Thursday, September 28, 2017

Down: Down Where the Drunkards Roll

Richard and Linda Thompson: Down Where the Drunkards Roll


I wish I could tell you that I own and know intimately the contents of every album containing every song I post here. Alas, no. So when this theme was announced, I immediately thought of Down Where the Drunkards Roll. But I was expecting it to be by Tom Waits. Indeed, the song is about the kind of people Tom Waits loves to write about, those down on their luck. Like Waits, the actual songwriter Richard Thompson does not ask for pity; rather, he finds beauty in lives most would dismiss. But, where Waits would have chosen a character, and presented his view of things, Thompson instead evokes a powerful sense of place. Thompson finds both depravity and madness here, but what he asks us to notice is that this place makes all of us equal. No one is judged, and some can return to their normal lives without consequence when the leave here.

Down Where the Drunkards Roll is also a wonderful vehicle for Linda Thompson. The song comes from a time when Richard and Linda were a couple, and at their creative peak together. Richard Thompson wrote here a perfect song for Linda Thompson’s voice, and she delivers the goods. While we are talking about the sound of the song, I believe the stringed instrument featured here is an autoharp.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Down: Geese

Camel: The Flight of the Snow Goose  
Anthony Phillips: The Geese and The Ghost
[purchase The Snow Goose]
[purchase The Geese and The Ghost]

One of the joys of a theme-focused blog is that it gives you a challenge to wrack your brain and try to think of a related topic. And it can be fun to take the theme to an unexpected place. Clearly, the obvious way to interpret “Down” is consistent with the thumbnail being used to illustrate the theme—“toward or in a lower place or position.” But the word has other meanings, including certain feathers of a bird used for insulation, often from a goose. So, here we are.

Camel is one of those English prog-rock bands from the 70s that had some success, both critically and commercially, but aren’t generally grouped in the top tier of the genre’s acts. Nevertheless, they released a bunch of good albums and have continued to perform and record until the present day, with a dizzying revolving door of members surrounding founding member Andrew Latimer.

After releasing two albums with minimal success, the band decided to try a concept album. Rejecting a few novels to base their work on, they ultimately decided to attempt to create a work based on a 1941 novella by Paul Gallico (a prolific writer probably best known for The Poseidon Adventure), titled The Snow Goose. It tells the very sentimental story of the friendship and love between Philip Rhayader, a disabled artist living in a remote lighthouse in Essex, England, and a local girl, Fritha. A wounded snow goose is nursed back to flight by Fritha, whose friendship with Rhayader grows, while the goose returns over the years to the lighthouse. Rhayader uses his sailboat to rescue hundreds of soldiers in the Dunkirk evacuation, but is lost. The goose finds Fritha on the marshes, which she interprets as Rhayader’s soul leaving her, and she realizes her love for the lost man. The lighthouse is leveled by German aircraft, destroying all of Rhayader’s work, except for a portrait of Fritha, as a child, holding the injured snow goose.

The story struck a chord, and the book won an O. Henry Prize in 1941. It was read on the radio in 1944, turned into a BBC TV movie in 1971 featuring Richard Harris (as the goose—just kidding), and that won a Golden Globe and was nominated for both a BAFTA and Emmy. When Camel announced that it planned to release their musical adaptation of the book, Gallico gallantly threatened to sue the band (yay, lawyers!), so they were forced to call the album Music Inspired By The Snow Goose, and they had to abandon the idea of using lyrics based on the text, rendering the album fully instrumental. Despite these obstacles, the album, released in 1975, was both a critical and commercial success.

It is a beautiful, moving work, featuring rock instrumentation along with the London Symphony Orchestra (and, on one song, a duffle coat, used to simulate the flapping of wings). It is hard to pick a favorite song, but to be theme-appropriate, I picked “Flight of the Snow Goose,” which starts off slowly, but builds to a triumphant end.

In doing my research for this, I found a review which claimed that the Gallico novella also inspired another song, Anthony Phillips’ “The Geese and The Ghost.” Turns out, that isn't true. In fact, the title derives from two sounds on the ARP Pro-Soloist synthesizer which was used on the album.

Phillips was the original guitarist in Genesis, but left after recording their second album, Trespass, ultimately being replaced by Steve Hackett. Phillips left due to a combination of stage fright and other health reasons, and an aversion to being in the public eye. After leaving Genesis, Phillips decided to study music, and didn’t record anything for a number of years. His solo debut, The Geese and The Ghost, featuring some music that he had worked on while still in Genesis with friend and former schoolmate Mike Rutherford, and solo compositions, was released in 1977.  In addition to Rutherford, Phil Collins provided some vocals (recorded before he succeeded Peter Gabriel as Genesis’ singer) and Hackett’s brother John added flute.

