Mystery Music March

The Elements – Tom Lehrer

“Now if I may digress momentarily digress from the mainstream of this evening’s symposium … I’d like to sing a song which is completely pointless but is something which I picked up during my career as a scientist. This may prove useful to some of you some day, perhaps, in a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances. It’s simply the names of the chemical elements set to a possibly recognisable tune.”

The possibly recognisable tune is The Major General's Song from The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan (‘I am the very model of a modern general …’) and it’s with this quote that Tom Lehrer introduced his song, The Elements on the live album An Evening Wasted With.... Given Lehrer’s lyrical wit and musical ability it seems totally perverse to be recommending it over some of the other tracks, especially the far more famous Poisoning Pigeons In The Park which opens the long player, but for my money there’s just as much skill at work here as there.

The singer was generally unknown in this country until Princess Margaret of all people was asked during the award of an honorary degree what her favourite music was. She said it ran ‘from Mozart to Tom Lehrer’ and royal approval in those days was enough to set you up for life. So this Harvard Graduate’s work found greater popularity in the UK than anywhere and before long it was playlisted at the BBC and he was writing songs for the US edition of the satirical comedy tv show, That Was The Week That Was (TW3).

The Elements appeared simultaneously on the studio album More Songs by Tom Lehrer and An Evening Wasted, although for my money the latter is best since like the very best performers he’s playing off the audience and breaks off in the middle to suggest ‘I hope you’re all taking notes because there’ll be a short quiz next period’. As with the rest of the show, you’re very much aware that this is humour born of academia and appreciated best by those who’ve had the same experience.

Whilst lyrically it is indeed just the chemical elements, it probably took as much, if not more skill than the other songs because as well as deciding on a tune which would best fit the contents of the periodic table, he then had to not only make them all fit but also scan. Watching this animated version (the backing is the studio version) it becomes apparent very quickly that most of these syllable fests were not designed for popular music, however satirical.

It works mostly because of Lehrer’s performance in which he shows linguistic dexterity only matched by Michael Stipe during REM’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (and I feel fine). Tom’s able to annunciate a massive proportion of this jargon, only now and then surfing through the syntax when its absolutely necessary, and unlike Stipe whilst also running his fingers across a piano keyboard.

Only single syllable names such as lead seem to cause any problems and in many cases he has to run them into the next word – if you’re as bad at chemistry as I was at school you might actually think there is a substance called Gold Protactinium. One of his secret weapons would seem to be alliteration (‘And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.’) which allows his mouth to reset momentarily every second or so.

What makes this funny then is not the words themselves but how those words fit together. During the live performance Thalium, Barium, Curium, Sodium all provoke a reaction as the audience almost egg the performer on, willing him to get through all of the elements in one piece without exploding whilst simultaneously marveling at what they’re hearing. Even if the song is ‘completely pointless’ (and how many of them aren’t?) it’s also uniquely entertaining.

”And now may I have the next slide please…?”

“No consumer advice is available for this work…”

TV If you want even more proof of ITV1′s confidence in their heavily trailed new series, the BBFC have just passed a documentary for the DVD: The Fixer: The Making of a Hit Series.

Mystery Music March

Raise Yr Skinny Fists To Heaven

by Rob Wickings of The Ugly Truth

Godspeed You Black Emperor are over. It was not a sudden thing. They’d been struggling with their place in the world for a while, and had reached the point where, as their founder Efrin Menuck put it, they had succumbed to “an existential freakout” over the war in Iraq. They had found it increasingly difficult to communicate with their audience in a meaningful fashion. “Maybe,” he continued, “what they needed was some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human.”

Godspeed You Black Emperor are - were - one of the formative, and most influential of post rock bands. Post rock has been described as the point where rock and classical music intersect. Personally, that description always makes me think of Bohemian Rhapsody, so let’s not go there. Typical rock instrumentation - drums, guitars, keyboards - are used in forms that do not mirror the typical rock song structure. The music is largely instrumental, and heavily weighted away from the verse/chorus/verse form. Mood, and a building dynamic that could at a stretch be described as quiet/loud/quiet are all-important. It takes on influences from the looseness and experimentation of free jazz and the avant garde scene, and the tight, repetitive structure of krautrock. The term itself is commonly believed to have been coined by British journalist Simon Reynolds while reviewing Bark Pyschosis’ Hex in 1994. He admitted in his blog in 2005 that in fact the term had been floating around since the mid-70s, first popping up in a 1975 James Wolcott article about Todd Rundgren.

