The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, February 08, 2006
GHOSTS MADE OF SCARCER VOICES

The talk now is of “hauntology,” and it’s a subject with which this weblog should feel immediate empathy. After all, The Church Of Me has for the last four years or so been primarily concerned about ghosts; about learning to live with them, about extracting new life from their pale, glum shrouds – and maybe, eventually, learning to let them go. Because the aim has been to invite ghosts to live again, whether it’s a forgotten record from 1973 or 1993, or even this writer, who for long periods could have been classified as a ghost writer. Certainly there have been many times when I have felt like a ghost when writing for CoM; a non-living person stranded in some kind of post-bereavement limbo with only recalled memories for colder comfort. But I think it fair to say that I currently feel less like a ghost than I have done for half a decade (is it really coming up for five years? Who knows where the time went?). The journey out of the tunnel is nearly complete; and yes, someone in particular has been excavating at the other end to let the light in, and that necessarily (re)colours everything. Thus the return to a living, inquisitive state, a shrugging off of shadows (if not The Shadows, but more about that in a moment); the gladsome turning of the mind towards the now very real notion of starting again.

The ghosts persist, and I suppose as long as I continue to maintain record and book collections they will always do so. Nevertheless it’s time, for me at any rate, to ease them gently into the background. There are worse ways of doing so than to consider a 2CD compilation which I recently picked up at a competitive price in one of my many forays into charity shops (establishments which are virtually by definition ghost homes; sometimes one might walk into a Cancer Research shop, for instance, and see a lovingly assembled, thoughtfully organised CD or tape collection, knowing instinctively that it has all come from the one person, but then be chilled by the strong possibility that this collector is in all probability deceased from cancer. Yet the urge to keep this gallery of thoughts alive is the same urge which prevented me from torching our own collections on the tormented afternoon of Sunday 26 August 2001. Let’s, however, keep all of that at a distance now. It’s vital). This particular package, however, was from the record company direct, as proven by the blue and white label on the cover: “THIS RECORD HAS BEEN DONATED TO CHARITY BY VIRGIN RECORDS.”

The collection is entitled Instrumental Memories…Are Made Of This (subtitle: 54 Timeless Memories) which is the most recent episode in a series which perhaps should have been entitled Now That’s What I Called Music – compilations of hits for people too old to look forward to many more hits; hits in most cases older than me; specifically, hits for people who cling fearfully to the Sunday schedule of Radio 2. The chill of death is indeed tangible in the echoing output of that station on Sundays; a pocket simulacrum of how Radio 2 used to sound all the time, every day, with carefully ageing presenters, gradually bowing out to nature (Charlie Chester, Alan Keith, Hubert Gregg, Cliff Adams…all now gone) with cold reminders of what life used to be like, as now witnessed from the terminal waiting room. Indeed, listening to something like The David Jacobs Collection, which is broadcast very late on Sundays, makes me feel I am already in the afterlife (try segueing with Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide on Radio 1, or Nick Luscombe’s Flo-Motion on XFM, while half asleep, for truly surrealist sound art).

I don’t propose to discuss all 54 tracks, as some I have already discussed at adequate length (Telstar, Apache) or don’t have too much to say about at this, or any, moment (the James Bond and Pink Panther themes, On The Rebound). But it is worth taking a sample to demonstrate how Instrumental Memories…Are Made Of This could rival Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light as a graceful bridge towards another, darker world.

MR. ACKER BILK Stranger On The Shore
PERCY FAITH Theme From “A Summer Place”
Two early examples of courtly nothingness, suggesting that only suggestion is required; both number two hits in Britain with lengthy chart runs (55 and 30 weeks respectively). How did the lugubrious vibrato of Barney Bigard find its way into a Cornish waterscape of footpads and murder? The Sunday teatime serial which gave “Stranger On The Shore” its name went out before I did, and it was never repeated, so I can only guess. Neither is the film A Summer Place frequently, or even rarely, broadcast on Saturday afternoon television. Yet the signifiers remain, abstract in their benignity; and now, divested of their childhood associations with refreshments at intermissions in the cinema, when cinemas still had such things as intermissions, they suggest only a blank afterlife. “Theme From A Summer Place” now only conjures up the spirit of David Lynch, the cast of Twin Peaks forever doomed to wander the labyrinth of a mythical 1962, or was it 2002? The high-pitched, serene violins could well be the sober sensors of electrodes, there to bind us in our involuntary peace.

BERT KAEMPFERT AND HIS ORCHESTRA A Swingin’ Safari
WHISTLING JACK SMITH I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman

Even when ostensibly “uptempo” and “major key,” mono-mood music still comes across as slightly forced; yet it was and is loved by millions. So, while Chris McGregor and the Blue Notes were busy storming the stuffy citadels of British jazz in the mid-‘60s, the general public’s idea of kwela music was to iron out all the roughness (all the blackness, maybe?), so we end up with a facsimile of otherness viewed with joy and welcome, just like prides of lions in the safari park when we don’t have to get out of the car.

And did Whistling Jack Smith ever exist? “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” was authored by Rogers Cook and Greenaway, and in all probability was a throwaway bit of mucking about concocted in ten minutes of studio downtime; yet it was a top five hit in 1967 when the Doors’ “Light My Fire” could only make #49, and “White Rabbit” and “Incense And Peppermints” not even register on the lists. Sometimes the continued acceptance of twelfth-best can make one vengeful, if one isn’t careful.

KENNY BALL AND HIS JAZZMEN Midnight In Moscow
A number two hit in 1961, produced by the 22-year-old Tony Hatch, and now it sounds like a chart hit from 1761; something which, with its dulled and distant echoes, really does come across as a piece of music performed by ghosts, even if Mr Ball and his Jazzmen persist unaltered to this day. Of course, releasing a record entitled “Midnight In Moscow” in 1961 invited the possibility of the Apocalypse (recall how “Telstar” might, had the Cuban missile crisis gone the other way, have been the last number one record ever) and it’s difficult to scrape away this supratext from the performance. Although it was merely the first example of Ball taking unlikely source material (it was based on a Russian folk song) and turning it all into a Dixieland-via-Bexleyheath rave-up (and later in their career they were the house band on The Morecambe And Wise Show; how avidly did Eric wish for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble instead?), it does retain an element of guilty motivation (it worked surprisingly well when I tested it on the dancefloor, as a DJ, just before Christmas) even if the CND backdrop presumably occurred to Mr Ball never at all.

BRIAN FAHEY AND HIS ORCHESTRA At The Sign Of The Swinging Symbol
Better known as the theme tune for Pick Of The Pops, once the key Sunday afternoon chart show, now a mausoleum for old charts; listen to it on Radio 2 of a Sunday, hosted by a pre-recorded, neon-hearted Dale Winton – a museum whose keepers have long since fled, and it’s a programme which I try to avoid, for it has the unenviable ability to extract every last drop of life out of every record it broadcasts, particularly when Winton is compelled to skip rapidly over a 1973 listing, say, where Gary Glitter is inconveniently situated at number two, or three.

NELSON RIDDLE AND HIS ORCHESTRA Dick Van Dyke Theme
THE CHARLES WILLIAMS ORCHESTRA Devil’s Gallop
SIDNEY TORCH AND HIS ORCHESTRA Barwick Green
RAY ANTHONY Dragnet
BILLY MAY The Man With The Golden Arm
JOHNNY KEATING AND THE Z MEN Theme From Z Cars

Three American theme tunes and three British ones, and they sound as though they come from two different planets. The jackboot tympani of “Dragnet” creak with their determined pitilessness where the distant rumblings of “Devil’s Gallop” (the Dick Barton theme) practices its façade of franticity at a respectful distance; it’s like watching a car chase through a telescope in a lighthouse in Arbroath. The Dick Van Dyke theme is suave, assured and vaguely 1962-echt-hip in its tromboning tantalising, while the theme from Z Cars jumps epileptically on the spot, like an Orange Lodge march stranded on a traffic island. And then there are the screaming trumpets and bitemporal drums of Elmer Bernstein’s drug-addicted film score set against – well, the theme from The Archers, significantly lacking either trumpet or drum, or indeed sex. Much like Radio 4's UK Theme (like Z Cars, penned by Fritz Spiegl) it persuades its stalwart listeners not to be dead.

MOOD MOSAIC A Touch Of Velvet, A Sting Of Brass
KEN WOODMAN AND HIS PICCADILLY BRASS Town Talk

And when Tony Benn forced pirate radio off the air, and the BBC had to come up with a face-saving Kwik Save substitute, these tunes became prominent; “A Touch Of Velvet…” as penned by Mark “Teenage Opera” Wirtz and sung, wordlessly, by bemused session singers, was used on about four different early Radio One programmes, and later became an unlikely staple of Northern Soul playlists with its mock-Tudor promise of a cooler tomorrow. Whereas “Town Talk” persisted for decades as the theme to the Jimmy Young Show; but divested from its “ar-har Denis Healey you see” environment comes across as a surprisingly punchy, forceful post-Mod orchestral stomp with the solo altoist (Peter King?) clearly happy to get his eight bars’ worth of improv in the middle.

WINIFRED ATWELL The Poor People Of Paris
Seven years before “Telstar”; a musical saw harmonising an octave above Atwell’s jolly piano melody, and Joe Meek in the engineer’s booth. And you think it came from nowhere?

FLEETWOOD MAC Albatross
THE SHADOWS Sleep Walk

The second was, of course, the begetter of the first, in both ways; the Shadows’ take on Santo and Johnny dates from 1961 and clearly demonstrates Hank Marvin far in front of the rest of his band, who don’t even bother to follow his ingenious re-harmonisations (maybe they couldn’t?). But how the Shadows of 1969, dissolute and on the verge of extinction as they were, must have viewed the vision of “Albatross” reaching number one. What did we do wrong?
(Although Hank Marvin did return to the top ten later in 1969, as author and co-credited performer of Cliff Richard’s “Throw Down A Line,” where his irritated-sounding guitar betrays more than a little Peter Green influence)

CHRIS BARBER’S JAZZ BAND FEATURING MONTY SUNSHINE Petite Fleur
JOHNNY DANKWORTH African Waltz
SOUNDS INCORPORATED Cast Your Fate To The Wind

The punters wanted a certain kind of jazz in the charts of the late ‘50s and early-mid ‘60s. Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz notwithstanding – and Brubeck does turn up on CD1 of this compilation with “Unsquare Dance” – it tended to be MoR with signifiers of “jazz” (and one looks at the album chart of 2006 to establish how this has changed not a jot) or jolly-good-try-Roger British attempts at jazz. Thus, while Cannonball Adderley stormed the Billboard top ten singles chart in 1965 with “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” we made do with Dankworth’s bland reading of Adderley’s “African Waltz” (actually Galt McDermot’s “African Waltz,” but Adderley, with David Axelrod as arranger, did record the definitive version), where A Love Supreme, and eventually even Pharaoh Sanders’ Karma, went gold in the States, we settled for Johnny Pearson’s cheerful stop-start ambient romp through Vince Guaraldi’s proto-Charlie Brown tune, or Monty Sunshine’s wobbling vibrato paying tribute to Sidney Bechet and sounding like the perfect soundtrack for the club scenes in the Goons’ film The Case Of The Mukkinese Battlehorn.

RAY MARTIN AND HIS CONCERT STRINGS Marching Strings
A staccato, imperiously jaunty military tattoo of major key melody used for decades as the theme tune to the schools’ quiz show Top Of The Form, which if you study hard at school Marcello you might appear on (My Blighted Youth, part 323), and which inadvertently joined the dots between the concepts of school and barracks. As if they weren’t the same concept.

THE JOHNNY PEARSON ORCHESTRA Sleepy Shores
ERIC COATES By The Sleepy Lagoon (Valse Serenade)
The two closing tracks on Instrumental Melodies…Are Made Of This, inevitably so, as we reach the shoreline. Perhaps it’s just my age and upbringing, but something like “Sleepy Shores” – the theme to the early ‘70s medical soap Owen M.D. – brings the reality of my 1971 back to me far more readily and lushly than the collected works of Led Zeppelin, in the same way that I can listen to a chart from 1970, hear “Ride A White Swan” and busily nod yes yes, but then be torn apart by, say, “I Don’t Believe In If Anymore” by Roger Whittaker – and suddenly I’m six years old again, alone in the bedroom sunlight. And “Sleepy Lagoon,” a.k.a. the theme from Desert Island Discs, brings us to…Ballard’s Terminal Beach? Or, perhaps, and hopefully, away from all of these ghosts, signifying a sea which I must cross, because when it comes down to it you’re there on the other side of that ocean, waiting patiently but eagerly.

