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

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.

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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.

bbc1

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.

Tough love

The Beatles throw a long shadow, such that other parts of the rich musical tradition of Liverpool can get a bit lost. Like many other ports and industrial centres, Liverpool drew waves of migrants in search of work. Each community brought their own music, and the result was a melting pot of influences from all over Britain and Ireland and beyond. This is not to gloss over the poverty, discrimination and sheer hard grind Scousers often faced, but there was creativity, solidarity and humour as well.

spinners guardian

The Spinners. Image: The Guardian

One face of Liverpool as the Singing City was the Spinners, a folk group (not to be confused with the Detroit soul outfit of the same name) which formed in 1958. The Spinners became a fixture on the folk scene, and then took their music to wider audiences. Their repertoire was a mix of their own original material, traditional songs, and the work of other songwriters. This is one, “Liverpool Lullaby”, written by fellow Scouser, Stan Kelly-Bootle. It is a song of tough love, and is funny, dark and tender, all at the same time.

Just listen.

  • Artist: The Spinners
  • Album: The Singing City
  • Track: B1 Liverpool Lullaby
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Philips
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: 6382 002
  • Year: Unknown (early 1970s?)

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

 

 

 

 

 

When the boat comes in

If you were around in the 1970s you are likely to remember When the Boat Comes In, a television drama set in a working-class British town in the years after the First World War. It was a drama about disillusion. The men who returned from “the war to end all wars” struggled to deal with their personal trauma, and the poverty and injustice they faced as workers.

wtbci

James Bolam and Susan Jameson in the TV series When The Boat Comes In, 1976. Image: Newcastle Chronicle

The theme to the show, “Dance Ti Thi Daddy”, became an unlikely hit. A traditional song from the Newcastle region, it is a bold and skillfully executed piece of music – a semi-funny, semi-dark traditional song, sung in full Geordie, with an ingenious arrangement, incorporating the sounds of a brass “works band”. It is wonderful.

The singer was a man called Alex Glasgow. I didn’t even know the name, though I remember the song well. A native of Newcastle-on-Tyne, he absorbed the musical heritage of that city: a mix of music-hall comedy, folk traditions, union songs, church music, and pub singalongs. Glasgow was a singer and songwriter of great versatility, and his music drew from all those sources. He was a political man: a working-class warrior. But what is most impressive is the maturity and depth of his songs. He was on the side of the union, but he was awake to the bullshit that unionists and progressives often spin.

“I Shall Cry Again” is a lament, sharp-edged and honest, of a true believer whose beliefs are being tested. Just listen.

  • Artist: Alex Glasgow
  • Album: Now & Then: Tyneside Songs Old & New
  • Tracks: A1 Dance Ti Thi Daddy; B5 I Shall Cry Again
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label:    MWM Records
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: MWM 1011
  • Year: 1976

C-grade Christian

Johnny Cash sometimes described himself as a “C+ Christian”. Robert Hilburn, in his wonderful biography of Cash, observes:

Most thought this American icon was just being humble. To those who’d been close to him at various points, it appeared he was being a bit generous with his evaluation. But there was  no question Cash believed. He wasn’t using his religion as commercial strategy.

Cash was a flawed man, and he knew it. His honesty about those flaws were part of his greatness. He made a gospel song, even one which was perhaps a bit twee, meaningful precisely because of that.

Cash ISAMThis is one of those songs. The arrangement could be better. No need for the backing vocals! Simple, spare would suit the song. But Cash’s voice carries it. It is the voice of a common sinner, the C-grade Christian, asking for forgiveness. Again.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Johnny Cash
  • Album: Hymns of Gold (compilation of various artists)
  • Track: B1 “I Saw A Man”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: K-Tel
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: NA451
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1975). Song recorded 1958.