Torching the organ

Back in the day, there were things called Cinema Organs. They were behemoths, monsters, with rows and rows of keys. They could make all manner of sounds besides a pipe note. You know the expression “all the bells and whistles”? That came from these organs: the biggest and most expensive models had extra pipes which, at the press of a key, rang bells, blew whistles and made a dozen other sounds.

Sidney-Torch

Sydney Torch at the mighty Christie organ.

The most famous Cinema Organ was the Wurlitzer, but its main competitor – the one you are about to hear – was the Christie. It was the size of a car, and weighed four tons.

In the 1930s, the best Cinema Organists were stars. People would go to a big cinema as much for the musical interludes as the movie program. One of these stars was Sidney Torch. He was a pianist by training, and his lack of experience with the organ is credited for the way he broke all the rules, and played the organ in ways that had never been done before, adapting it to play ragtime and jazz.

On this track, “Orient Express”, Torch uses the organ to imitate the sound of a powerful locomotive, then works in some vaguely eastern tunes to suggest a frantic ride through the Alps. It is pure showmanship. Imagine it, playing at volume on a great Mitchell, rising from the theatre floor in a cloud of dry ice – man, that would have been fun. Just listen!

  • Artist: Sidney Torch
  • Album title: Sidney Torch at the Organ
  • Track: A7 Orient Express
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: R-06209
  • Year: c.1977 (recorded 1935)

 

Straight into overdrive

There are not many gears in the musical sub-genre of Surf Guitar. It is straight into overdrive, every time. There are no Surf Guitar tracks called “Moonlight Gently Touches Lapping Waters”.  But it is a musical form which has no pretence, and at its best it is fun, exciting music.

I have never learned to surf. I would like to, and I live near some famous surf beaches. Back when I was a teenager, surfers (we usually called them “surfies” or “skegs”) were vaguely disreputable, associated with bad language, dope smoking, and living off unemployment benefits. But that was not why I did not learn to surf. No, it was really just the fear of looking silly: falling off the board, or not even being able to stand up in the first place.

dick dale 2I grew up in a stupid culture of “can or can’t”. There were people who “could sing”, and people who “couldn’t sing”. The same divide applied to drawing, playing an instrument, success with girls, playing cricket – everything, really. The idea that you could try, learn, get better, didn’t really enter into it.

Me? I was good at school, was into music, could write poetry, and look moody. So I did those things, and didn’t try much else – all the stuff I “couldn’t do”. Far better, in this toxic worldview, to stand at the back of the hall looking aloof than to dance and  risk looking silly.

I am less self-conscious these days. I even swallowed my pride and took adult swimming lessons a while back. So, when the right time comes, I will take some lessons and catch some waves, and if I fall off and get water up my nose, who cares?

Surf Guitar was invented in the early 1960s, the key figure being Dick Dale and his band the Del-Tones. Decades later, around the time I didn’t have the nerve to try surfing, Dale teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan and recorded a reprise of an old hit, “Pipeline”.

And when I catch my modest wave, and wobble awkwardly into the shore, this is the soundtrack I want. Just listen!

  • Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan And Dick Dale
  • LP title: Back to the Beach (film soundtrack, various artists)
  • Track: A2, Pipeline
  • Label: Columbia
  • Catalogue: CK 40892
  • Made in: United States
  • Year: 1987

Many of the records discussed in this blog, along with hundreds or others, are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

 

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.

world-at-war-1973-74-opening-credits

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.

sat-nav-ospreys-tracked-scotland-destination-africa_318

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

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