This is the first part in a planned series of four linked essays, which will be published at irregular intervals in 2017, hopefully. It is published here, initially, in small segments to make things easier and more disruptive.
Tuesday, 31 January 2017
Notebooks are a bit of an obsession here. It is not that there is any actual intention to collect them, but they are difficult to resist. If they are there, beckoning, beautiful but inexpensive, on the shelf of a charity shop, or in the stationery aisle in Poundland, or reduced in one of the supermarkets, then it is good for the soul to indulge occasionally, to acquire one more, and to add to the clutter.
This notebook here, in blue, hard-backed, nice and solid, very tappable (currently with a BiC MatiC mechanical pencil), ruled, a Banner affair, from the old Oxfam shop just before it closed down, is currently being used for scribbling down quotes, stray sentences, pithy passages, things read in books, words that capture the imagination or seem particularly moving. It is an old, old habit, and not one that it would ever be easy to break.
Of late, the notebook seems to have been rather taken over by Ali Smith and her words, with numerous lines from her books filling pages in quite awful scrawl. That is a little surprising, for Ali’s name and words had not featured in this, or any other, notebook here previously.
This all started really, well, it would have been on Remembrance Sunday, when there were references on social media to Ali picking Orange Juice’s ‘Falling and Laughing’ as one of her choices on Desert Island Discs. There was not really any clue as to whether she specifically asked for the first release on Postcard Records version, or the opening track on the OJs’ debut LP You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. For Ali, it seems the song serves as a reminder of the sound of her young Scotland, when she was away at university in Aberdeen, not far from where she grew up in Inverness.
Picking the magnificent ‘Falling and Laughing’ suddenly made Ali Smith seem like an attractive prospect which is ironic as there was no real compulsion to take any notice before. How facile is that? Suddenly becoming interested in a writer just because she has chosen a particular favourite song to take with her to a desert island! Honestly, whatever next. How shallow. Yes, facile is the word that springs to mind. How facile can you get? Funnily enough, fácil, as in easy, came up in the online Spanish lessons that have been so wonderfully time-consuming (and a protest of sorts!), which prompted thoughts about how facile is used now.
In the old Concise Oxford Dictionary here (a pound, also from the old Oxfam shop before it disappeared, and also very tappable), which dates back to 1960 (there is still someone’s banking slip inside from 21 October 1961, a receipt for £75 and 10 shillings paid into Barclays in Brixton) facile is defined as something “easily done, won; working easily, ready, fluent”, which sounds pretty good. But, now, looking up facile on the Internet, the first thing to be found is the definition: “appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue; superficial”. That is pretty dismissive.
In the way one thing leads to another, thinking about the word ‘facile’ and its variations mutated today into repeated singing of the word ‘facility’ to the tune of Orange Juice’s ‘Felicity’ (“I guess so”), prompting a muddled memory of the words to that song being printed in the 1981 Postcard brochure along with the words of the group’s ‘Wan Light’, accompanied by a Swallows and Amazons-style Arthur Ransome illustration of a figure on an improvised raft heading for what looks like a desert(ed) island, appropriately: “There is a place where no one has seen / Where it’s still possible to dream / An unchartered world which will be unfurled ...”
Ali Smith’s appearance on Desert Island Discs (not a programme usually listened to in this home) coincided very neatly with the publication of her novel, Autumn, which came in a hardback edition in a wrap-around cover with a striking David Hockney illustration (not for the first time). There had been of blaze of publicity surrounding the book, all about it being arguably the first post-Brexit novel. Now that really does seem like a facile claim in the worst possible sense, because the book covers a lot more ground that the English Civil war between the Remain and Leave camps and what Gentleman Joe called the “new party animals”.
There is, admittedly, no denying Autumn’s topicality, which from a promotional sense would be pretty irresistible. The referendum itself and the fraught fallout from the vote are pretty central to the book, as are the timely references such as to the refugee crisis, and the murder of Jo Cox MP outside a library. It is still hard to take that one in, and how later there were the never to be forgotten words in that weasel-like spiteful cad Farage’s comments in his presumptious (there’s no such thing as) victory speech at 4am after the referendum, him standing there smug as anything, hailing “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people ... without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired." Of course, he later made a meaningless apology.
This is exactly the kind of thing that would have prompted Ali’s autumnal avowal: “I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it.” And so on.
There is much more than Brexit in the body of Autumn’s social commentary, touching on zero hours contracts, reality TV, and so on. Timeliness in the literary world is pretty unusual given how slow wheels turn in that industry. So, the accelerated cycle of production which took in Ali’s writing, the process of editing and revising, proofing, design, printing, promotion, distribution, and so on, is impressive and worthy of attention.
Autumn was wolfed down here after that Desert Island Discs appearance. It was very much a case of finding Ali’s book at the right time. Autumn is a delightful book. It is very provocative, very funny and very wise, and very much a protest. It is a dignified protest, though.
In her novel there is plenty of anger, but there is a gentleness to the protest. There is no doubt what side Ali is on, though there is no sense of being battered over the head with dogma or even of adding to the pervasive hostility seeping into our lives, the ill-will. Is she preaching to the converted? Perhaps. “Mostly saying three cheers for our side”.
If she uses her art as a weapon it is to show how it can offer solace and comfort on the darkest of days. And there are some moving meditations on enduring and unlikely friendships, and Ali’s writing about the way elderly people are treated and regarded in Britain today, and what they have to offer, is as touching as Kevin Rowland’s ‘Old’. How appropriate to think of that song, with its lines about the dumb patriots having their say, only seeing their way.
Autumn by Ali Smith is never going to Nigel Farage’s choice of book, though reportedly he (and it is better to think of him as a ludicrous ham, like, very much like, a braying Bernie Clifton riding a bucking toy ostrich around the stage on The Good Old Days) doesn’t read novels, nor does he listen to music. That only adds to the impression of him being an unsavoury Graham Greene villain, one who might turn up in some horrible update of The Captain and the Enemy. Conversely, Nicola Sturgeon has described Autumn as “glorious”.
Joanna Kavenna writing in The Guardian hailed the book as “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities”. Hitherto, the lingering impression had been of Ali being very much a favourite of Guardian reviewers and readers, though it is now clear the praise is justified, unlike the text in her books.
Some kinds of critical acclaim can be off-putting, which may be something to do with why Ali’s work passed by unnoticed here. There is something, occasionally, about a certain tone in glowing reviews which repels. Once this might have been called the Go-Betweens syndrome, back when there was a running gag about how prosaic positive pop press coverage would even put Robert and Grant off the Go-Betweens.
It is good to be wrong. It is not the first time, and it will not be the last. Certainly, memorably, one had been horribly wrong about Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano books, which became an addiction. Similarly, it turned out that Fred Vargas’ crime novels were not, as suspected, in the Harlan Coben or Dennis Lehane tough thriller tradition, but were actually gloriously odd, poetic flights of fancy, which was a wonderful surprise.
Ali Smith being so funny was the lovely big surprise, and a massive factor in so quickly deciding to make a dramatic switch from a default, faulty, ‘not for me’ position to one of ‘very much for me’. There is not enough humour in ‘serious’ books nowadays. Autumn’s passport renewal scene in the post office is supreme farce worthy of Shena Mackay or Muriel Spark (there was a picture of Ali artfully holding a copy of Abbess of Crewe as part of the publicity for the Desert Island Discs appearance), though without their venomous sting.