So far, so Wikipedia. I’m here to talk about what post-rock means to me. Let’s start with that horrible catch-all term. It’s used to describe a fairly broad swathe of music, and bands that have roots in everything from noise and extreme death metal to jazz and classical. The general concensus seems to be that if it’s long, vocal-free, and has song and album titles that seem either obscure, absurdist or just plain odd, then it’s post rock. Which takes in everyone from Stereolab to The Mars Volta to my mind. It’s an easy label. It’s a lazy definition. I prefer to think of the practitioners of this kind of music as post-song.

Common knowledge considers that the first true post-rock albums were Slint’s Spiderland, and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. I’d go back further than that. My first experience of the music was the Cocteau Twins 1985 EP Aikea-Guinea. Songs that were all chorus, absurdist song titles. And Elisabeth Fraser, whose vocals didn’t sound like anything else. They were barely vocals at all. It sounded as if the Cocteaus had caged a songbird, and persuaded it into liquid accompaniment. A trilling, wordless glossolalia. It was like another instrument, and I fell in love with it instantly. I played the EP to smoothness, and still own it. It smells, very faintly now, of peonies.

I’ve always loved drama in music. The semi-symphonic stories Bruce Springsteen told on The Wild, The Innocent... and Born To Run. The fevered mating calls and Greek ululations of loss and despair coming out of the 60’s girl group scene, and the guttering torch songs of Dusty Springfield and Scott Walker. I never wore eyeliner, but I was a New Romantic. I had a widescreen head, and I needed music for soundtracks.

I came to the sound through the backroads. Through the roaring whirr of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Through the blurry fuzz of shoegaze, bands like Slowdive and Ride, whose Vapour Trails I fully intend to have played at my funeral. I’ll even go out on a limb and mix my gothic tendencies into the snarl I’m twisting together here. Early Sisters Of Mercy, particularly the first album, First And Last And Always and, more pertinently, Fields Of The Nephilim. Music for an unmade dark western, thrumming through my head on innumerable rain-beaten train trips to see friends in Myrthyr Tydfil, the black heart of Wales. Opening my mind, and my eyes. Letting in wonders through the fog and the storm.

If I mentioned Sigur Ros to the average punter, the response would at best be a blank look. But mention the music for the BBC natural history show Blue Planet, and chances are that punter would be thinking of Hoppipolla, from their 2006 album Takk. They are eminently soundtrackable. Their recent film documernt Heima, that tracked a tour of their native Iceland, is the finest example of how their music fits into a narrative-free structure. There is no story, little dialogue. It succeeds purely because of the extraordinary interplay of the music and the landscape.

Their music comes from a place that is at once alien and disturbingly familiar. The vocals, until recently, were sung in a made-up language called Hopelandic. For Takk, widely regarded as Sigur Ros’ breakthough to mainstream success, the band wisely decided to make themselves a little more approachable. The lyrics were recorded in their native language. Icelandic.

The downplay of lyrical content, and the change of the role of the singer to a carrier of melody rather than of explicit meaning is a typical meme in post-rock. Take a guest vocalist on Mogwai’s 1998 album Rock Action. Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals did a sterling job, but sang his part in Welsh. Granted, he does a lot of that anyway. SFA have released Welsh-language records throughout their career. But the choice of guest seemed especially appropriate on Rock Action, which was the first Mogwai album to feature vocals on more than a couple of tracks. On another track, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk was well-known for slurring his vocal line to near incomprehensibility. The lyrics to Laughing Stock were printed on the sleeve. It still famously remains difficult to figure out the words even with this guide. Without, Hollis may as well be gargling. (Unkind critics who are not a fan of his singular vocal style have suggested cruelly that this was exactly what he was doing.) All this means that the listener can easily attach his own interpretation, her own thoughtscape onto the music. Post-rock seems designed to be listened to on headphones, while gazing out of a train window. Feeling the world slide past you, slipping through your fingers in a rush of acceleration.

This makes it sound like aural wallpaper, which is deeply unfair. At it’s best, the music can inspire an absurdly overplayed emotional reaction. I’ve frequently found myself in tears during moments in Sigur Ros’ (), an album filled with songs without titles, sung in a language I don’t understand. Proper, sloppy, chest-hurting man crying. And I couldn’t tell you why.

