

My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy’.

The term evil is just lazy – it says nothing, and worse, it seeks to close down discussion. It’s tabloid explanation. And, of course, a term at the heart of religious philosophy:-

Religion has been singularly anti-enquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life of because such forces (e.g., the Devil) are in constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature…

 

If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and , if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I feel this book has made a contribution.

Baron-Cohen makes a good argument for loss of empathy as the route to understanding a range of extreme behaviours, including Borderline Personality Disorder or are Psychopathy. He demonstrates the following main points:-

We all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. Part of what science has to explain is what determines where an individual falls on this spectrum. I have pointed to some of the genetic, hormonal, neural and environmental contributory factors…

 

At one end of this spectrum is zero degrees of empathy…

 

Bowly’s remarkable concept of early secure attachment can be understood as an internal pot of gold… When we fail to nurture young children with parental affection we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them, and damage them almost irreversibly…

 

There are genes for empathy…Environmental triggers interact with our genetic predispositions, and scientists are starting to discover particular genes that in far-reaching ways influence our empathy…

Finally, a bold statement that…

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda.

This is a book which raise profound and sometimes uncomfortable questions. The reviews highlight some interesting issues. Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph, for instance:-

This fascinating and disturbing book is an examination of why some people are viciously, violently cruel to others.

 

Zero Degrees of Empathy is a strange amalgam of scientific sophistication and philosophical naivety. The detailed findings on which Baron-Cohen bases his conclusions about which parts of the brain do what, and his identification of the particular neurological pathways on which the capacity for empathy depends, are as dazzling as they are surprising.

 

But the basis for his insistence that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil is curiously crude. He claims that if you can fully recognise others as having feelings like your own, then you must empathise with them, and this will mean that you are as incapable of harming them as you are of harming yourself.

 

…Baron-Cohen seems committed to denying the existence of that particularly nasty form of sadistic cruelty that depends on the perpetrator recognising his victim’s feelings and homing in on those that he knows will hurt his victim most.

This criticism, though, downplays an important point which Baron-Cohen makes:-

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. There are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t empathised at all.

Certainly, the book does not have – nor claim to have – all the answers. However, it does provide a useful and potentially productive reframing of our understanding of human cruelty.

Well worth a read.

Rosenbaum on Dreyer…

carl_th_dreyer

I have just come across this good short piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Carl Dreyer; it eloquently captures some of the mysterious potency of the Danish director’s films.

As Rosenbaum says:-

…most of his films haven’t dated, even though reactions to his works have fluctuated quite a bit over the years…. One might … argue that unlike most other film masters who started out in the silent era, Dreyer’s major works were not only cinematically ahead of their own times; without ever becoming quite contemporary, they’ve even remained slightly ahead of ours.

The more we see the films and the more we know about Dreyer, the works seem to become more ambiguous and somehow more relevant:-

Never trendy in terms of either style or theme, his films become only more mysteriously complex over time. And perhaps even more pertinent is what might be described as Dreyer’s spiritual freedom, according to which neither belief nor disbelief is allowed to dominate his narratives — though hatred for intolerance is a constant. Witchcraft in Day of Wrath and miracles in Ordet (1955) are simply there, like martyrdom in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and vampires in Vampyr (1932), waiting to be unpacked and interpreted in all their ambiguity.

Rosenbaum’s conjecture about what connects the films feels a little too neat, but interesting nonetheless:-

…virtually all Dreyer’s work can be viewed as an obsessive defense of his idealized real mother, whom he never knew, and a troubled attitude toward his guilt-tripping and unloving adopted mother, whom he hated so much that he refused to attend her funeral.

Shohei Imamura’s THE INSECT WOMAN

the-insect-woman

I became interested in Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s THE INSECT WOMAN after hearing or reading Mark Cousins talking about it. It is now out on Blu-ray, and is quite extraordinary – provocative, perplexing, and beautiful.

Here is Cousins talking about it in Capital Celluloid:-

The Insect Woman, by Imamura Shohei, isn’t all that well known, but should be. It’s about a lower class Japanese woman who struggles through life, has a child, and works as a maid for a posher woman. It’s shocking – at one point the Japanese woman seems to suckle her dad. In another, we see a child scald herself with boiling soup. But there are two reasons why I love it. Firstly, its style. The Insect Woman is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s shot very widescreen, and the compositions are breathtaking. … The second reason I like it is because of what it says about people. The first shot is an insect scuttling across the land. Then we cut to the woman doing the same. … Imamura loves [the woman] for her unstoppability, her survival instinct, her glorious forward propulsion.

In the excellent accompanying booklet to the Blu-ray, Tony Rayns says:-

The Insect Woman was one of the most advanced films made anywhere in the world in 1963. It fulfils Imamura’s dream of making a ‘”messy”, disorderly cinema by spanning one woman’s life, from her birth in the winter of 1918 to her decrepit middle-age in the spring of 1961, and cunningly articulating it in two opposed ways. First, it takes Matsuki Tome’s life as a cipher for Japan’s larger evolution from an agrarian society to an urban society, noting both the gains and losses along the way. Second, it highlights her obliviousness to the momentous societal and political changes going on around her

The “messy” style gives it a freshness and contemporary feel even today. As Jason Morgan say in a piece in Movie Guide:-

Combined with freeze frames and impromptu voice overs, Imamura’s ‘new wave’ style elevates as it complicates. He takes a difficult story and makes it less approachable, but rewarding for those who let the film unravel in its own way. While the postwar politics may fade away, Tomé’s failed successes continue to impress and elude us more than 45 years later.

