Friday, April 15, 2016

HISTORY/AGAIN: Babbacombe Lee

Fairport Convention are way more than a mere convention, being more an british institution, now a year shy of their half-century. Some may be surprised to hear they are still going, seeing them as a band time locked in the late 60s and cusp of the 70s, others stalwart fans of their ever changing line-ups. I am sort of within the latter camp, but my custom and appreciation has flagged and faltered over the years. Of course, the received wisdom is that they are a mere shadow of their earlier glories, but I am uncertain they were ever much more than a well thought of cult niche. A highly regarded cult niche, maybe, but it is the eye of retrospect that is needed to see that, and if all the people who so now highly rate the Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson years had done then, well, maybe the story would have been different. But it isn't their history I have come to discuss, more their penchant for a good historical narrative.

Starting as the UK's answer to Jefferson Airplane, they reasonable swiftly moved folkwards, arguably inventing folk-rock. The folk canon is full of tales of derring-do, real and imaginary, and the band have littered their output with historical narrative from the english civil war to WW1, from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Napoleon. But the most ambitious historical set-piece was Babbacombe Lee, the 1971 concept album, telling the true story of John "Babbacombe" Lee, the man who could not be hung. Lee was an ex-navy ne'er do well and petty criminal, who, in 1885, was convicted for the murder of one Emma Keyse, his then employer. Sentenced to hang in Exeter prison, the trapdoor bizarrely refused to function, despite testing, 3 times leaving him standing not dangling. As a result his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, the story building up layers of mystic significance year on year. He was actually released in 1907, for a while sustaining himself on the strength of telling his story, but later years, between the wars, are somewhat shrouded in uncertainty, he seemingly having died in the USA, during the mid 1940s, giving him a lucky bonus of extra 50 odd years longevity. 

1971 had seen Fairport lose most of their more celebrated band members, shrunk to the quartet of Dave Swarbrick (fiddle/vocals), Simon Nicol (guitar/vocals), Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums). Swarb had found some old newspaper stories extolling the tale and the idea for an album was born. It is actually not a half-bad LP and has stood the test of time, perhaps better than some of their later output, possibly the reason why the current band, still including Nicol and Pegg, resurrected it for both a tour and a live recording, released in 2012. Here is the high point, the failed execution, in song, the 2 versions near 40 years apart. See which you prefer.


and 2012 (filmed in 2009):

Next year is Fairport Conventions 50th. They hold a yearly festival, Cropredy, in Oxfordshire. I was there for the 20th, 25th and the 30th birthday celebrations, unable to quite believe that last was nearly 20 years ago. I hope to return in 2017. Any of you be there? It will be history unfolding in itself. Again.

Buy 1971 or 2012

Thursday, April 14, 2016

History/Again: The Brando's Gettysburg

Back in high school, I lived in Northern Virginia. When I got my driving license, in addition to cruising the McDonald’s parking lot and feeling full-on superior to everyone without a license, I started making long drives to various Civil War battlefields. Not the hippest thing for a 16 year old to do, but there was so much history, so close, I didn’t see it as strange. It was an easy way to get on the road and feel that ineffable sense of freedom that comes with being behind the wheel. I was Kerouac, but, I didn’t have that far to go. Of course, I went a lot of places I shouldn’t have (Washington, DC in the late ‘80s was like a lurid, dangerous movie set), but getting out into the ‘country’, on my own, driving back roads, seeing America (I’d read On the Road early in my teens, so I was ready to roll)…it was an amazing experience to disappear from the suburban safety of my parent’s home and into the reverie of history and my own romantic notions of being on the road. There were a lot of places to go: Fredericksburg. Bull Run. Harper’s Ferry. Winchester. Further afield, Antietam and even Gettysburg.  I was into Kerouac, but I was also into history, so proximity to the remnants of history was exciting.

I was on my own particular beat extravaganza. One chapter in the tale of my own history, personal, but epic (in the small sphere I walk).

About the same time as all this was going on, my musical education was expanding exponentially due to a radio station out of Lanham, Maryland, called WHFS. 99.1. If you’re from DC , Maryland or Virginia (the DMV) and are of a few certain generations, “ninety-nine-one” is a phrase that brings up many memories, both at once warmly nostalgic and sad. But, mostly sad in a way that something great is gone.  

‘HFS has been around since the 1960s and has spanned multiple genres over at least three different FM frequencies and digital platforms. It still exists, but, not as the traditional ‘HFS I grew up with—the weak signaled (it came it good at night) humming little broadcaster of funky, alternative musical oddities. ‘HFS was the place to tune into to hear everything from Springsteen to P-Funk to Dylan to punk - beautiful sounds. Back then, we called it college rock, or progressive, and ‘HFS was amazing because it brought into tune a musical world that was bubbling on the horizon of my budding musical tastes. Strange sounds from the ether, pointing me in great new directions. I could do a lot of posts of bands I heard first on 99.1’s golden airwaves. A few? REM, The Cult, The Plimsouls, Chuck Brown, Fugazi, The Feelies.

And there were lesser known, one off bands, half-a-hit wonders that while they weren’t making musical history, were laying down a solid foundation for what would become my musical pedigree, my own personal musical history.

One of those unique bands that ‘HFS brought me into contact with was called The Brandos. The Brandos are a New York rock outfit that worked in a interesting nitche: dudded out in bolo ties, high collared shirts, sharp black suits, they played a gritty, guitar driven, late 80s rock with a historical flavor. Their 1987 album Honor Among Thieves had a sound appeal that was at once college-rock guitar but also grounded in historical theme and detail. 

Their highest charting track was “Gettysburg”, a smoldering, first-person account from a long dead soldier, looking back on the battle and horror that took place there.  The song is structured around the narrator seeing his name on a plaque, and at Gettysburg, the names of the dead are endless. It’s not clear if it’s a ghost, or someone having a visceral experience from standing on hallowed, horrored ground. The song spirals back on an image-laden tour of the nightmare that battle was, and it is full-throated and angry. As any song about the horrors of war should be. When I was a kid, first hearing this, there was no irony, no wonder at how a great rock song could be about a Civil War battle. The Brandos probably never took off because their dead serious take on historical themes (with matching sounds) made them seem like a gimmick. There was something strident and serious in their presentation of themes concerned with the past, going so far as to make the whole of their look, sound and feel to be a living recreation, and not in a way that celebrates the anachronistic, but a truly informed embodiment of the past.

The Brandos struck me as band that presented the same strident energy and raw emotion of self-serious bands such as U2 or the Alarm, but sang about hundred year old battles, factory fires, and the immigrant experience. I think perhaps they didn’t take off because people sought the irony, waited for the Brandos to take of the bolo ties and start singing about contemporary problems. Maybe they came across as a band your history teacher would like? There is something about a band with such an intense thematic focus that makes them seem odd. Or perhaps, worse, uncool. But, what is it that kept the Brandos, with their intense, historical bent, from making it big, when other bands, like say, KISS, with their whole…thing…get huge. Or Motely Crue and their post-apocalypse leather and fire and Satan motif, or Slayer’s Hell come to Earth appeal? Some bands with an overwhelming motif seem to work, while others don’t. Most bands with a gimmick – be it subtle or over the top – make it, somehow. Gwar? No…they are a thing unto themselves. What to call the brilliant Brandos? Did they make genre music? Is it reenactment? I don’t really know. They are more akin to a band like the Pogues, who invoke old forms and traditional structure, mix it with modern sounds and instruments, and present it without...again, I use the word, becuause I think it fits - irony.  It’s interesting. And damn good. The kind of music you’d hear and say, “Whoa – who is that?” I don’t know why they weren’t more popular.

I do know that the Brandos, like a lot of bands, were far more popular in Europe than the States. I wonder if that is because in Europe, the focus on nostalgic ideas and sounds didn’t come across as an anachronism, but was more appealing in that way that American cultural exports are so meaningful in foreign culture. Think about: the Western, the Yankee symbol, NBA jerseys, Marilyn Monroe, old school military garb, even the Stars and Stripes…these are images and ideas that have taken on symbolic resonance well beyond their original meaning. Historical symbolism invokes notions, romantic ones often, about another culture, about a history that we may not be connected to, but are fascinated with nonetheless. Here’s an example: cowboys are cool. Clint Eastwood made sure the world would always think that. The Brandos and their focus on the Civil War and the era of immigration were perhaps focusing in on a part of history that had a shared aspect to it. They wrote about an era when a lot of people from Europe came to America. But, more so, The Brandos sound was seriously, unequivocally American. So, it’s not surprising they took on a life and found a fan base in Europe.

The Brandos’ most recent release was 2010’s Live in Europe, which was recorded in 2004. It’s a great showcase of their ferocious, guitar-driven sound, but also highlights their equally distinctive mandolin-fronted folk pedigree. Equally brilliant, sonically and otherwise, is Town to Town, Sun to Sun, which can be heard of Spotify – and serves as the band’s sole entry in the Spotify database.

The album is interesting. From a musical standpoint, it is a document of a tight, hard-driving rock band, and one that makes you wonder how you haven’t heard of them before. And yet, it works to showcase the unique, near museum-like sound The Brandos created. Perhaps it is here, more than anyplace else, that you can kind of get why the band never made it - the niche they worked in just didn’t have a broad enough, or universal enough appeal. But, it doesn’t make it any less sad when you realize what a great band they are. That gritty, decidedly un-modern sound was never really able to find purchase, but perhaps that has more to do with trends than with talent. I’m sure it does, actually…

Monday, April 11, 2016

History/Again:Green Fields of France/No Man’s Land

Dropkick Murphys: Green Fields of France

I was a history major in college, and continue to enjoy reading about and discussing historical topics, so this theme is a natural for me. Over at my new blog, I’ve recently written about Civil War and Revolutionary War related things, and my wife’s family’s genealogy, and have occasionally plumbed the historical record in writing here. So, I didn’t want to repeat myself (again) despite the apparent invitation to do so in the theme. Instead, I thought, how about writing about World War I, which seems to have been overshadowed by its more recent and more horrifying sequel. However, beyond the trying effect of the war on the Crawley family, I think it is fair to say that most people don’t recognize how much that war, which ended nearly a century ago, still has a profound influence on the world today.

To the extent anyone thinks of the First World War, you probably have in your head an image (probably in black and white) of trenches, or pointy German helmets, or maybe poison gas, or those cute, if deadly, airplanes. Turn on any of the TV channels that have history shows, and it seems to be about 80% about Nazis, with a smattering of Civil War and American Revolution programming, and maybe a rare Vietnam show. Not much about the War of 1812, for some reason. In a recent listing of the top news stories of the 20th Century, the outbreak of WWI only placed 8th, behind both the assassination of President Kennedy and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Both of these were important, but as important as WWI? I don’t think so.

According to Wikipedia, more than 17 million people died, and 20 million people were injured during the war, making it one of the deadliest conflicts ever. More remarkably, the war, and its aftermath, resulted in social and political changes that echo to this day. You can trace much of the turmoil in the Middle East, for example, to the arbitrary borders that were drawn after the war as well as the promise made to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The wars in the Balkans were a delayed reaction from the post-war breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Bolshevik Revolution was certainly abetted by the war’s turmoil. The rise of the United States as a predominant world actor stemmed from its relatively unscathed position after the war, while the British Empire’s decline was accelerated. And of course, the short-sighted and punitive Versailles Treaty led to chaos in Germany, and was used as a rallying cry that helped vault the Nazis into power. That’s just for starters. Add the Armenian Genocide, the Great Depression, an influenza epidemic, the decline of hereditary aristocracy, weakening of colonialism, the League of Nations, the increase of the use of technology in war, improvements in medicine and surgery, and the expansion of the franchise to women in some countries, and you begin to see how the 21st Century is, in many ways, the product of the War to End All Wars (That Didn’t Even Come Close). And there are even more effects, but this is a music blog, not AP European History.

On a human level, though, it was the death of an entire generation of (mostly) young (mostly) men, and the disillusionment of the survivors that led to the dubbing of this period as the “Lost Generation.” (Compare that to how the WWII era is recalled—as the “Greatest Generation.”) Never before had so many been killed in so many countries in such a wide swath of the world. Huge cemeteries were created, or existing ones expanded, to provide resting places for the dead and memorials for the missing. Eric Bogle, a Scottish folksinger who emigrated to Australia in 1969, visited one of these cemeteries in Northern France, and wrote a song, “No Man’s Land,” reflecting on the (apparently fictionalized) gravestone of one soldier, and the pointlessness of war. Bogle, who likely was also reacting to the futile conflict in Vietnam, also wrote another famous WWI song, “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,”

The song owes much to the American song, “Streets of Laredo,” which itself is derived from earlier English and Irish songs (gotta love folk music!), particularly in the use of the line “Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the pipes lowly?” (Also the source of the title of the baseball novel, Bang The Drum Slowly). It has been often covered (and modified), sometimes under the title “Green Fields of France,” or “Willie McBride.” The lyrics are clear and unsparing in their sentiment:

And I can't help but wonder now, Willie McBride, 
Do all those who lie here know why they died? 
Did you really believe them when they told you "the cause?" 
Did you really believe that this war would end wars? 
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame, 
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, 
For Willie McBride, it's all happened again, 
And again, and again, and again, and again. 

The featured version is by Dropkick Murphys, best known as a rollicking Celtic punk band from Boston, who don’t do the expected thing and speed up the song. It is from their excellent album The Warrior’s Code which also included “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” which featured lyrics written by Woody Guthrie (who wrote his share of anti-war songs), and was used in the movie The Departed (and in beer commercials, at sporting events, and on TV shows, including The Simpsons), and strangely, by two Republican candidates in Wisconsin, leading to denunciations by the band.

Since the armistice that ended the fighting of World War I, at 11:11 am on 11/11/18, and the subsequent treaties that formally ended it, there have been more than a few more wars—way too many more, unfortunately, some of which are happening even as you read this. Bogle was, tragically, right.