Friday, January 09, 2015

[book] James Young "Nico: Songs They Never Play On The Radio"

This is a memoir of the author's time he playing keyboards in Nico's last touring band, a period in which he also did arrangements for Camera Obscura, her last album. I read it first years ago but recently bought another copy to give as a present to a friend, giving it a quick re-read before doing so. It is a fascinating tale of life at the bottom of the musical ladder, a world away from the tales of fame and fortune you usually get in musicians' memoirs. Nico and the dodgy types hovering around her (including the author, her manager, and most of the people playing in her band) make for fascinating characters. The book is also surprising in its willingness to dish the dirt on living people, with John Cale in particular coming across as a particularly unsavoury individual. Nico herself remains an enigmatic and unknowable figure, her heroin-addiction contributing to a near-total self-absorption.

The book made me listen again to her wonderful records, particularly The End, Desertshore and The Marble Index (Chelsea Girl has its moments but its sunny production marks it out as False Nico). The best tunes marry her infinitely sad voice to a dirge-like harmonium accompaniment, creating sounds of terrible sadness which somehow never sound like indulgent mopiness. Reading the book made me think about her aesthetic and her creativity. So much of her work seems to have been thrown together to put out some product so that she can get some money together to score some smack, yet from that such great music has been made.

I would like to hear again the record that James Young plays on. I had a copy years ago and did not like it so much. I remember finding it a bit 80s, with synthesisers and the like burying the harmonium on too many of the tracks. But reading the book again makes me want to give it another go.

Anyway, I encourage anyone who likes music or fun stuff to have a look for this book. It was going for cheap in Fopp last time I looked. Even if you have no interest in Nico's music I think you would enjoy this vision of the less glamorous side of the music business.

Image sources:

book cover (Goodreads)

Nico at her last concert (from Nico IcoN, 1988 concerts)

Nico performing 'Valley of the Kings' in 1986:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

[film] "Witchfinder General" [1968]

Last September I went to a conference in Belfast on folk horror. The programme notes mentioned this film as being a key item in the folk horror canon, so I watched it on DVD beforehand. The film features Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. Hopkins is a real historical figure who hunted witches in the chaotic period of the English Civil War. The film presents a lurid version of these events. It is ambiguous (at least initially) as to whether Hopkins is a sincere enemy of witchcraft or self-seeking cynic happily exploiting the superstitions of the gullible to advance himself. I gather Price was a controversial choice for the role but his odd looks and permanently ironic expression work well here. Hopkins is the villain, with Ian Ogilvy playing the protagonist, a Parliamentarian cavalryman who becomes locked in a vendetta with him.

The film was apparently controversial when it first appeared, because the violence it contains is a bit ramped up from the usual Hammer fare. I could imagine the sexual violence being problematic even now (a woman lets herself be debauched by Hopkins in a futile attempt to save her father from him and is later raped by the witch hunter's thuggish assistant). Some of the violence does seem to thrown in for voyeuristic thrills, like the completely ahistorical scene in which one of Hopkins' victims is burned to death (as far as I can make out, witches were always executed by hanging; burning at the stake was the punishment for heretics in Catholic countries and even that brutal method of execution was not used in the ridiculously elaborate manner Hopkins uses).

Yet the violence is not just for seedy thrills, as it can serve to advance the story and show the development (or atavistic regression) of character. The film ends with the cavalryman killing Hopkins (spoilers), but it is not after a brave fight. Instead the cavalryman bursts upon Hopkins and kills him with an axe in a frenzied attack. The film ends with the cavalryman's wife screaming, not because of the torture she was suffering only a few minutes before but at the sight of her husband transformed into a vengeful maniac.

Immediately after watching the film I thought it a piece of enjoyable schlock, with Price's over-the-top performance important here. But I have found that it stays in the mind and has a lingering power. For all its schlockiness and willingness to play fast and loose with history, it is a fascinating view into a world where social norms have broken down and people are happy to kill random strangers in order to advance their goals.

