We need to tell the story again

The World at War was, when it was made in the early 1970s, the most expensive documentary series ever produced. Mixing archival footage and survivor interviews, in 26 episodes it told the story of the Second World War, skillfully shifting the focus between grand strategy and colossal battles, and the individual lives and experiences of combatants and civilians.

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The underlying drive behind making The World at War was that the lived experience of global conflict was fading. The producers wanted to capture the voices of those who had lived through the horror of death camps and carpet bombing and total war, so that the lessons of the tragedy might not be lost.

Right now, with the rise of Putin, Trump, Brexit and harsh intolerant nationalist governments from Poland to India, from France to Brazil – it seems we are forgetting those lessons again. Someone needs to reboot The World at War, update the effects and graphics, bring in some new and fresh material, and tell the story again.

I saw the series first as a boy, perhaps forty years ago. It made a big impression, not least because of the opening titles. They showed words being burned away, like the pages of a book being consumed in fire. The theme music – an original score by veteran screen composer Carl Davis – played over these images. It was perfect: beautiful, tragic, unsettling with its jumpy shifts in tempo. Here it is, taken from the LP released to accompany the series. Just listen!

  • Artist: Various artists
  • Album: The World At War
  • Track: A1 The World At War Theme (composed by Carl Davis, performed by the London Festival Orchestra)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: SPA 325
  • Year:  1973

The Fifth Beatle

If, like me, you grew up listening to the Beatles you may have wondered about the strange-sounding “piano-or-is-it-a-harpsichord” solo on the song “In My Life,” on the Rubber Soul album. It goes like this:

This was the work of the “Fifth Beatle,” George Martin, so called because of his work playing, producing and arranging many of the Beatles’ finest recordings. Both classically-trained and open-minded, Martin engineered subtle soundscapes which complemented and enhanced the band’s work, especially Paul McCartney’s melodies – including “In My Life”. Hunter Davies reveals the secret to that puzzling keyboard sound in his book The Beatles Lyrics (which I recommend as a fascinating insight into both song-writing generally and the Beatles canon in particular):

The music is greatly helped by what sounds like a harpsichord, tinkling away like a Bach minuet, giving it a classical timeless quality. This was George Martin, on a piano with the sound speeded up.

rubber soulHere is the solo, slowed down by 25% (very nearly the same as playing a 45rpm record at 33⅓), the speed at which it was originally played.

(Full disclosure: this processed segment was taken from a different, stereo release. This meant I could separate the piano from the other sounds, such as the drum track.)

Nice enough. Dignified. But it has nothing of the magic which the speeded-up version drops into the finished song. And here is the whole song – as released. The record has been bashed about a bit, but that is okay. It shows that someone once loved this LP, and played it over and over. Just listen.

  • Artist: The Beatles
  • Album: Rubber Soul
  • Track: B4 In My Life
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol-EMI
  • Made in: USA
  • Catalogue: T 2442
  • Year: 1965

Solitary bird in flight

There are times, here on Planet Vinyl, when inclusiveness is a challenge. Manuel’s syrupy strings. The testosterone-soaked roar of heavy metal. Not my thing, really – but all music is good music if it brings people joy, whether to millions of people or even only to the musician creating it. But yes, it is nice when the randomiser turns up something I love, and think the world should know about. I can just be the fanboy for a bit.

fiddleLong term readers already know that folk music, especially Irish and Scots folk, was my first love. Although I have broadened my horizons, Celtic folk still has a special place in my heart. One of the artists I most admired in my teens was Scottish fiddler and singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. It was his songs which first drew me in, but this LP, Fiddle, is almost entirely instrumental. It uses the fiddle to explore an extraordinary range of tempos and emotions. All the compositions are original, though many sit squarely in the folk tradition.

There is one track, The Ferry, on which MacLean sings. It is only for a few lines, towards the end of the piece, which itself is well into the second side.

The boatman is waiting to take me away
And these aching hands have worked me through another day

These quiet lyrics almost shock the listener, coming as they do without warning. It is masterful touch, and such subtlety and restraint are key to MacLean’s art.

But it another track that I want to share, The Osprey. It is the album’s opening track, and it is as beautiful an evocation of a solitary bird in flight as I know.

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The osprey became extinct in Britain in 1916, but has since been reintroduced. The bird’s main stronghold is the Scottish highlands. Image: Earth Times

Dougie is still with us, so if you like what you hear I urge you to visit his website, where this and a dozen other records can be purchased. But first, just listen!

  • Artist: Dougie MacLean
  • Album: Fiddle
  • Track: A1 The Osprey
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dunkeld
  • Made in: Scotland
  • Catalogue: DUN004
  • Year: 1984

Bong-smoking skeleton rides motorbike

The magic and mystery of heavy metal is somewhat of a closed book to me. That the musicians are skilled is not in question, and their fans are models of admirable loyalty. But the merch? Not for me, that whole “black tee-shirt with a picture of a bong-smoking skeleton riding a motorbike across a desert which is also the body of a tanned Amazon warrior in a metal bikini” look.

