Who Got Caught And Who Got Free

A nice blog entry, longer and more casual this time, sent along by David. Full text after the break.

Oh, and hit play on this while you read.

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Who Got Caught And Who Got Free

By David Wingrove

It was roughly eight o clock on Wednesday evening, when – having finished the first draft of the new Chung Kuo story, “One Moment Of Bright Intensity” – I did what I so often do when I’ve finished something – I had a leisurely evening with my earphones on, trawling the net.

Now there are numerous major things that I like, in terms of books, music, films etc. The big stuff that sells well and that’s very popular. Neil Young, Bowie, The Beatles, Back To The Future, Die Hard (two especially), George R R Martin and J RR Tolkein. You get the idea. The good stuff that EVERYONE knows about. But a lot of the stuff I really, really like is esoteric and small. But equally good.

Like?

Well, one of the running jokes in our household right now – particularly between me and my youngest, Francesca – is about Egg. She creases up that, among the 1500-plus songs on my i-pod, there are several by a band named Egg. For some reason this tickles her. A band named egg. And yeah, it’s hard to actually track them down on-line because a lot of different things have ‘egg’ in them, and even if you type in “Rock band egg” you still get lists and lists of stuff that isn’t theirs. But anyway… Egg were an English band whose career ended almost as soon as it began, after three albums, which came out in 1970, 1971 and – after a gap in which they didn’t play – 1974. And, to be frank, they are really quite excellent… but difficult, too. For instance, their first two albums each have one whole side each – on the vinyl versions – which are ‘symphonies’. Symphony No 2 from 1970, and Symphony No 3 on their 1971 album, THE POLITE FORCE. They’re only a three piece – keyboards, drums and bass, but the music is amazingly complex and lyrical and – at times – moving. My second favourite of all their work is “A Visit To Newport Hospital”, a powerful, complex progressive rock track of near on nine minutes (8 minutes 24 seconds, if you want to split hairs). Well, last night, knowing how difficult it is to find Egg by typing in egg, I typed in “A Visit To Newport Hospital”… and was amazed.

Try it now. Type it in and play the Youtube version with the picture of the fairground at Newport. The main part of the track is framed by those wonderful power chords on the organ, but it’s the central part – the song and the improvisations – that make this one of my all time top ten songs. And last night I saw – for the first time ever – a slide show, in effect, posted by the band, under their previous guise as Uriel. And what an insight into that time in music it was. Gods, I remember having hair that long, and subscribing to all those hippy, new age values. But summon it up and let yourself be seduced by what’s one of the finest tracks of its time.

It’s not the very best Egg track though. That’s on the first album, Egg, and it’s called “I Will Be Absorbed”. And it states, quite succinctly, my philosophy, at the same time as delivering a relatively short masterpiece of progressive rock that is as wistful as they come. Forget The Nice and Argent and Camel and all those other mid-range bands. Egg were the real thing. Here’s the lyrics –

I Will Be Absorbed

 

Half of the time I spend thinking alone

While I’m working out songs or just lying in the sun

The magical sound that I long to express

always just out of reach of my groping hands

 

Like the wanton muse

beckoning to me

vanishes before

I can see her face

 

How many times has a transient dawn’s

beauty faded away before you understand

and a woman whose smile is a lingering song

bringing tears to your eyes though you don’t know why

 

Like a fragrant light

moves before your eyes

a million miles away

never to return

 

Wafting past from my childhood

hazy thoughts and sensations

these must hold the key to my life

 

I always find those indefinite things

If I manage to touch them they turn into stone

and the quality that kept me following them

is only a sound that I knew all the time

 

If I ever find

what I’m looking for

I will be absorbed

And never write again.

 

© Campbell, Brooks, Stewart, 1970

 

Oh, and note how many clicks there have been on the site. Less than seven thousand.

 

Now bear with me. This IS going somewhere. It’s just that seeing those slide-show images, especially the one of the three band members at sunset, the sun’s rays passing through their long hair, made me remember how it felt, back in the sixties. The very real sense of freedom that we had back then and which still can send a shiver down my spine. Because, to a great degree, it’s gone from the world.