I do not know what the real Matthew Hopkins would have made of the film. Although there were rumours that he was murdered by someone related to his victims (as in the film) or even executed as a witch himself after failing one of his tests, it seems that he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27. In just two years he seems to have had executed some 300 people, mostly women; some researchers estimate these as being some 60% of all the people ever executed for witchcraft in England.

image source (a piece in the Guardian by Alex von Tunzelmann, assessing the film for historical accuracy)

The film's trailer:

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[record] Steeleye Span "The Best of Steeleye Span"

I have had this album for ages but only ripped it to iTunes recently; Rob Young's Electric Eden has rekindled my interest in all things related to English folk music. The compilation seems to have been released in 1984 and the songs are from between 1970 and 1980. They feature many of the Span's well-known folk rock tunes, like 'All Around My Hat' and 'Gaudete' (tunes that the author of Electric Eden dismisses as inconsequential tat). 'Gaudete' is an a capella tune sung in Latin, with vocal harmonies and stuff. I think it may involve god bothering. You may recall that Alan Partridge plays it in his car once to show off his sound system. After that it is all a bit more electric, with the voices of Maddy Prior and other band members being set against a rock accompaniment. Many of the tunes have Jacobite themes, which probably reflects the nature of the tradition.

One curiosity is the inclusion of a tune called 'Long Lankin', a variant of the same tune played by Alasdair Roberts on his Too Long in this Condition record. The strange thing is that I have had this Span record for what, 20 years, but have never noticed the gruesome lyrics of child murder and torture on this track, while they leaped out at me from the Roberts rendition (which uses a completely different tune and somewhat different words).

This record still leaves me with a slight sense of disappointment. There are some great tunes on it (all the ones mentioned so far, also 'Alison Gross', 'Thomas the Rhymer' and 'Cam Ye O'Er Frae France') but there does seem to be a fair bit of inconsequential filler on it. And it is clearly not the actual best of Steeleye Span, as another record of theirs I have features some truly great tracks not included here (e.g. 'The Boys of Bedlam' & 'Blackleg Miner'). I suspect record company issues.

image source (page on the record, from Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


In the pages of Frank's APA we are running through the letters of the alphabet.

Hawkwind! As with so many things, I discovered them through my old friend and quaffing partner Mr W—, who would talk a consistently good game about them. When we were in London one summer (back in 1988 or 1989) he made going to a Hawkwind all-dayer sound like an appealing prospect, so I went with him to the Brixton Academy and saw Hawkwind supported by a load of other bands. Of the others I can only really remember Naz Nomad And The Nightmares (or something similar), who were The Damned under a different name playing 60s punk-psych stuff, and some other band who seemed to my untrained ears to be a Jimi Hendrix tribute act (or maybe I just thought that because I am RASCIST, as they had a black guitarist-vocalist).

Hawkwind themselves were amazing, their show a stunning audiovisual spectacle, the big space rock sounds combining with the stunning visual images of Elric, Stonehenge, and some kind of plant with funny leaves to great effect. I was particularly excited when Lemmy came on at the end as a special guest. To this day I do not know whether he is very tall or David Brock is very short, but the size disparity between them was astonishing.

Since then I gradually acquired Hawkwind records, probably now having more by them than by any other artist.Their recorded output is patchy. For every great album there is some shoddy compilation of badly recorded b-sides, for every great live album dozens of rough recordings of off key gigs in venues with appalling sound quality. Indeed, for such a great live band it is amazing how duff most of their live albums are.

On record their golden period ran from the early 1970s to some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s, depending on where you want to draw the line. They are perhaps unusual in that although there is one person who is indisputably the main person in Hawkwind (Dave Brock), there are an army of others who have provided services more stellar than just being the guy who plays bass. Other members of Hawkwind who would be the frontmen of any other band (and in several cases were) include saxophonist Nik Turner (fired by Dave Brock for having his own ideas), Lemmy (early bassist, fired for liking different drøgs to the rest of the band) and poet Robert Calvert. I should also mention Stacia, who enlivened their concerts with her expressive dancing, clad in little more than body paint; she is now a visual artist living somewhere in Ireland.

The big draw with Hawkwind for me was the spaciness, the sense that this was a band related to the world of Science Fiction. One hears how Michael Moorcock used to join them onstage in their early days, writing lyrics for at least one of their tunes. They had other songs referencing works of Moorcock and other SF writers, while some of Calvert's lyrics in particular have very SFnal themes. Occasionally the lyrics have utopian themes, but more usually the atmosphere is paranoid and dystopian. 'Sonic Attack' mimics a Protect and Survive type public information film, telling listeners what to do in the event of a sonic attack. 'Damnation Alley' describes a journey across a USA devastated by nuclear war. 'Spirit of the Age' has an astronaut flying away at relativistic speeds, thinking of the left-behind lover ageing rapidly while he stays the same age. Yet despite the dark future lyrics and Hawkwind's fondness for playing free festivals out in the country, they remain relentlessly technological and urban. To me they are not like hippies suggesting a retreat to some kind of pre-industrial pastoralism.

