Weird month. Almost too much going on and, at times, it been difficult to know what to think about it all. There are so many voices out there and they all talk as though they are definitively right. I confess I’ve kept out of it all by writing fiction and concentrating on my first novel, ‘The Noise of Gods’ which is nearly done thanks to some fantastic work by my Beta reader! I wanted to explore the rise of populism and extremism in England and try to examine how easily these two forces can corrupt and I’ve tried to do this by juxtaposing ancient, pagan England with the more morally complex 21st Century country. Which basically means, a punk rocker thinks he’s becoming King Arthur and it all goes very wrong… I hope I can get it published one way or another quite soon. Watch this space!
Meanwhile, musically, here’s some stuff that’s been on repeat for me this month:
Il Re Del Mondo: Franco Battiato
I love the soft interplay between the two chords that form the central motif for this song, and the ascending guitar and piano scales which float over them. Afraid I have no idea what the song is about, except that the album’s title translates as ‘The Era of the White Boar’ which is fantastically evocative. Battiato was a genuine renaissance man, having turned his hand to painting, film-making and a vast range of musical genres. A real creative powerhouse, and for that alone, in this day and age, he should be championed. He died almost exactly a year ago as I post this, so it’s a fitting time to acquaint yourself to his world…
2. This Is A Photograph: Kevin Morby
Photos are powerful things. Memories captured frozen, time stopped… No less a writer than Ray Davies was fascinated by them, to the extent that he wrote not one but two songs on ‘We Are The Village Green Preservation Society’, that most reflective of Kinks albums, all about photographs. In ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’ he writes: ‘People take pictures of each other / Just to prove that they really existed.’ Kevin Morby has picked up on a similar idea here, that photographs suggest an immortality that time exposes as a fraud. He describes a photograph of his father with his shirt off ‘ready to take the world on.’ But he is looking at the photograph after his father collapsed in front of him at a family dinner. It’s a powerful idea and the music seems to reflect the relentless passage of time in the way that it builds. Morby came to my attention in 2019 after he wrote the superb ‘Beautiful Strangers’ in response to the Bataclan shootings in Paris. This is another great song.
3. What It Comes Down To: The Isley Brothers
I was lucky enough to get hold of an original vinyl copy of the Isley’s ‘3+3’ album from a record fair recently and was surprised by the consistent quality of the songs. Obviously, ‘That Lady’, ‘Summer Breeze,’ ‘Listen To The Music’ et al should be enough to mark it as a classic but there really is no filler on it. This is a groovy ‘Sly’ flavoured tune which showcases brother Ernie’s guitar playing at the end.
4. Jim Cain: Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan was starting over after the lo-fi rock of his band Smog. He was looking for something different, something more polished, maybe something more personal. This album was, to me, a revelation. Painstakingly careful in arrangement and lyric, it was the work of a true artist, which is ironic because Callahan admitted in contemporary interviews that he did not believe he was any more. Written partially in character as author of pot-boilers such as ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice,’ and ‘Mildred Pierce’ James M Cain, this song seems to be a reflection on exactly the doubt that pursues all creative people: is this stuff any good? Does it have any value? Well, Bill, it does for me at least.
5. New Ways/Train Train: The Jeff Beck Group
There’s nothing worse, in my view, than boring blues rock, played by boring white men. But, I like to think that Jeff Beck feels exactly the same. His career could so easily have been the same as Clapton and his ilk but he seemed to be genuinely searching for a new way to play. He abandoned blues quite early on to explore jazz and funk rock and this song appears to be him openly stating his intention. Ok, so it’s hardly Roxy Music in its innovation, but it at least showed a willing to do something different. Besides, it grooves…
6. The Two Magicians: Pauline Scanlon
I found this whilst doing some research for my Easter folk horror short story, ‘Pink Moon’ (see top of post for link). This song has existed in one form or another for centuries; the earliest printed version is from the 1820s. It encapsulates for me the aggressive entitlement that (some) men display towards women. In the song, a woman is trying to defend her maidenhead from a ‘lusty blacksmith.’ She says that she will change into a variety of things in order to escape him, but each time, the man changes himself into something that would dominate her in a kind of sexual ‘rock, paper, scissors’. In some versions the woman escapes the clutches of the ‘lusty blacksmith’ in others, she doesn’t. I wont give away my ending but you can listen here for Pauline Scanlon’s take on it.