It’s this languageless, primal connection to the music that makes it so effective, and at the same time so limiting. Let’s look back at Godspeed You Black Emperor, and the frustrations that led them to split. The rapport they had with their audience was legendary. A long discussion thread on the Whitechapel message board raised up a 2002 gig at the Que Club in Birmingham, and I have recordings of a concert from October 2000 where the tension between group and audience was oozing out of the speakers. The slow, dramatic build of the music gives way to a release that is almost transcendent. The first time I heard it was on headphones on my work commute into London, on a cold sharp morning when the sun was burnishing the sky with copper and scarlet. I felt like someone else that morning. Like the train could take off and fly into that sunrise. Like I could do anything.

And yet, still Efrim and the rest of the band felt that they could no longer communicate with their audience in the way they wanted. They felt they had to ground the music in something real, something of substance, and suddenly realised that it refused to be bound in that way. It was like rallying smoke, like trying to hold on to a note for too long. Announcements from the stage, post-gig discussion groups felt like bolt ons. For the first time, Godspeed You Black Emperor could not mesh the medium with the message, and their anger at the carnage in Iraq could no longer be articulated in the way they wanted.

We should not mourn Godspeed You Black Emperor. The album from which this piece takes its name, Raise Yr Skinny Fists Like Antenna To Heaven, is a regular visitor to the top ten lists of best post-rock albums of all time. Most of the original member, including Efrim Menuck, now play in A Silver Mt. Zion, a band that happily embrace vocal, and even choral forms in their music. The scene, as ever, moves on, refuses to be bound to a single interpretation, a locked-off viewpoint. Untied to any formal classification, blurring past our vision like the speed-smeared landscape framed in a train window.

A Day In The Death.

TV Last week’s somewhat disappointing installment, was an episode so dramatically inept I went all emo and wrote fifteen hundred words which made me thoroughly depressed so I can’t imagine what it was like for you reading it. I wondered if after many weeks rehabilitation, Torchwood had finally done a Renton, mainlined and disappeared into the carpet. I really wasn’t looking forward to A Day In The Death, which hasn’t been the case since the dark days of series one. The very title and the brief synopsis in The Guardian’s tv guide didn’t inspire too much confidence: ‘Owen searches for absolution’ which sounds for all the world like the plot of an average episode of Touched By An Angel or Highway To Heaven.

And indeed the opening of the episode didn’t help matters as a regular character who we’ve already met told us his name and gave a synopsis of the past season and a half, illustrated by montage sequence that included the dodgy moment from Everything Changes for which the jury’s still out on whether it was date rape. It seemed as though we were going to have to endure another Love & Monsters knock off and my finger was actually hovering over the remote control, mere seconds away from Rock Rivals (am I wrong about Michelle Collins?). I didn’t think I could endure a whole fifty minutes of Owen talking to me, especially with all of the other voices in my head.

And indeed throughout death related plot holes nagged. If Owen can’t exhale, how come we could hear him breathing and for that matter since the breath isn’t their to vibrate his vocal chords how are we able to hear him talk? How come he could work the iPod if his body lacks the necessary oomph? When he came out the bay, where did all the water which must have entered his lungs go? Some unseen chunderfest? Surely that’s going to attract attention. These are exactly the kinds of things I usually jump upon, throw in the face of a writer to suggest that they’re really not looking at what they’re doing (although I missed the one about the neatly clothed Weevils – I’m slipping).

I would jump on them, if this wasn’t one of the most thoughtful, most intelligent, most, well, romantic pieces of writing the series has yet seen. Joseph Lidster’s first television script was perfectly paced, poetic mediation on the meaning of life. This was everything last week’s goofy episode could have been, capturing the philosophical mood with far more delicacy than Last Man Standing’s discussion of death, which ended up simply full of deaths. Torchwood has experimented with these themes before (Out of Time) but by focusing on a regular character and reducing the mission story to little more than an infiltration it was able to more clearly provide an emotional through line and actually make us care about what must be one of the series most unpopular characters.

Flashback structures are incredibly difficult to get right, particularly if crosscutting between two time frames – there’s always the danger that the audience will become so engrossed in the flashback that the return to the present is an unnecessary wrench. On this occasion, the ‘present’ setting gave an insight into Owen’s state of mind in his past, not simply linking exposition, a perfect example being his attitude to Tosh when she appeared at his apartment and proceeded to complain about the life he no longer led. It also worked because as well as finding out what Owen’s state of mind was, there was the mystery of who the suicidal woman was and what led up to her wanting to end it. I genuinely gasped when the grim fate of her husband was revealed in that beautifully shot sequence, aided by Christine Bottomley’s all to realistic performance.

Similarly, you can’t help but feel that a lesser episode, after casting Richard Briers, would have introduced Henry Parker (Sir Clive Sinclair to Henry Van Stattan’s Bill Gates presumably) far earlier than occurred here, perhaps in a false attempt to create suspense by showing us some glow from the MacGuffin. He would have been a far more vital presence, perhaps with some nefarious plan to break into the Hub to steal some items for his collection.

Instead, Lidster cleverly built up the suspense instead by creating a range of obstacles which underscored the importance of whatever if was Owen was meant to be capturing and then finally revealing a decrepit old man who’s clinging onto life using a giant gleaming placebo. In just a few lines, aided by proper actor Briers, Parker was a far more rounded character than we were used to. I imagined he was an Indiana Jones figure in his youth with an interest in alien artefacts. I almost wished he’d mentioned the Sontarans to tie it in to a similar speech in Eye of the Gorgon from The Sarah Jane Adventures.

But of course, the episode’s biggest achievement was in the treatment of Owen. With the exception of the breathing malfunction this was a rational investigation into how a dead person still walking around might cope with not being able to do any of the things humans take for granted such as drinking, eating, sleeping and bleeding. I’ve complained about Burn Gorman’s walk in the past, and he didn’t seem very comfortable during his season one focus Combat, but here I think we saw his very best work, usefully sympathetic even when delivering V from V for Vendetta-style platitudes. The goodish doctor became quite poetic in his mortality, but much of this was to underscore the differences between himself and Jack, ‘You can’t die and I can’t live’ he says.

Lidster toyed with the audience, the MacGuffin’s healing power just one reset button away from bringing Owen back to the world of the living. But again, we’re confounded since the man is staying dead, at least in the short term and how beautiful that the wobbly blob created a benign lightshow for once, instead of threatening to blow up half of Cardiff? Whilst it’s still a shame the production team felt the need to put another essential immortal in the midst of Torchwood, at least Owen has this added level of fragility, in that any of the cuts and bruises which are all a days work at this organisation which may or may not be more or less important than UNIT. That hand of his isn’t going to last long is it? Now that he’s back working for Torchwood though, aren’t we at some point going to have the icky prospect of a corpse doing an autopsy on a corpse?

Three episodes in and Martha’s out and apart from the infiltration of the Pharm from a couple of weeks ago her appearance hasn’t really lived up to the hype. Freema’s been as sparkly as ever and the actual scenes she’s been in were rather sweet, particularly in this episode, but it did seem a bit pointless bringing her back only to have her appear in episodes focusing on Owen. Perhaps having the appearances sprinkled throughout the series would have provided more impact – as seems to be the plan in Doctor Who – rather than have her (with the exception of becoming an oldie) moping about the hub for two episodes. Production and budgetary issues perhaps, but you can’t help but feel that she could have gone on a girly night out with Gwen and Tosh or something. See you in a month or two, Martha.


Who said that?

Next week: Gwen's got a bad case of the Hilarys.

Mystery Music March

Funny How -- Airhead

I first heard Airhead’s Funny How in the early nineties, when I was still young enough to be at school. Periodically I’d be invited to join some friends, what I suppose you could the rich kids, the ones who’d go on to become lawyers and politicians or their advisors, for a pizza and cinema trip. We’d drive down to the commercial park at Edge Lane Liverpool listening to Steve Wright In The Afternoon on Radio One along the way and I remember distinctly turning into the car park in front of Macdonalds (this one in point of fact) just as this track was playing.

Everyone else seemed to know the words and sang along, and I thought those lyrics were hilarious and especially true at that age; I had recently fallen in love with a girl who clearly didn’t fancy me and got the notion that another girl quite liked me but I just, well didn’t fancy her. It’s the kind of pop philosophy which can make an impression at that age, but I was eating Pizza within minutes and my hormonal brain was occupied with other things like pineapple and cheese.

But the lyrics lodged in the recesses of my brain and when I went to university and cycle began again, they resurfaced just at the time when I needed to know that it wasn’t just me who was having or not having these feelings. I knew I wanted a copy, but searching the record shops in Leeds few of the staff had heard of the record or much less say were I could lay my hands on a copy. It didn’t really help that I only knew the chorus and didn’t remember the band name.

Post university, after a good six months of successful unemployment, I found myself enduring three demoralising weeks in a stock room at HMV. Between labeling sale cds, wrapping some of them in plastic and sweeping the floors, there was at least the opportunity to enjoy the manager’s musical taste and being introduced to Julian Cope of whom he was a great fan (enough that he wasn’t too impressed when I said Julian sounded like Ralph MacTell).