Like I said, not all Hawkwind records are good, so while they have a vast recorded output they are easy enough to approach for a novice. If you were thinking of dipping your toe in the waters of the Wind (er), try one of the following:

In Search of Space (1971) - featuring the stunning 'Master of the Universe'. The CD reissue also has Hawkwind's hit single 'Silver Machine', an enjoyable piece of fluff.

Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) - opening with the epic Nik Turner composition 'Brainstorm', the CD reissue also features 'Urban Guerilla', an edgy tune in the age of the RAF and Angry Brigade.

Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974) - next of the 1970s run of classic albums, possibly lacking any single track as in your face as the last two but a solid piece of work.

Warriors on the Edge of Time (1975) - more Moorcock inspired craziness. 'Assault and Battery' is a particular favourite of mine. The CD reissue features 'Motorhead' as a bonus track, recorded by Hawkwind before Lemmy took it away with him as the name for his new band.

Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977) - probably my favourite. The opening track is a SFnal tale of love and loss set to an epic and motorik beat. It is followed by another corker, a song inspired by Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley (and called 'Damnation Alley'). The album also features the endlessly controversial 'Hassan-i Sabbah', linking the mediaeval cult of the Assassins with the Palestinian militants who were stirring things up at the time.

Levitation (1980) - arguably the last great Hawkwind album. Features Ginger Baker on drums, though not so you would notice.

Possibly the best place to start would be with Space Ritual, a live album released in 1973. It captures this great live band at the peak of their powers and features great versions of many of their best songs (including several that never made it onto any of the albums, like 'Orgone Accumulator').

Hawkwind still play live. They are older and more grizzled now and many members of yore have fallen by the wayside. I fear they have completely gone off the boil on record, but their live shows continue to fascinate.

Hawkwind onstage (

Stacia (

In Search of Space record cover (Wikipedia)

Hall of the Mountain Grill record cover (Wikipedia)

Space Ritual record cover (Progressive Rock Music Ultimate Discography)

There is also a fascinating BBC documentary about the band, currently available to view on YouTube:

Monday, January 05, 2015

Bob Gilmore

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of the musician and musicologist Bob Gilmore. I first became aware of Mr Gilmore in the pages of the Journal of Music (when it still had pages). His columns there could be combative but were always intriguing. I saw him live during the course of the Ergodos: Off Grid festival in 2009. At that he played with his Trio Scordatura, fascinating me with his introduction to the pieces played and coming across in person as considerably more soft-edged than in print. He also co-programmed one of the pieces at the festival, a performance of James Tenney's In a large, open space. I bought the Trio Scordatura's album Dubh shortly after that festival, an album combining strange tunings, electronics and non-standard classical vocals to create a very atmospheric sound. I have regrettably somewhat lost touch with that kind of music since then, but it was still a blow to read of Mr Gilmore's death. I am sure the people who knew him personally will miss him greatly, as will the rest of us who know him through his work.

See also:

Bob Gilmore in the Journal of Music

Bob Gilmore's own website

Trio Scordatura discography

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Dublin Winter Solstice Celebration

Now that the days are getting longer, let me bring you back to a celebration of the winter solstice that was held here in Dublin. This particular celebration began a few years ago, initially as a small and informal event. Now it has expanded and been adopted by the City Council.

Events began in the Riding School Hall of the National Museum in Collins Barracks. Here there was food and drink available, There was some music and also storytelling. The picture above shows people listening to a linking some ancient Irish queen to a deity and the Newgrange burial mound.

Many people were wearing ivy garlands in their hair. You could make these yourself or if, like me, you are not very handy readymades were available.

I always look grumpy in photographs.

The action moved outside, into the courtyard of the Museum.

The Snow Queen arrived. The Sacred Flame was lit.

My beloved was excited by the arrival of Lord Summerisle.

Then we processed from the Museum and along the Quays. I do not know what people trying to drive into the city centre made of it all.

The procession ended up in Smithfield Square. The Christmas Tree there struck a jarring note. The Christmas Tree has now been wholly appropriated by Christianity, yet this Solstice Celebration was an entirely Pagan affair with no room for the Galilean.

There was some more Pagan ceremonial stuff. People burned withies in the fire that had been lit at the Museum. These were paper or wooden things on which they had written wishes for the coming year. Then the flame was held aloft.

And then the crowd began to disperse. The Sacred Flame was guarded as it burned itself out. A new year has begun.

See also:

Some more pictures

Slí an Chroí, Native Celtic Shamanism in Ireland, the organisers of the event.