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.


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

Those Rambunctious Monkees

They are the Pinocchio of pop music, The Monkees. The four members were brought together by the producer of a television show. They were hired as actors, to play the roles of members of a fictional band. The show, and the music in it, became enormously popular. In the late 1960s they were seriously likened to The Beatles. Some wit dubbed them “the Pre-Fab Four”.


Image: TV/Tropes

Pinocchio-like, there was some deceit involved. In the first two albums credited to The Monkees, the members of the “band” did not actually play the music – they sang the vocal tracks, but that was all. They wanted to play, but weren’t allowed to. That came later – this artificial creation, this made-up pop group, won artistic control.

Pinocchio-like, they were transformed into a real band.

You can understand why The Monkees wanted to be free, but their early, semi-artificial records stand up well. Okay, mostly. Hearing Davey Jones reciting sentimental poetry is like being having luke-warm treacle poured over your head. Twenty seconds gives you the picture …

But mostly, it is great – bouncy pop, with the odd harder rocker and some hints of musical theatre. Here is a fun track from their second LP, all about the complexities caused when the object of your affections has, annoyingly, a family.

  • Artist: The Monkees
  • Album title: More of the Monkees
  • Tracks: B3 The Day We Fall In Love (extract); A5 Your Auntie Grizelda
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: COS 102
  • Year: 1967

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



Flavoursome creamy goodness

I was born too late, but I would have loved to have done the voice-overs for the old newsreels. You know the kind of thing: we see grainy footage of Lancaster bombers taking off, while a slightly posh, nasal, monotone voice intones “The brave boys of the RAF take to the air, off to give Jerry a packet. You won’t be getting much sleep tonight, Mr Hitler!”

2082Sometimes these soundtracks turn up on disc, and this is one of them. It is the voice-over which was played to accompany a six-minute film promoting a brand of butter, Western Star, in about 1962. Western Star was then, and is still, an iconic brand in this part of the world.butter

The butter, I’m happy to say, is genuinely excellent. Sadly, I can’t eat butter any more – cholesterol issues, weight, all that drab stuff which comes with middle age. But tell you what, listening to this makes me want to rush out and buy a pound of “flavoursome creamy goodness” and whip up a sponge cake.

  • Artist: Western District Co-operative Co. Ltd.
  • LP Title: Western Star Butter
  • Format: 12” acetate LP, 33⅓ rpm, mono
  • Label: Audio Visual Australia
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: c. 1962

Many of the records featured on this blog are for sale via Discogs


He of the coon-skin cap

Before podcasts, before CDs, even before cassette tapes, there were read-along records. These were usually 7-inch discs, and they came in a sleeve at the back of a reader. You would read the book, while listening to the record.

They always started like this:

Often the first side would end like this:

Sometimes it was just a story. Sometimes there was a song as well, as on this Disney disc, which was all about Davy Crockett, he of the coon-skin cap.6014 label croppedThe King of the Wild Frontier, they called him, which is a bit of an odd title when you think about it. A wild frontier doesn’t have a king. If it did, it wouldn’t be wild or a frontier; it would be a settled monarchy. But let that pass.

The story side is a bit lame, but the song is good. “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” was the theme to the TV show about the K of the WF. It is performed by The Wellingtons who, I discovered, were a real band. They also recorded the theme to Gilligan’s Island, were back-up band to Jan and Dean, and toured with The Supremes and Stevie Wonder. In short, they could play.

This song is lyrically a tad trite, but for a theme song to a kids’ TV series, it goes well.

  • Artist: The Wellingtons
  • EP Title: Walt Disney’s Story Of Davy Crockett
  • Track: Side B “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”
  • Format: 7”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Disney, 360
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1971

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



A western, and sad

We did not have a television at home when I was a boy. This was the 1970s, when TVs had become pretty much universal in Australia, but my Mum and Dad did not approve of this trend. Although I didn’t like it at the time I am grateful for their non-conformity now. Much of my love of music and literature stems from reading, listening to the radio and to records.

Another good thing about not having a television was that when there was something on which we wanted to watch, we would go to someone’s house, and visit and have dinner and watch it together – it was a social experience, a bit of an event.


Elvis. This was before he invented the deep-fried peanut butter sandwich

One of the first films I can remember seeing on a colour television (which, young ‘uns, only came to Australia in 1976) was an Elvis Presley film, a western called Flaming Star. There are a lot of seriously dreadful Elvis movies, but this was one of the good ones. I remember little about it except that it was a western and sad, and that it had a wonderful theme. My recollection is that the music crops up in fragmentary form repeatedly in the film, and then plays in full over the closing credits.

This track was originally released in 1960, soon after the movie. It was only a modest hit, and is more-or-less forgotten. I found it on a rather tacky compilation, Elvis in Hollywood. It is buried among much more famous numbers, like “Viva Las Vegas” and “Rock-a-Hula Baby”, and I suspect “Flaming Star” only got included because it fit the album’s concept. For mine, though, it is the standout. It is a sad, poignant song about mortality, a young man fearing he will die before his time. The sombre song is in tension with the up-tempo, almost jaunty arrangement, but somehow the mix works.

Elvis Presley is one of those artists whose myth is so gargantuan, so ridiculously overblown, that it obscures his art. Tracks like this help us understand what all the fuss was about.

  •    Artist: Elvis Presley
  •    LP Title: Elvis in Hollywood
  •    Side 2, Track 3: “Flaming Star”
  •    Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  •    Label: RCA ‎– VPL1 7130
  •    Manufactured in: Australia
  •    Year: 1976 (original release 1960)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Most are only a few dollars, and I am open to offers.

Winter is coming

When I was a teenager, I sort-of-learned to play the flute. I never got very good at it, because I rarely practiced. My feeling after each lesson, as I packed the flute into its brown plastic case, and the case into my school bag, and began the long journey home (two buses and over an hour) was  relief. Thank God, that’s over for the week.

Here’s the thing. I never chose to play the flute. I had not shown an interest in it, or asked for the chance to learn. It was decided for me that I should do so. At home, encouragement and involvement in my musical journey consisted of quarterly complaints about the cost of lessons.

It wasn’t my teacher’s fault – he was kind, and patient. His name was Tony. Nice guy; loved jazz, played trombone in a big band. The problem was that at a basic level I just didn’t get it. I regarded Music in the same way as I regarded Applied Physics: something which I had to do, and at which I might fail. I approached Music as an extra subject, requiring extra homework, which had been forced on me. ww conducts shakes

Tony tried. He asked out what music I enjoyed, hoping (I see now) that the joy, the engagement, would come. He even, after I gave him a recording of it, listened to and transcribed this tune.

The record it comes from is a collection of the music which William Walton scored for three different films, all starring Laurence Olivier and all adaptations of Shakespeare. One is Olivier’s 1955 film Richard III. There is a scene early on, when a medieval band strikes up a cheerful tune to celebrate the coronation of King Henry IV, and (as everyone hopes) the end of the long English civil war, known to history as the Wars of the Roses, and to millions today as roughly the plot of Game of Thrones. Think of Henry IV as Robert Baratheon, and you are on then right track.

The music is playing. Richard, currently Duke of Gloucester but already planning to murder his way to the throne, walks away from the coronation. A door closes and the music is – not cut off, but grows faint. And Richard begins his monologue: “Now is the winter of our discontent …”

The joy of the coronation, we realize, can’t last. Winter is coming.

You don’t hear the cinematic effect of the door closing in this version, which is an extract from the ten-minute “Richard III: A Shakespeare Suite” – you just get to enjoy the thing for what it is.

Thank you, Tony, for going way beyond the call of duty, transcribing this tune for me to learn on the flute. I did have a go at playing it, but never got very good. It wasn’t your fault. At that time, I just was not able to enjoy the thing – playing music – for what it is.

  • Artist: Sir William Walton conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra
  • LP Title: Sir William Walton Conducts His Great Film Music (Henry V / Hamlet / Richard III)
  • Track: Extract from Side 1, Track 2 “Richard III: A Shakespeare Suite”
  • Format: 12” 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Seraphim S-60205
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: Unknown

This record is one of hundreds of titles for sale on Discogs

Screen time

We are an extremely visual culture, and becoming more so. As images and video becomes easier and easier to create and manipulate, and as screens become better and lighter and more portable, our ability to just read, or just listen, gradually erodes. I teach at a university, and it is a constant battle to keep students’ interest and attention. In lectures I prepare well, mix it up, use short video clips, images, use a few, well-chosen words – but it is hard work. One upside: the annoying students who used to talk up in the back rows are now sending texts to each other, so at least they are not disruptive.

The visual culture has two paradoxical outcomes.

While we are always looking for new and exciting images, our taste in music becomes more and more conservative. That is why commercial radio is such a wasteland of hits’n’memories. When was the last time you heard something on commercial radio which:

  1. you had not heard a hundred times before, and
  2. didn’t sound pretty much the same as the song before and the song after?singing detective

The other paradox is happier. If you create something visually arresting, while the eye is engaged, you can smuggle much more interesting sounds into the ear. People who would resist with violence if asked to listen to a bluegrass compilation will happily watch Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Ditto an album of contemporary classical music, and Game of Thrones. That is why much of the best and most innovative music of our time comes attached to some sort of screen production.

I love soundtrack albums for this reason. You never know quite what you will get. They are a great way to explore and discover music you would not otherwise hear. In the best cases, the music becomes almost a character in the film, evocative of mood and place. The Singing Detective, a BBC mini-series written by Dennis Potter and released in 1986 is as fine an example as any. The pop music of the 1940s becomes part of a dreamscape of a sick man, memories of his wartime childhood interweaving with fantasies of noir detective fiction.

The soundtrack album is wonderful, an extraordinary compilation of the music of the era. There are tracks by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters and a dozen more artists, but the track I have chosen to share is by someone I had never heard of before, Anne Shelton. She was a British blues singer with real talent, who became enormously popular with servicemen. “Blues in the Night” was one of her hits, and originally released in 1942.

  • Artist: Various Artists
  • LP Title: The Singing Detective: Music From The BBC-TV Serial
  • Side 1, Track 3: Anne Shelton “Blues In The Night” (recorded 1942)
  • Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: BBC REN 608
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986