This was still in time before the web was ubiquitous, but Mike’s musical knowledge was legendary so I asked him about the Funny How? track. He thought about it for a few days and then said Airhead out of the blue, late one Thursday afternoon. I had a title and an artist finally after too many years. Before you say anything, I do realise of course that it might well have been easier just to ring and ask one of my old friends, but with the exception of bumping into Andrew at a Radio One Roadshow, I hadn’t seen any of them since school and calling someone up for a band name didn’t seem right somehow.

Time marched on. By 2005 I’d enjoyed many successful unrequited love affairs and decided that perhaps the song had cursed me, that the pattern of my life had been defined that fateful afternoon in the back of that car before seeing Jurassic Park for the first time (I’m still not entirely convinced it hasn’t but that’s a discussion for another time). Years before I’d made recordings of DJ Danny Baker’s programmes as he made his progress across many of the national stations, sometimes with music, usually with football, and I happen to be listening to something from his Virgin Music years.

As you’d expect since I’m mentioning it, randomly he’d happened to play Funny How on one of the afternoon I’d happened to be taping. I’m not sure how I’d missed it first time around but here it was. Recorded from MW, the sound quality was dreadful, chock full of static and on top of that electromagnetic interference caused by the old life which used to be in the tower block were I live. But it was Funny How by Airhead and you could still make out the indie guitars and drums and more importantly most of the lyrics. Listening to the song for only the second time ever, I loved it.

Now of course I’ve an mp3 of the song, recorded from the cassette and I’m listening to it now, in all of its crackly glory. It really does sound terrible and fades out before the end because I left off the sports news jingle which ran over the end. Now that the Wikipedia exists I can see that the reason it’s not exactly ubiquitous is that it was released on an EP which despite heavy airplay on Radio One charted at No. 57 which means it’s potentially the only copy I’ll ever have. Via Google I can see the cover.

But I like that. I like that in this era when music that we could have only been dreamed of when I was at school is essentially available at the click of a mouse, this track simply isn’t and that the only way I can enjoy it is through this dreadful noise. Some of the lyrics might be indistinct and in places its not clear whether a section of the baseline is being generated by the band or the radio it was originally recorded but at least it’s there, to taunt and reassure me in equal measure. Of course another question might be whether it would have been even more legendary if it had simply stayed in a memory from a decade and a half ago…

Mystery Music March

Bold Street – Eugene McGuiness

Being the churlish one, I’ve always been slightly disappointed that the city I live in tends to be defined from the outside by essentially two things, the football and The Beatles. I really shouldn’t, especially since most cities can’t even boast anything as impressive, especially in terms of influence on recent pop culture. But I do look enviously at the likes of New York, London, Paris and erm, Munich which can be so many things to so many people and become a bit jaded. It happened again during The Culture Show on BBC Two last week when the presenter, flying over in a helicopter to look at our architecture mentioned both of them, adding on Cilla Black for good measure.

It doesn’t help that the songs of The Beatles, particularly the likes of Penny Lane don’t seem to have much in common with the actual places. Having been on the Magical Mystery Tour, I’ve seen the slightly disappointed look on a tourist face when the realise that the real place is nothing like the song at least on the junction with Greenbank Drive where we stopped. In fact, I’ve always had a suspicion that the song is about the junction of Church Road and Smithdown Road, at the opposite end of Penny Lane, where there is indeed a barber and a bank (HSBC) on the corner the irony being that Lennon and McCartney got the geography of their own city wrong.

The trouble with these pilgrimage destinations is that the reality is never as interesting as the legend. The Crowded House song, Weather Be With You features the lyric: 'Walking around the room singing stormy weather /
At 57 Mount Pleasant Street'. That address, just up from Renshaw Street is reputed to be address of the Registry Office where John Lennon and Cynthia were married. Except that when I went, in an idle moment a couple of years ago, I found a car park, something which it has always been apparently. There was some buzz about ten years ago that in The Levellers song, Hope Street was in Liverpool too, even though as usual the lyrics simply don’t match up to the reality which sounds like somewhere with a welfare office rather than a theatre, concert hall and cathedral.

Luckily, there really is a song which not only mentions the name of a street in Liverpool but also describes the place is actually like. Eugene McGuiness moved from London to Liverpool seeking his musical fortune and in his autobiographical album “The Early Learnings Of …” we find this tribute to Bold Street. It’s a wonderfully elegiac lullaby to the place, very vividly evoking the sights, sounds and smells experienced by someone walking from the top to the bottom. As well as descriptions of the people in the area, we find ‘Coffee aromas swimming past the fruit stand’ that must be Soul Café and the grocers almost next door and ‘A fake American diner’ will be the ‘recently’ opened Eddie Rockets.

