Saturday, 17 October 2020

autumn flowers

Since completing my 14 days of home quarantine at midnight on Tuesday, I’ve been out for a long walk each day, partly because I needed the exercise after being cooped up for so long and partly to see what, if anything, had changed in the more than four months I’ve been away.

Naturally, I took quite a lot of photos, particularly of flowers, because, unlike in the UK, flowers appear all year round in the Hong Kong countryside. I can’t provide any specific identifications. I just like to see them. Some of the following photos are of species that I see all the time, while others, like the first photo, are of species that I was seeing for the first time ever:
The next photo was taken alongside our local river, which you can just make out in the background. This shrub is extremely common, although this is the only example that I’ve seen in the past few days:
The next two photos were taken in a public garden in Sheung Shui, which we just happened to pass through on our walk to North District Hospital, where Paula had a physiotherapy appointment:
I actually caught a small white butterfly in the act of slurping nectar from a flower that I think is a hibiscus:
The next photo was taken in the village of Ping Kong, which I decided to take a look around while Paula was in the hospital because, as a non-patient, I wasn’t allowed to accompany her inside due to covid restrictions:
I’d never seen any examples of the next flower before, although that is probably because I spotted it alongside a path that I’d only ever cycled along previously, and like many of the paths that I follow on a bike, you cannot afford to allow your attention to wander or you are likely to disappear off the edge:
However, I will keep an eye out for it in the future, because as this photo illustrates, there are more buds to burst out.

The next three photos were taken on the path that we follow when walking from our village into Fanling:
The next photo was taken in the village of Fu Tei Pai, a few kilometres east of Fanling. Paula thought that it must be related to morning glory, because the shapes of the flowers are similar. However, I think she’s wrong, because although both are creepers, the shape of the leaves is strikingly different:
The final photo was taken alongside ‘the eastern descent’, which is the most direct route from the walled village of Tung Kok Wai to the major traffic artery of Sha Tau Kok Road, which we need to cross on our way back home:
I certainly expect to take more photos of flowers in the coming months, but if I think they’re any good, I will probably include them in my next photographic highlights collection.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

sixties music: the bottom ten

Ten years ago, I published a list of tracks from the 1960s under the title ‘Sixties Music: the Top Ten’. This wasn’t a list of what I considered the best songs of the decade; it was a compilation of what I regarded as the most significant. For example, I included the Beatles’ Please, Please Me rather than a track from their later catalogue; Hendrix’s Hey Joe rather than All Along the Watchtower (a rare example of a cover version that improved on the original); and Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues rather than, for example, Like a Rolling Stone.

If you were around in the 1960s, you may still be telling people how great the music was back then, but that’s the result of more than half a century of hindsight. I would wager that you’ve already forgotten most, if not all, the songs that I’m about to list. The only criterion, other than their sheer awfulness, that qualifies a song for inclusion in this list is that it had to have reached #1 in the UK singles chart. Prepare to be horrified!

1. Elvis Presley — Are You Lonesome Tonight? (1961)
Presley had been on a downward musical trajectory for several years by the time this record was released, but this is the nadir. However, it could almost be considered bearable if you treat it as a comedy record, with its earnestly recited—an embarrassingly silly—middle eight.

2.  Cliff Richard — The Next Time / Bachelor Boy (1963)
Cliff did record a few half-decent songs in the early years of his career (e.g. Move It!, Dynamite), but this was a double horror. The people who bought this record clearly didn’t notice that the musical scene was changing.

3. The Dave Clark Five — Glad All Over (1963)
This song’s claim to fame—or notoriety if you prefer—is that it replaced the Beatles’ at #1 in the UK charts at a time when Beatlemania in the UK was at its peak. It may be that the mainstream media emphasized this fact because the record itself is so awful. By the way, I single out the Honeycombs (#5 below) for its poor drumming, but Dave Clark couldn’t play the drums either.

