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Earlier reports had suggested we ought to expect something akin to a pop concert, maybe even a rock festival in which Pope Benedict XVI would be the main attraction. The conceit extended to a park dotted with many of the concessions that seasoned gig goers would recognise from gatherings such as Glastonbury and T In The Park. If this were supposed to engender the sort of al fresco camaraderie more commonly found at festivals though, it could have done with a handle to match. P in the Park perhaps; possibly Woodfrock; or – with a nod to one of U2 most successful tours – Popemart.
Like Bono, the Pope already known on the Twittersphere as Ben XVI certainly knows a thing or two about making an entrance. Four long hours elapsed before the merest ripple of excitement suggested that he was here. Just as stadium-filling rock monoliths usually elect to run a mixtape of enervating dub reggae to make sure they have very little to live up to, attendees at P In The Park had to ensure approximately 36 too many short films about the role of Catholicism in the wider community. A case of quite literally preaching to the converted. Pop Idol winner turned local celebrity Michele McManus sang a song written by her cousin, before a dog-collared Scottish MC told us it was time for “some more learning.”
Performing I Dreamed A Dream, Susan Boyle looked remarkably composed for someone who apparently fainted when told she would be meeting the Pope during his visit. The invited Catholics of “Scotland and Northwest England” cheered for her, but inevitably they saved their biggest cheers for the first sight of the Popemobile on the overhead screens. Much as Chris Martin is wont to do these days, much of Ben XVI’s “set” – at least the early part – was spent among the crowd, albeit within the relative safety of his vehicle. The last time I saw such an instantly recognisable global icon on a stage next to such a huge crucifix, it was Madonna.
But whilst she had chosen to hanging off her cross in a state of semi-undress, Ben XVI had more austere business to attend to, having his ornate golden headgear and skullcap removed and placed back on more times than anyone could keep count of. For a good half hour, he really didn’t do very much. Not that this was necessarily a problem. Liam Gallagher has spent much of his performing life standing stock still, save for the odd occasion when he offers the entire audience up for a fight. When Ben XVI finally did address his flock, it was, almost literally, something of a mixed blessing. His Bavarian accent bore an unfortunate resemblance to that of Dr Heinz Von Doofenschmirtz – evil professor and arch nemesis of Perry The Platypus in Disney Channel staple Phineas & Ferb. Until their mum finally hit them with her Pope flag, a cluster of pre-pubescent boys behind me struggled to keep a straight face as he urged us to “give sanks in the saving of God’s verd in zis rapidly changging society.”
After the best part of a day spent in fending off a bracing Glaswegian headwind, it wasn’t quite – at least to the impartial observer – a showstopping performance. Neither for that matter was the finale – an unsteady-looking Susan Boyle singing Make A Channel of Your Light. When Coldplay come off stage, they make millions of little butterflies come out of the sky. U2 frequently lay on fireworks. Something to think about for the next P In The Park.
Post-Pepper, London may have been swinging, but in the suburbs bordering Edinburgh, the evenings were silent. As Mr and Mrs Heron were getting ready for bed, their son Mike removed a tab of acid from an envelope and waited to see what might happen. In the centre of town, this sort of activity was commonplace. Robin Williamson – Heron’s accomplice in the Incredible String Band – lived in a squat where the humdrum routines of post-war life had long been left behind. However, there was little about what Heron calls “the sad suburban houses” of Portobello, to suggest that – behind red-brick terraces – hallucinogenic epiphanies were taking place.
Mike Heron knelt on the floor in the corridor by his parent’s bedroom and listened to the radio. And then? Well, what happened next is a matter of public record. The centrepiece of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, A Very Cellular Song chronicles the dramatic undulations of Heron’s twelve hour trip in sublime detail. The warm waltz-time oscillations of the small organ that Heron kept upstairs – that’s where he knelt to tap out a tune as, in the background, Radio 4 play piped out of a transistor. “See the line, ‘Oh mother, what shall I do?’ That came from there. All sorts of things were feeding in, like, ‘Lay down my dear sister” – that was from Music of the Bahamas by the Pindar Family.”