It has been remarked on many times, no doubt, but Ali’s writing is remarkable for its torrent of words and unstoppable gushing of word play, the revelling in puns, jokes, the careful construction of immaculate sentences, capturing the rhythm of words, like a rapper’s meticulous attention to how their lyrics flow, creating a carnival of sorts. It creates an impression of performers on an old Variety show, a bill made up of contortionists, dancers, acrobats, conjurers, illusionists, mesmerists, comedians, ballad singers and so on, but not one with some idiot riding a toy ostrich.
The humour in Ali’s writing does perhaps form a link to the early days of Orange Juice and Postcard Records. Edwyn Collins’ and James Kirk’s songs were funny, witty, clever, moving, super smart, providing a link (via their hero Vic Godard) to the greats like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. Their cleverness and wit could also irritate some, which is presumably the case with Ali Smith’s writing too.
A review of Autumn in Private Eye was decidedly sniffy: “A new Ali Smith novel presents a number of challenges to the reader, which is perhaps putting it mildly.” Well, many people like a challenge. Later on in the piece the sneery tone persisted: “The great drawback to the Smith approach to fiction-writing lies not in its non-linear narratives, its circular flights, its very mild avant-gardarie or its rapt interrogations, in which question marks descend like so much flung confetti – but in the construction, the sense of everything just being chucked down more or less at random and the reader being left to do the bulk of the work.”
The review came across a little like one of the contrarian comment pieces The Guardian might run about, say, Captain Beefheart, or the way Trout Mask Replica will be featured in a round-up of difficult listening. Is Ali difficult? Is Trout Mask Replica difficult? Celine Dion or Adele or Duran Duran, for some of us, could be considered difficult to listen to, but Trout Mask Replica is great fun for many.
The double LP of Trout Mask Replica was an unexpected sixteenth birthday present. Well, the birthday was not a surprise, but the choice of gift was. This was March 1980. And the present was Trout Mask Replica along with the Factory cassette of A Certain Ratio’s The Graveyard and the Ballroom in its gorgeous plastic wallet.
TMR certainly seemed wonderful and frightening, and some of it made instant sense in the context of new music by The Fall, Pop Group, and other things John Peel might play late at night. It was not an alienating record though, and lots of it made even more glorious sense when a year or so later Edinburgh’s Fire Engines seemed to take the more outright pop parts to shape their revolutionary beat noise. And, anyway, Beefheart was never going to be a problem for kids who grew up on Catweazle, Spike Milligan’s verse, Chinn and Chapman’s songs, Professor Branestawm books, and Wacky Races.
TMR is not a record that would be a Desert Island Discs choice, but it is a particular favourite. There has always been something about the Captain’s work (like the OJs and Postcard Records) that makes one want to reclaim it, which is why the link to Peter Meaden is so appealing, as revealed in the Steve Turner interview which was published in the NME in 1979 where there is reference to Meaden bringing Beefheart to Britain for the first time after becoming obsessed with and an evangelist for Safe As Milk. It is quite a story, which his friend and business partner Norman Jopling tells in Shake It Up Baby, a memoir about his life in pop in the 1960s.
Safe As Milk is such an enduringly joyous record. There is the extraordinarily vibrant ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’, ‘Yellow Brick Road’ (“around the corner the wind blew back”) with echoes of the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song from Wizard of Oz, then the ‘Then He Kissed Me’ coda to ‘Call On Me’, later echoed by Joy Division, the enunciation in ‘Electricity’, and ‘I’m Glad’, the beautiful soulful ballad covered by Jimmy James and the Vagabonds for the delight and at the instigation of Pete Meaden.
Sometimes the humour in Beefheart’s work gets lost. Just take, for instance, the wit and beauty of ‘Human Get Me Blues’: “I saw yuh baby dancin’ in yer x’ray gingham dress, I knew you were under duress, I knew you under yer dress”. It is naughty, warm and funny like Richard Brautigan writing The Abortion: An Historical Romance, with that library where one copy of a lost book can be deposited for posterity.
The Captain and his crew always had a close connection to the blues, which presumably was part of the appeal for the likes of Meaden the arch mod, but also there are clear links to Tin Pan Alley, and the Great American Songbook, like ‘Moonlight on Vermont’ being closely allied to Sinatra softly singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont’.
It comes through particularly on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), the most up-to-date Beefheart record as the 1980s began, which is often gloriously easy listening, nice and easy does it, very pop, like ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’ with its classic line about “two flamingos in a fruit fight”, as covered by Coati Mundi, sidekick of Kid Creole. And there is the very funny ‘Harry Irene’, about the couple who ran a canteen.
There is even on Trout Mask Replica an old time feel to things, a slapstick element, linked to the appeal of The Three Stooges, back when there were too many Saturday mornings at the pictures, collecting ABC Minors badges, with endless shorts of Larry, Curly and Moe. Then they turned up again later in Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody, borrowed from the local library as a kid, sitting there desperately trying to make sense of it, like Trout Mask Replica, picking out moments of magic and filtering out the irritating aspects, the bad beat-up surrealist stream of consciousness stuff.
That is true of so much art. Even with our absolute cast-iron favourites there tends to be a preferred side, like wishing Dylan did more torch ballads rather than those talkin’ blues rockers, and Sinatra did less ring-a-ding-ding swingin’ and more saloon songs, the contemplative bottom-of-the-glass numbers, like on In The Wee Small Hours, Close To You, Where Are You?, Only The Lonely, No One Cares, Point of No Return, All Alone.
It is the same with writers. While odd is good. abstract is ace, disjointed is delightful, and experiments with form are welcome, when say the occult, the magical realism, the hallucinatory, the fantasy, any of that, comes in that’s when, here, there is a tendency to switch off or skip pages. Like Inspector Montalbano argues in the novel The Paper Moon: “Normality itself seemed sufficiently abnormal to him.” And, daily, it is clear there is nothing as surreal as the so-real.
So, even with Ali’s Autumn, that means being less comfortable with the freeform flights into a dream state, but that is a very minor quibble, and as the gloriously Dickensianally named Byron Stingily (in Ten City) sang: “Different strokes for different folks, whatever makes you happy”.
In that Autumn-Ali Private Eye piece there was a quibble about value for money, challenging the idea of £17 for a wafer-thin manuscript, suggesting Ali Smith was a “mite too indulged by her kind sponsors at Hamish Hamilton”. The value for money issue is a thorny one.
There is more in a slim Leonardo Sciascia or a Joseph Roth Granta novella than in a whole raft of doorstop tomes. A sparse Susan Hill novella packs more emotional punch than an epic story. Writing something short and concise is an artform. So it becomes quite complicated when talking about value for money.
There are distant echoes here of Fire Engines, back in 1981 in their immortal Paul Morley feature for the NME, taking (poorly aimed) pot shots at The Clash’s Sandinista, when asked about whether they were ripping off punters with their twenty minute sets: “I’d rather pay seven quid for a great single than 4.99 for three albums of fucking shite”
In January 1981 a 7-inch single for £7 seemed an absurdity, whereas in January 2017 it is a reality. Who buys singles at seven quid willingly? Who buys new vinyl editions of LPs at thirty pounds a time? Who can afford to go to high-profile football matches home and away? Who can feel comfortable about the price of concerts and theatre performances? Who buys new books at £20-odd quid a time?