4.  The Four Pennies — Juliet (1964)
I imagine that this ‘band’ secured a recording contract as a result of the rush to sign up any guitar-based outfit in the immediate aftermath of the appearance on the scene of the Beatles in the hope that they would emulate their success. Unsurprisingly, the Four Pennies were a one-hit wonder that quickly disappeared from view. Thankfully.

5.  The Honeycombs — Have I the Right? (1964)
I remember the main selling point of this ‘band’ being that it had a female drummer. It is not my intention to suggest that women can’t play the drums, but this one certainly couldn’t.

6.  Tom Jones — Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)
My abiding memory of this song is of a fellow student in Manchester asking to borrow my copy of Melody Maker, opening it at the charts page and collapsing in a fit of hysterical laughter when he saw that this record was #1. Say no more.

7.  Scott McKenzie — San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) (1967)
Although this song acquired the status of an anthem for the so-called ‘summer of love’, I regarded that movement then—and still do—as bullshit, with its rallying cry of ‘flower power’. The song doesn’t get any better with age.

8.  Engelbert Humperdinck — Release Me (1967)
It beggars belief that this song broke the Beatles’ run of #1 hits, especially as the record it kept off the top spot, the double A-side Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, was arguably the band’s best single. ‘Sentimental garbage’ is my opinion of this vomit-inducing song. I wonder who bought it.

9.  Peter Sarstedt — Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)? (1969)
Pretentious. That was my verdict when this song was released, and it would probably be my reaction now if I heard it again (I’m not about to test this assertion).

10.  The Archies — Sugar, Sugar (1969)
‘Bubblegum’ music had a brief period in the spotlight in the late sixties, and I suspect that this song—and Simon Says by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, also a #1—was bought by the parents of very young children to keep them amused. It certainly didn’t amuse me.

11.  Rolf Harris — Two Little Boys (1969)
The only comment that I can make about this execrable rubbish is that it had a remarkably prescient title.
*  *  *
It will not have escaped the notice of alert readers that I failed to keep my list down to the advertised number of ten. I was reading through the comments on Black Music of the 1960s (link below), where I’d proposed Herman’s Hermits as an example of the kind of garbage that was being promoted at that time. One of my readers countered with the Dave Clark Five, and I realized that I’d completely forgotten what may well be the single most overrated outfit of all time—it has been inducted into the so-called ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame’! The Rock ’n’ Roll Dustbin of History would have been a more appropriate repository.

the more positive side of sixties music
Black Music of the 1960s
Alternative Sixties: Part 1
Alternative Sixties: Part 2

These posts include YouTube links, so you can check out tracks with which you’re unfamiliar. For obvious reasons, I’ve not done this with the main list.

Friday, 9 October 2020

god save the queen?

Between January 1974 and January 1978, I worked as a senior instructor at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School. During the last year of this period, I also moonlighted as the television critic for TV & Entertainment Times, a local listings magazine. Around the time I left Hong Kong in 1978, this magazine published an essay that I’d written about Queen, the third of my all-time favourite bands (and the only one I ever saw live). While I begin to refocus on writing after a barren summer in the UK, I thought that I would republish that essay here.
*  *  *
The problem faced by singers and bands that parody rock music is that no one takes them seriously. People do listen to them, it’s true, but only in a vague, slightly amused fashion. However, the best satirists, like the best practical jokers, are taken seriously—the reason being that their particular audience does not recognize the humorous intent.

The band I’m referring to here is Queen. They are possibly the most original band to appear since the Beatles, but the practical joker side of their music is rarely far below the surface. Yet they have reached their present pre-eminence in Britain purely because their audience takes them seriously.

As Perry Martin [a professional musician working in Hong Kong whom I knew at the time] told me: “They’ve made progressive rock into a saleable commodity.” Of course, this is an oversimplification. What they have actually done is to parody rock music in the most effective way: by the best possible use of existing techniques and by the invention of new ones when necessary. In effect, this means that their performance is often far better than that of the band they are allegedly mimicking.

