Sunday, October 30, 2011

Crate digging II – Fira del disc, Barcelona

Twice a year the show comes to town, the wonderful Fira Internacional del Disc de Barcelona, or the Record Fair. Stand after stand of dusty records from all over Europe, arriving as always just after pay day to make sure there is no excuse for taking home a treasure hoard. One of the best parts of the fair for me is the Dutch seller who has crate after crate of old commercial vinyl for small price. Once in a while you can stumble across some genuine treasure, but otherwise it is a simple way to fill up your collection of Talking Heads, U2, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen or more embarrassing artists like Dire Straits, Paul Simon, UB40 and the like.

As I filed through the boxes and boxes of records, I became aware of many of them bearing the name of the previous owner scrawled somewhere on the cover, like an autograph. A curious fad from the old days perhaps, as I know nobody who would deface a record in this way now. But seeing the illegible name of some other person on the cover made me think how did this record come into the hands of the seller? Did he buy or get given the collection of a dead person? Was it a marriage split up or time to upgrade to MP3? When
was the disc bought and why? When was it played, in which house? In this sense buying the discs is like rescuing a memory from oblivion or even saving a life. At least until the next generation comes. Will the inheritor of my collection respect its memories the same or will some stranger come across them discarded and forgotten in a dusty hall?

INXS – Kick

One of my favourite groups and albums as a kid. I have been on the look-out for a vinyl copy for years and finally found one (in fact I saw two in the same crate). The first question here is why so difficult to find when somewhere between 8-10 million copies were sold worldwide? Maybe it came out as vinyl was entrenched in its nose dive toward DJ-only obscurity? Maybe it is geographically enriched in the US and Australia and thus rarer in Europe? I ask this question as I have also been looking for Def Leppard’s “Hysteria” which sold twice as many copies and I still never came across any, although the poorer and earlier album “Pyromania” is easy to get for a pittance. With regards to “Kick”, I downloaded it illegally earlier this year in a moment of sentimentality and found it difficult to listen to on the iPod as it just didn’t sound like I remembered it. However, here on vinyl and normal speakers I found my anxiety relieved somewhat. The sounds are big even though there is a certain sparseness to the production. It is almost Zen in the way that the instruments are allowed to build a private space in the mix. This is most noticeable with Jon Farris’s guitar which never just mindlessly strums its way through a track, but seems to strike like a cat only when necessary. “Kick” is a landmark album for its abnormally high quality of songs. There is only the slightest drop for the last two, but by then it hardly matters as what has come before has already bowled you over. One track that struck me as perhaps a bit above my recall was the semi-ambient track “Mediate” that closes the first side. The keyboard sound is rich and amniotic and the vocals simple, but effective and nicely mixed with echo and Kirk Pengilly’s Blade Runner-esque saxophone solo. Here the Bob Dylan-inspired video features a young and very 80s looking band in a construction site and what seems to me a spelling mistake on one of Gary Gary Beers placards which should read “Earth weight” to match the lyrics unless he is playing clever word games.

The Outsiders

One of the treasures I managed this time was a compilation of tracks by fabled Dutch group The Outsiders called “Touch”. So excited I was, I actually bought three copies by mistake (all with different names and artwork, so if anyone wants a copy drop me a line). I first came across The Outsiders many years ago after reading an article in the English psychedelic music magazine Ptolemaic Terrascope, now North American and simply known as Terrascope, organisers of the occasional Terrastock Festival. The story of the Outsiders is a fascinating read and lead man Wally Tax something of a psychedelic icon complete with burn out and a list of impressive collaborations. While still regarded in Holland, they are sadly little known abroad and the nice man at the shop was quite pleased that I knew them and gave me a nice discount my troubles. Their masterpiece is the album “CQ” from 1968, but there is plenty of quality on their other releases including this proto-punk stomp that opens the “Touch” collection.