Thankfully there is still the local library. And the local library had Ali’s Autumn promptly into stock, and had it prominently displayed. That is delightfully apt as Public Library is the title of a campaigning collection of Ali’s stories, a set of tales thematically linked by testimonies to the power of the public library to change lives.
Ali’s Public Library book is very much a timely protest against the policy of councils facing funding crises to close libraries or to outsource them. The testimonials in the book have a strikingly elegiac tone, though. It is hard to recall anyone saying that they go to their local library every day now. Some of us do. It is very much part of the daily ritual, the morning round. The local library today offers sanctuary, more than any church, and a library card serves as a lifebelt. But, it is presumably part of the problem if libraries are viewed fondly as something to do with the past.
“Why do you not go to the public library and search intently along its shelves sampling page by page what might be good and might be bad, using your own brain and your own coordinates to assess and discriminate?” runs a rant by the male lead in John Murray’s The Legend of Liz & Joe, the 2009 novel by the funniest writer around, who was to Cumbria what Shena Mackay was to South London. John is now running writing courses on the Greek island of Kythnos.
There is a well-known, oft-quoted line in a Manic Street Preachers song about libraries. There is a great Go-Betweens song about a library and a girl(a god!) called Karen who works in it. There is a wonderful passage in Bill Drummond’s 45 about how a library formed a vital part of his daily work routine. But those are all pretty old now. Maybe that is part of another problem.
The local library is the biggest in the borough, which is a real bonus, with lovely staff to boot. It has self-service machines for getting books out and when returning them. This modern trend is a bit of an ongoing thing, with the local banks, supermarkets, W.H. Smith, and even Poundland all now having self-service machines. People get used to them.
As well as books, in the library, there are banks of computers, free for members to use, which is a vital service, and free lessons on how to use them. There are a whole host of other activities and services which now share a space within the library. The information desk is there for queries, but also for paying Council Tax, parking fines, for renewing disabled parking permits, for buying bags for recycling garden waste, and so on.
There is a local studies section, which is popular with those into researching their family trees. There are public toilets, which are a godsend because there are so few left for the public to use. There is a coffee machine, and meeting rooms for hire. There is the Citizens Advice (now without its Bureau) section set up in the far corner, and free wifi. In the children’s section, there are often storytime and singalong sessions, which can be fatal if you want to avoid singing about the grand old Duke of York for the rest of the day.
Upstairs in the reference section, there is a quiet study area, which gets packed at the weekends and particularly near to exam times with kids working away at essays and so on. Back downstairs there are vital commodities like the large-print section and shelves of talking books where anguished souls ponder about what will be right for their Aged Ps and other loved ones.
There are shelves of books and maps withdrawn from service, being sold for next to nothing, and CDs and DVDs which can be borrowed for a small charge, though presumably these have been affected by changes in how we listen and watch.
There is a line in an old Pop Group song about “searching for love in the library of a ghost town.” It is the seeking out of the unexpected, the joy of discovery, finding something inspiring and absorbing among what often seems like a random selection of stock, it is this that makes the library’s shelves so compelling.
There is little to compare with finding stray books, picking them up out of curiosity, and becoming enchanted by them, as indeed happened once with John Murray’s Jazz etc., and more recently with Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad and Jonathan Crown’s Sirius. And it is wonderful to find unexpected treats like a glut of Len Deighton and Eric Ambler reissues, or finding classics which delightfully prove to be revelations, such as Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, Graham Swift’s Waterland, William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault, and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
It is thanks to the local library that it has been possible to hoover up several (actually the tally is up to seven now, so that is just about at the halfway mark!) of Ali Smith’s books in the space of a couple of months, pretty much most of what she has published in the past ten years or so. This has been possible, partly, due to being part of a London Boroughs scheme where it is possible to reserve any book from the many participating libraries for 60p, even from the comfort of a home PC, which is a delightful example of progress.
One of the enchanting things that emerged from the process of gradually borrowing those Ali Smith books from the library was the continuity in the covers. There is a pleasing (Smiths’ singles style) consistency to the way they are presented, which reflects well on her “kind sponsors” at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin.
One of Ali’s books appears in Canongate’s myth series, Girl Meets Boy. This uses a well-known Roger Mayne photo, ‘Girl Jiving in Southam Street’, which is a perfect choice for Ali’s book cover as the subject, Eileen Sheekey, looks suitably androgynous and could easily be a Bowie precursor.
Morrissey used the same photo for the single he recorded with Siouxsie Sioux, a cover of ‘Interlude’, one of the great Timi Yuro recordings made with the British arranger and producer Ian Green in the late 1960s, a sequence which features the devastating ‘It Will Never Be Over For Me’. ‘Interlude’ itself is sung by Timi in an alarmingly appealing deep voice over the title credits of the 1968 film of the same name featuring Oskar Werner and Barbara Ferris. Morrissey was a champion of Timi in the early days of The Smiths when his selections for the NME’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer’ feature seemed radical and a direct challenge to the orthodoxy of the classic rock canon.
Girl Meets Boy is a title which, oddly, always prompts the singing of an old Haircut 100 hit. Ali’s There But For The (which features a Siouxsie t-shirt in the story) meanwhile suggests August Darnell’s Machine/Kid Creole classic ‘There But For The Grace Of God Go I’. Indeed Kid Creole’s Coconuts singing of the gorgeous word ‘onomatopoeia’ from ‘Annie I’m Not Your Daddy’ turns up in her storytelling, coincidentally or not, but then some will tell us they were not supposed to be singing that at all which is pure spite and ruins the fun.
Similarly the gorgeous photo of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy swinging down the street which is on the cover of Ali’s How To Be Both plays a vital part in the book. Indeed, Ali uses a line or two from Sylvie’s delightfully dramatic ‘Le Testament’ for the epigraph of How To Be Both. Actually, there is an appealing pattern to Ali’s epigraphs, with her choosing four for a book from a lovely variety of sources.
In How To Be Both Ali writes about listening to ‘Le Testament’: “What is great about the voice of that singer called Sylvie Vartan is that there’s almost no way it can be made gentle, or made to lie. Also, although it was recorded decades ago, her voice is always, the moment you hear it, rough with its own aliveness. It is like being pleasurably sandpapered. It lets you know you’re alive.”
Ali also chose a Sylvie Vartan song as one of her choices for Desert Island Discs. This was the enchanting ‘Par Amour, Par Pitié, a great example of the subversive nature of the 1960s French yé-yé sound. The reclamation of 1960s French pop was part of a trend which developed in the 1990s, another challenge to orthodox rock canon.
Gradually the appreciation of the yé-yé girls (Françoise, Sylvie, Chantal Goya, France Gall, Jacqueline Taïeb, Stella, Annie Philippe, Clothilde, Pussy Cat, Zouzou, and so forth) grew so much that the scenes featuring Chantal Goya in the recording studio in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin- Féminin became loaded with new suggestions which it is doubtful the director ever intended.
