Thursday, 1 December 2011

John Martyn

Heaven And Earth (ABSOLUTE, 2011, CD)

I yield to none in my admiration for the young John Martyn. The albums he made in the 1960s and 70s - from London Conversation to Grace & Danger by way of the unimpeachable Solid Air in 1973 - are among the finest in the golden age of Island Records. But then something happened to him. To be precise, the 80s happened to him.

He forsook the fabulous acoustic finger-picking technique he'd derived from Davy Graham for the new god of electronics; and, not helped by his epic boozing, he developed a vocal style so slurred and mannered he could give Vic Reeves's 'club singer' a run for his money. (Kind hearts prefer to compare this later croaky drawl to Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen.)

The new album, the last he completed before his death in 2009, was recorded at home amid the aural distractions of boiling kettles and barking dogs. There's a tight, jazz-funk groove underlying the songs, but they rarely develop beyond repeated chordal phrases over which Martyn burbles and extemporises. Only the one non-Martyn composition included here, Phil Collins's 'Can't Turn Back The Years', lifts him from his lethargy.

[First published in RnR

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Amy Macdonald

Corn Exchange, Cambridge, 25 October 2010

“Most people hate their jobs – I love mine!” says Amy Macdonald, looking out into a mosh-pit of wage-slaves on a Monday night. Coming from anyone else this could sound a tad supercilious, but Amy Macdonald, a straight-talking Glaswegian, is doing what she loves and her enthusiasm is infectious.

She’s wholesome, but with rock’n’roll attitude. I can’t imagine her popping pills in her dressing room – she’s so together. Helped along by a very tight band, her show is professional and polished but, at the same time, enormous fun. Polite to a tee, she’s complimentary about Cambridge and even thanks the guitar tech who dashes onstage between every number for keeping her strung and tuned.

One song, ‘Footballer’s Wife’, shows her distaste for reality TV and instant celebrity. She introduces it with a little homily about the importance of hard work. At just 23, with a big-selling debut album behind her and a European stadium tour in prospect, she’s proud to have got where she is by her own efforts, not somebody else’s.

She recalls performing ‘This Pretty Face’ on Swiss TV in the middle of a beauty pageant. Macdonald couldn’t keep a straight face, because the song is saying the exact opposite: never judge by appearances.

For those of us who discovered her through two irresistibly catchy singles, ‘Mr Rock & Roll’ and ‘This Is The Life’, there’s more of the same: the chance for a big singalong on new songs like ‘Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ and ‘Love Love’. With their expansive choruses, these are typical Macdonald territory. After all that, the main set ends reflectively with ‘What Happiness Means To Me’. Lured back for encores, she rounds off the night with a tempestuous version of ‘Let’s Start A Band’.

Support comes from The Roads, a London-based quartet, all sisters. Enjoyable, if somewhat too demure for Macdonald’s audience.

[Photo taken at the event by Jean-Luc Benazet. Used with permission.]

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Richard Thompson OBE

Fresh from curating the Meltdown Festival in London last year, Richard Thompson delivered an album of entirely new songs. Sometimes, when an artist is as prolific as Thompson, the quality threshold may drop, so it is a relief and a pleasure to report that Dream Attic is another masterclass in songwriting.

For years now, this Englishman abroad has been mining a rich seam. Californian exile seems only to have sharpened his nostalgia. Thompson’s London boyhood may bulk less large here than on the previous two albums but, with every carefully placed rhyme, his songs breathe history, be it personal or public.

As a godfather of folk-rock, he’s been around long enough to witness a revival of the revival. The Scottish reels of his ancestry underlie ‘Here Comes Geordie’. ‘Sidney Wells’, a modern murder ballad building to a blistering guitar solo, reincarnates the spirit of ‘Matty Groves’. Never the cheeriest soul, as he enters his sixties Thompson is clearly troubled by intimations of mortality: ‘A Brother Slips Away’ is an elegy for all those contemporaries who have ‘crossed over to that distant shore’. Then, just when you’re ready to slit your wrists, he rocks it up with a number like ‘Bad Again’.

Recorded live with his band to give it immediacy, Dream Attic is vintage work from one of Britain’s finest. Recently, there was a chance to relive that thrill when he toured the album in the UK. I caught his show at the Royal Festival Hall last week. His band is indeed awesome, distinguished by multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn and Michael Jerome, a drummer who can switch styles at the drop of a (hi-)hat. In the first set they ran through some highlights from the new album. After the interval, we had a selection of what Thompson, self-deprecating as ever, called his “greatest hits”, among them

‘The Angels Took My Racehorse Away’
‘Take Care The Road You Choose’
‘Can’t Win’
‘One Door Opens’
‘Al Bowlly’s In Heaven’
‘I’ll Never Give It Up’
‘Wall Of Death’

The second set finished with a tumultuous ‘Tear Stained Letter’, the band now joined by all the guests who’d contributed during the evening: not just the excellent Christine Collister and Judith Owen but also several members of Thompson’s family – Zak Hobbs (grandson), Pauline (wife of eldest son Jesse) and Kamila Thompson (his younger daughter).

The encores included a blistering version of ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’. Finally, exchanging electric guitar for acoustic, Thompson came out alone with Kami for ‘A Heart Needs A Home’. Her mum made that one famous and I’m sure Linda would be proud of her. A poignant end to a high-spirited evening.

Part of the above was first published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel).

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The manufacture of myth

Anthropologists and classicists speculate about how myths came into being in pre-literate cultures. My interest is rather in the creation and re-creation of myth in historical time, a process which lends itself to more exact study. There can be few better places to focus that study than the German-speaking lands in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. George Eliot, most cosmopolitan of Victorian novelists, anticipated as much when she wrote Middlemarch (1872). In that novel the leathery old clergyman Mr Casaubon is engaged in lifelong research for his magnum opus, the Key To All Mythologies. It is fruitless work, ‘mouldy futilities’ – so his wife is assured by young Will Ladislaw – because he does not read German. Without that language Casaubon cannot keep up with the new scholarship in comparative religion and mythology, fields in which Germany led the world.

Central to the German preoccupation with myth was the belief that it was somehow ‘original’, ‘living’ and authentic. Uses of myth in the modern period therefore claim to be restorative of lost traditions; in fact, they are more often ‘inventions of tradition’ (in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase). Are they, then, to be judged as massive delusional systems? Or are we looking at a transformation of ‘myth’ into something more appropriate to a mass culture?

One place to start is the relationship between myth and history as the debate was conducted in the late nineteenth century among German classicists. How do they gloss the definition of muthos in Plato and Aristotle, and Herodotus’s use of ‘unhistorical’ evidence? Is the resurgent interest in myth a reaction against Positivism and the Rankean view of history? This might lead one to consideration of Nietzsche’s assault on the philological profession and his deliberations on myth (The Birth of Tragedy) and history (On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life).

Nietzsche attended the laying of the foundation stone of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in 1872, at which time he still believed that a rebirth of tragedy could be effected through Wagnerian music-drama. It would be interesting to follow through the concept of the Festspiel – understood as an attempted renewal of the ‘Volk’ through communal theatre on mythical subjects – down to Wagner’s heirs at the turn of the century: Appia and Jacques-Dalcroze in Hellerau, Georg Fuchs in Munich and Count Kessler in Weimar. How important was it that each of these attempts was underwritten by aristocratic patronage, beginning with Ludwig II’s support of Wagner?

Ludwig’s cousin, Elisabeth of Austria, offers a case-study in the creation of personal myth, which brought her into conflict with official Habsburg ideology. During her lifetime Elisabeth controlled her own iconography by taking advantage of the new medium of photography. After her death biographical myths accreted around her which continue to be influential to this day, as the buoyant ‘Sisi’ industry in Austria demonstrates. The Empress united in her person Romantic Hellenism and identification with figures from Greek mythology, especially that of Persephone.

Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Island of the Dead (1880) strongly evokes Elisabeth’s beloved retreat of Corfu. A survey of the decline of ‘history painting’ in nineteenth-century Germany (pivoting around the Symbolist art of Böcklin) might ask whether there is a point where shared mythologies collapse and private ones take their place. A thin line leads by way of Makart and Anselm Feuerbach to the paintings of early Expressionism.

Böcklin’s Leonardo-like experimentation with flying machines and Max Beckmann’s monumental canvas The Sinking of the ‘Titanic’ (1912) exemplify the instant mythologization of history. German responses to the ‘Titanic’ disaster have received little attention from scholars: a comparison with other accidents – airship and aeroplane crashes – suggests that the process of mythologization operates particularly where classically-minded observers believe they are witnessing the latest technology brought low by its own hubris (in the manner of a tragic hero).

By giving a blood transfusion to certain received myths, notably that of Oedipus (‘blood for the ghosts’, in Nietzsche’s memorable phrase), Sigmund Freud ensured their survival as ‘general knowledge’. The reciprocal relation between Freud’s classical learning and his medical practice is a fascinating subject. When he adopted a Greek myth as an explanatory tool for a psychoanalytic theory, which came first, the myth or the clinical diagnosis?

There are striking similarities between Freud’s thought and that of Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815-1887). Largely neglected in the English-speaking world, Bachofen was hugely influential on German-speaking intellectuals when his work was reissued in the 1920s. Thomas Mann (Joseph and His Brothers), Ernst Krenek (the opera Life of Orestes) and the painter Oskar Kokoschka all drew inspiration from Bachofen’s argument that we can reconstruct unwritten prehistory through the study of myth; but they reversed his intentions, seeking to reanimate myth by turning the ‘facts’ supposedly preserved by myth back into the ‘fiction’ of art.

Thomas Mann’s criticisms of Alfred Baeumler, editor of the 1926 edition of Bachofen, led directly to his conviction that psychology offered the best means to rescue myth from Fascism (‘Freud and the Future’, 1936). The precariousness of that hope is illustrated through Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will (1934). Here present, put to equivocal use, are so many aspects of the manufacture of myth – the cultic coming-together of the ‘Volk’ at a great ‘Fest’ (the Party rally), the romance of technology (as in the opening shot of the Führer’s plane descending, Valkyrie-like, through the clouds), the manipulation of image (tension between the director’s editorial control and that of the Party, mirroring the film’s troubled status somewhere between art and propaganda).

So, a final question for any latterday Will Ladislaws out there: is it possible to recover the originally progressive intentions of the Romantic concept of myth?