Here’s the whole April playlist, which has more Fleet Foxes, a crazy prog-funk extravaganza from Magma and some Herbie Hancock. Enjoy…
This is the conclusion of a three-part short story for Easter. Parts One and Two are available below, so you might want to read them before you read on… Also, a small warning of some elements of witchcraft, some creepy and some sensual (all 12 rated stuff though!)
Abi awoke. The room she lay in was dark although strong, pink-tinged light drifted through the large bay window and settled in a soft pool on the floorboards, stretching long and pale to the door on the far side. She was aware that there was blood on her sheets and on her legs, and streaks of mud. She felt no shame. She had no memory of getting to bed nor of putting on the white smock she wore now. It was all as though this was quite normal. She felt no panic, despite the blood and the dirt and the darkness which suggested she had slept through the day. She merely gazed around in the half-light to gain her bearings. She was in a small bedroom. Wooden beams supported the white ceiling and ran through the walls like roots. The floor was polished oak, worn and rutted with time. It felt good under her grimy bare feet as she walked to the sink against one wall to wash herself. She did not question the dirt. The reluctant pipes banged out a resistant tattoo before sputtering out cold water. A memory of a more luxurious bathroom, with hot running water and expensive soaps and moisturisers came and went; it seemed of little consequence now.
She peered out of the thick, warped glass of the window. In the moonlight, she could see quite clearly. Directly below the window was a small beer garden; the grass was recently mown, and bench-tables were set out in ordered rows. Beyond that, a low gated fence marked the boundary between the garden and the woods beyond. The trees were old and even in the gloom, Abi could see that they were marked with green lichen. On the trees closest to the garden, she saw thick buds on the branches, heavy and expectant. A dirt path led from a gate into the woods, but it disappeared into shadows only a short way in. The gate stood half open.
His head was thrown back, and the toothless mouth was wide open and gulping at the air. Long toenails grasped the branches like the talons of a hawk, or some terrible damnation of a baby bird.
A nagging unease tugged at her consciousness. She had a feeling that she had to be somewhere else, that someone was expecting her, but she could not place it. As she determined to dress herself and leave, (although to go where, she could not say) something very strange caught her eye, so strange that it caused a chill to pass through her and the hair on her head to prickle and raise. Uncertain of what she had seen in the shadows amongst the trees, she looked again and, this time, she was sure; there was a naked man, skin pink against the grey bark, curled up in the dense branches. He was old, in fact she thought the man to be the oldest she had ever seen.His paper-thin skin stretched tight over his bones.He had bulbous, blind eyes over which a thin layer of skin had grown. His head was thrown back, and the toothless mouth was wide open and gulping at the air. Long toenails grasped the branches like the talons of a hawk, or some terrible damnation of a baby bird.
She stepped back, away from the window, horrified. But when she looked again, there was no old man; only a twisted gnarl on the trunk of a tree which, if one squinted, could be supposed to be a figure. And the gate leading on to the path gaped, still open. Her eyes moved along the path into the shadowy nether-darkness of the trees, all stygian and black as pitch, and there, they met another, much smaller pair of eyes. The hare was sitting at the very edge of the wood, its huge ears touched with silver from the moon’s light, and its white breast shone bright amongst the dun-brown wire of its fur; it stared at her with dark eyes and she, in turn, gazed back.
Then, without knowing how she got there, or why she had opted to leave the relative security of the room, Abi was outside, the gate leading to the dirt path open before her. The hare sat only yards away from her, fixing her with a black stare. She felt the cool night air on her exposed skin, causing it to pucker into hard goosebumps. Her white nightgown clung to her form, but she was unashamed of her near nakedness, or of the abstraction of scarlet which stained the gown between her legs. Her red hair poured over her shoulders in thick, glossy waves; her lips too, bruised red against her pale skin. The pink moon was swollen and malevolent above the trees, and it tugged at her, beckoning her to the woods. She felt the pull in her womb, ebbing and flowing, growing more insistent, more needful with each sharp pang and she knew she had to follow the call. The wind pushed gently against her, shaping the gown more tightly to her body, and moving her hair as she stepped towards the gate. The hare, seeing her approach, spun around and disappeared into the shadows amongst the trees and she followed it into the darkness.