Ali mentions Godard’s A Film Like Any Other in How To Be Both and the cover of her Public Library story collection features a still from Godard’s La Chinoise featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky reading.
Pop culture references in literature can be fun, and they can be wonderfully revealing about a writer’s own passions. When re-reading some of Len Deighton’s 1960s thrillers, featuring his unnamed spy, a few of which were filmed, memorably, with Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, it is striking how effectively the author uses cultural references as colour.
In the follow-up to The Ipcress File, the excellently oblique (Deighton did not make life easy for his readers in this series) Horse Under Water, about the unravelling of an international neo-Nazi conspiracy, there are references to the latest Miles Davis and, at a bohemian party in Chelsea, there is mention of Mingus softly playing.
As the book is set in and around Portugal there are appropriately frequent allusions to the sound of fado, that gloriously melodramatic and tragic style of music. One of the great fado singers, Maria Teresa de Noronha, gets a mention in passing, along with a description of brightly coloured record sleeves being the folk art of the new world.
Deighton is one of those people who comes across as quietly conservative but culturally curious, and it is easy to picture him sitting in the shade listening to Amália Rodrigues sing. Amália, uncredited, appears singing in the TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in a scene set in a Lisbon nightclub featuring Hywel Bennett as Ricki Tarr.
In the next book in the series, Funeral in Berlin, Deighton describes the London club Betty’s where the sound of a one-armed bandit “punctuated some gentle Sinatra”. In a scene where the Harry Palmer character goes to the flat of Israeli agent Samantha Steele they listen to Claire Austin sing ‘I’m Through With Love’ with her “silk and sandpaper voice”. It is a fascinating choice as a signifier for sophistication, and presumably reflects Deighton’s own passion. It would have been far easier to go for one of the more identifiable jazz singers such as Ella, Billie, or Peggy Lee.
The song comes from Claire’s 1956 LP When Your Lover Has Gone, which was recorded with Bob Scobey on trumpet, Barney Kessel on guitar, Stan Wrightsman playing piano, Morty Corb on bass, and Shelly Manne at the drums. It is a curious mix of ancient and modern, musically, with New Orleans revival meets West Coast cool. The atmosphere is intimate, and the material is on the blues side of the torch song art. A particular highlight is Claire’s rendition of the Gershwins’ ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ where she is starkly accompanied beautifully by Barney on the guitar. It is quite mesmerising.
The liner notes open by stating: “There is no hokum in the way Clare Austin sings. Living in Sacramento as a housewife and mother, she is uninvolved in the rivalries of hit-paraders, song pluggers, and show business in general. She sings without affectation, serenely ignoring the vocal tricks and fads of the moment.” Later the writer S.I. Hayakawa describes “a group of performances capable of touching both those who listen to music in order to argue about it and those who listen simply to enjoy its moodiness and eloquence.”
That 1956 LP is now available on an Original Jazz Classics CD, combined with the other LP she recorded in the 1950s: Claire Austin Sings The Blues with Kid Ory. That Blues LP was recorded in 1954, and the photo of Claire singing in the studio used for the cover shot is magnificently severe and anti-fashion. The liner notes start by saying: “Claire Austin is one of the great blues singers of our time, in the classic tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She is a natural, her singing is effortless, her pitch is true, her tone is full and thrilling. But these things alone do not make a great blues singer. For the blues you must also have deeply felt convictions and the emotional maturity which comes with experience of life and love. These are the things which Claire reveals in her singing, and which she evokes from the simplest melody and lyric.”
Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin also features several references to modern classical music, with mentions of Bartók, Ives, and Berg’s Violin Sonata. What is described as “Schonberg’s Variation for Wind Band” plays a vital part in the plot, and the narrator describes it as a “haunting, discordant work”. This fits in with the complex character of the central Harry Palmer figure, the insolent Burnley boy, the rough diamond in his woollen shirts, who is more cultured and clever than he lets on, but it is tempting to see these inclusions also as a projection of Deighton’s own passions.
It is so tempting for a writer to share or refer to enthusiasms when writing, and it is wonderful when they reflect our own unexpectedly. It is a particular delight, for example, to see the allusion to the elephant powder joke in Ali Smith’s There But For The, which is always associated here so happily with a Spike Milligan TV show, rightly or wrongly. Little things like that do matter.
There is a glorious passage in Autumn where a character vows to keep on “bombarding that fence with people’s histories and with the artefacts of less cruel and more philanthropic times”. This is a very civil protest against a fenced-off enclosure where it seems a new refugee detention centre will be built, but more generally it can be interpreted as a promise to defy the poison tide. It is also a totally inspirational definition of why we do what we do, and why we must keep on doing so, even if it means saying the same things over and over.
Ali’s writing is peppered with references to her passions, and she does not shy away from repeating herself. There is the poet Olive Fraser in Public Library, and the pop artist Pauline Boty in Autumn, both as symbols of the cycle where cultural figures are ignored, lost, rediscovered, ignored, lost, rediscovered, ignored, lost, and so on.
Dusty Springfield, another of Ali’s Desert Island Discs choices, pops up often in her writing, and in particular references recur to a story about the great singer chucking a bread roll at an incredibly rude Maître D’ in the Post Office Tower restaurant, her defiance of apartheid in South Africa, and how she was an evangelist for Tamla Motown in the UK.
Someone else who is credited as being one of the prime movers in spreading the word about Tamla Motown in the UK is Dave Godin, who gets some welcome attention in Jon Savage’s 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, a book which proves a vital challenge to the Sandbrookernisation of history which is being allowed to permeate by lazy commissioning editors.
Dominic Sandbrook is one of those pushy, privileged but bitter young fogeys, like Farage and Gove, who sourly seem intent on wreaking revenge on those who were so far ahead of them as kids in terms of being smart and cool. They have to be challenged.
Dave Godin, once of this parish, was both an egalitarian and an inveterate snob, and is perhaps best known now for his invaluable Deep Soul series of CDs for Kent. In the preface to the 2008 publication A Girl Called Dusty the author Sharon Davis gives special thanks to Dave: “He had founded the first Tamla Motown Fan Club in Britain, of which Dusty was a member, and was a forerunner in promoting Motown music in this country. Among his many talents he was a journalist, ran his own record store in London, spearheaded his own record label and quickly earned the title of a black music historian. He was also my dearest friend and mentor. Months before his death (in 2004) he wrote an essay about Dusty and gave it to me for safekeeping in the knowledge that I would one day write my book.”
Dave’s very moving Dusty essay is included right at the start of Sharon’s book, and sets the tone perfectly. This is a little of what he wrote: “Like all great stars she had ambiguity; she sang and radiated warmth and affection, and yet, a tiny element of sadness and loneliness was also visible; a paradox that was perhaps more universally recognized on a subconscious level by her public than she or her record companies ever realized.”
When, in 1966, Dave and his comrades started a record shop, Soul City, in Deptford High Street (Fun City SE8), Brigid Brophy was asked to perform the honours at the official opening. There is a story on the Northern Soul scene about how an instrumental version of Steve Karmen’s ‘Breakaway’ was played in a ‘cover-up’ form as ‘Black Ship To Hell’ by The Johnny Adams Band, a title apparently suggested by Dave Godin, as a tribute to the Brigid Brophy book about destructive instincts. Somehow it seems reasonable to suggest Ali Smith would approve of all this enormously, and forgive anyone for repeating the story.