One of their famous hits is “Lying all the time” which showcases the more jangly side to their sound. The long haired and thin Wally Tax also bears a remarkable resemblance to Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie and one wonders if he was an influence? Rumour has it that Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was definitely a fan.

War and Peace

Last year I read War and Peace in the celebrated translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Much easier to get through than I imagined it would be and I have since been on the lookout for a decent film version that captures my impression of the book. I have yet to see one, but my investigation suggests that the 1965 Russian version by director Sergei Bondarchuk to be the best. With a cast of extras reaching over 120 000 and filmed over at least 5 years, it is easily one of the biggest film or TV productions ever made. The music for this production was composed by Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov who incorporated his own music, works by Haydn and Russian folk songs into the blend and the soundtrack was one of the other more interesting items I picked up despite the rough colour of the cover.

The prelude is shown here with all the pending drama pent up in the dizzy strings and the whirling chorus as contemporary (for 1965) scenes of the real battle sites are shown.

But all the splendour and grandeur of the film are best captured in this scene where the lovely Natasha Rostova attends her first ball.

Anyone who wants more on Tolstoy should also look here for a fascinating archival video biography:

Apart from the War and Peace soundtrack, Ovchinnikov is also best known outside of the former Soviet Union for his soundtrack to Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev.

Tarkovsky’s film about Rublev’s life and Icon paintings were also the source of inspiration for Rechenzentrum’s multimedia piece "Silence" released on Wesier Music in 2007.

King Kong vs Liberace

Another soundtrack I picked up from the 1976 version of King Kong, more for the cover than the music, since it bears an image on the back of a jigsaw puzzle my father once gave me as a child. In this picture, Kong is ripping up a train in New York City. The colours are all dark, with shades of green and blue as if reflecting the idea of the urban jungle. There is a quilted zone of fire above the breaking carriages that was always the easiest part of the puzzle since it was one of the few zones with colour. I also had another King Kong puzzle with Kong battling a large snake, a stylised scene from the movie, but powerfully painted and full of rage. I remember amazing my parents at a young age of 4 or 5 by finishing the puzzle in one day.

The soundtrack is by John Barry who died earlier this year and is perhaps most famous for arranging the James Bond theme, though the song writing credit is given to Monty Norman. As well as the Bond films, Barry did scores for the Cotton Club, The Black Hole, Howard the Duck as well as two Academy Award winning scores for Out of Africa and Dances with Wolves.

Also in the same set of crates was Liberace’s Christmas album “Twas the night before Christmas” which I now regret not buying. It seems the popularity of the world’s most ambiguous man will be on the rise as Steven Soderbergh is in the process of preparing a film about the piano player starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, who appears in the video below as his driver and who may have been his lover. The two settled a lawsuit out of court based on their separation, although Liberace has always denied being homosexual. Indeed, in a more famous legal dispute over the matter he elevated an already extant catch phrase “I cried all the way to the bank” to the status of legend in response to a Daily Mirror article which claimed he was:

“…the summit of sex, the pinnacle of masculine, feminine, and neuter. Everything that he, she, and it can ever want… a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love…"

What is also not clear is the exact nature of his death. It is more than likely that he fell to AIDS-related illnesses, even if the increased weight loss he saw before his death was attributed to a “water melon diet”. This interesting documentary segment from the BBC reveals something of the media circus that surrounded his death and the frankly ridiculous thrill they seemed to have in wanting to expose his private life, something that Michael Jackson knows only too well.

Music for the Balinese Shadow Play

Another gem was some gamelan music recorded for the Nonesuch Explorer series in 1969 by Robert E. Brown. None of the intervening story is kept in the recording, but nonetheless it is an exceptional example of gamelan music which of course has its seminal place in the development of 20th century sound.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence

Listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack to "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence" it struck me how much the main and instantly recognisable theme sounds like dubstep, slowed down. Pitching it up on the turntable gives the keyboards a woozy feel something like Hyperdub or UK Funky, albeit the kick drum needs a bit more pressure and there is no sub bass frequencies to fill it out.

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