The cliché about books and covers applies double to recorded music. Some LP sleeves, especially those produced by little independent folk labels, take gauche, add extra gauche, then multiply by the number you first thought of. The music may be brilliant; it’s just that the graphic design was entrusted to the bass player’s second cousin, who is doing Year 8 photography.
The pic is like a snap of the dorky uncles gathered at Christmas lunch. Anything would have been better. A blueprint pinched from an old guide to making banjos, or just the band’s name in nice clean letters.
Ah, but the whole point of Planet Vinyl is to ignore the visual.
I had never heard of the Champion String Band, though I love folk. Their one self-titled LP was released on an obscure provincial English label from Newcastle, 35 years ago. The cover is a shocker. But who cares about that? The only thing which matters: can the dorky uncles actually play? Oh yes they can. Listen to this set of three tunes, and the combination of fiddle and rhythm guitar.
Close your eyes, open your ears.
Artist: The Champion String Band
LP Title: Champion String Band
Track: Side 1, Track 1 “Lady Rothes / General Garibaldi / The Champion Hornpipe”
Do they still have elevator music in elevators? I live in a provincial town. In my workplace there are few lifts (which is what we call elevators in Australia) and anyway I usually take the stairs. But when I do go to the big smoke and catch a lift in an office tower, there is no music. Silence, and the faint hum of (hopefully reliable) machinery, reigns.
This is a welcome change. When you caught a lift, not so long ago, they would inflict on the passengers what, even in Australia, was called “elevator music”. This is the sort of thing I mean.
That was Wout Steenhuis and Peter Schilperoort with their take on Procal Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”.
Now, I mean absolutely no offense here. On Planet Vinyl we believe that it is always a good thing that people make music, and if they can get paid for it, so much the better. Wout and Peter were both Dutch musicians, jazz instrumentalists. Making a living from jazz in post-war Holland cannot have been easy, and if recording this sort of thing helped pay the bills, I have no problem with that. The Planet Vinyl rule is to just listen, with an open mind. But you only have to do it once. And I honestly don’t want to hear this track again.
But there is elevator music, and elevator music.
The track from Steenhuis and Schilperoort comes from one of the samplers which many labels produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hoping to persuade listeners to upgrade to stereo. Stereo Galaxy, it was modestly titled, and promised “A New World of Quality Sound”. Fitting the space theme, the opening track is a version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, the brass-and-kettle-drum fiesta by Richard Strauss, which had been adopted as the theme to the movie 2001 – A Space Odyssey. But the record quickly settles down – well, into elevator music. Tightly-played, over-sweet arrangements of well-known tunes.
But while riding the Stereo Galaxy elevator, one track stood out for me. Elevator music, yes, but … There was “a certain something”. Faint praise given the competition, but still. It stood out. There was something there.
And so I have discovered the Hawaiian music of Basil Henriques. If that does not sound a particularly Hawaiian name, you are onto something – Baz did not hail from Hawaii. He was an Englishman, who fell in love with the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar as a teenager. Henriques became small-big, playing regularly with a group called the Waikiki Islanders (none of whom came from Waikiki) at a nightclub in Birmingham, which was called (not making this up) Kastaways. Band photographs of the Waikiki Islanders show them, shivering and white, in kitsch Hawaiian outfits.
But music is the universal language. It crosses cultures and times. And the spirit of music will out.
Basil, the pale lad from Birmingham, could play, really play, the Hawaiian pedal steel guitar. This guitar is the uilleann pipes of string instruments – demanding to the point of insanity. Henriques mastered it, and went on to teach and inspire others, such that he was formally nominated for inclusion in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, a most unusual thing for someone not from Hawaii. He has not yet been included, but that serious steel peddlers think he deserves to be considered in the company of Sol Hoʻopiʻi is high praise indeed.
I doubt that this track is Henriques’ best work – its is flattened out to fit into the elevator – but there is musicianship there that shines. If I was to be stuck in a lift, this is the music I would like to listen to.
Artist: Basil Henriques
LP Title: Stereo Galaxy: A New World Of Quality Sound (Various Artists)
Track: Side 1 Track 3 “My Cherie Amour”
Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
Label: MFP 50004
Manufactured in: Great Britain
This record, and hundreds of others, is for sale on Discogs.
I live in Australia. Here we think of Hawaii, if we think of it at all, as a set of clichés. Big waves, hula dancing, colourful shirts – oh, and pineapples. I don’t know if they have them anywhere else, but in Australia you can order a thing called the Hawaiian pizza. This is basically a capricciosa with the addition of diced, tinned pineapple. There are worse things to put on a pizza, but I can’t think of them off the top of my head.
Do not judge a nation by the pizza named after it
But you shouldn’t judge a country by the pizza named after it. I hope not, anyway – there is a thing called “the Aussie pizza” which I can’t even bare to describe. Eggs are involved.
Anyway, beneath the kitsch, Hawaii is a fascinating place, an amazing melting pot of cultures with a rich musical tradition. As is true in a lot of places, it was the people at the bottom of the social pile – native Hawaiians and immigrant labourers from China and India – who were the innovators.
Lots of great music came out of Hawaii in the 1920s and 1930s, which is pretty amazing when you think about it. The place didn’t have a big population, it was under American control but not yet properly part of the United States – that happened in 1959 – and it is thousands of miles from anywhere else. A big player in this cultural flowering was Sol Ho’opi’i, a native Hawaai’in, born on the island of Honolulu in 1902. He was one of the pioneers of the distinctive Hawaiian steel guitar sound. That sound has itself become a cliché, overfamiliar.
One of the rules, here on Planet Vinyl, is that we forget what we know. Put out of your mind all your preconceptions about Hawaii and its music. Imagine that is is 1938, and you are at a party, and someone cranks up the portable gramophone. Now, just listen.