Sadly, despite choosing one of their songs to take to her desert island, Ali Smith does not seem to have filled pages with mentions of Orange Juice, unless a reference to the line “step we gaily on we go” in Girl Meets Boy (which Edwyn Collins sings in ‘Tender Object’) counts, though as this comes from an old Gaelic folk song (and Ali chose one of those to take with her too) that is questionable.
Mind you, she goes on to mention obliquely Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters and the OJs briefly called their label Holden Caulfield Universal, and one of Postcard patron Alan Horne’s imaginary groups was The Secret Goldfish, another Salinger reference to those wise children in the Glass family, so it sort of fits.
Another wise child, the wonderfully precocious character who takes centre stage in There But For The, receives some advice about cleverness being great, but that knowing how to use it is the most important thing: “Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.”
The original incarnation of Orange Juice were a right bunch of cleverists, which is a huge part of the appeal of Orange Juice specifically and Postcard Records generally. ‘Falling and Laughing’ was a remarkably precocious debut, and generally the group exuded wit, were outrageously gifted, even if their technical ability was outstripped by ideas and ambition (though this added to the magic).
Orange Juice were absurdly audacious, cocky, charming, flippant (the irony of the time is mentioned by Ali), contrary, decidedly awkward but appealingly elegant, and happy to send themselves up, with simultaneous cheeky grins and punky sneers. They were open to all sorts of influences, but deliciously intolerant. In an eccentric way they were unutterably cool, artful antagonists with a talent to irritate and inspire in equal measure.
Ali’s Desert Island Discs choices almost accidentally, or not, reflect the anti-rockism of the time when Postcard rode the crest of a new wave. As Orange Juice sang in their immortal ‘Poor Old Soul’: “No more rock ’n’ roll for you,” echoing the chant by the assembled Subway Sect, Slits, and Prefects personnel on the last night of White Riot tour. This, the early 1980s, was a time when there was a growing openness to and celebration of anything that was not solid rock music, the ‘everything else’ that the group Weekend called La Varieté.
As well as Dusty, Sylvie Vartan and Orange Juice, Ali chose as part of her Desert Island Discs selection some jazz manouche, and Ella singing ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, with the Delta Rhythm Boys, which she frolics through with perfect ease. Ella also appears in Ali’s story ‘The Second Person’, from her collection The First Person and Other Stories
That book comes with a cover photo from William Eggleston’s archives, not for first time, as Ali’s The Accidental has another Eggleston shot, the same one of Marcia Hare which is also on cover of the Primals’ ‘Country Girl’, no doubt an extension of Bobby Gillespie’s long-time passion for Alex Chilton and Big Star. There is some great background information on the Chilton family connections to Eggleston in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis. Alex was mentioned in passing as a possible producer for the OJs’ debut LP.
That story of Ali’s featuring Ella mentions her singing ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’ (and that song, like ‘Paper Moon’, really swings and skips along). In the story Ali brilliantly describes Ella’s performance in a breathtaking passage. She says: “The song is a piece of blunt charm, the way it courts misery then glances away from it with a loss at the heart of it that’s not really a loss at all, or a loss that’s pretending not to be a loss, and the slight hoarseness of Ella Fitzgerald’s younger gruffer self as she sings is so blithe, almost as if unaware of the modulation her voice will soon be capable of when she’s older and wiser”.
Ali also compares and contrasts this adapted nursey rhyme with Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’: “They’re both all about colour, but one’s about what’s really happening in the world, and the other’s a piece of absurdist nonsense, like a denial that words could ever mean anything.”
‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ is by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Ali includes Yip’s words to ‘Paper Moon’ in her anthology The Book Lover (and, who knows, maybe that title is a tip of the hat to Trish and Broadcast): “Without your love it's a honky tonk parade / Without your love it's a melody played in a penny arcade / It's a Barnum & Bailey world / Just as phony as it can be / But it wouldn't be make-believe if you believed in me.”
Yip Harburg was a lyricist whose song credits included ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime’, ‘April in Paris’ and ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ (those last two songs being closely associated with Frank Sinatra). Yip also wrote (with Burton Lane) the musical Finian’s Rainbow, a perfect mix of Irish mysticism and anti-capitalist subversion, from which the wonderful standards ‘Old Devil Moon’ and ‘How Are Things in Glocca Morra’ come.
Yip turns up in Ali’s There But For with a story, perhaps surprisingly, not about his left-wing political views which got him in all sorts of trouble, but about when Yip was at college in New York sitting next to Ira Gershwin. Now what are the chances of that: two of the great lyricists, thrown together willy-nilly, by fate? Ira, himself, turns up in the book, in a lovely passage, a mini-lecture, where Ali writes: “Now Porter has wit, but is shifty, a little seamy, I know, and I couldn’t not love him for it. But, Ira, he’s kind, he’s always kind, and for genius to be kind takes a special sort of genius in itself.”
Ali Smith’s Artful is a terrific book made up, pretty much, of the text from four lectures given by her at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she was the Weidenfeld visiting professor in European Comparative Literature in the early part of 2012. By all accounts, Ali surprised herself by agreeing to take on the challenge of giving the series of lectures which, reportedly, rightly, were wonderfully received.
It is said that Ali is pretty shy, and compared to many modern writers she shuns publicity, preferring to let her books stand alone. She contributes plenty of articles to newspapers and magazines, gives occasional interviews, but is not active on social media. Her appearance on Desert Island Discs, however, revealed Ali as an engaging, effervescent interviewee, and she babbled away merrily, like a fast-flowing stream in the Highlands.
Reading Artful it is very easy to hear the Ali from Desert Island Discs gabbling away, enthusiastically. Those who have studied Literature at university will know better how her lectures compare with what they have sat through, but the impression is that Ali deliberately set out to offer something different.
She purposefully wraps the core parts of her talks in a story, an ongoing dialogue with a dead partner, so that it becomes a moving treatise and tribute, touching on grief and ghosts, secrets and passions, messages from beyond the grave and how we respond to loss. It is a far more adventurous approach to communicating ideas than fusty theory and blowsy philosophical obliqueness. Ironically, it seems Ali once fled from the academic life. It is easy to understand why.
The titles of her Artful themes (On Time / On Form / On Edge / On Offer and Reflection) show a degree of wit to begin with. From the opening line Ali unleashes a torrent of references and quotations, ancient and modern, the words coming fast and furious, all gleefully served up with relish rather than in an ostentatious show-off way.
The text is almost overwhelming with the connections and links and citations, but some of us like that kind of thing: following up leads, clues, and so on. Sourcing these quotes must have been quite a feat of remembrance, so presumably Ali has loads of notebooks with quotes and references all written down in, and cross-referenced.
Within a few pages of the start of Artful there are allusions to, among others, Oliver Twist, Greek myths, the 2011 London riots, Henry James, Angela Carter, William Blake, Jane Austen, George Mackay Brown, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, José Saramago, and Katherine Mansfield. Ali incidentally wrote an introduction to Penguin’s Collected Stories edition of Katherine Mansfield, where she notes that for all her innovation, her work is surprisingly easy to read. And it could be said that what Kat Man do, Ali can too.