They were there to meet her, Nan and the witches. They lined the path in their multitudes, dressed as she was, in white robes, or they were naked, their ancient skin drawn tight over sharp bones, thick and wrinkled by time, like the trunks of the trees which crowded around them and above them, and their fingers clawed at the air around them as though they were fashioning something from its canvas. Long, twisted toenails tore at the dry earth as they swayed and chanted, strange, guttural cawing, like rooks and ravens crying out in the night. And in the branches, men, old and naked, bent into shapes which mirrored the branches, blind eyes searching, talons clinging to the trees, returned the calls, heads thrown back so that wattles of pink skin wobbled below their ancient throats. There was laughter too, manic and cracked, cackling and screeching and, amongst it all, the name, ‘Abigail’ whispered through the darkness, a hissed chant. Abi, walking the path through the hideous crones, felt no fear. Her head was raised high to face the moon, still visible through cracks in the vaulted ceiling of this cathedral. She felt the earth beneath her feet, and felt its power coursing upwards between her legs, felt the throb of her femininity there and the pulse of her blood fresh on her thighs, as strength she had not been aware of before.
At its heart a fire raged, the flickering flames throwing broken shadows of strange creatures, angular and twisted, sharp jointed and black as pitch, that danced and spun amongst them.
Ahead of her, lined by swaying old women, all naked so that Abi could see their skin hanging from their bodies in loose folds, was a clearing in the trees; a circle of ground, bright against the shadows. At its heart a fire raged, the flickering flames throwing broken shadows of strange creatures, angular and twisted, sharp jointed and black as pitch, that danced and spun amongst them. The hare danced there too, standing erect on its hind legs, or skipping between the shadows and the air became sulphurous and heavy.
The ground softened beneath her feet as she stepped into the clearing. Thick grass grew here, soft, forgiving. And as she stepped from the path, the noise stopped.
For a moment there was a terrible, empty silence, save the whispering of the trees and the crackling of the fire; Abi’s head swam, her senses stretched thin with the powerful stench of sulphur, the dancing light of the fire and the ominous glare of the pink moon which was clearly visible above them all now that the trees had cleared. The singing began then, dark and low, a tune ancient and strange in a language she couldn’t place. It grew louder and more intense. The hare had stopped dancing and now stood before Abi and she saw that it wasn’t a hare at all, but a man. It was, in almost all description, the man she had seen tending the bar, but now he seemed larger, and his eyes, in which horizontal slices of wet blackness blinked, were quite yellow. Horns, gnarled and skeletal, curled from his forehead and his thick blond hair appeared as a coarse mane which spread down over his chest and onto the legs like fur. Powerful hooves dug at the ground where Abi was sure feet should have been. Still, she felt no fear, but a strong attraction. There was a heady scent in the air, his scent, and she sniffed at it greedily, her senses craving more. She became aware of an urgent, throbbing need for the beast. It beckoned to her, raising its powerful arms outwards towards her, and the singing grew louder, strange harmonies which made her body tingle.
‘You’re ready. Give in to your senses, woman, let them go, let it all go.’ The woman she knew as Nan was beside her although Abi had not seen anyone approach, and now rough, dry, clawed hands tore at her gown so that it fell from her shoulders and she felt the heat of the fire on her skin, and still she felt no fear, nor shame at the blood that spilled from her onto the grass at her feet. The singing grew in intensity, louder and louder still, and the smell of the beast filled her twitching nostrils, and the moon dominated the sky, and Abi, or the woman who had once been Abi, gave herself to the savagery of the beast and the night…
It is pale dawn. The sky is still dark but, on the far horizon where the woods touch the sky, a sliver of silver light marks the arrival of the sun. Birds flit between the branches of the trees, sudden flickers of black in the branches, and their song begins to burst forth, coruscating trills and swoops. Then, with a sudden flash, the sun breaks above the trees, bringing golden light. Just as abruptly, there is a heavy aroma of blossom: the apple trees on the edge of the pub garden are, at once, garlanded with white flowers and wildflowers spring from the earth around the trees, pushing through the earth and stretching upwards with pregnant buds straining and then exploding into colour: magenta corncockle, white anemone and cow parsley, brilliant yellow kingcup or Lady’s Bedfellow with its strong aroma of new-mown hay. Even an untimely field poppy with its bright scarlet flower blooms here amongst the grass. Insects hum busily in the day’s first light, bees responding to the call of the flowers and butterflies, the Red Admiral or the smaller, pale brimstone that flutter drowsily on the gentle breeze of Spring.
A hare skips lazily across the pub garden. It lopes past the old wooden door to the pub and onwards down the path, past two benches, and down to the roadside where a green Mini Cooper is parked. It stops by the car, sniffing the air, as though familiar with the scent there. It is a large hare, much larger than average. Its keen eyes fix upon the car door for a while and then, as though whatever memory it may have had has passed, it goes back towards the pub, down the path to the side which leads to the garden at the rear, and on, through the open gate into the woods, until it is lost forever in the shadows of the trees.
And there, above it all, still visible in the orange glow of the morning sky, the pink moon fades slowly until it too has disappeared from sight.
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This is Part Two of an three-part folk horror short story for Easter. Part One is available below. Part Three will be published on Easter Sunday.
It took her longer than she had expected to find the village. The roads had barely been wide enough for her car, and they wound around tight bends so she could only travel at low speed. Once, she passed another sign which said that Evercreech was still 2 miles away and she cursed the ridiculous road system that meant you could be driving for 10 minutes and be no closer to where you were going than you were before. But eventually the road widened, and she saw the lights of houses up ahead. The village was tiny; a few small cottages nestled around a green, and a pub. Although it was undoubtedly picturesque, Abi had hoped for a few more signs of life around; she was shaken from the earlier events and had been looking forward to some normal company to restore her confidence. Nonetheless, she was here now. It wouldn’t take long to find the address, pick up the bag and be on her way. She slowed to a crawl and drove up to the first cottage which was set back from the road, with a worn iron gate marking the entrance via a short path. A slate hung from the gate with the name ‘Aconite’ scrawled on it. Abi edged the car on to the next cottage. This one, similarly gated was named ‘Artemisia’. She moved on again, around the green, slowing to read the name on each: ‘Hyssop’; ‘Catnip’; ‘Sage’. Quaint. But no ‘Spring Cottage’. Had this been a waste of time? Irritation chewed at her insides. It was almost completely dark by now and the sky had metamorphosed to an inky black. It must be near here somewhere. She would just have to ask in the pub, the last stop on her short tour around the green. The lights in the pub windows glowed warmly but the last thing Abi wanted to do was go in. It had turned into a long day; she had the three-hour journey back still to face and the cramps were starting to bite into her womb.
She was not surprised, therefore, to find that there was no car park at the pub. It was another irritation in a shitty day. She had to leave the Mini on the side of the road and walk up to the entrance, across a small, grassed area with two benches, to find the door. It looked old. Beams of gnarled brown wood were barely held together by large black iron hinges. Voices hummed low behind it. She would have to come back with some friends, she thought. They would love it round here. But in the daylight. In the dark it was somehow less inviting. She placed her hand on the weathered latch, pressed it down and pushed. The old door shuddered open.
‘…the scene was lit by a pink-tinged moon. Had she seen it, burning silent and cold in the witch-black night sky, then she would have remarked on its preternatural size, or perhaps on the unsettling strangeness of the light that settled over everything.’
As she entered, the clouds shifted, and the scene was lit by a pink-tinged moon. Had she seen it, burning silent and cold in the witch-black night sky, then she would have remarked on its preternatural size, or perhaps on the unsettling strangeness of the light that settled over everything, a light which created shadows, long and deep, which twisted and danced under the moon’s cruel eye.
But she did not see it. In fact, she remained totally unaware of its looming presence over everything that transpired that night.
Abi immediately recognised the scent of sandalwood. It was her favourite fragrance for the many scented candles she burned at home. Sandalwood was her ‘front room’ fragrance. Here, though, the air was heavy with it, the leather and burnt wood aroma strong enough for her to briefly step back to acclimatise. Low beams supported the white ceiling and she thought about ducking despite her relatively short height. In front of her, a thick, dark oak bar was festooned with dried hops and small decorations of twisted grass and twigs. There were tables scattered around the small room, and a large open fireplace against one wall in which logs burned. This seemed to Abi to be slightly ridiculous; it had been a very warm day and the pub was stiflingly hot. Nevertheless, an elderly couple were sat at the table directly in front of the flames. In fact, now that she looked, everyone in here was elderly, at least 70 years old. The women all had long, white hair which they wore bunched up on their heads, held in place with large wooden clips or hairpins. They sat in couples, some with men, some not, each pair facing one another across dark and heavy wooden tables. Each had a pint of amber-coloured ale in front of them, and, Abi noted with a slight chill, each glass stood precisely half-full. They spoke to one another in hushed tones and, if it weren’t for the strangeness of the scene, and the oppressive heat, the atmosphere might have been described as ‘warm’ or ‘convivial’.
There was one woman sat alone at the bar. She was younger than the rest of the clientele and much shorter, shorter, Abi estimated than her; her hair was not yet white, but chestnut-brown and piled up on her head in thick tresses which caught the soft light in the room in such a way as to make it appear to Abi that it moved, each tress of hair sliding smoothly over the other. It was hypnotic. The woman turned as soon as Abi entered, a wide, welcoming smile already on her face if not yet in her eyes. It was a professional welcome, Abi thought. They must have lots of day trippers come through here. That was a relief.
‘Hi,’ Abi said, presuming that the woman was the landlady. ‘I wonder if you could…’
‘Help you? Of course we can!’ the woman replied, cutting Abi off mid-sentence. Her voice was pleasant, slightly accented with the Somerset burr. ‘If you’ll just sit yourself down here,’ she said, indicating the bar stool beside her, ‘and we’ll see what we can do.’
Abi was too canny for this old trick. She didn’t want to end up buying half the pub a drink. It might work with naïve old buggers out for a Sunday drive…
‘Let us get you fed and watered first though, eh? You look tired. Bet you’ve got yourself lost on these roads. It’s easy to do round here.’ The woman waited expectantly, still indicating towards the empty bar stool.
‘No, honestly, it’s fine, I just…’
‘Need some help. Of course, and we can help you. I just wish you’d eat something first before you go out there again. It’s a long way to get anywhere else from here; you won’t regret it.’
Abi felt another jab of annoyance, this time with the woman’s habit of finishing her sentences. But, in all honesty, she was suddenly aware of a strong hunger. Maybe just a sandwich. Wouldn’t cost her much to…
‘On the house?’ The woman looked at her most insistently, and her tone was almost pleading.
‘I don’t mind…’
‘Paying? No of course you don’t, but we insist. I won’t have anyone going back to their lives with anything but good words about us.’
The woman’s choice of words was strange. What could she mean ‘going back to their lives’? Going back from what? ‘Are you…’
‘Quite sure, love. It’s not a problem. C’mon, sit down and we’ll get you sorted.’
A young man had appeared behind the bar. Abi was sure he hadn’t been there when she came in and so she assumed he had been around the back, cleaning glasses or whatever bar staff did these days. He was strikingly handsome. His wavy blond hair was long enough to tuck behind his ears, and he had crystalline blue eyes which were a striking contrast to the russet tones of the rest of the room. He looked over to Abi and smiled, revealing a set of perfectly white teeth. Once again, Abi wished she could have posted something on Facebook.
‘Vegetable soup okay?’ the woman asked. Abi nodded. ‘And a pint…’
‘No, thanks, I don’t…’
‘Course you do. It’s tradition here. You don’t have to drink it all.’
‘But I have to drive…’
Her protests fell on deaf ears. The barman gripped the pump on the bar and yanked it; each time she heard a loud gush of liquid squirt into the pint glass he held beneath it. There was something primal and lusty about the action, as though the beer was milk teased from the udders of a cow. She watched as he filled the glass. When it was full, he lifted it so that Abi could see the frothing head of the beer continue to expand until it spilt over the sides of the glass and ran over the man’s slender hands. He held it there, waiting for the beer to settle, then placed it on the bar. ‘There we go,’ he said. He did not ask for payment.
‘On the house.’ It was the woman again, still smiling. ‘Come on. Sit down, have a drink and we’ll get you on your way.’
Abi felt that she was losing control of the situation but felt powerless to do anything about it. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t just walk out. She could, any time she liked. But it was pleasant enough in here. And she was tired. She felt a familiar tugging in her womb again, and wanted nothing more than to sit down, eat something and rest. The package could wait. Gavin could wait. It was still early evening. There was plenty of time.
‘Come on!’ The woman was becoming more forceful in her entreaties, still pleasant but more urgent. ‘Sit down, sit down.’ She held her arm out as though to guide Abi to the stool. ‘I won’t bite.’
Abi smiled. It was hard to resist the woman, even if she was being a royal pain in the arse. She supposed that it must be difficult, living amongst all of these old buggers with no-one even close to your age to talk to. It would be enough to drive her round the bend. Abi thought of her own mother, of the endless weekends trying to keep her entertained. Her mother liked to talk about the other residents of her street, even though she knew few of them well enough to really know what was going on. She had names for them all: ‘the fella with the cap’, ‘the lady in the bungalow,’ or ‘that couple that moved in last year,’ and Abi would listen and share opinions about them. For hours and hours. The only break she got from the endless chatter was when she made a cup of tea. Abi drank a lot of tea with her mother.
If it was bad for her, then God knows what it must be like for this poor woman! Abi squeezed herself into the space between the bar and the stool and placed herself on the seat. As she did, the woman sniffed the air. It was a small gesture, hardly noticeable, but Abi saw it. It was more like the movement of a rodent than an attractive middle-aged woman, excitable and urgent. She wondered which of her perfumes she had sprayed on that morning. ‘It’s Tom Ford,’ she said.
The woman looked confused. For a moment, the smile disappeared.
‘Tom Ford. The perfume?’
The veil lifted; the woman was beaming again. ‘Ah, yes! Lovely stench…’
Abi laughed at the choice of word. ‘That it is,’ she said amicably, and they both enjoyed the joke. To be honest, Abi was surprised the woman could smell anything over her own heavy scent, which added to the sandalwood was actually quite nauseating. And now she was closer, Abi noticed that the woman was heavily made-up, and not with any great care. Thick black smudges of eyeliner ran around the large green eyes; cherry red lipstick ran a little past the corners of the wide mouth. Abi supposed there was skin beneath the slabs of foundation the woman had applied to her face, but she could have no possible insight into what shade it might be. Despite all of this, Abi found her to be quite beautiful. She wondered why someone with such excellent bone structure and striking green eyes would want to hide behind so much make-up. It made her look cheap and tawdry. Ten minutes with her, Abi thought, and I could make her look like a movie star.
‘Call me Nan,’ she said. ‘Everyone else does.’
‘Nan. Okay… I’m Abi.’
The woman didn’t appear to be interested in her name, in fact she almost spoke over Abi as she said: ‘Go on. Have a drink, then.’ The woman was leaning forward and fidgeting with her long fingers, clicking her fingernails which bent like a bird’s talons. They were heavily enamelled, in a dark plum colour. She licked her lips when she spoke. ‘Go on…’
Abi gave in to the pressure. She would take a sip, say how much she liked it, thank you very much, and then she would quietly nurse the drink until it was time to go. She drank. As she did, a fiddle started playing. The sound came from the shadowy corner of the room. Her view was blocked by couples sat at tables, but she could make out the elbow of the player skipping back and forth; it made her think of an insect she had seen on a pond at a country house she had visited on one of the many days out she and Gavin had taken her mother on to kill some time on a Sunday. A Pond Skater. That was it. There was something about the way the elbow was bent, and the way it flickered back and forth that appeared insectile to her.
And then, a male voice began singing, accompanied by a guitar. It was tuneful but way too folky for Abi’s taste. The woman beside her swayed to the music, but kept her eyes on Abi, smiling all the time. In fact, everyone in the pub had turned towards the music and they were swaying too as the voice sang words of a lusty man and a chaste woman. There was a refrain that Abi began to pick up on:
‘And he said ‘Bide, lady, bide, There’s nowhere you can hide, For the lusty smith will be your love, And he will lay your pride.’
Absent-mindedly, she sipped again at the pint before her, and the woman smiled, and the people swayed, and the singer sang his song of conquest, and she felt her insides tug and pull but she did not care. The room seemed brighter now for the music, and the people were younger than she had at first thought, and the woman, she seemed more beautiful, and the deep chestnut glow of her hair seemed more lustrous than before. The singing too, became more intense.
‘So the lady she turned into a hare, And she ran across the plain; But he became a greyhound dog, And he ran her down again.’
Abi had drunk half of the ale now, without knowing that she had. Her head began to swim. Somewhere deep below the warmth of the moment, the joy in the singing, the kindness and comfort of the company, she knew that she should stop, that this wasn’t right… She tried to speak: ‘What have you…’
‘Just the ale, lovely, just the ale. Relax. You deserve to relax…’ said the woman, who by now looked radiant. Had her hair always been down, flowing over her shoulders like that? Abi had a faint memory that it hadn’t been. But she must have been wrong… she didn’t know anymore. It really didn’t matter. She wanted to dance and she slipped down from her stool.