Bold Street is one of my favourite places and actually I’ve spent most of my life there either eating or shopping. The pleasure of this song is that unlike Penny Lane it isn’t the figment of someone’s imagination, bending memories to fit a melody (although there is some of that) but also the reality. The street can indeed be caked in vomit on a Friday night and if you’re not careful you might well be worried that you won’t get home that night. But it's also one of the most lively streets in Liverpool, full of character and dreams and the song finds room for that, even straying off into a rewrite of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But what was most shocking to me, at least the first time I heard it, is that Eugene has the same realisation during the lyrics as I’ve had: ‘I’ll always find myself on this road’. I’ll be down there again tomorrow.

Elsewhere: Thank You Bold Street by Me.

"Except perhaps when Colin Baker was the Doctor. Or Sylv."

Music On my personal blog this month I'm writing about a different piece of music each day and yesterday I inevitably picked the Doctor Who theme. Before you click, see if you can guess which is my second favourite arrangement (after Delia Derbyshire).

Mystery Music March

The Doctor Who Theme – David Arnold

Ron Grainer’s theme to Doctor Who originally appeared in an arrangement by BBC Radiophonic Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire when the programme launched in the early 60s. Her version was groundbreaking, knocked together using sounds recorded on tape played repeatedly and in consort, the monotonous thumping of the baseline counterpointed by the melody of real world instruments distorted into sounds which truly sound as though they’ve come from the stars. A massive later influence on electronic artists, ironically produced analogically.

The theme has since then been twisted and reshaped dozens of times and everyone, well at least everyone whose a fan, has their favourite arrangement or at least their favourite arrangement that isn’t by Derbyshire. The Peter Howell synthesiser which heralded the eighties and I grew up with; the experimental Delaware from the 1970s, produced for but not used on screen because its just too strange; the plonky Dominic Glynn which is equally strange and actually was used for a whole year before being replaced; Keff McCulloch bringing in the nineties three years too early before people knew what they’d sound like (it’s this one that could be found on the show when it was canceled).

And not just from those broadcast on television. How about the mayhem of Don Harper's Homo Electronicus? Or Eric Winstone and his Orchestra attempting to reproduce the sound using conventional instruments whilst still retaining its otherworldliness and not straying in the march unbeloved from the mid-90s TV movie. Or how about the Belgian Jazz version by comedian Bill Bailey? There have been rock and jazz versions, bangra and classical. This website [via] has hundreds of amateur interpretations including one which preys upon the fact that the legendary middle Eighth sections sounds almost but not exactly like Do They Know It’s Christmas (which was the reason it was left off the titles for the whole of the first new series).

Relatively few people have heard my favourite version even though it has been broadcast on the BBC, or at least the digital BBC7. At the turn of the millennium, five years before the programme returned to television, Big Finish Productions who had already been producing audio cd adventures with the original Doctors, signed Paul McGann to appear. Released as seasons, and carrying on from where the TV Movie left off, this was at the time as close to a new series as most fans could hope for (the spin-off novels and comic strips accepted) and sitting down one rainy afternoon in January to listen to the first, Storm Warning was as emotional experience as five years later to see Christopher Eccleston’s debut.

Rightly, because this was such an event, Big Finish were keen to produce their own new take on the theme and were able, because he was a friend of a friend to secure the help of composer David Arnold, best known for composing and co-ordinating the music for the James Bond films since Goldeneye. As well as producing big orchestral scores, Arnold's also indulged in dance and electronica and it was going to be intriguing to see what he’d produce for this commission. Budget suggested that full orchestra was right out, but was anyone prepared for what emerged from the speakers at the opening of the story?

There’s a brief excerpt of the new mix at the opening of the teaser (in which the Doctor rifles through his library before the TARDIS is attacked by dinosaurs living in the time vortex) the full version appears at the close of the first track of the cd and it’s breathtaking. At time of release, Doctor Who Magazine described how he was influenced by the machinery of a time machine, how he wanted the theme to evoke the cranking of its engines and that is exactly what it sounds, the baseline revolving like the pistons of a steam engine crossed with the materialisation sound effect. The melody, almost subliminal in this version produced via what sound like pan pipes, but could as well be the solar winds.