As the sun started to rise and Heron gradually returned to his natural state, 5am ruminations such as, “Amoebas are very small,” gave way to a sense of beatific resolution. You can hear that, too, on the song’s coda adapted from a Sikh spiritual: “May the long time sun shine upon you/All love surround you/And the pure light within you/Guide you all the way on.” Then, Mike Heron padded downstairs and ate the breakfast his mother had cooked for him. “My parents had probably realised [what happened] as they listened to things unfold. But nothing was mentioned.”
To borrow from another Incredible String Band song, back in the 1960s, you really did made your own amusements. By the time The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’s appeared, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron had become dab hands at making their own entertainment. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1966 may have seemed, to the outside world like the beginning of something. But to Williamson, Heron and short-lived member Clive Palmer, it was the culmination of two years spent playing music with like-minded beatniks in Edinburgh’s bohemian scene. Williamson and Heron barely knew each other when they gravitated towards Palmer’s Incredible Folk Club, a weekly night accessed only going up a lift to the fourth floor of a building in Sauchiehall St. “It was one of those wee silly lifts you don’t see any more,” recalled Edinburgh contemporary Billy Connolly, a regular to the club, “There’s only four people at a time, so it would take all night to get everybody up there.”
You wouldn’t call it commercial, but somehow they inked a record deal. Though he had never produced an album at that point, Joe Boyd – a young American emissary keen to make his mark as Elektra records’ first UK-based talent scout – convinced the musicians on stage at the Incredible Folk Club that he could steer them to enormous success.
Incredible String Band emerged to positive reviews, but Palmer didn’t stick around to read them. He packed the tent which – erected in the front room of his Edinburgh squat – had acted as his living space, and headed to Afghanistan. On leaving, he told his colleagues not to wait for his return. After some thought, Williamson decided that he too would retire from the music business. His reasons? “Well, let me see now,” he says, between sips of coffee in a North London café, “I wanted to buy an Arabic flute. And a lute as well.” So, off he went to Morocco. For want of a better idea, a solo Heron hit the folk club trail. End of story.
At least it would have been, had Williamson not run out of money a few months into his adventure. “I returned with a beautiful brightly-painted bag, which was made out of a goat – and in it were all sorts of flutes and drums and a gimbri. I stumbled back to Edinburgh and said to Mike, “Well, what do you reckon about some of this stuff? And we began to make this sort of stream of consciousness music that went through all sorts of styles.” Released in 1967, the resulting album The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion represented a colossal leap. With Williamson’s goat of many colours, the Incredible String Band set about their business with fearless abandon. And out there, countless young minds looking to a new generation of musical expeditionaries for inspiration, sat up and listened. “Forget the clichés about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness,” wrote Archbishop Of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, 35 years later, “This was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour.”
At the eye of this lysergic folk storm, Williamson and Heron remember not stopping to consider their rapidly expanding success. In the year that The Beatles made Sgt Pepper, Paul McCartney hailed The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion as a comparable achievement. Mick Jagger must have agreed because he tried and failed to poach the String Band for his label. But if songs like My Name Is Death and The Eyes Of Fate sketched out their intentions, the events of 1968 constituted a full-on aesthetic assault, compressing more activity in a year than some bands manage in entire careers.
In April, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter commenced the first of its 21 weeks in the chart, peaking at number five. By contrast, 1968’s other seminal stoner album Astral Weeks – released eight months later – failed to trouble the charts at all. In return for their 30 shillings, ISB disciples would have wasted no time in replicating the conditions in which A Very Cellular Song was written, before immersing themselves in acid-folk fantasias like The Water Song and Koeeoaddi There – songs which saw their creators meshing the temple-throbbing drone of the psych-geist to the primordial modal hum from which all music was evolved.