‘…it was all one, the music, the smells, the old women and old men who danced with her, and she thought she saw a beast amongst them, a beast with yellow eyes and curling horns, but it didn’t matter, not now, nothing did, not any more…’
‘Yes, yes, that’s right, go on dear, go on,’ the woman was hissing and Abi thought that the woman’s voice was in her ear. She felt eyes on her, many eyes, and hands, hands upon her, tugging her this way and then that, and she wanted to dance, she wanted to move her feet, to move, faster and faster, and the music seemed to grow louder and faster with her movement until it was all one, the music, the smells, the old women and old men who danced with her, and she thought she saw a beast amongst them, a beast with yellow eyes and curling horns, but it didn’t matter, not now, nothing did, not any more…
‘And when she woke he held her so, And still he bade her bide; And the lusty smith became her love, For all her mighty pride.’
Abi danced and spun and forgot about her irritation, the bag, the journey home, her mother, Gavin. Outside, pink and full, the moon glared down on the pub on the green.
The moon is full and pink as a rosebud. By its light, she sees the earth all aglow, the furrows deep in shadow. She feels its pull deep inside, knows its touch. Her scent will fill the air, there to dance with the night’s fainter aroma, of apple-blossom, and jasmine and the fresh coolness of the river that runs nearby. Her ears twitch as she responds to the soft song of the water running over rocks and the cry of the owl from the woods. The soil still carries moisture; she can feel that through her paws, and she can feel the roots of the apple trees and oak trees that border the field writhe and churn in the earth, deep, deep down, inside the earth. Inside her. She shudders.
And there is another scent, a strong, heady, thick scent. There is another beast coming. It will find her smell, it will want her. Her nose sniffs the air, ascertains the direction of the threat and then she starts to move, skipping fast across the field, her powerful hind legs pushing clouds of dirt behind her as she weaves and, already, she can hear the beast breathing hard, heavy paws galloping on the same soil, she can smell the rich, hot stench of it as it pounds the ground between her and it.
Her black eyes fix upon the hedgerow, where she will be safe, amongst the brambles there, that will rip and tear at the dog’s nose as it pokes stupidly in, she will be safe there, safe…
But the chase is already up and the dog has her, its maw widening to grip her throat and hold her down, quivering, and she feels his weight on her.
She sinks her teeth into the dog’s neck, once, twice. A yelp, and she is free. And she stands on her strong hind legs, stands erect so that she looks down on the beast’s thick grey fur, its startled eyes, its claws, which now hold nothing but the earth. A swift kick to the beast’s stomach, and it whimpers, scrabbling backwards and she feels her power now, and her desire.
When it is over, and dog and hare lie entwined, the moon, pink and glorious, has grown large enough to fill the sky…
Part Three, the conclusion of ‘Pink Moon’, will be uploaded on Easter Sunday. Be sure to subscribe using the button below to ensure you don’t miss it!
As Easter approaches, I thought I’d share a seasonal weird tale over the holiday. I’ll be uploading the other two parts over the holiday period, so to be sure you get them all, just enter your email address into the form at the bottom of the page. You’ll receive an email when each post arrives.
Of all the holidays in the year, the one that Abi looked forward to the least was Easter. She just didn’t get what the fuss was about. Of course, she enjoyed the chocolate and Hot Cross Buns and settling down in front of the television to enjoy a film with Romans and Jesus and Charlton Heston but she was a vegetarian, so the traditional Easter roast had no joy for her, and the rest… well, she could get all of that any time she wanted to; a quick visit to her local Tesco would provide the food and she could easily access any movie she liked on one of the many streaming services Gavin subscribed to.
As a practising Catholic, she observed the minor torture of Lent and underwent the hour of agony that was the Easter Sunday service. But she only did that for her mother. Since her father had died, her mother had become unbearable. If anything, her expectations had increased, so that Abi felt the need to have her over for lunch every Sunday now. Gavin hated it. He made no effort to hide his impatience whenever her mother tottered through the front door. He didn’t even get out of his chair in front of the TV to greet the old woman, so the entire burden fell on her. It was a simmering resentment which had begun to boil over into heated arguments.
These days, the only peace she could find was in her car. The 2017 Mini Cooper was, she would tell everyone, her one indulgence in a life of sacrifice and giving without taking. She enjoyed being inside its womb-like interior so much that she had looked forward to the 100 mile journey from her home in Ealing to the small rural village of… wherever it was. Somewhere in Somerset anyway. She had bought a funky little tote bag from ebay, one that would sit nicely amongst her collection and perhaps temporarily dampen the constant niggling frustration that she felt at home.
