A cheery song about nitro-glycerine

The Guns of Navarone was a movie which came out in 1961. It’s a stirring tale of derring-do, set in the Greek Islands during the Second World War. A small team of commandos blow up the eponymous guns, so that the Royal Navy can rescue stranded British troops. It is a great action adventure, and the film was a huge success. And it had a theme, which played while the final credits rolled.

GunsofNavaroneHere on Planet Vinyl, there is no such thing as bad music. There are, however, bad lyrics, and these are Herculean in their silliness. A literal-minded person armed with a rhyming dictionary basically summarises the plot. We learn that thousands of soldiers are trapped. So:

Now is the problem how to rescue them
From a crushing defeat
When high on the cliffs
The Guns Of Navarone blocks His Majesty’s Fleet

So in the face of odds impossible
Secret saboteurs in a fisherman’s skiff
Headed for the cliff.

After some extolling of the bravery of said saboteurs, we hear how:

Come from the sea with nitro glycerine,
Nitro glycerine and a ladder of rope
And a thing called hope.
Six flies climb the Nazi spider web,
Carefully set the charge and the fuse,
So little time to lose

Brother.

But, here’s the thing. It’s a good tune. And in Jamaica, they know a good tune, mon. A Kingston ska band, The Skatalites, turned “The Guns of Navarone” into a wonderful dance number. The tune entered the reggae repertoire, and many other fine bands have recorded versions, including The Specials – a politically radical UK band which made it into a protest song, about as far removed from the Dunkirk Spirit patriotism of the original as it is possible to imagine.

Check out the ska versions linked above, but first, listen to what they were inspired by. The capacity of music to morph, and of the human spirit to rework and reinvent, never ceases to amaze.

  • Artist: Mitch Miller and The Gang
  • Single title: The Guns of Navarone
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, mono
  • Label: Coronet
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: KS-468
  • Year: 1961

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

 

Hear the real Maria

Sound of Music tragics, of whom there are many, will tell you that there is a scene early on in the film in which Maria, played by Julie Andrews, passes through an archway, and you see an old lady in the background. That, so I have heard, is the real Maria von Trapp. A fellow blogger has gone to the trouble of capturing the frame – thank you!

real maria

In a strange way, The Sound of Music is a bit like Macbeth. A piece of theatre is based on real people. The show is a huge success, such that the real people fade, are forever seen through the lens of the fiction. You can forget there really was a king of Scotland called Macbeth, and he never said “Is this a dagger I see before me?”. You can forget that there really was a Trapp family, and that they became refugees who managed to make a living from their music.

The Trapp Family Choir sang and played complex interwoven harmonies, mostly arrangements of traditional German songs. Like in the musical? Not really. There is a hint of similarity, here and there. Rogers and Hammerstein clearly took some songs as starting ideas. “Wohlauf ihr lieben Gaste (Now Then, Dear Guests)”, is a party wind-up song, and identifiable as the distant ancestor of “So Long, Farewell”.

This track was one of a dozen the Trapp family recorded in December 1938, not long after they had left Austria. It is a traditional Christmas song, “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”, which means roughly “Mary Walked through a Thorny Wood”. The family must have felt they were in a thorny wood of their own. A rousing show tune it ain’t, but the singing is quite lovely. Forget what you know, and listen to the real Maria.

  • Artist: The Trapp Family Choir
  • LP Title: The Sound of Folk Music of Many Lands
  • Track: A2 “Maria Durch Ein Dornwald Ging”
  • Label: RCA Camden
  • Catalogue: CAS-904
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1965 (song recorded 22 Dec 1938).

 

Christmas on the lost island of Acetate

There is no more mysterious place on Planet Vinyl than the lost island of Acetate. The good people of Wikipedia explain why:

Unlike ordinary vinyl records, which are quickly formed from lumps of plastic by a mass-production molding process, a so-called acetate disc is created by using a recording lathe to cut an audio-signal-modulated groove into the surface of a special lacquer-coated blank disc, a real-time operation requiring expensive, delicate equipment and expert skill for good results. They are made for special purposes, almost never for sale to the general public.

2210So it is exciting when one turns up: the lacquer is a glistening black, you can see the metal underneath, both in the centre hole and in the extra holes which were used to clamp the disc to the lathe, and the label tells you little, or nothing. This record, for example. Audex Royal is not a record label, just the company which manufactured acetate discs.use-light-pick-up

One clue: a note on the battered paper sleeve instructs “use light pick-up”. This warning was only necessary when people were playing both old gramophone records and the new vinyl: the late 1950s.

Beyond that, there is just the sound. It is a recording of a church choir, singing mostly Christmas carols. It is not a big choir, and although they are quite good there is nothing of the professional about them. The accompaniment is a single piano. No organ, and the ambient sound suggests a wooden hall, rather than a stone church or a studio. The voices are Australian, but there is a hint of some Welsh in there as well. I am guessing a dissenting Protestant suburban church choir.

Who knows? Still as it is Christmas let’s give them a spin. They do some standards  but this track is a carol which was new to me. With no track list, it took some hunting to work out the details, but the song is “Dear nightingale, awake!”. This was an English adaptation  of a traditional Austrian carol, and the sheet music for it was published in Australia in 1956. Apart from that, all we can say is that it is Christmas on the lost island of Acetate.

  • Artist: ‎Unknown
  • LP Title: Unknown
  • Track: “Dear nightingale, awake!”
  • Format: 12” acetate aluminium disc, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Unknown
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: None
  • Year: Unknown

Going to movies alone

I saw the film An Angel at My Table at a difficult time in my life.

I was very young, and working as a journalist on a daily paper. It was a stressful and high pressure job with a boozy workplace culture. The killer was the shiftwork. You could be rostered to start work at any time from 5am to 6pm, and the two days off you got each week were usually not consecutive, and which days you got varied all the time. You couldn’t really do anything which required a regular commitment. Playing a sport, doing yoga, taking music lessons, even just seeing a group of friends regularly – all the things that bring stability and joy into life, they become almost impossible.

angel 2

An Angel at My Table, dir. Jane Campion, 1990

There are people who can cope with this; I am not one of them. I quickly got into a downward spiral: exhaustion, anxiety, depression. A bad time, but one of the better things I did trying to make this strange existence work was to go to the cinema during the day. It is a little strange going to a movie alone, but I came to enjoy it. I could go to anything, and if it turned out to be a turkey I didn’t feel responsible to another person.

Jane Campion is a New Zealander, now famous as a film director, especially for The Piano. But in 1990, she was only small-big, known among arty types for darkly humorous films with a touch of magic realism. An Angel at My Table was completely different, a long film about the life of New Zealand author Janet Frame. I have mentioned in another post how film soundtracks can open our minds to diverse music, and that was the case here. There is a lovely original score, but it is interspersed with other music, from Schubert lieder to early rock’n’roll, to this song.7020 sleeve

“Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)” is a farewell, in the Maori language, first sung in 1915 to farewell troops sailing off to the First World War. This version is not the one used in the film, but it is so similar that I had to check. It is the work of the choir of a Catholic school, St Joseph’s Maori Girls College, and comes from an EP they recorded in 1962.

It is only short, but it is a beautiful piece of harmony singing, and it lifted my heart on a grim day in 1990 and it still does now.

  • Artist: St Joseph’s Maori Girls College
  • EP Title: Maori Love Songs
  • Side 2, Track 3: “Po Ata Rau (Now Is The Hour)”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Viking VT62
  • Manufactured in: New Zealand
  • Year: 1962

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