What I admire about Arnold’s work is that unlike the new Murray Gold mix which is essentially the original Derbyshire arrangement overlaid with the passion of a full orchestra, this is something totally new, but not in the same way as the 80s versions deliberately tried to update the sound. They all now sound terribly dated, whereas this is almost ageless, and would have fitted the series in any era. Except perhaps when Colin Baker was the Doctor. Or Sylv. Like the Derbyshire version, it retains a freshness which is probably why when Big Finish relaunched the McGann stories recently, they firstly kept it intact (so you may have heard it on BBC7) and then simply remixed it. I’m yet to hear that rejig, but I can’t imagine it’ll be an improvement. You can only ruin perfection.
TV Mof Gimmers of TV Scoop is watching nothing but ITV1 this week. He doesn't appear to be coping very well: "Watching 17 hours of ITV straight is enough to do anyone in, and it has made me wonder if this bizarre fluey feeling I've got in my head would have happened if I'd done the experiment with another channel. One of the main bugbears is the news. It's constant and never changes. Each bulletin is the same as the last, to the point where you find yourself completely insensitive to each dreadful happening in the world."

"You know when you said it went well? Well, when you said well, did you mean shite?" -- Tim, 'Spaced'

TV I was fairly agnostic about the proposed US remake of Spaced because these things are proposed all the time, many of them go to pilot, still fewer to series, and even fewer complete their first year. Like the proposed versions of Life on Mars in the US and Spain which take the original idea and some of the scripts and then transpose them into a different idiom, I just decided it would only work if someone creative was involved and the original creators.

Now, I'm positively incandescent because, get this, the original creators, Simon, Jess, Nira & Edgar are not involved. Apparently in the flow of getting the UK version on air a decade ago, they signed away the international rights. So despite press releases trading on their names and recent successes (well Mr Pegg and Mr Wright's anyway) the original creatives aren't involved. In fact, the whole thing's essentially been boiled down to the basic premise without all of the love and references which made it work.

Suitably annoyed by the whole thing, Simon Pegg has issued a statement, posted on Edgar Wright's MySpace blog which explains their end of the affair:
"You would perhaps hope though, out of basic professional respect and courtesy, we might have been consulted. It is this flagrant snub and effective vote of no confidence in the very people that created the show, that has caused such affront at our end. If they don't care about the integrity of the original, why call it Spaced?

Why attempt to find some validation by including mine and Edgar's names in the press release as if we were involved? Why not just lift the premise? Two strangers, pretend to be a couple in order to secure residence of a flat/apartment. It's hardly Ibsen. Jess and I specifically jumped off from a very mainstream sitcom premise in order to unravel it so completely. Take it, have it, call it Perfect Strangers and hope Balkie doesn't sue. Just don't call it Spaced."
Even though Simon and Jess are going to get some renumeration for their ideas (according to this version of the statement at fan site Spaced Out), I'm still reminded of the Clerks sitcom pilot which was in production and Kevin Smith knew nothing of until Brian O'Halloran mentioned to him on the phone that he'd been in to audition for Dante, the character he'd played in the film. The wikipedia summarises the affair.

Unlike dramas, the premise in a sitcom should never be the most interesting part. It should always be about the quality of the characters and the types of stories you're telling, as the dozens of sitcoms about three boys and three girls that slipstreamed in the wake of Friends demonstrated. Coupling was about the only which worked and that was mostly because (a) Steven Moffat began working on it before Friends came out and it wasn't reactomatic programming and (b) it was about his own friends and therefore an act of love, which all art, however commercial, should strive to be.
Music Whilst politics will probably mean we'll not win Eurovision again this year, at least we could send a half-decent song to give us a fighting chance. Last year's Daz Sampson escapade was rubbish, but as PopJustice note, this year's work performed by Mr Abrahams is just boring.

Mystery Music March

Carla Bruni’s quelqu'un m'a dit

I don’t often follow the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It takes for a celebrity to do something prominent enough that it appears in the 'proper' news that I’ll take notice and so generally if someone says something like ‘Isn’t it a pity about what happened to Kate Winslet?’ I’ll have little to no clue what they’re talking about.

I generally couldn’t care less about their private life so long as, like the person who sells me the newspaper, they’re doing their job properly, which in the case of most celebrities and artists is to entertain or make you think. There are exceptions to this of course – I await the next line-up change in the Sugababes with great interest and I’ll hang on Mark Kermode’s every word.

Which is why, when three months ago, whilst my brain was going through its early morning processes of gaining awareness and I heard Carla Bruni's name in a report about the French prime minister I shot awake and literally jumped out of bed. Carla Bruni to me was the singer-songwriter of the album quelqu'un m'a dit bought for a couple of pound in Vinyl Exchange Manchester in May 2004 and massaging my ears ever since. She was not someone who was mentioned in the headlines on BBC News.