The first clues that the band wasn’t entirely straight appeared on their third album, Sheer Heart Attack. Killer Queen [the first ever track by the band that I heard] is an apparent dig at the female equivalent of Ray Davies’ Dedicated Follower of Fashion, but whereas the Kinks’ ‘hero’ was a feckless, working-class type, Queen’s ‘heroine’ is an altogether more sophisticated character:
Well-versed in etiquette,
Extraordinarily nice, etc.
As for Flick of the Wrist, it could have come straight out of a Victorian melodrama, complete with moustachioed villain (the butt of the humour). Lap of the Gods is more than a little reminiscent of Bryan Ferry’s Roxy Music, while Bring Back That Leroy Brown is a take-off of a traditional jazz band. Dear Friends is only slightly removed from:
Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares,
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.
How can a band that does this kind of thing be on the level?

It is yet another attempt to introduce ‘theatre’ into rock music. David Bowie was probably the first to try this, but his music was little more than unimaginative science fiction, and he was obliged to resort to glitter and greasepaint to disguise his limitations. In the same vein, Alice Cooper has all but left the music behind, with the result that his act is entirely theatrical. At the other end of the scale, bands such as Jethro Tull and Genesis have a strong theatrical element in their music, but it is implicit (cf. Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway). The main weakness here is that the intrinsic ‘plots’ are either too convoluted or else too surreal for a wide audience to want to identify with them.

With Queen, the opposite is true. The fun-poking is so outrageously explicit that no one can believe they really mean it. However, they are merely preying on an age-old human weakness, the inability to believe what is right under one’s nose. And in doing so, they have resurrected music hall (US: ‘vaudeville’), updating it for the 1970s. The clue is in the band’s use of ‘barber-shop quartet’ harmonies, even in the most incongruous places. A song that would otherwise be a straight copy of a rock sausage machine such as Led Zeppelin is turned into near farce by the introduction of beautiful harmonizing voices.

Now listen to A Night at the Opera, which, not coincidentally, is also the title of a Marx Brothers film. The album opens with Death on Two Legs, a song ostensibly directed against loan sharks [I learned subsequently that the target of this song was the band’s former manager, who had ripped them off]. Freddie Mercury is a master of the pointed insult:
Insane! You should be put inside.
You’re a sewer rat decaying in a cesspool of pride.
However, the song has been left subtly ambiguous. It could easily refer to a big-shot businessman—after all, how much difference is there between the two types? It just happens that the businessman has his reinforcements more efficiently marshalled, but the ordinary man in the street supports neither type. He simply accepts the status quo, believing that he can do nothing to alter the situation.

The indignant mood of the first song is immediately punctured by Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, which turns the spotlight on the so-called ‘idle rich’:
I come from London town, I’m just an ordinary guy.
Fridays I go painting in the Louvre.
…the type whose pictures you can look at in the social pages of various magazines—always assuming that you want to in the first place.

Seaside Rendezvous also has a touch of this atmosphere, although the target here is the Charley’s Aunt brand of more or less decorous courtship, from the angle of ‘but who needs a chaperone anyway?’

It will be seen that the satirical element in the band’s work has extended far beyond the boundaries of rock music. The limited credence given to prophets of doom is picked out in The Prophet’s Song. No matter that the prophet of doom is always right. For ordinary people, Noah’s flood never happened, and Armageddon is merely a fond hope in the teachings of fundamentalist Christian sects. And it is all summarized in one line:
Listen to the madman!
Good Company, another song with a quasi-jazz motif, highlights the folly of the man who spends a lifetime building a wall around himself, using people for as long as they serve his purpose, then discarding them. This song also spotlights the technical wizardry of Brian May, who makes his guitar sound like, in turn, a cornet, an alto saxophone and a clarinet.

Love of My Life has to be a jibe at the Happy Days adolescent sexuality of the 1950s, the
Each night I ask the stars up above:
Why must I be a teenager in love?
mentality, complete with hyperbole and mock pathos. It is in a song like this that the true artistry of the band can be seen: the words are straight, almost banal, but the hyperbole comes in the delivery—it is a slow ballad, sung with earnest intensity. However, the illusion of seriousness is dispelled by the ubiquitous harmonizing voices, echoing the lead singer’s words like an unasked-for conscience.