In general, the album is somewhat folky, with orchestral flourishes, and the title track is beautiful. Genesis fans could definitely hear a kinship to some of the quieter moments of Trespass. Phillips went on to release music to little commercial success, more successfully create “library music” for use in films and TV shows, and appear on other artists' albums playing guitar and keyboards.

In fact, in 1982, Phillips appeared on Camel’s album The Single Factor, and co-wrote a song with Andy Latimer. That album is utterly devoid of any goose-related material (which unfortunately cannot be said of our local athletic fields).

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Down: The Pogues, Down All the Days

The Pogues, Down All the Days

From their 1989 masterpiece, Peace and Love, The Pogue’s “Down all the Days” is a tribute to Christy Brown. You will know Christy Brown from the award winning bio pic starring Daniel Day Lewis, My Left Foot. The title of the song is taken not from Brown’s seminal biography, but is the title of his first novel, Down all the Days, from 1970. It is a stream of consciousness reflection of Ireland and the Irish, much in the vein of the classic Irish style that James Joyce made so ubiquitous to the life and literature of the Emerald Isle. 

Peace and Love is one of my favorite Pogues albums, though it is relegated in many’s opinion to one of the “lesser” efforts. Recorded at a time when drunken legend Shane MacGowan’s legendary drunkenness had finally started taking its toll on his musical and writing abilities, Peace and Love is a departure for two distinct reasons: one, it shies slightly away from the traditional Celtic-roots of the Pogues earlier albums and favors a broader approach, delving into rock, rock-a-billy, jazz and glorious pop. It is a manifold and expansive musical canvas the Pogues work with here and the diversity of sound enhances its strength rather than diminishes it. 

The second reason Peace and Love is so different from the Pogue's all too small catalog is that this album saw major contributions from the other members of the band in terms of lyrical content and composition. This album features amazing songs from long-time Pogues conspirators Terry Woods, Gem Finer and Phil Chevron, who each penned tracks that are absolute classics, all of who stepped in to fill the gaps MacGowan's behaviors had left. MacGowan’s performance on Peace and Love has been described at “mush mouthed” and his lyrics as “markedly beneath his previous standards”, and sadly, that is true, but then part of being a fan of the Pogues is buying into MacGowan’s ridiculous drunken buffoonery. 

It’s also appropriate to shake one’s head in disgust and sadness at what a squandered talent MacGowan has made of himself. But, then, that’s part of what the Pogues, as an institution, are about: greatness and what could have been. Characteristic of their significance and the pure exuberance of their total abandon into great music is the lingering sense of the tragic. MacGowan’s lyrical content has long focused on the darker side of love, politics and history, of bitterness, of defeat. The music is tinged with lament and a longing for better days, or at least getting a fairer shot in all of those arenas. Kind of like the Pogues themselves, all things could have been, and truly should have been, better. Like MacGowan’s seeming self-destruction: it took on greater dimensions of tragic when you realized how far it derailed this band's chances from being truly great. Burning stars rapidly arcing through the sky is a great metaphor, but the reality of the fact that the Pogues could have been a far more productive band, with a much longer and more varied catalog is a sad truth that only becomes more real with every listen to their music.

"Down All the Days" starts with an ethereal echo of a winding typewriter, being loaded, clicking and punching away, as if from behind a closed door, set to chiming strings. The songs winds up into a lilting spin of guitar, accordion, tin whistle, the typist still toiling away, the dinging bell of the approaching end of a line coming through in perfect timing. The lyrics vary between the voice of Brown himself mixed with an outside narrator introducing us to Brown as a “man renowned from Dingle to Down” but who was once merely a “clown about town.”  Brown himself enters the narrative and entertains by talking about his life and bragging of his drinking prowess ( I can type with me toes and I suck stout through me nose—both of which were very true of Brown) as well as giving us a vague sense of who he might, or might not have, supported in the soccer pitch. The song winds itself towards a soaring chorus, an aural symbol of that typewriter itself leading to a burst of energy, a writer punching the keys in manic ecstasy as the words, words, words tumble forth. Such a wonderful, almost magical song, the multiple instruments in such chaotic tuneful euphony. Like all great Pogues songs, there’s a manic, barely contained energy and the tune doesn’t so much play as it does swirl and carry the listener away. At a running time 3:45, I always wanted it to last at least twice as long.

I’ve seen the Pogues live many times and there was always the kind of excitement in the venue that might accompany the apparition of a saint—hard to believe they were really there in front of you. And, while it’s bordering on morbid, and certainly a ridiculous cliche by know for music writers, MacGowan has continued to defy expectations and is still going. And by that, I mean he's still alive. Sadly, he’s not producing music, but, it’s good to know he’s still out there. Like The Pogues themselves, MacGowan is timeless in a strange way, and the music, even if there is precious too little of it, is and will be timeless as well.