 

Freedom. Yes, we’re talking about freedom. But also about the perfect note – “the magical sound that I long to express” as Egg call it. But how do these things connect?

 

Last night they didn’t. Not at first, anyway. I was just drifting, jumping from site to site, trying to make sense of all that incoherence. And the next jump from Egg was… The Comsats.

Now this is another band you’re quite likely never to have heard, and like Egg, they really ought to be more widely known and cherished for their excellence. Their full name is The Comsat Angels and they’re named after a J G Ballard story. And the track I sought out first last night – the track that gives this blog it’s title- was “Alicia”, from their LAND album from the mid-eighties.

Again, go to You Tube and type it in. Then play the following as well – “Independence Day”, “You Move Me (One Good Reason)”, “Eye Of The Lens” and “Total War”… and once you’ve done that, ask yourself why this band isn’t known internationally.

I have a personal story here. Back in 1983/84 I was working for my old friend Maxim Jakubowski at Zomba Books, the publishing arm of Zomba Records/Jive Records, editing books that never got published. Not by Zomba, anyway. Like a work on Syd Barrett, another on Joe Meek… And a couple that did get published  a book on The Cure, and another on DeNiro. Now Zomba was a rich company, who had made their money in South Africa and then sold up for a small fortune, which they then boosted by buying up the music rights to a number of mega acts (The Police, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, The Cars, Tears For Fears… need I go on?) as well as running Battery Studios, where many a famous album got made.

Zomba Books was situated in a porta cabin amidst the Zomba complex. Next door to us, in another porta cabin, was one of our most famous ‘page three’ girls – Samantha Fox – whose magnificent breasts were known to all and sundry. What she was doing there I’ve never quite worked out, but there she was.

Anyway… Zomba was owned by Ralph and Clive, and it was one day, when I was in the men’s toilet, that Ralph, who was in charge of the active music arm of Zomba, joined me at the trough and asked me if I knew a band called The Comsat Angels. I did indeed. I had all three of their early Polydor albums, and I thought they were good. “Independence Day” was a particular favourite. He nodded, zipped up, and, I imagine, went straight back to his office to sign them, because that very next week they were in the studio, re-recording… “Independence Day”.

But back to the Comsats and “Alicia”. Indulge me a moment, because this is quite important to me. I’ve always been someone who was affected by song lyrics. They get to me, like good poetry … only better.  And there are some tracks –maybe two or three dozen in total – that are extremely meaningful. Songs that – lyrically – hit the nail on the head. “Alicia” is one.

Alicia

I tried to get to you

but the message didn’t get through

It’s no surprise. It’s nothing new.

‘Cause there are people in between

who turn bright thoughts to icy cold.

They say you’ve changed. I say it isn’t so.

 

Can you hear me, Alicia?

 

I remember what you said some time ago

Don’t you think that heaven is something worth looking for?

 

Though the years may come and go

what you said still fits somehow

Sometimes it stays very clear

And it will amuse you when you hear

who got caught and who got clear

I can see you now, laughing up your sleeve.

 

Can you hear me, Alicia?

 

Can you hear me?

Can you hear me?

Can you hear?

 

You take when most people would ask.

You played for keeps when everyone played safe.

But I hope you never regret the moves you made.

 

No looking back

No looking back

No looking back

 

Can you hear me, Alicia girl?

 

© The Comsat Angels (1984)

 

Yeah, I know. I really ought to know better at 57, but there’s part of me trapped in my seventeenth year, like a Lost Boy, never to grow up. Something which this age encourages, I’d claim.

 

But moving on. “Alicia” led on to me summoning up The Comsats’ video of “Independence Day”, which is still incredibly powerful and as good if not better than anything Simple Minds or Spandau Ballet put out. 1983, it was made, and it’s still as fresh as anything in the charts now.  But even that doesn’t prepare you for the wonderful “You Move Me (One Good Reason)” which is a pounding eighties anthem, and one of the best love songs ever written. Check out the extended version – five and a half minutes of magnificence – and see if I’m not right. Yes, and ask yourself why you’ve never heard this on the radio instead of some of the crap they play endlessly.