Tony Rayns sums up well:-

This is the prototypical Imamura film: a challengingly earthy, vulgar, hard-nosed account of aspects of Japanese society and the Japanese character which he believed to be fundamental. The Japanese critics in 1963 were right: it’s a masterpiece.
Recommended.

Bela Tarr, a brief retrospective

bela tarr

THE TURIN HORSE finally recieving it UK release a week or two back in London and is to be released in my favourite cinema – the Arts Picturehouse Cambridge – this Friday. To celebrate, here’s my retrospective on Bela Tarr’s films which was published in Take One:-

Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s latest film, THE TURIN HORSE, which won last year’s Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival and attracted a great deal of critical acclaim, has finally been released in the UK.

 

The arrival of a new release by this most idiosyncratic of filmmakers is always a noteworthy event in the cinematic calendar, but the release of THE TURIN HORSE has special significance, since Tarr has announced it as being his final film. Some might see this as an unusual move for a director at the height of his powers, but in Tarr’s case it is entirely in keeping with this most uncompromising of filmmakers: he feels he has said everything he wants to say, so it’s time to stop.

 

THE TURIN HORSE’s sense of finality – with a closing shot that seems to distill all Tarr’s art into a single image, both vividly simple and quietly devastating – seems an entirely fitting conclusion to a brilliant cinematic career. The director’s unique, elegantly slow style, which achieves a remarkable purity of vision in this film, leads some to label Tarr’s cinema as ‘difficult’, but for others he is one of the world’s great directors.

THE TURIN HORSE begins with a brief prologue, a voiceover relating the story of Nietzsche in Turin intervening to prevent the mistreatment of a horse by a cabman. After this incident we know that Nietzsche lived out his life “gentle and demented, in the care of his mother and sisters”. The narration ends: “Of the horse we know nothing”. The story that follows is simplicity itself: a minimal narrative about a father (who may or may not be Nietzsche’s cabman) and daughter living a primitive, repetitive existence in a remote rural dwelling situated in a harsh, forlorn landscape, the howling wind a constant unsettling presence. And the horse, of course, who seems – like the world around – to be undergoing a slow, sad demise.

 

Tarr has always shown an iron determination to make exactly the kind of films he wants. The way he chooses to tell this story is typical of his most celebrated films, and illustrates why his work has been described as the antithesis of the Hollywood model. The most obvious, and most often commented on, stylistic trait is the use of long, slow, gracefully choreographed, often understated, and beautifully photographed black and white shots. THE TURIN HORSE, for instance, has only 30 shots in its 146 minutes running time.

 

This approach allows Tarr to emphasise two other important textures in his films: the use of time and space. The camera is rarely still, gliding slowly through each scene, observing every minute detail. It is an immersive experience, where the sense of time passing and the physicality of the space convey both a striking impression of realism and a simultaneous awareness of the poetic. The stress on real time, unbroken observation seems designed to prioritise understanding of the everyday experience of existence over the necessities of narrative development. Tarr often says that his films are not allegorical, they are just about real people and real life.

 

With this underlying interest in realism, it is perhaps no surprise to discover that Tarr’s first amateur films were influenced by documentaries. His first feature, FAMILY NEST, was made in 1977 when he was 22, and was very much in the manner of the Hungarian ‘documentary fiction’ films (hand-held cameras, a tendency for improvisation, non-professional actors, etc). He went on to make two further features, to some extent in a similar vein – THE OUTSIDER (1981), THE PREFAB PEOPLE (1982) – while AUTUMN ALMANAC (1985) began to shows signs of a more stylised approach. Macbeth – a made for television video he filmed in 1982 – showed the direction he would later take: it comprised only two shots, a short introduction followed by a single shot of 67 minutes.

 

However, it was with DAMNATION (1988) that the now familiar Tarr style was fully revealed. This film also marked the first time that Tarr worked with novelist and scriptwriter Laszlo Krasznahorkai (DAMNATION was based on one of Krasznahorkai‘s short stories), who he would continue to collaborate with on all his future films. From the long, unhurried opening shot it is immediately apparent that this story of love and intrigue is going to unfold in an unconventional manner. While the narrative crawls forwards, the camera is preoccupied with the rain soaked, muddy streets, and their stray dogs; the rough and ready Titanik bar; and above all the faces – often impassive and ambivalent.