The entire charade is topped off by a poker-faced rendition of God Save the Queen. It’s only as the final note is struck that the listener is treated to a little flourish in the form of a few extra bars—an embellishment that fits beautifully. Again, the subtlety of the band’s art is evident; a heavier-handed band would have ‘jazzed it up’, that is, if they had had the audacity to play the anthem in the first place.

How do they do it? How do they get away with it? The first is the easier question to answer. Broadly speaking, they use a mixture of farce and melodrama, in proportions that vary from song to song but that are selected with an unerring sense of timing. The guitar solo in Millionaire’s Waltz, albeit in waltz time, would be fairly ordinary, were it not punctuated by an absurd single note struck on a triangle.

As for Somebody to Love: how dare they apply such impeccable musical styling to such a trivial subject? But this is the key to Queen’s success. They do have the nerve to do what they do—and they do it so well!

Just listen to Teo Torriate (this, like the last two songs mentioned, is from the band’s latest album, A Day at the Races, another title borrowed from the Marx Brothers). The resemblance to a school choir performing at some inconsequential concert is uncanny, even down to the school music master pounding away at the piano, at the same time doing his best to conduct his proteges with his head.

It would seem that I’m implying that Queen are an eclectic band. This is not strictly true. Admittedly, they do borrow musical ideas, and from the most unlikely places, but these are blended together in a style that is both unique and instantly recognizable. Rock music has come a long way since Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, even since the Beatles, and the post-Beatles era has been one of diversification—there are almost as many ‘categories’ within the genre as there are bands.

However, the 1970s has seen two main trends: mainstream pop music and ‘underground’ rock, the latter originating in the late 1960s with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Velvet Underground in America, and with Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin in Britain. The factor that distinguishes the two streams is that ‘pop’ music is just that—a barometer of popular tastes at any given time—while what I’ve identified as underground music is music for those listeners who are turned off by the banalities of the former. Being freed from considerations of commercialism, it is invariably more adventurous.

Inevitably, this has meant that over the past decade, the two trends have steadily diverged. Music that attempts to bridge the gap, appearing at a time when pop is becoming increasingly elementary in structure, when talent is no longer a necessary prerequisite for achieving popular acclaim, must be either a tedious preciosity or something very unusual. Most people who have listened to Queen would probably agree that they are not the former.

In fact, if it is time for a major new influence to supersede the Beatles, then Queen are a likely candidate. If this is objected to as an overstatement, it must be conceded that they represent an unexpected swing of the pendulum. Nevertheless, it is important not to underrate the Beatles merely because they were overrated 14 years ago. The hysteria provoked by the Beatles in the period 1963–64 is no longer easy to understand, and it is for this reason that it is extremely difficult to envisage a repeat performance by another band.

The Beatles were technically little better than their contemporaries, but they had the good fortune to be assigned a producer who was sympathetic to their musical ideas. Had they not failed their Decca audition, this would never have happened. Also, nowadays, there are just too many bands of comparable technical ability. However, as I’ve attempted to point out, Queen’s style is unique. Someday, another type of music will supersede rock, yet when today’s leading lights are barely remembered, even as names, I would wager that much of Queen’s music will still be around, valued for its creative genius.

A comparison with the Beatles is not completely fatuous. Admittedly, Queen do have a long way to go to emulate the Beatles’ spectacular chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever do so. However, Bohemian Rhapsody, arguably the finest track ever to be released as a single, did hold the #1 chart position for a record number of weeks. Also, Queen share with the Beatles the rare ability to appeal to all age groups.

The only missing ingredient, if it can be so described, is the USA. It was acceptance in America that transformed the Beatles from just another rock ’n’ roll band into a global phenomenon. Yet this is the principal stumbling block. America still gives its allegiance to bands such as Jefferson Starship, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac, all of which play music that is ten years out of date, or even to such anachronisms as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. It is the inevitable result of having an ‘awards’ system, with its unavoidable emphasis on the mainstream and consequent inhibition of innovation.