The wonderful thing about Artful, and Ali’s writing generally, is that she can be chatting away in her infectious and intimidatingly bright way about the poetry of Wisława Szymborska and then suddenly veer off at a tangent to take in ‘Three Wheels on my Wagon’, the much-loved New Christy Minstrels Junior Choice favourite, which Ali reminds us is a Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard song, one that is from around the same time that they wrote ‘Tower of Strength’ and the great Chuck Jackson number ‘Any Day Now’ which Elvis later covered. Mind you, Bob Hilliard did have previous, having written ‘The Coffee Song’, the one about Brazil having an awful lot of coffee, which Sinatra recorded, though to muddy the waters Hilliard also co-wrote ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ for Frank.
Another of the great things about Artful specifically and Ali’s writing in general, is the way she makes the classics come alive. She has a natural passion for them, which can make the reader feel guilty for their ignorance. Ali touches on a similar thing with her Desert Island Discs choices when she picks a Beethoven piece and talks about how for a long time she felt a distance from classical music because she didn’t know enough about it, but that now she listens to some Beethoven every day and enjoys discovering the different layers. That illumination also features in her short story ‘Fidelio and Bess’ with its blurring of Beethoven’s and Gershwins’ operas.
Ali’s choice of book for her desert island sojourn was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and her own book Girl Meets Boy is a riff on the myth of Iphis which includes the line: “It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters”. Ali has also retold the myth of Antigone for younger readers, and somewhere there must be a pun of putting the myth into Smith?
Her Artful mentions a number of times Ted Hughes’ retelling of tales from Ovid, which in a twisted way serves as a reminder of seeing Ted Hughes speak, or rather read, at Avery Hill College on that same day, that same sixteenth birthday, the day that really belonged to Trout Mask Replica and the A Certain Ratio cassette.
For, little or nothing much sticks in the mind about Ted Hughes’ reading, except that it was an opportunity to be away from the classroom for a while, and a lingering impression that this was not how a poet was expected to be, this brooding presence, glowering, lowering, up there at the lectern in a rough tweed jacket and tie, with hair flopping down over his forehead like Bryan Ferry, not trying to please.
Memory plays tricks on us all. Things linger unbidden in the mind, while other memories remain elusive. It is a reminder how much we all take for granted when we are young. It probably seemed more important back then what John Peel was playing or Dave McCullough reviewing in Sounds or who was signing for West Ham. School days are taken for granted, but looking back it is fun to recall your tiny hippy hard-nut history teacher’s habit of quoting Captain Beefheart at racists, saying that we are all coloured or you wouldn’t be able to see anyone.
And it is sort of heartbreaking to remember how a sweet, nervous English teacher, a gentle lady, cared enough to take small groups of kids to matinees in the West End, to see plays like Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (which was a delight for a young Dexys fan) at the Aldwych on The Strand. Apparently Judi Dench was in that production, but was she on stage that afternoon?: “The memory wastes.”
The cover star of Artful, pictured curled up at some well-stocked bookshelves, is Aliki Vougiouklaki, a very popular Greek actress and singer. She features in the book too, in a lovely passage where the dead lover leaves a message behind saying: “I wasn't really working, and I was suddenly unbelievably embarrassed in case you found out I wasn't, and even worse, that instead of working I was trawling the net for things you'd love." What a lovely series of thoughts. Basically, instead of listening to a piano sonata, the dear departed had been on YouTube, watching clips of Aliki, cheerfully wasting time as we have all done so often when we should be working.
In her Desert Island Discs appearance Ali explains how in 2009, when her dad died, she would sit in the middle of the night, trying to find a way out of the darkness, watching disjointed clips from old Greek musicals (“Who knew?” said Ali) on YouTube. She chose Aliki singing ‘To Feggaraki’, as one of her desert island choices, and described Aliki as being a great figure on a par with Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.
Look up Aliki singing the song on YouTube and, while you may be at risk of disappearing down a rabbit hole, there is no escape from being enchanted by Aliki hoofing gamely, in the 1964 film it appears in, sending herself up something rotten, a little Clare Groganesque in that sense. And it is easy to see how the funny, subversive, playful, beautiful Aliki might be one of Ali’s key blondes, like Dusty, Sylvie, Pauline Boty.
Is ‘To Feggaraki’ that good? Good enough to take to a desert island? Oh, very much so. And there is so much treasure in the Greek vintage pop world, which became very apparent when, in 2010, disappearing down that very rabbit hole, losing hours at home watching clips of old Greek musicals, and tracking connections, via the vagaries of Googled translations and YouTube algorithms.
This was around the time of the Greek debt crisis and the on/off EU bail-out, Athens riots, and anger about the European Union’s bullying. All of which added a certain spice to the explorations of Greece’s musical past. Although oddly Aliki was not among the many clips closely studied here. But it has been fun catching up.
A personal obsession was, and is, clips of songs where they were always being sung in a tavern by a preoccupied lady, lost in the songs’ exquisite sadness, like a great jazz torch or fado singer, while at the tables around the bar the tense conversations stop, meaningful glances are exchanged between protagonists, or someone walks in, freezes at seeing who is sitting there listening to the music, stays hovering in the doorway, distracted by the tragic nature of the song, the tragoudia, the musicians are absorbed entirely in what they are doing, smoke from forgotten cigarettes drifts, drinks are left untouched, time stands still. Shorn of context from the original films, these clips tell all sorts of stories of their own.
Look up Tzenh Banoy, or Jenny Vanou, for the permutations of spelling of Greek in translation are trickily inconsistent, for film of her singing in old films from the early 1960s. And then step on to Tzenh singing her 1961 single ‘An s'arnitho agapi mou’, an absolute obsession here, with its the fingersnappin’, walking bass, jazzy piano, and scatting interludes, a little like Peggy Lee attempting an accelerated ‘Fever’.
Some of those Tzenh Banoy recordings are wonderfully emotional and dramatic, rather in the spirit of what Timi Yuro was doing in the US concurrently, or the Italian singer Mina (whose original of ‘Se telefonado ...’ with the Morricone connection is a glorious thing, with its connections on to Françoise Hardy and Subway Sect), and later Dusty who had an Italian link with ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. Tzenh as the 1960s progressed turned into a striking beehived blonde, somewhere between Dusty and Monica Vitti who is a ghostly presence, it seems, throughout the modern half of How To Be Both.
The title of the Aliki song Ali chose, ‘To Feggaraki’, seemed familiar somehow, and that is because of a (not the same) song from a very early Nana Mouskouri collection of (her very early patron) Manos Hadjidakis songs which is played an awful lot here, alongside her 1965 collaboration with the arranger and producer Bobby Scott. This, the way Nana sings it, is a mournful ballad, which is known as ‘Hartino To Feggaraki’ which translates as ‘The Paper Moon’.
It is one of the earliest collaborations between the great Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis and his close friend and lyricist, the poet Nikos Gatsos (whose role in Greek pop is somewhat similar to Vinicius De Moraes in Braziliian bossa nova and beyond). It is a different sort of song to the perky one Aliki sang, though Manos and Nikos did compose for Aliki, notably for the 1963 film Aliki, My Love which was the first film she made for an English-speaking audience, with co-stars including Jess Conrad and William Hyde-White, and some glorious gratuitous near nudity of the sort that so obsessed Michael Owen in Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up!