A week previously at the Royal Festival Hall, fans got a chance to see the band’s expanded line-up for the first time. Formerly Bert Jansch’s girlfriend, Licorice McKechnie had accompanied Williamson in Morocco. Heron doesn’t remember exactly when she joined the group – although Boyd remembers Heron hurriedly teaching his own girlfriend Rose Simpson bass guitar, so that she could join the group in time for the next album.
Adrian Whittaker, editor of beGlad – An Incredible String Band Compendium remembers borrowing the newly-released Hangman’s Beautiful Daughters from Blackheath library and “being seduced by this thing… Four or five of us fifth formers having devotional evenings around a turntable, burning incense and just listening, imagining that the people making this music lived communally, with their girlfriends. I remember thinking that this was what I wanted to aspire to.”
In reality, three hundred miles separated Heron and Williamson. While Heron continued to live in Edinburgh with Rose, Williamson and Licorice – together with assorted friends from a London mime and dance group called Exploding Galaxy – commenced a three day odyssey to a cottage in Penwern, in mid-Wales. “It was a house which had remained uninhabited since 1928. There was just one lightbulb and the toilet was outside. If you wanted to go in the night, you had to carry a torch and kick the sheep out when you got there.”
By all accounts, it took the locals some time to get used to Penwern’s new inhabitants. “I remember going into Newport to open a bank account with a £50 cheque,” says Williamson, “and they were contemplating calling the police because they didn’t think I could have that much money. How could somebody that looks like that have a £50 cheque? There was a lot of that sort of thing. One time, the police came to visit…” Williamson slips into a Welsh accent, “… ‘We hear, down in the village, that you boys have been practicing witchcraft.’ Lots of that sort of thing.”
Was Heron not tempted to drop out with Williamson? Beyond entertaining the notion on Mercy I Cry City, apparently not. “He wanted a commune life,” says Heron, who stayed with Rose in Edinburgh, “but I didn’t fancy living in a farmhouse and fighting over the kitchen, that kind of thing. They were into macrobiotics and chocolate was banned. They would live on brown rice, which was where the song Big Ted [from 1969’s Changing Horses] comes in. They had their whole winter’s supply of rice stored, and the pig got in and ate it all.”
Far from acting as a deterrent, the Incredible String Band’s Blakean reconfiguration of acoustic music seemed doubly exotic to American ears. The compounded sense of cultural removal, however, didn’t always play out to their advantage. Arriving at their hotel for a show in Dallas, Williamson espied a swimming pool, he went into a nearby shop and bought what he thought were trunks. “A policeman walked over and told me to get out,” he remembers, “Apparently, what I had purchased was a pair of swimming trunk liners, which were entirely transparent in the water. It only got better when the Dallas Chief Of Police turned up and revealed that his son was a fan.”
In the wake of the Monterey Pop Festival the previous year, Los Angeles was becoming the epicentre of the music industry. It seemed logical for the String Band to play there. No sooner did they arrive, however, than Williamson once again found himself attracting the attention of the police. “He was walking down the street without any shoes or money,” remembers Heron. “It turns out that you’re not allowed to do that, so they jailed him. We kind of had to rescue him.” Nevertheless, this increased level of attention – of all sorts – seemed to reflect the fortuitous timing of their arrival.
From a fourth-floor sweatbox to billboards on Sunset Strip in just over two years, The Incredible String Band were, albeit briefly, rock stars – albeit rock stars who stopped short of playing actual rock music. To the policemen who seemed to take regular exception to their appearance, they were hippies. Heron points to a mutual respect between American and British musicians in the counterculture – “and yet,” he adds, “the music was very different.” It was a difference embodied at the Fillmore West shows which saw them co-headlining with Country Joe & The Fish. American longhairs had something far more palpable to rail against. “Conscription and what came with it was an absolute reality for Americans,” says Heron, “and the music had a more combative edge as a result.” In the Incredible String Band’s resolutely metaphysical world, new songs like The Half-Remarkable Question and Air were increasingly beginning to seem like neo-Dadaist declarations in a world defined by the cold war and the nuclear threat. “That’s it,” says Heron, “We didn’t have the Government telling you that you had to go out and die.”
“In a way, it made people playful,” says Williamson, “You knew that something was about to happen and the reaction was sort of the opposite of angst.” In Penwern, this attitude pervaded every waking hour. Director Peter Neal discovered as much when he arrived there to make Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending – a proposed BBC documentary about the group. Reflecting Williamson’s increasing interest in multi-media presentations, assorted String Band musicians and associates – Boyd being among them – staged a self-devised fable entitled The Pirate And The Crystal Ball for Neal’s camera. The plot revolved around a pirate who attempts to hijack destiny by stealing a crystal ball from the three fates. Happy with the fable’s conclusion, the group duly marched off in search of a meal – only to discover that no restaurant was willing to accommodate them in their costumes.
Somewhere amid all this, enough material for a double album accumulated. Released as two single albums in America and one double in Britain, Wee Tam & The Big Huge cemented their status as the band by which the countercultural credentials of any young head could be measured. One such head at the time, Billy Connolly, remembered hearing these songs for the first time, in particular, Williamson’s opening shot, Job’s Tears: “There’s something extraordinary when you’re from my background about listening to these lyrics about people being stabbed with a sword of willow, and Robin’s singing then was just to die for, from incredible depths to incredible heights. He always had a lovely sense of comedy, you know: ‘I hear my mother calling and I must be on my way’.”
Perhaps more than any of Williamson’s other songs, it’s the The Iron Stone that sees the scope of its creator’s vision matched by its mesmerizing execution – a wonder-drunk freak folk liturgy which achieves vertical take-off when sitar and guitar cut loose from the low lugubrious pulse of the gimbri. As if counteracting the sprawling nature of Williamson’s efforts, Heron turned in some of his most memorable compositions: You Get Brighter, Greatest Friend and, in particular, the Scottish Appalachia of Log Cabin Home In The Sky. If the Caledonian excursions on The White Stripes’ Icky Thump are anything to go by, it would seem that Wee Tam & The Big Huge has notched up several miles on Jack White’s turntable.
Wee Tam & The Big Huge appeared in October. November was spent on the road once again. Three nights at the Fillmore East in New York had sold out; so, closer to home, had The Royal Albert Hall. Williamson remembers Licorice turning up to the latter show with a box of puppies she had just acquired. No-one remembers what happened to them after that. Happy times? Joe Boyd isn’t sure. “Given what happened to them by the end of the year, you can’t help but wonder if there was a sort of a submerged anxiety awaiting resolution.” The Incredible String Band may have been souls adrift, awaiting a mooring – as one Williamson lyric put it, “What is it that we are part of/What is it that we are?” – but Heron points out that they were far from alone in this respect. “Every album that anyone put out had that questing sort of thing about it. But we were happy.”
However happy (or otherwise) the four String Band members were at this point, it seems that there was room for improvement – and their producer was the unwitting catalyst of that change. After the third Fillmore East show, Boyd says he had to catch a flight to Los Angeles, which left him just enough time to leave his charges at a vegetarian restaurant called The Paradox. On arriving at The Paradox, Boyd apparently realised that the mâitre’d there was an old friend of his from Cambridge, David Simons, who seemed more thrusting and together than he had ever been when the two had been friends years previously. The reason Simons had turned his life around so dramatically? Scientology. “I kind of set up their conversion,” smiles Boyd ruefully, “I left the restaurant and, basically, let David get on with it.”
Neither Williamson or Heron will do much to dispute the notion that, after that evening, Incredible String Band never reached the giddy creative heights that they sustained throughout 1968. Nevertheless, Heron maintains that Boyd’s version of events serves the story better than it does the facts. “Rose and I were back in London,” he contends, “I got this self-analysis book – kind of a lifestyle improvement book. I mean, we were reading all sorts of spiritual tomes at this point – Indian and Chinese philosophy and Buddhism. It all seemed to tie in. So, we made this decision to get involved – and then Robin and Licorice returned from New York and he was like, ‘Oh, you’ll never guess what we’ve been doing.’”
When the subject of Scientology is raised with Williamson, he borders on taciturn. “Joe’s surmises are Joe’s surmises, you know? I haven’t much to say about that really,” he says. If the Incredible String Band really did suddenly believe that human beings are unwitting vessels for the souls of ancient Thetans, it wasn’t immediately obvious on their first post-conversion album Changing Horses. If you look closely on the sleeve photo of The Big Huge – taken in Frank Zappa’s garden – you’ll notice how dilated Heron’s pupils are. On Changing Horses, the foursome look clean-cut by comparison.
Though no longer involved with Scientology (neither is Williamson), Heron’s view is that something had to give. “We really couldn’t go on doing these mind-expanding drugs forever. Also the comedowns were getting less and less pleasant every time.” They had stumbled on commercial success making some of the strangest music of their career, so it made a peculiar sort of sense the Incredible String Band should have dissolved after putting out 1973’s emphatically pedestrian Hard Rock & Silken Twine. Their final recorded output comprised three reworkings of old songs on an L. Ron Hubbard tribute album.
As with any artist who has ever sought to capture the essence of the times in which they had come of age, it was difficult to imagine an era in which Incredible String Band’s music might one day flourish again. But as generic indie music has found itself being co-opted into the mainstream, countless other bands have sprung up to fill the void with a new kind of outsider music. And, to anyone who owns those early String Band albums, much of it will seem awfully familiar. It’s inconceivable that the likes of Espers, Six Organs Of Admittance, Tunng and Joanna Newsom don’t have at least one Incredible String Band album in their collections. In ISB fanzine beGlad, one contributor pays tribute to a late-60s oeuvre “rich exultant Earth-scenes of hazard-free spiritual abundance.” It occurs to you that such a phrase could have just as easily been invented for 21st century freak-folk icon Devendra Banhart.
Heron remembers, “There was no sense of an album-tour-album-tour division like you get with bands these days. What you did away from your music was reflected in your music. In fact, you were never really away from your music. That’s how we made three albums in a year. That’s gone now, hasn’t it?” Speaking from the same Edinburgh house where he wrote many of his best songs, Heron now spends much of his time helping look after his 95 year-old mother and occasionally takes to the road with his guitar, sometimes accompanied by his daughter. He seems utterly content with his lot. Long since separated from him, Rose Simpson went on to become Lady Mayoress of Aberystwyth. Licorice McKechnie, sadly, is no longer thought to be alive. She was last heard from, when her sister received a letter from her in 1990, postmarked Sacramento.
As for Williamson – who now tours mostly as part of a duo with his wife Bina – he will tell you that looking back holds little fascination for him. But politely insist and his eyes will twinkle as he recalls the bigger picture. “Do you know,” he confides, “I honestly believed that the world was about to come to a crossroads, where money, war and society were all about to be forever altered. In the face of that absolute inevitability, the most logical thing seemed to sing.” He puts his coffee cup on the table and ambles over to a small stage where his Celtic harp sits.
“After all that time,” he smiles, “I’ve yet to come up with a better idea.”
Though looking remarkably spry for an 80 year-old man, Sir George Martin seems momentarily confused. “Hezbollah want to kidnap me? Why would they want to do that?” Sitting opposite him in an office at Abbey Rd studios, his son Giles, 37, is attempting to explain the sketch – written by Father Ted co-creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews – in which Arab terrorists take the venerable Beatles producer hostage. “It was from a show called Big Train. The joke was that you’re always talking about your work with The Beatles – and even being kidnapped by Hezbollah can’t stop you going on about it.” Alas, Sir George seems no clearer as to what to make of it all. “And when did this happen?” he enquires. “Round about the time Anthology came out,” says his son. “I just didn’t tell you about it because I didn’t think you would find it funny.” The perplexed response from Sir George Martin suggests his son’s initial instincts were correct. However, as the producer explains, there’s a perfectly good reason why people only ever see him talking about The Beatles. “People rarely ask me about anything else,” he shrugs.
That’s hardly likely to change now. His years as an esteemed producer of comedy records – among them, Peter Ustinov’s Mock Mozart and Goodness Gracious Me by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren – were probably not foremost in the minds of the UK Music Hall Of Fame awards steering committee when they decided to induct him. This being a week prior to the Awards, he sounds profoundly unexcited at the prospect of being honoured. “What does it entail? A bloody great headache,” he blurts, “I’m in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame In Cleveland. That should be enough, shouldn’t it?”
Though he doesn’t mention it during our encounter, one presumes the “headache” to which Sir George is referring is the Awards’ grand finale – a Golden Slumbers medley redux, scored and conducted by Martin himself, with added gospel choir. On reflection, there isn’t an orchestra on the planet that can prevent the voices of Johnny Borrell and Corinne Bailey Rae curdling upon impact with each other. Unwittingly, the whole exercise proves Giles Martin’s point that “Beatles music only starts to sound like Beatles music when you have The Beatles playing on it.”
It was a conclusion he and his father had three years to come to – the exact period of time that elapsed between the conception and execution of a “brand new” album by the Fabs. In 2006, there may be nothing significantly new left in the Abbey Road vaults, but The Beatles Love attempts to forge hitherto unexplored possibilities. Pieced together by father and son for Cirque Du Soleil’s eponymous Beatles-inspired which recently opened in Las Vegas, the 80 minute collage of Beatles tunes takes its cues from the recent trend for mash-ups – records in which DJs (often illegally) mix together different songs to create “new” tunes.
The Beatles Love is a labour of precisely what it calls itself – if you like, an album-length equivalent of the video for 1995 Anthology “newie” Free As A Bird, in which a mythical Beatleworld opens up around you, complete with pretty nurses selling poppies from a tray and running piggies. Songs you thought you knew backwards (including Sun King, which actually is played backwards) reveal new colours when juxtaposed against other songs. If, until this point, you couldn’t be talked around to the childlike vulnerability of Ringo’s singing on Octopus’s Garden, the producers’ decision to place it over the sweeping strings of Good Night seems designed to make you listen with fresh ears.
Though the project emerged from George Harrison’s friendship with Cirque Du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the remaining Beatles would assent to having such liberties taken with their music. As the musical exploits of Julian Lennon and Dhani Harrison have shown us, it doesn’t always run in the family – so it was only natural that Giles Martin (previous experience, Kula Shaker, Velvet Jones) should have been asked to audition with a demo. The clincher, it seems, was his idea of putting George Harrison’s Within You Without You over the lysergic landslide of Tomorrow Never Knows. “It’s a shame that Giles hadn’t even born when we made Sgt Pepper,” ventures his proud father, “because, that version would have been terrific on there.” The younger Martin’s relief at positive early reviews of the album is palpable. No-one, as yet, has felt moved to cry sacrilege. And if they did, one might counter by drawing to their attention spirit of creative randomness with which many of The Beatles’ most deathless moments were created in the first place.
George Martin’s role in Fabs lore as plummy, paternal facilitator of those moments cannot be underestimated. In this respect, he says that his relationship with John Lennon was especially fertile with creative possibilities. “Both John and Paul knew what they wanted, but John always struggled to express it – which meant he would always end up talking in metaphors. He had great ideas, but I wasn’t quite sure whether I was delivering them. I Am The Walrus was a case in point. He wrote it and told me he wanted me to write a score to go with what he had. So, in a way, that’s me trying to get into John’s head.”
If Lennon and McCartney’s encounter at the Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete in 1958 stands as the century’s single greatest moment of musical serendipity, then The Beatles’ alliance with Martin must run it close. Having already broadened his sonic palette with comedy and classical records, Martin’s hunger for new ideas kept his mind open to possibilities that, most of his contemporaries wouldn’t have countenanced. Indeed, by 1962, Martin was making experimental records of his own. Released under the suitably futuristic pseudonym of Ray Cathode, Time Beat showcased many of the techniques – tape loops, backwards voices – seized upon by John Lennon when he first steered The Beatles’ into truly psychedelic waters with Rain. “I was always playing about with tapes, and The Beatles were constantly pushing me to see what else I had to show them.”
However, Martin adds that the most vital quality he brought to the mix was discipline – which was, necessary, he explains, because of the technological limitations of the age. “If you only had two four track machines to work with, then those tracks were precious. I couldn’t waste them. And Giles would get frustrated when we were doing this album, because he would want to use the voice from a song and discover that it couldn’t be separated because that track also had cowbell on it.”
If every creative enterprise requires discipline, it was a point that George Martin inadvertently proved all over again with the release of his last Beatles-related project. Released in 1998, In My Life album saw the producer invite some of his favourite pop and movie chums into the studio, where they proceeded to “interpret” their fave Fabs moments. Obviously, it’s only proper that the man who signed The Beatles is allowed to do whatever he wants in perpetuity but some of us who saw the accompanying documentary still struggle with those mental images of Jim Carrey gaily tiggering around the recording booth, all the better to tease out the dormant wackiness in I Am The Walrus.
When the subject is raised, Giles is swift to play down his involvement. “I just engineered it,” he smiles. Was he there when Phil Collins told the world about his idea to extend the drum solo in Golden Slumbers in order to “make it more interesting”? A long pause ensues. “Yes, well. God bless him. I didn’t have a creative role in that one.” The conversation turns to Goldie Hawn’s appearance on the same record, who George Martin says he knew “from way back when.”
“You fancied her!” pipes Giles, and for a moment you wonder if he isn’t too old for a clip around the ear.
“Behave yourself!” says his father.
“You didn’t know her before you made the record!” continues Giles. “You fancied her!”
A week later, at Alexandra Palace, Giles Martin’s teasing is abruptly put into perspective by the reception meted out to Gordon Brown by sections of the audience as he attempts to induct Martin into the UK Music Hall Of Fame. Given the famed gentility of the man that Brown is here to honour, it all seems a little unseemly. Nonetheless, deliberately or otherwise, the jeers serve to underscore a question thrown up by Brown’s duties here. Where, you wonder, are the surviving members of the group whose ideas his musical midwifery helped bring into the world? Sir George Martin has the air of a man happy to manage without the extra fuss their presence here would bring. To be part of the Beatles’ story and yet to enjoy relative anonymity, he says, has been “like a lifeline to me and my family.”
Besides, it wasn’t so long ago that he saw Paul. At a 40th anniversary party held by Sir George and his wife Judy, the silver-haired producer recalls a touching exchange between mentor and musician. “It was just a lunch with some friends, really,” he remembers, “The only showbusiness people there were Cilla [Black], Rolf Harris and Bernie Cribbins. But dear Paul drove 130 miles to be there. Anyway, as he was leaving he said, ‘It’s lovely to be an ordinary person again.’”
“At which point,” adds Giles, much as John Lennon might have once done, “we got him to do the washing up.”
When asked what he does for a living, Simon Cowell says his job is to “guess what’s going to be popular.” In fact, the strange genius of the X-Factor format is that guessing nothing to do with it. By voting, the public tell Cowell what’s going to be popular. All that remains for Cowell is to frogmarch the winner into a studio and position his golden bucket at the bottom of the chute marked “Simon’s share”.
And yet, even with such a failsafe mechanism in place, Cowell still sometimes gets it wrong. Why? Because, once in a while, he lets his own preferences impede what really is just a simple popularity contest. Take Jedward, for instance. When it came to John and Edward Grimes – Ireland’s teenage answer to The Cat In The Hat’s Thing 1 and Thing 2 – it wasn’t just that Cowell didn’t get it. It was the fact that he didn’t even get that his not getting it was keeping the twins in the contest.
If you were young enough – six, maybe seven – Jedward’s X-Factor run was probably like being a punk in ’77. Punk was a movement that valued dumb gusto over talent. Punk also bewildered the establishment much as Jedward have done with Cowell. And on Planet Jedward, the twins even tackle a sacred text from that era, namely The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. Would this version have made John Peel weep, just as the original did? Arguably not. By the same token, if your kids choose to spend their pocket money on Planet Jedward, there are some things you’ll feel wiser for overhearing: on Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby), the crunching gear change between the Queen/Bowie bits and the gonad-clasping Vanilla Ice bits; and Ghostbusters which features this priceless exchange: “Yo Edward, you know what I wanna go do today?… I wanna go bust ghosts.”
For all of that, however, Planet Jedward is an album that dances (with defiant ineptitude) in the face of critical appraisal. As an attempt to preserve Jedward’s unique Jedwardness, it succeeds. Does that make it a good thing? The more you think about it, the more you understand why Calvin Harris felt compelled to storm the stage in the middle of their X-Factor appearance last year, armed with a pineapple. On Planet Jedward, that’s as sane a response as any.
“Rusty music. Blackish, hot painted with soot.” Should you ever hear a noise that fits the description, please tell Paolo. Almost a decade since his last album, he’s beginning to resemble one of those poor souls who spend their days approaching strangers in cafes with tatty pictures of missing relatives.
At 68, one suspects it’s too late for him to change. And, in any case, what’s to encourage him? Conte’s careworn requiems to an increasingly unrecognisable world have accorded him a measure of stardom across Europe. In Britain, we remember him as the guy who sang “Chips, chips” on a car advert, over a pacey jazz backdrop. Conte, by and large, sticks to Italian, but it’s a rule he relaxes when an English phrase permits lyrical flight of fancy. Hence Sandwich Man, on which the singer likens a lover’s vulnerability to a sandwich board: “The question is bright red and the answer is blue.”
So, invariably, is the music. Chissa [Who Knows] depicts an artist barely able to look up from his piano for fear of the approaching next world. On Il Regno Del Tango [The Kingdom Of Tango], Conte acts as a one-man Greek chorus to the tragedy of his protagonist – a bandoneon player reduced to begging outside the theatre where he once used to play, subjected to daily torrents of abuse from the new manageress: “Like… a goat/Kicking, ugly, bad-tempered…” Only at the end does the disinterested protagonist declare his loyalties: “Bandoneon, old lion/Bite her.”
If these songs – all violins, accordions, piano – represent Conte at his most Italian, the questing, restless quality of what remains throws open further flung similarities. The recurrent Tom Waits comparisons are understandable, though Marianne Faithfull’s 20th Century Blues is closer. Ultimately, Conte’s gravelly slur owes far more to Louis Armstrong; his arrangements tap a lifelong trust in Sonny Rollins and the yearning tenor sax of Coleman Hawkins – renegade noises accessed via his parents’ wireless dial over half a century previously.
Hence Elegia’s most intoxicating moment. Over a stoned Dixie shuffle, Frisco sees Conte placing San Francisco among the great lost civilizations of antiquity, perpetually half a beat behind his own band. In the immediate aftermath of Mussolini’s Italy, what would such wild, exotic sounds have done to a young boy? Therein lies the melancholic allure of Paolo Conte. That other incorrigible nostalgic Van Morrison may claim to have been raised by jazz; but Conte is a man orphaned by it, mired in the denial of its passing. And so he’ll keep searching. Rusty music. Blackish, hot painted with soot. Now where could you find something that sounded like that? If only he could hear what we hear.