If you have not heard Queen, I strongly urge that you give them a listen, especially on A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. You will not be disappointed. Queen are not merely brilliant; they are a revelation. Queen are not just a rock band; they are a window on life in Britain in the 1970s.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

water from the mountains

Although we had been out cycling on the previous two days, we still planned to go out for another ride on the third day. However, there was a slight problem: when I’d looked at the weather forecast the previous evening, there was a lightning symbol in the forecast for noon, which meant that we would have to go out early. Unfortunately, when I checked the forecast again the following morning, I noticed that a rain symbol had been added for 11am. It seemed prudent to eschew the cycling and go for a walk instead.

Because we live close to the northwestern edge of Penrith, when going for a walk we will always head north to begin with. This takes us through the Thacka Beck Nature Reserve, after which, on this occasion, we followed the eastern edge of town, which is also the highest, southwards until we reached the small hamlet of Carleton.

Sixty years ago, Carleton had been located at the junction of the A66, a major road connecting Penrith to Scotch Corner, a major junction on the A1, and the A686, which leads over the Pennines to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. However, the A66 was rerouted in the late 1960s as part of the infrastructure associated with the construction of the Penrith bypass, now part of the M6 motorway. It is no longer possible to follow the original route of the A66 south from Carleton in a motor vehicle, although it is still possible on foot. Incidentally, ‘Carleton’ is of Old English (Anglo-Saxon) origin. The suffix –ton indicates a farm, while carle means ‘serf’ or ‘peasant’. Carleton was separated from Penrith sixty years ago by an extensive area of fields, but during the intervening years, residential development has meant that the two are now contiguous.

The River Eamont runs from west to east a short distance south of Carleton and can be reached by following the old route of the A66. While most of the rivers in Cumbria have names that are Cumbric in origin (Cumbric was the language spoken by the original inhabitants of the region but became extinct in the 11th century), ‘Eamont’ is purported to be of Old English origin. The first element, ea–, means ‘water’, while the meaning of the second element should be obvious. The most likely meaning of these juxtaposed elements is ‘water from the mountains’.

This is not a fanciful interpretation. The source of the Eamont is Ullswater, the second-largest of the lakes in the district. Ullswater is a narrow ribbon lake about nine miles long that is surrounded by mountains, which provide a considerable catchment area during periods of heavy rain. All this runs off into the lake and thence into the Eamont.

The straight-line distance between the outflow from Ullswater and the Eamont’s confluence with the River Eden is no more than about 12 miles, but the actual length of the river is more than twice this because it meanders all over the place. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Eamont is prone to catastrophic flooding following winter storms, which dump considerable amounts of rain on the mountains. In one such storm a few years ago, the bridge at Pooley Bridge, the first to be encountered from the river’s source, was swept away, and houses close to the river are often overwhelmed by floodwater.

Our objective on this occasion was the footpath along the north bank of the Eamont from Brougham upstream to Eamont Bridge, which has always been the most important crossing point over the river. Here are a few photographs that I took along the way:

It was quite a warm day, and most of the sheep in the first field were sheltering from the sun in the shade of a large tree:
This is a general view of the river, looking upstream:
I hadn’t expected to see a grey heron here.

Lone trees in the middle of fields are a common sight. I sometimes wonder whether they have been left by the farmer simply to provide shelter for his livestock:
I simply had to include the following photos of a spectacular bracket fungus growing on a sycamore:
One of Paula’s colleagues is a mycologist, so I might be able to find out the species.

I hadn’t been along this path for several years, but I felt sure that at one point close to Eamont Bridge there had been a footbridge across the river. If I’m correct, then that footbridge has also fallen victim to the rapacity of the river:
To end on a lighter note, here is a photo of a wild rose that I took just before reaching Eamont Bridge: