Marking time

It is marking season at the university where I work. I love my job, but not this bit of it. I once wrote a song about it:

The unmarked essays pile high
I start to scan with dread
The words of those who cannot write
‘Bout books they have not read

To make the task more bearable, I listen to records. An LP by Gordon Lightfoot, the great Canadian singer songwriter, is on the turntable now. GL DQ

Don Quixote was released in 1972, and it is one of those albums they call “solid”. A critic opined: “The album contains little innovation on Lightfoot’s trademark folk sound”. Maybe so, but it is a good collection of songs, well performed and produced, and it is cheering my day. As a caffeine addict, I can particularly relate to this song.

I’m on my second cup of coffee and I still can’t face the day

Yup. Been there. Now, back to the marking.

Artist: Gordon Lightfoot

  • LP Title: Don Quixote
  • Side 2, Track 2: “Second Cup of Coffee”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Reprise
  • Catalogue: MS 2056
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1972

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Sun filtering though curtains

She was a southern belle with big hair and a husky voice, and for a short time she was the biggest thing in country music. Born in Mississippi in 1944 to dirt-poor farmers, Roberta Lee Streeter managed to get to college, where she studied philosophy and music. She was good at both, and adopting the stage name Bobbie Gentry, she had a smash hit in 1967 with the swamp-gothic story song “Ode to Billie Joe”.

Bobbie_Gentry_1970

Bobbie Gentry. Picture: NBC  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Later she went more mainstream, recording covers albums and duets with Glenn Campbell, hosted some fairly bland television shows, then retired from performing. But in between, she recorded an album, The Delta Sweete which was, writes Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, “her second record and her masterpiece: a multi-faceted quasi-concept album about Gentry’s Mississippi delta roots”.

I discovered this astonishing work via one of the singles released from it. The A-side is a vivacious version of the Doug Kershaw song “Louisiana Man”: Gentry’s take leaps out at the listener, fresh as a kicking catfish. But it is the B-side, “Courtyard” which dazzles, even on the scratchy disc I found. A Scots folk ballad meets Astral Weeks in a graveyard on a sticky summer’s day: understated, lovely, chilling.

Lynskey again:

most of The Delta Sweete‘s innovative, sophisticated sound is down to Gentry herself, who played piano, guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Swampy southern grooves mingle with the latest Nashville trends, blue-eyed soul [and] whispered intimations of psychedelia … each track blurs, dream-like, into the next … the earlier tracks chime with her public image as a husky, sensual southern belle but [elsewhere] her voice enters … like sun filtering though curtains.

And he is right. The LP sank with little trace at the time. This single peaked at 100 on the US charts, and did not even register elsewhere. The Planet Vinyl manifesto declares:

We are archaeologists of sound, at a dig. We value the pot shards and door knobs and belt buckles, and we sometimes find riches unimagined.

Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete is one of those.

“Louisiana Man”

“Courtyard”

  • Artist: Bobbie Gentry
  • Single Title: Louisiana Man
  • Tracks: A “Louisiana Man”; B “Courtyard”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: CP-8325
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

Show the bones

Back in the early 1980s, some seriously weird music came out of what was then West Germany. The spirit of surrealism, da-da and futurism thrived, especially in West Berlin, where rents were cheap and young men could dodge national service. So when you find a pop compilation record published in 1981, which has a cow on the cover, and the title Alles In Butter, you expect weird. And weird is what “Everything in Butter” (the title in English) delivers.

aib front covThe pickings are rich. Ina Deter Band, with “Ob Blond, Ob Braun, Ob Henna”? Recht Herzlich, and the majestic “Der Kleine Elefant”? Or someone called Markus, with the, err, incisive social commentary of “Ich Will Spaß” (I Want Fun)? But in the field of West German Weird, you can’t get past Trio.

Trio was into hyper-reductionist-minimalism. They took the name Trio, because there were three members. They argued that most popular songs were based on simple structures, and that this simplicity, usually concealed beneath ornate production, should be allowed to shine. Trio did for music was brutalism did for architecture: strip away artifice, lay bare the underlying structure. Show the bones. So, they kept it simple. During live shows, the drummer would keep the beat with one hand, while eating an apple held in the other.

Trio’s big hit was “Da da da, ich lieb dich nicht, du liebst mich nicht, aha aha aha”, better known as “Da da da”. But they were not a one-hyper-minimalist-hit wonder. They put out several LPs, and one of their tracks “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus” turns up on Alles in Butter. Subtle and elaborate? Not so much. But engagingly weird? Da.

  • Artist: Trio
  • LP Title: Alles In Butter (Various Artists)
  • Side 2, Track 2 “Anna – Lassmichrein Lassmichraus”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Polystar
  • Catalogue: 2475 572
  • Manufactured in: West Germany
  • Year: 1981

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

Mountain music

The things I know about Nepal can be put in dot points:

  • Mountains (generally, and one very big mountain in particular)
  • Sherpas (who help rich westerners climb said mountains)
  • Kathmandu (the city, not the clothing franchise)
  • A Maoist insurgency
  • Yaks

That’s about it.

640px-Bos_grunniens_at_Letdar_on_Annapurna_Circuit

Two of the things I know about Nepal. Image: travelwayoflifeFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Of the music of the people of Nepal, I had never heard any until this random op-shop LP came my way. In the 1970s, a man called Stefano Castelli visited Nepal with a microphone and tape recorder, and captured the music of the people of the mountains. I can learn nothing about Castelli, except that he was probably Italian (the LP was first issued in Italy). The LP does not have much in the way of notes, and I know nothing of the Nepali language (or, probably, languages).

Even so, the sounds Castelli recorded are fascinating, absorbing.

Some are obviously religious ceremonials. Others are folk songs, and even in a strange tongue you can tell that they are telling a story. It is one of these which I want to share. It is titled “Soldier’s Letter”.

The LP sleeve tells us nothing else: not even the name of the singer, or where or when it was recorded. So I’m just guessing, but to me it sounds as if the song is about a soldier writing home. Could be an ANZAC in France, or a GI in Vietnam, or a Roman soldier on Hadrian’s wall: the message is the same.  He is enduring danger and boredom and physical hardship, but worse than that is his yearning for home, for his wife and children. Will he ever see them again?

  • Artist: ‎Unknown (Field Recordings – Stefano Castelli)
  • LP Title: Folk Songs of Nepal
  • Track: A5 “Soldier’s Letter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Lyrichord
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Catalogue: LLST 7330
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1977)

Early-model Bieber

Paul Anka was a sort of early-model Justin Bieber. A Canadian-born singer who became a star at a young age, and was a bit of a honey.

Paul_Anka_1961

Paul Anka in 1961. Photo Wikimedia

This was his first big hit: a love song in which a young man expresses his undying devotion to a lady by the name of Diana. Lyrically, Shakespeare it ain’t:

Thrills I get when you hold me close
Oh, my darling, you’re the most

Hmm. Even the start: “I’m so young and you’re so old”. In my experience, telling a girl you fancy that she’s old is not a great plan. If untrue, she will be offended. If true, she will be offended …

Never mind, the song was a one of the biggest hits of all time – something like nine million copies were sold, which in 1957 was a staggering number.

Paul Anka, happily, seems to have avoided the personal tragedy which is often the lot of the teen star. He reinvented himself several times, and remained active as a performer and composer for  some fifty years. Among his credits are the lyrics to Frank Sinatra’s signature song, “My Way”. He is still with us, and well into his seventies he is still performing. This is a guy whose first recordings came out on 78 rpm. If Justin Bieber manages something similar sixty years from now,  he’ll be doing pretty well

  • Artist: Paul Anka
  • Single Title: Diana
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, mono
  • Label: W&G
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: WG-XPN 496
  • Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

The good old Futurist days

Synth-pop was new and exciting once. To appreciate the music of the High Eighties, you have to get the freshness, the sense of possibility opened up by synthesisers. Some of it was a bit thin, a bit tinny, but at its best it had an energy, a zip. One of its best practitioners was Vince Clarke.

You know his work, even if you don’t know his name. He was a keyboard wizard, with a magic touch which made synths sing. He was one half of Yazoo (“Only You”) and early on with Depeche Mode (“Just Can’t Get Enough”) and later teamed up with another singer, Andy Bell, to form Erasure.

0039 labelThe thing about Clark, he loved – true l’amour– analogue synthesisers. This was before they were fully digital beasts. To record them you had to link everything up with cables and control voltage (CV) gate switches, hard at any time but nigh impossible when different manufacturers were involved. Things got easier in 1983, when an industry-wide standard system, MIDI, was introduced. It is the mark of the near obsessive-compulsive nature of the true musician that while Clarke used MIDI, and very well, he disliked it.

CV and Gate is tighter. I can hear and feel that it’s tighter than MIDI … Because everything is clocked simply, it arrives bang on the beat. … I think that ‘feel’ has been lost with MIDI sequencers. No matter what you do with MIDI, the music will never sound as good as it did in the good old Futurist days.

Strange to feel nostalgia for a Roland MC4, but eccentricity and creativity are often partners. And the main thing: Vince put all his circuits and keyboards and cables together and made something fabulous. It is tight, it does arrive bang on the beat. This is one of Erasure’s hits. Have a listen.

  • Artist: Erasure
  • Single title: Oh L’Amour
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, stereo
  • Label: Mute
  • Catalogue: MUTE 3000
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986

 

 

Kali or an octopus

The uilleann pipes is a musical instrument of such extraordinary complexity it could only have been invented by the Irish.

pipesIt is related to the bagpipes, but you don’t blow into it. The uilleann pipes is inflated with a small set of bellows, strapped around the waist and the right arm. It has three sorts of pipe: the chanter (on which you play the melody) , drones, and also regulators. There are three of these (tenor, baritone and bass), and each one has a set of keys to play chords accompanying the melody. It is astonishing that this instrument can be played by anything short of the many-armed Indian god Kali. Or maybe an octopus.

2060 sleeve full

But played it is, and it is a beautiful instrument, quieter and more subtle than the bagpipes. Among the bands which kept is use alive was the Gallowglass Ceili Band, part of the Irish cultural revival. This track comes from an LP released in 1968, the same year as The Beatles’ “White Album” and the Stones’ Beggars Banquet. It was, in short, irredeemably square even at the time of its release. Just look at the bloke playing the pipes on the album sleeve.

2060 sleeve Pot-smoking flower child on the Summer of Love? Not so much.

Ah, but we respect all music here on Planet Vinyl, and we have a special place in our hearts for those dedicated souls who keep alive ancient traditions by playing impossible instruments. And Gallowglass could pump out a mighty tune. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Gallowglass Ceili Band
  • LP Title: Irish Night
  • Side 1, Track 4 “McDermott’s Reel”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, mono
  • Label: Hallmark
  • Catalogue number: Hallmark
  • Manufactured in: UK
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.