 

Tarr’s next feature was the epic SATANTANGO (1994), famously running at over seven hours, with only about 150 shots, many of them lasting 10 minutes or so. Before its release on DVD this film was only rarely seen and had obtained a kind of mythical status. Susan Sontag said of the film: “Devastating, enthralling…I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.” It tells the story of a farm collective and the return of the charismatic Irimias (with his comic sidekick) who offers the inhabitants the prospect of a new life, providing they entrust their savings to him. The story, based on a novel by Krasznahorkai, is structured like a tango, with the narrative moving forwards and backwards, taking in the same events from the perspectives of different characters. It is an audacious and magnificent cinematic work, with scenes that stay forever etched in the memory.

 

SATANTANGO is often cited as Tarr’s masterpiece, but a film which is arguably more deserving of that label is the director’s next release WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES (2000). Coming in at a comparatively short 145 minutes, and again based on a Laszlo Krasznahorkai novel, it is set in a rural town where the sense of order is threatened by the arrival of strangers. The film has one of cinema’s great opening scenes – a single, brilliant 10 minute shot, which on its own provides ample proof of Tarr‘s skill. In a bar at drinking-up time the drunken locals ask the film’s main protagonist – Janos – to perform what is clearly a familiar ritual. With the locals co-opted to act as the sun, earth and moon, Janos demonstrates how an eclipse takes place, moving the people representing the ‘moon’ and the ‘earth’ in a comic, inebriated shuffle around the ‘sun’. At the moment of ‘eclipse’, a charged stillness falls over the scene; the camera slowly pulls back and rises to a high position, while a beautifully sparse, contemplative melody emerges on the soundtrack. Within a few moments, the scene has transformed from gently comic oddness to an exquisite and moving sense of suspended time – as if the film is holding its breath. It is one of those magical cinematic moments; a scene which can only be described as perfect in conception and realisation.

 

WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES was followed by THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007), based on a George Simenon novel, which becomes a kind of existential noir in Tarr’s hands. Although it does not have the ambition and scale of the previous two films, it still has many memorable sequences. Like many of Tarr’s films, the opening scene is magnificent, and proof that Tarr can handle narrative exposition with great skill. The next release, THE TURIN HORSE (2011), brings us back to the present, and the final film by the Hungarian auteur. The film’s grim, understated, powerful, apocalyptic vision, certainly feels like an appropriate end piece to the work of this particular cinematic giant.

 

Tarr leaves behind a truly great body of work; some of the most astonishing, ambitious, intriguing, bold, melancholy, thoughtful, and beautiful cinematic works that have graced this comparatively young art-form. Tarr’s work represents a unique cinematic vision, and one which will be sorely missed.

Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin

dickens

This is one of a number of books about the great author published in this bicentennial year of his birth, and the latest in a long line of Dickens biographies.

Tomalin’s depiction of Dickens is a fascinating one: a man with prodigious talent and enormous energies (it’s exhausting just to read about his multiple, overlapping workschedules); someone who was enormously compassionate to those in poverty and hardship (often personally offering practical assistance); someone who was warm and funny, but could also be unbelievably cruel and dismissive; and someone who’s output could be brilliantly imaginative and insightful, but also unashamedly sentimental. Tomalin manages to weave together the different strands of Dickens’ character and talents into a convincing, revealing, and coherent portrait of a particularly gifted but flawed individual.

William Boyd, writing in The Observer says:-

Tomalin’s biography – always scrupulous about what we can know, what we can deduce and what is mere speculation – paints a portrait of a complex and exacting man. He was at once vivacious and charming, charismatic and altruistic and possessed of superabundant energies… But he was also, equally – to an almost schizoid degree – tormented, imperious, vindictive and implacable, once wronged.

These matters are particularly focused when it comes to the story of Dickens’s marriage and his long affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. Dickens, aged 45, fell for Ellen Ternan when she was 18… Dickens had long been unhappy in his marriage – a union that had produced 10 children by this time – and his infatuation with Nelly brought out the worst in him. He publicly separated from Catherine, humiliating her in the cruellest manner, and, after a form of courtship with Nelly – who did not yield to his importuning immediately – set her up as his mistress in a series of houses on the outskirts of London. This was done in the greatest secrecy, and it’s something of a miracle that we know about this side of Dickens’s life at all.

What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn’t hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose.

Tomalin is also very good at analysing Dickens’ writing, though I, like Judith Flanders writing in The Telegraph, am perhaps more forgiving of his sentimental side:-

And when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial: Dickens’s villains are walking contradictions, viciously cruel characters who are also outrageously funny; Great Expectations is “delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious”, magically creating a tenebrous world of failure, as Pip fails to understand others, fails to win love, fails to save his benefactor, fails, ultimately, to become a man. However it is also the case, of course, that when she dismisses something – and she has no tolerance at all for the more sentimental side of Dickens’s fiction that many (myself included) genuinely enjoy – she can be devastating. Edwin Drood, she tells us briefly, is “perfectly readable”. Ouch.

This is a biography which is well worth reading, both for its insights into Dickens’ life and works, and the times in which he lived. As Boyd Tonkin writes in The Independent:-

Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life of course enters a crowded field. But she brings to it all the peerless ability to match scholarship to storytelling that won acclaim, and honours, for her lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield – and of actress Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman, Dickens’s later-life mistress. As a biographer, Tomalin remains (as her subject called himself ) “inimitable”.