 

And hey… this was the point where I went onto automatic, because there’s only one song I ever play after “You Move Me” and that’s Huang Chung’s “Rising In The East”. Don’t ask me why, but I’m almost programmed to play those two together. But last night I didn’t just play the track, I found an Old Grey Whistle Test live TV appearance where the band blew their audience away. You probably know Huang Chung in their awful Wang Chung incarnation – “Everybody have fun tonite… everybody Wang Chung tonite…” But that particular performance shows how powerful and original a band they were back in 1983. And hey, I know I’ve said this before, elsewhere, but this was one of a handful of tracks which defined Chung Kuo in its earliest forms. Because, in essence,  it’s about China taking over from America as the world’s dominant power… while “your Europeans just do what they’re told to do”.

 

And one other thing. Huang Chung. What does that mean? For long years I’ve gone around believing that it meant “Perfect Pitch”, and to some extent it does. Only it’s literal translation is “Yellow Bell”, referring to the Chinese myth of a yellow bell which produces the fundamental tone that is in harmony with the universe.

 

Which I discovered just last night…

 

And which fits in with the Egg track and – my next port of call – Pete Townshend’s “Pure And Easy”, the last track on WHO’S NEXT and the core song of his LIFEHOUSE project. Of which more later.

 

“There once was a note

Pure and easy

Playing so free

Like a breath rippling by

The note is eternal

I hear it, it sees me.”

 

And – “There once was a note, listen!” And yes, I had to summon it up and play it again, because all of this was beginning to make connections. One note that’s in harmony with the universe and being absorbed and…

 

Moving back a few years – to 1978 and the punk era – the next video I tapped into was… XTC’s “Neon Shuffle”. Now, if you’ve heard this you don’t need to be told, but XTC were another superb band who never got their just deserts – they are just so much better than much-hyped bands like The Stone Roses and the Arctic-fucking-Monkeys. This was a real band with real ideas and the world’s chief eccentric – Andy Partridge – as its singer, writer, guitarist.

 

Go there. Now. Type it in and sit back and gawp at how inventive a ‘punk’ band could be. And what fun, too. It’s 1978 after all and they’re right at the height of punk. But it’s like they’re inventing a whole new sub-category of punk-progressive, with changes of rhythm and pace and a sheer delightful cleverness. In fact, it’s probably the most inventively-constructed song in the whole of punk. Sheer brilliance!

 

But to think XTC are just punk is daft. This is the band that produced The Dukes Of Stratosphere psychedelic rock albums, as well as another of my top ten tracks of all time – “Chalkhills And Children” – my next call – from the Oranges And Lemons album of 1989. Imagine the Beach Boys at their best and you’re got it. That said, it’s probably one of the most English songs in my collection. Andy Partridge is a Wiltshire boy through and through… which also happens to be where my family comes from…

 

But things were about to go onto a weirdly bizarre twist. As Andy Partridge says in his 1978 track, “the neon shuffle’s gonna shuffle into outer space”. Which was precisely what happened.

 

You see, it was like this. I clicked onto one of the tiny screens to the right… and got the eccentric Andy Partridge talking about… Space Patrol. Yep. You heard that right. Now there are three Space Patrol Television series, but the one we’re talking about here is the early sixties puppet version for British TV which is weird and wonderful and… no… go and check it out yourself, and enjoy the sounds, the Gabbledicta bird and the strangely shaped robots… which rebel at some point… Sophisticated for its time, it was essentially a children’s show. And no, I’d not seen it for a long time, but suddenly I was back there as an eight-year old, drinking all of that strangeness in.

 

Hey… and by now I was tiring a little. My searches were growing scattershot. Next off I watched a live version of Free playing “Woman” (absolutely wonderful), the Falco video of “Rock Me Amadeus” (totally bonkers and sung in German with the odd Anglo-Saxon expletive thrown in)and, one of my real favourites, the incomparable Soft Machine, playing live in Brussels in 1971, the world’s  best jazz-rock band making it seem so easy, their delightful subtlety a delight to watch, in this and in their Paris gig of March 1970.

 

And then, for who knows what reason, I decided I’d track down Great White (you know, the American heavy metal band who were involved in The Station fire back in 2003 which killed 96 people) and played a live version of my favourite tracks of theirs, “Face The Day”, which was great… bringing back memories of arriving in Orlando in Florida some twenty-plus years ago, with that very song blasting from the sound system of the big hired car.

 

And then I discovered, to my astonishment, that they were still playing… Where? In Camden, less than two miles from here, the day after my birthday on 2nd September… and when I mentioned this, one of my girls said, “Hey… I can get you tickets for that… A friend of mine works at Underworld, and…” So that’s where I’ll be now on that night.

 

Serendipity. It wouldn’t surprise me now if XTC turned up as support.

 

So where is all this headed? What conclusions and connections did I make? Or is it all simply random phenomena?

 

I’m tempted to say yes. That it’s as random as the universe itself.  Only, as a writer, I can’t help making connections. Yellow Bells, Pure Notes, Absorption and all.

 

I guess what I’m trying to bring this around to is how our seventeen-year-old dreams and ambitions are so often dashed by our experience of life. Some of us “get ‘caught”, entangled in the web of living; that world of mortgages and insurance policies and office politics and all that spirit-numbing stuff,  whereas some of us (and there’s a few) “get clear”. There’s another song I could throw into the mix at this point, and that’s Peter Hammill’s “Dropping The Torch” which, even at eighteen, which I was when it came out in 1973, struck me as a ruthlessly accurate analysis of what lay ahead for all of us. I’ll quote but a segment this time –

 

Our prison walls are slowly built

stone by stone and day by day

No provision for escape

Entombed alive in safety and decay

 

Time sets around us in killing frames

Black borders round our names

Our fingers lose their grip

and the torch slips

 

The enemy for everyone

is everyone inside

I feel the hand of security

creep on me with ice-cold fingers

and crush my flower of freedom

I’ve lost the course of my adventure

All the things I meant to do are lost

 

There is only one flame each

to keep alive in the wind

But finally we snuff them out

all by ourselves.

 

 

Hmm. Cheerful, huh? No wonder the music paper Melody Maker dubbed him Doctor Doom.

 

But there’s a real element of truth in it. Sue and I run creative writing courses here, and a lot of our students – many of them in their mid to late twenties – are facing precisely this dilemma, whether to keep the torch alight and follow their hearts, or play safe and not give up the day job. That’s why, I guess, the Comsat’s track means so much to me. I’d like to write Alicia’s story one of these days. To flesh her out and see what makes her tick. Oh, and I’m sure those lyrics were inspired by a real flesh and blood woman. Yes, and I can see her too, “laughing up your sleeve”.

 

And, further linking this up, I have a sense that almost all the talented people in our Western culture had to face this dilemma at some stage – I imagine that there are very few who found it easy to say “what the heck” and just go for it. It’s rarely that simple. It’s the dilemma facing my lovely Amy right now. She wants to write, and writing ain’t something you can do seriously while holding down a regular 9-5 job. So something has to give. But hey, for all the failures, there are always some sweet successes. It’s all a gamble, but then what else would I prefer to do?

 

In some respects, you see, I’ve been loyal to my seventeen year old self. In others… Well… let’s just say that life has rubbed a few sharp corners away. Kids and mortgages tend to do that to you. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

So… one final cast of the dice… one more random entry before the evening passes. And this one’s about AS American as they come, and yet wonderfully eccentric in an almost English fashion. The band is The United States Of America (I kid you not), the album (recorded way back in 1968) was called quite simply, The United States Of America, and the track is “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar”. Type it in now and listen. I guarantee you’ll love it. And then listen to the rest of the album and – again – wonder why you’ve never heard of this stuff before.

 

Okay. That’s it. I’ve got work to do!

 

 

David Wingrove – Friday 17th August 2012

 

 

PS – Next off the production line? “Clouds And Rain”, a Chung Kuo short story set in 2207

 

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