Mens-Funny-T-Shirt-Darth-Vader-Heavy-Metal-Designer-T-Shirts-Short-Sleeve-Cotton-Tee-Shirts.jpg_640x640And a lot of metal lacks, to my ears, light and shade. Often enough it is just pitch-black, from screaming beginning to screaming end.

But I have met and chatted to pleasant and cultured people wearing the black tees, and they are not the perpetual adolescents the art-work might suggest. Their passion for and appreciation of the music is real. What is more, metal fans put their money where their pierced tongues are.

This record is a seriously obscure early release by a Melbourne, Australia, band Virgin Soldiers. It was put out by a label called Metal for Melbourne (their fourth, and last, release). It is also seriously metal: the two sides are labelled Metal A and Metal B. There are people who love it – enough that a Netherlands outfit put out a bootleg CD in 2008.

Someone in Japan bought it from me for A$50, plus postage. Looking at what the record is selling for now (A$130+) I let it go pretty cheaply, but that is fine. I am glad the record has gone to a home where it will be played and loved.

This is “Metal A”, track 1, a song which the same name as the band, “Virgin Soldiers”. (Which came first?) More than many metal tracks, there is light and shade. The band is tight, the production excellent. I won’t be buying the black tee with the skeleton anytime soon, but I can agree that for what it is, it is genuinely good.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Virgin Soldiers
  • Album: Watching The World
  • Track: Metal A, Track 1 “Virgin Soldiers”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Metal for Melbourne
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: M4MLP0004
  • Year: 1990

Up-tempo Dutch cowboy swing

Here on Plant Vinyl, we love weird. The strange and the unexpected, the bizarre find at the bottom of the crate of LPs. And De Chico’s – a Dutch trio formed in 1947 – well, they raise weird to new heights.

The Dutch-language Wikipedia page describes De Chico’s “een hillbilly-trio uit Amsterdam”. Which sounds dreadful. Cowboy pastiche, wearing clogs.

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De Chico’s. Image: Discogs

And yes, there is a bit of that. Harmless hollerin’ fun like this:

But here’s the thing. Yes, it is tacky, but behind the rootin’ tootin’ farce, isn’t the music, well, good? Something like the Andrews Sisters. Only singing cowboy songs. In Dutch.

They had an early hit with “Koel Helder Water”, which is, yes, a Dutch language version of the Hank Williams’ classic, “Cool Water”.

Better, I reckon, is ‘Domme Cowboy, Wat Heb Je Gedaan’ (roughly idiot cowboy, what have you done?). If you have to label the genre, this is up-tempo Dutch cowboy swing. Yep, weird. But it’s great. Just listen!

  • Artist: De Chico’s
  • Album: Koel Helder Water (compilation)
  • Tracks: A1 Koel Helder Water (Cool Water), A3 Domme Cowboy, Wat Heb Je Gedaan
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: MFP
  • Made in: Netherlands
  • Catalogue: MFP 5089
  • Year: 1970

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

Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

black miners

Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and more than one thousand others, are for sale via Discogs

A hint of Latin Lover

To most of the Anglophone world, the name Manuel evokes the harried Spanish waiter who had the misfortune to work at Fawlty Towers. But before John Cleese created Basil Fawlty, Manuel must have been a bit exotic, a name with a hint of the Latin Lover about it. How else to explain an act called “Manuel and the Music of the Mountains”? This Manuel was an extraordinarily successful band leader and orchestral arranger from the 1950s on.

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Wrong Manuel.

It is no surprise to learn that Manuel was actually a Yorkshire lad, born in Todmorden, a small town near Manchester. His real name? Geoff Love. And no, “Geoff and the Tunes of Todmorden” doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But here’s the thing: Geoff Love’s story was more interesting than “Manuel’s” could ever be.

He was born in 1917, the child of a black American father and his English wife. Think about that for a moment. Imagine growing up in Yorkshire as a mixed-race child in the 1920s.  Love left school at the age of 15, and worked as a mechanic – but he also played trombone, well enough that he become a professional musician, working the dance-hall circuit. After serving in the war, he studied orchestration and became a successful arranger working for major record labels. He arranged major works for Frankie Vaughn and Shirley Bassey, not to mention Laurie London’s version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, which topped the US charts in 1957.

geoff love

Geoff Love. Image: Todmorden News

Again, remember that this is a black guy, and this is the 1950s.

So, Geoff Love’s success is an amazing story. Under the moniker of Manuel and the Music of the Mountains, he pumped out dozens of records. Many of them sold in the millions: he had one platinum and fifteen gold records.

Obviously, a lot of people loved what he did.

I have to admit it. I am not one of them. I have listened, with open ears, and it just not my cup of decaf cinnamon chai-latte. There is something about the way the string section often takes up the melody line, filling the aural space usually occupied by a singer, which grates. But that is only me, and millions of people think otherwise. Here is Manuel’s take on the Latin jazz standard “Perfidia”. Just listen.

  • Artist: Manuel And The Music Of The Mountains,
  • Album: Ecstasy
  • Track: B1 Perfidia
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: S/5246
  • Year: 1972

Many of the records discussed on this blog, along with more than 1000 other titles, are for sale on Discogs.