I wrote on this very blog at the time: “If ever I go mad and I'm hearing voices can hers be the only one I hear.” All Carla Bruni was to me, was a singer whose cd inlay I had framed on my wall and who in April 2007, again on this blog I noted was finally releasing a second album five years later. I had no idea what she’d been doing in the intervening years and the only time I’d spoken about her to anyone else was with Caro via email in 2005. Like many of the artists on this list, she was my secret, her silky tonal lullaby my treat on the bus to work in the morning.

Now she’s very much in the public eye having married the French Prime Minister, the newspapers have filled, during the three months (or longer) of their courtship, with mini-biographies of this woman, this ‘model-turned-singer’ and the many boyfriends and dalliances she’s had in the five years that she’s not been recording music. I don’t want to know that she’s an heiress that she’s been linked with everyone from Eric Clapton to Donald Trump and that she’s allegedly ended marriages, one of the songs on this very album, ‘Raphaël’ being about that very affair.

Given everything you now know about Bruni, would you expect quelqu'un m'a dit to be a folk record? Because that’s exactly what it is with hints of country in there too. The best track is probably Le toi du moi, which plays out the beats of A Fine Romance (‘my friend this is’) over a wider emotional pallet. And unlike, for example, French rap music, language isn’t too much of a barrier because you’re carried along by the textures and importantly it’s not over produced – the only sounds you can hear are guitars and that voice, so authentically French even though she was born in Italy.

I don’t know what the rules are about the wives of premiere’s releasing pop records but I suspect it’ll be another five years before Bruni releases another album which on the basis of this might well be a lyrical expose of what it’s like to be in office. But you see I wouldn’t be thinking that if I didn’t know where this voice was coming from, so mysterious for so long. There’s no doubt that in most cases your knowledge of an artist can inform your appreciation of their music (Amy Winehouse etc.) but in this case I wish Carla was still to me just a beautiful voice from who knew where.

Mystery Music March

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

My BBC Proms odyssey last year in which I heard or watched every concert that happened in the Royal Albert Hall, gave me the opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Ninth twice – during the First Night and towards the end. Two different concerts and two different interpretations and by the climax of the second I knew it had become one of my favourite pieces of music in any genre. Since then I’ve heard a Simon Rattle recording with the Weiner Philharmoniker (pictured) and the cd which appeared on the cover of this month’s BBC Music Magazine only confirmed it.

I’m willing to accept that this might simply because it was one of the reasons I stuck with the Proms and changed my outlook on music. That it’s one of the few works which I’ve heard top to bottom on enough occasions to become familiar with it, the classical equivalent of commercial radio playing a record enough times that you feel compelled to buy it when its released -- I absolutely detested About You Now by the Sugababes on first listen for not being anything like their originally material but now absolutely adore it.

But it also talks to the cineaste in me, as it works not unlike a film narrative with an opening bit of excitement, a range of set pieces describing different thematic ideas before blasting into a breathtaking finale. If it was a computer game Uwe Boll would have already bought the rights and be deciding whether to cast Shannon Elizabeth or pay for some special effects instead. But then Beethoven wrote the work when he was on his artistic uppers to in fact it’s more Woody Allen knocking out the only ok Scoop one year and Manhattan the next.

Even in a work which can last for up to seventy minutes (and just how did Beethoven manage to write a symphony of this length, depth and complexity that still manages to fit on one cd?) I know which is my favourite moment. About two and half to three minutes into the fourth movement, after what sounds to these ears like the orchestral equivalent of noodling with no clear direction, suddenly in the midst of everything, there are a couple of bars of what’s popularly known as the ‘Ode To Joy’ theme.

My heart usually skips a beat because I know what’s to come, the full orchestra and choir exploding on the same notes, and in a way the expectation is more exciting because you know that no matter how brilliant that orchestra and choir are, they’re never going to be as good at the version you have in your head. It’s seeing a chocolate sundae in the moments before you eat it, the impression given by the fragrance always better than the taste. It’s your favourite television programme in the seconds beforehand when you hope a classic awaits. It’s the moments before speaking to your teenage crush when she’s still your ideal woman.

Some versions I’ve heard over emphasise the moment, but the best – or in other words the recordings I prefer let it pass by almost unheralded, like one of those thoughts which you have daydreaming on the bus only for them to gain momentum later and turn into the best idea you’ve ever had. It seems to me to be doing exactly what the best pop songs should do – introduce a hook and then yank your ears along by it until it’s the most important thing in your life for the duration. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason I spent over two months listening to The Proms last year was attempting to recapture the thrill of these few seconds.