The success of Manos Hadjidakis’ soundtrack for the Jules Dassin film Never On Sunday made people pay attention to popular music of Greek origin. There were five hit versions of the film’s theme in the UK alone in 1960.
Manos had more success with the soundtrack he composed for the 1964 film Topkapi, a caper based on Eric Ambler’s great novel The Light of Day, which again was directed by Jules Dassin and starred those greats Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley, along with the director’s wife Melina Mercouri who had given such a memorable performance in Never On Sunday.
Melina was early on associated with singing ‘Hartino To Feggaraki’ in the context of a Greek adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire which Hadjidakis and Gatsos wrote the score for. In the original play there is a scene where Blanche DuBois sings ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’, the Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen song Ella sang with such ease.
The Hadjidakis song appears again on a glorious 1969 collection, of the young singer Arleta performing a set of Manos’ compositions. Arleta is among the Greek singers of the 1960s who can be classed as being part of the ‘neo kyma’ (or new wave, like the film form, like bossa nova in Brazil) movement, which dovetails with aspects of the pop side ( e.g. Vashti) of what Rob Young calls English Eden visionary music, Cuba’s Nueva Trova, the wider Latin American La Nueva Canción folk song movement, aspects of the French chanson tradition, and the folk side of the yé- yé sound, fitting well with things like Marianne Faithful singing ‘As Tears Go By’ and Mary Hopkin’s ‘Those Were The Days’.
It is a style, neo kyma, that will appeal enormously to those that love Abba’s ballads and Françoise Hardy’s soft murmurings (very Vic Godard circa late 1978 that pairing), and those who adore Nico’s Chelsea Girl with Larry Fallon’s gorgeous orchestral arrangements being as glorious as those he did for Astral Weeks, and with such great songs too, like Tim Hardin’s ‘Eulogy To Lenny Bruce’, Bob Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, those early Jackson Browne songs, and Lou Reed’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams’ which dovetails with the one Sinatra sang in 1954 for Swing Easy. And there was certainly a Tin Pan Alley aspect to Lou’s songwriting, as in the Velvets’ ‘Beginning To See The Light’ fitting perfectly with the one Ella et al sang.
There are great examples of the 1960s and very early 1970s neo kyma form which it is easy to become obsessed with, like Soula Birbili singing the songs of Mikis Theodorakis (the other great Greek composer), and recordings by Arleta, Kaiti Homata, and in particular Popi Asteriadi, with her Jean Seberg or Julie Driscoll style gamine mod crop, on her own and on the remarkable 1971 record she made with Lakis Pappas, Paei Ki Ayti, which features the incredibly beautiful and uplifting ‘Αγριο πουλί’ or ‘Wild Bird’.
The great neo kyma recordings tend to feature traditional instrumentation (the bouzouki and lute), with acoustic guitars, flutes, harpsichords, violins, cellos, harps, pianos, vibes, and so on, mixing international pop elements with folk music forms, folkloric themes, and echoes of the Greek myths and taverns.
The records Arleta made in the 1960s are extraordinary, dramatically stark and beautiful, and it helps that she is there in photos, which seem suitably grainy, in a black polo-neck and with a messy moptop, looking like the sweetest beat angel whose eye one tried and failed to catch in 1985 at Dan Dan the TVPs man’s Room at the Top club night at The Enterprise, Chalk Farm, just opposite the ice cream parlour which featured in those great Vic Godard and Dave McCullough interviews.
As Arleta’s 1969 set suggests, Manos Hadjidakis’ songs were pretty central to the neo kyma boom, and his own compositions have the same elegant elements John Cameron brought to Donovan’s recordings, and which Robert Kirby added to Nick Drake’s work.
A little earlier, in 1965, Manos was in the States to make his great orchestral work Gioconda’s Smile, with Quincy Jones, and the best New York session men. Billy Byers was credited with doing the arrangements on what is a stunning piece of composition, one which simultaneously sounds ancient, with its Grecian elements and instrumentation, and thoroughly contemporary with a feel that put the work firmly in the cosmopolitan mid-1960s New York milieu.
Manos would say about this beautiful work: “These ten songs were composed with a blend of despair and reminiscences. The theme is a solitary woman in the big city. Each song is a monologue of hers and all the songs together compose her story which is modern and yet, at the same time, old.” When released the LP was pitched as “more exotic new musical impressions by the world famous cinema composer.”
That same year Hadjidakis with Nikos Gatsos made the incredibly beautiful work Mythology, featuring the angelic singing of Yorgos Romanos, or George Romanos, who later sang with Aphrodite’s Child and in 1970 made the wonderfully wild (and very rare in its original form) Dyo mikra galazia aloga (or Two Little Blue Horses) which features some fantastic distorted guitar work and a real sense of urgency often missing in psych sounds, while still retaining a very distinctive Greek identity.
In his own words, as featured in an EMI Greek classics edition which, like a similar presentation of Gioconda’s Smile, is beautifully presented in a hardback book format like the Blood & Fire reissue of Heart of the Congos, Manos explains the “unexpected shaping of a ‘mythology’ two years prior to the dictatorship”.
He states: “Like a trueborn general, in 1965 I wanted to bring about a revolution. In lieu of tanks, I selected a teenager from the Royal Palace Children’s Choir – dark and handsome – and asked him to sing. He said: ‘To sing, I need new myths’.
“Together with Gatsos, we started to fabricate one myth after another: girls from Thebes losing their keys; Irish and Jews searching in the wilds for marriage and joy; sensitive robbers breathing their last; a lad who kills friends and brothers, because no one ever paid him due attention; Orestes who turned into a bird in the woods to escape what fate had in store for him, a child that resembled Christ, etc., etc.
“And one myth was added to the other, and they became so many and so powerful, the adolescent took fright, the world took fright, and so did the record company. Everyone was scared but for Gatsos and myself, who continued to make up and produce myths with greater fervour, completely forgetting the revolution I had planned.”
There is some blurb on the website of Denise Harvey, a small independent publisher, working from the island of Euboea, which says: “In 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, (Nikos) Gatsos published his major work, the surrealist epic poem Amorgos. Written in one night of inspired concentration, the poem was a distinctive re-imagining of the Greek poetic tradition, composed at a time of mortal danger for the Greek people.”
There is a photo which plays an important part in Ali Smith’s Artful lectures, it is of four women sleeping, or of a group of surrealists slumbering, taken at Lambe Creek House, Cornwall, in 1937. The four women are Lee Miller, Ady Fidelin, Nusch Éluard, Leonora Carrington, all significant figures in their way.
In her text Ali says: “That’s Leonora Carrington, you said, one of the most underrated of the British Surrealist artists and writers. Why we haven’t had a huge retrospective of her work at the Tate I don’t know.” This is a recurring motif in Ali’s writing, one where women artists, poets, writers, singers are not given due credit. Ali later wrote an introduction for Leonora’s book The Hearing Trumpet when it was republished by Penguin.
That photo by Roland Penrose, which is reproduced at the back of Artful, makes the four young women look like they would be the best ever post-punk outfit. Their dress sense oddly is reminiscent of a clip available on YouTube of Slits on Belgian TV doing ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’, in 1981, .with some unidentified dancers who are mesmerising, skanking and waltzing around in printed and pleated skirts, blouses, sensible sweaters, dancing in their heads and out of their skins.