COLDCUT: SOUND MIRRORS

And then I thought, where’s the place for Coldcut in 2006, where do we put them, what do we do with them, and then I looked at the sorry Brit Awards shortlists, but don’t look at me, I didn’t get a vote, and then I remembered that Coldcut actually won a Brit Award, in 1990, or was it 1991, for Best Producer(s), and then I remembered that everything about Coldcut was encompassed by those brackets, and this was when they were all over the place, in a 1944 Charlie Parker as well as a 1994 Dale Winton sense, up the charts, down on mainstream radio, with their febrile follies, in Smash Hits and in the Wire, and then I remember that a huge part of the destructive follies of 2006 lies in the fact that we can never deploy that phrase again, even if the Wire could be said in an incurious sense to have beaten Smash Hits, outlived them, won “a war,” even if it meant becoming Uncut for 44-year-old industrial heads as opposed to Jazz Monthly for 24-year-old Pet Shop Boy fans, which is what it was when I was 24 years old, but really, the lack of Xenomania and Mr Agreeable in the Wire indicates how wrongly, or how strongly, the Wire has turned, but then again, were it not for the Wire, where else would you put Coldcut in 2006, because then I turned to the radio, and once Coldcut were on Kiss FM, then they were on GLR, and now the Solid Steel show survives, but on Resonance, so they have been painted out of a multipop corner and seethe in quiet fury, even if that Journeys By DJ mix CD wasn’t quite as transformative or deliciously delusive as what they could produce on some of these late ‘80s/early-mid ‘90s Solid Steel programmes, many of which I still have on tape, but even then this was a time after they had actually been Number One in the Actual Charts, and part of the hopefulness of 2006 is that they might be Number One in the Actual Charts again, and why not, really, since the sheerest delight of 2006 is that I appear actually to have been given a chance to live my life over, so you never know, except what your heart truly knows, but anyway.

And then there is this new album by Coldcut, Sound Mirrors, and listening to side one I can almost be convinced that this is going to be a big event, in that people will actually notice it, instead of waving the mouth and quipping I didn’t know they were still going before yawning, but yawn they shouldn’t, not yet at any rate, but what I like about it is that it continues this underused practice of record-as-magazine, that is, turn the page and read a different but connected article, or move on to the next track and there’s an entirely different attitude, a different voice, a differing story, but still united by this one (or dual) underlying vision, not quite an Operatic thing, not like War Of The Worlds, a bit more like Escalator Over The Hill, a lot more alike to Robert Fripp’s Exposure, and then obviously BEF’s Music Of Quality And Distinction, and somehow we get on to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines - via the Golden Palominos - but somehow we don’t get past Future Pilot AKA’s A Galaxy Of Sound – oops, did I skip Kish Kash? - yet we end up at Gorillaz’ Demon Days, nimbly leapfogging UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction, except we should be neither so nimble nor so quaint, but coming to a point, Sound Mirrors is something of a missing link between Psyence Fiction and Demon Days, in that it deploys many voices to depict a none-too-optimistic perspective of humanity as the 21st century prepares to anagrammatise itself and turn back into the 12th century, in fact listening to all three in quick succession would constitute a triptych of doomy doom and all rights, but then again Demon Days has what Psyence Fiction lacked, and Psyence Fiction, despite some uncanny moments, really brought whole new worlds of meaning to the term “trying too hard,” and one minor universe of demeaning to the motif “enormous resources he hasn’t yet learned to marshal,” but then Demon Days has good humour as well as black comedy, and sometimes you just want the headlights afront Thom Yorke’s rabbit to blast out “Feel Good Inc.” or the glutinously glorious fuck-it-ness of “Dare” in order to prepare the world for Radiohead’s forthcoming 1974 tribute album, Your Baby Ain’t Your Baby Anymore, and if Sound Mirrors doesn’t quite make you fall sideways, side one made me jump and not skip, not quite anyway.

So there’s “Man In A Garage,” sung and strummed by one John Matthias, sounding very like Kevin Ayers (especially those “slide over”s), on his way to work, but calling for help “with a ‘phone book on my knees,” so this jollity is all superficial, but then the truly jolly Roots Manuva rolls into pole position with “True Skool,” and the stoned eagerness of his “cooler than cooler than cool” yet again makes you wish it were 1995 or 1988 again, as though they’ve restarted that crazier thing, well who else is doing it at the moment apart from the Jaxx, and they must be feeling pretty lonely out there in the solitary sunshine, and then fuck me if it isn’t Annette Peacock (how did they get her?) banging on about hollow celebrity and flirting cameras and it all sounds the same but Coldcut interpret her “Just For The Kick” literally, and they set her against a fantastic hard(y) house rave-down, and it’s Annette Peacock gone House, and someone please put this out as a single and play it so Annette can finally get on Top Of The Pops as she should have done 34 years ago (which reminds me, nobody’s done anything yet, so they certainly need
reminding), and the house fractures in the middle before violently, seductively slamming itself together again, and it’s magic anyway.

Then the house gets deeper with “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” which is suitably, soberly and sobbingly sung by Robert Owens (the singer of “Tears,” aptly), with its fantastic, subtly scolding string line, forever ascending but never losing sight of rock bottom, but then if Coldcut wanted a number one, they would have slung a jackhammer beat under the song, as opposed to glide with grace, which is what they actually do, just as Joe South intended when he wrote the song in the first place, because guessing the centre of rhythm is so much sexier than having it spelt out to you, wouldn’t you feel, and if it only got to number five hundred and one, well, whose fault would that be, but “A Whistle And A Prayer,” gives us a different ‘90s from the one Larry Heard inhabited, the now nearly lost lo-fi electronica indie thing, let’s say Future Bible Heroes, Lizard Music, maybe even some Primitive Radio Gods, you know where this is going, and someone called Andrew Broder sings this brilliantly (sidewalk) cracked lament (“Tell me when the water is sheets”) with wandering but morbid synths and guitar and this whistle, which might come off “Utopia” by Goldfrapp, but it’s the same spice of poignancy one gets when Scott Walker or Bill Fay sings dolefully of those old, tramping war veterans, as if there weren’t a war on now, but anyway.

Side two, though, more or less gets a little too Gilles Peterson, if you get even a little of what I mean, for example “Mr Nichols” which is an entreaty not to commit suicide, and indeed even if you know only a little of the whole Coldcut story you’ll realise that entreaties not to commit suicide on Coldcut records are to be taken seriously, even if you don’t know what actually was going through the minds of Coldcut when they made those thumping, uprising records such as “The Only Way Is Up” or “People Hold On,” but unfortunately the speaker on “Mr Nichols” is Saul Williams, the George Galloway of rap, and he starts with suitable humility but, as usual, quickly becomes a hammy hector, commanding the unfortunate titular hero to turn his back on all that lethal gaudy capitalism “turned away from the East,” ah yes, that’ll be the wise, consoling, inspiring East of Tiannamen Square, Indonesian business parks, endemic avian ‘flu and fatwas, if you wanted to be as crassly generalising as Mr Williams, and I hope you don’t, because then we get “Everything’s Under Control,” which sadly justifies its title, featuring those very 1998 characters Jon Spencer and Mike Ladd, and nice to see you chaps, hope you got paid for the gig, as they revive the good ole days of Rage Against The Machine, half-heartedly informing us that “Big Brother ain’t a TV show,” “Murdoch Pop look (sic) top for consumption,” “Vatican taps on the Texas Mafia,” and other things we didn’t already know, though I did catch that “hang on now” ad lib, or was it, at the end, and then we get Amiri Baraka (how did they get him?), though it may be a sampled Baraka, telling us he’s the Boogieman, and then everything he is and everything he’s not, as if Amiri Baraka were suddenly the new lead singer with the Arctic Monkeys, and wouldn’t that be an unlistenably novel thing if he were, but then there are curves and curlicues in young Alex which make me envisage a future Albarn, and then thinking that makes me re-realise that Dennis Hopper’s cameo on Demon Days is so much more elegant, so far more cutting, but then it cuts to “Aid Dealer” wherein Soweto Kinch proves that, as a rapper, he’s a great saxophonist, well a sort of David Gray to Dudu Pukwana’s Peter Hammill really, but anyway.

Then “This Island Earth” which rambles boringly like the Platinum Pied Pipers don’t (I’ve only just gotten around to listening to the Platinum Pied Pipers’ thrillingly askew album, evidence that sometimes even Gilles Peterson gets it right), that is until the halfway mark when singer Mpho Skeef suddenly dissolves into abstract ecstasy, cutting up giggles of “Hit me!” like Kelis hijacking Ian Dury, and then the mirrors sound a little deeper as the record veers towards its end, the ambling flaming lips of “Colours The Soul,” nice enough except when you’ve just been tickled into 57 pieces by Broken Social Scene, experimentation which makes you laugh and live, after all, this is our future lives we’re talking about here, and then the broken, sodden guitar of the titular closer (not that far from Closer, really) which stumbles in the mud until an orchestra majestically arises out of the burned glades, and it’s nice, even if only as a stopgap before the next Massive Attack record, so Sound Mirrors is half a sublime album, half an album sub-lime (as in: sticking far too close to its roots to flourish and colour), and at least it tells you that Coldcut still count, even if only their thumbs, and if I tell you that Xenomania are not on the shortlist for Best Producer(s) in the 2006 Brit Awards, then maybe we shouldn’t have so keen and so gradual to shake off Coldcut, because now we couldn’t even get away with the doped, diplomatic dipso rave of Underworld circa 1993, but fuck it let’s get away anyway.


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