The four sleeping surrealists were as notorious as Slits, in their way. But the four women look less wild in the photo, more like The Raincoats, less brash and more quietly subversive. On The Raincoats’ Facebook page there is a photograph of Ali Smith with Gina Birch and Ana da Silva from the group. It looks like it could be a glorious collaboration.
The shot was taken when they all took part in a benefit in the summer of 2016 for the Feminist Library, on Westminster Bridge Road. Ali’s writing perhaps finds its closest musical echo in The Raincoats’ Odyshape LP. There is a similar refusal to accept constraints of form, but Ali’s and The Raincoats’ works are totally pop in their own unique ways. Here is something about Odyshape from a book called A Moment Worth Waiting For:
“It remains one of the most adventurous and strangest of pop records ever. It’s hard to think of any other record so inherently against rock orthodoxy, without making a big song and dance of it. Where so many of the punk generation paid lip service to breaking with the past, The Raincoats on Odyshape made what seemed to be unprecedented music.
“Rhythmically and structurally the songs are joyously all over the place, and the group pushed and pulled in all sorts of diverse directions, incorporating idiosyncratic instrumentation and melodic ideas that bristled and bridled and beguiled. ‘Shouting Out Loud’ opens Odyshape, perfectly capturing a confidence and vulnerability, while at the same time showing the group had developed enough to sound loose, which is a large part of the record’s enduring appeal, that and the fact it seemed so out-of-step at the time has meant it has evaded dating.
“Odyshape is such a beautifully intricate and warm record: there is so much going on. It is loose, too, in the sense of swapping instruments and personnel around from song to song, having a go at using different voices, different lyricists (Ana da Silva, Gina Birch and Caroline Scott), with all involved happy to hit this, pluck that, and take some time to get it right.”
From the four sleeping surrealists in Ali Smith’s Artful it is a typically typical-Ali short hop, skip and a jump, or a few lines, to a mention of Doris Day singing ‘Let The Little Girl Limbo’ an old Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil song which was lost for forty-odd years. Ali as ever effortlessly makes the quick switch between what is considered serious art (by some) and pop which is said (by some of that ‘some’) to be disposable. Ali does this in an entirely natural, infectious way, sharing enthusiasms in a genuinely nice manner, though no doubt she is thinking: “Has Doris Day ever been mentioned before in an Oxford University Literature lecture? She should be!”
At the back of Artful Ali states that she first came across ‘Let The Little Girl Limbo’ on the CD Where Girls Are Volume 5. It is that sort of small detail that makes the heart glow. This is a record which belongs to a long-running series (they seem to be up to nine volumes) put together and annotated by Mick Patrick and Malcolm Baumgart for the Ace organisation. The series started in 1997, and it is an erudite, diligent scholarly work of love, which in its way, by shining the spotlight on 1960s US girl group and femme pop sounds, offers a direct and sustained challenge to the accepted pop histories.
Some of the titles in the series are themed sets. For example, Volume 2 focuses on Florence Greenberg’s Scepter family of labels and near neighbours Musicor. This includes Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ excellent cover of Mary Wells’ ‘Bye Bye Baby’, along with tracks by Maxine Brown, Nella Dodds, Shirelles, Candy and the Kisses, and many more. It features Diane & Anita’s original of ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’, the dramatically haunting song written by the enigmatic Fangette Enzel, which was covered theatrically in the UK in 1965 by Tammy St John with a very great Johnny Harris arrangement.
Tammy’s follow-up, another Johnny Harris affair, was a storming cover of The Chiffons’ ‘Nobody Knows What’s Going On (In My Mind But Me)’ which was composed by the even more enigmatic Brute Force. His composition ‘Look In My Diary’ as performed by Reparata & the Delrons was one of the highlights of the first volume of Where The Girls Are.
Volume 3 in the series draws on the Chess family archives, and has a fantastic cover photo of Sugar Pie DeSanto, Jackie Ross, and Fontella Bass pushing a car full of Radiants (of ‘Baby You’ve Got It’ and ‘Voice Your Choice’ fame). Also on the CD are Mitty Collier, Jan Bradley, Tammy Montgomery, Tamiko Jones (Timiko). Among the standout tracks are Jean DuShon’s imperious beat ballad ‘As I Watch You Walk Away’ and, in a similar vein, Carol Vega’s ‘One Little Thing’.
The fourth set in the series shows off Atlantic’s feminine side. Tamiko Jones features again, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles excel with ‘All or Nothing’, Doris Troy’s ‘You’d Better Stop’ is a surprisingly punkish track which was only released in the UK, where Doris made her home, becoming a much in-demand backing singer and sort of part of Dusty’s extended circle. Another highlight is Goldie and Gingerbreads’ ‘Walking in Different Circles’ and they are pictured on the CD cover looking suitably wild in their suede coats and bouffants, and Goldie aka Genya Ravan aptly later produced Dead Boys’ ‘Sonic Reducer’.
Volume 5, the one Ali refers to, is collected from the Columbia vaults and features a host of Brill Building rarities. The cover is quite remarkable, featuring a shot of The Glories wearing what look like x-ray dresses and boots. The whole CD is great, but the sequence featuring the closing eight tracks is remarkable, starting with Marlina Mars’ ‘It’s Love That Really Counts in the Long Run’, a sweet Bacharach & David number produced by Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield. Then Aretha sings ‘Sweet Bitter Love’, a Van McCoy song which Marcia Griffiths later did a lovely lovers rock version of.
Next up are The Opals with the delightfully intense ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’ which Curtis Mayfield wrote and produced, with an arrangement by the great Johnny Pate. It is followed by Erma Franklin getting deep on ‘The Right To Cry’, a Goffin & King song, produced by Bert Berns, presumably very shortly before he died. It is followed by The Little Foxes’ ‘Love Made To Order’ and then Sandi Sheldon with ‘Baby You’re Mine’, written and produced by Van McCoy, her
As the accompanying liner notes point out, The Opals, Little Foxes and Sandi Sheldon all feature on one of the great Kent Records (another branch of the Ace family) CDs, the 1996 set Okeh – A Northern Soul Obsession. That collection majestically closes with Walter Jackson’s remarkably moody ‘It’s An Uphill Climb To The Bottom’, the other song Fangette Enzel is loved for.
Another Goffin & King classic, ‘Wasn’t It You?’, sung by Peggy Lipton, star of The Mod Squad, and later married to Quincy Jones, is the penultimate track. It is the song so closely associated with The Action, and their perfectly poised, elegantly poignant recording featuring Reggie King at his most regal.
The CD closes with the slightly off-kilter, and perfectly in-keeping conceptually, 1971 recording of Laura Nyro and Labelle doing ‘Spanish Harlem’. As the liner notes state about Laura “the Bronx Ophelia”: “She was The Shirelles with lyrics by William Burroughs, the love child of Emily Dickinson and John Coltrane. She was George Gershwin ‘cookin’ with The Miracles’, a youngster who spent many teenage hours with her friends, doo wopping in the subway, ‘looking for an echo’. The notes conclude by saying that Brill Building songs and the girl group sound were cornerstones of her creative ethos.