It couldn’t be far now. She had been on the road since the early afternoon, deciding to get out of the way before Gavin came back from his mate’s. Those two were such idiots together, and he always came back even more annoying than he left. No thanks, she thought, picturing Gavin slumped in his armchair, one white socked foot on the coffee table, the TV remote in one hand, beer in the other. She didn’t think that she would be missing too much. Besides, she had started to come on that morning. The usual irritation with him would be heightened; she’d have to fight to keep the feral red beast inside under control. Better to be away from him for now.
It had been a beautiful day, the sort of day only April can bring. The sun had been warm and golden and now she was away from the urban sprawl, it bathed the hills, fields and trees around her in a sharp, technicolour brilliance. The daffodils in the verges shone bright in large clumps although Abi had noticed that much of the vegetation had been recently cleared from the roadside so that large sections were bare earth or dirt on either side. It looked tidy, which she appreciated. Obviously, the council round here took their responsibilities seriously, unlike the totally incompetent lot residents of South London had to cope with. Abi had lost count of the times the binmen had arrived late, and then refused to take half of the stuff she left out for them. It vexed her momentarily, but she remembered that she had taken this trip to get away from that sort of thing and so she let the thought drift out of the open car window and sped away from it. She pictured it, a little black cloud of urban angst hanging grey above the road, and she hoped it wouldn’t spoil someone else’s day.
She had been driving for over two hours. Her eyes, hidden behind expensive looking sunglasses she had bought from a market trader whilst on holiday in Greece, were prickling with tiredness and hay fever. It seemed too early for that, but there was no mistaking the closing of the sinuses and scratchiness in her eyes. She wished she’d taken a Piriton before leaving but then how was she to have known? It was normally May at the earliest before she needed it. But then, everything had been weird for so long now. The world just seemed to be out of sorts with itself. Despite what she told her mother, Abi had long since given up faith in any divine being. It seemed to her that there was way too much suffering in the world for there to be any great plan behind it. And her mother, who prayed every day and had never missed a Sunday service in her life, was still wreathed in misery. Her father had died painfully, the cancer eating away at him from the inside. He had faded so quickly. She had not been able to reconcile the man who had flung her about so easily, so joyfully, when she was a child to the paper-thin, fragile old man he had been at his death. Why did that have to happen? Why all this fucking pain and punishment and guilt? Fuck that. She kept up the premise of faith for her mother, made all the necessary church appearances but there was nothing, no substance to any of what she did. That said, these thoughts still made her feel a creeping guilt. Did that mean she still had some belief, buried beneath years of cynicism and resentment? Abi didn’t know. She chose not to think about it too much.
He didn’t appear to be moving but was standing perfectly still just in front of the hedgerow, growing larger as she drove closer; she realised with a start that he was staring directly at her, his head turned almost 90 degrees to his left…
She was lost in her thoughts and so she nearly didn’t notice the old man stood by the hedge up ahead. When she did, it was a sudden, sharp shock, and she had to push her fingers under her sunglasses to rub her eyes to be sure. He didn’t appear to be moving but was standing perfectly still just in front of the hedgerow, growing larger as she drove closer; she realised with a start that he was staring directly at her, his head turned almost 90 degrees to his left so that he could watch her approach without turning his body. He held this strange attitude, eyes fixed not on the car, Abi felt, but on her, without moving or, she would later recall, without blinking. As the car drew close she was able to ascertain that the man was elderly and dressed in a shabby suit and tie, a woollen V-neck pullover visible beneath the suit jacket. He wore nothing on his feet which were filthy with dirt.
Not wishing to be easily intimidated, Abi held his stare for as long as she dared until she passed the man, moving closer to the middle of the road to avoid him. He held her gaze even as she drove by, his head turning to watch her pass. He was emotionless. ‘Fuck you looking at?’ she shouted, although she did not wind down her window, and sped up a little as she went by. ‘Dick!’
Once past, Abi cast a nervous glance into her rear-view mirror and watched the figure recede into the distance until the road curved and she lost sight of him. He had never once taken his eyes from her.
‘Fucking weirdo,’ Abi muttered to herself, and she turned up the radio.
The road wound onwards for some time through the same twisting country lanes bordered by large stretches of hedgerow, broken only occasionally for an entrance to a field or where hikers had pushed their way through. Abi enjoyed the freedom she felt in the thrumming of the car’s engine and the twisting of the small country lanes, where the hedges grew higher than her line of vision, so that it seemed to her that there was nothing else, just her, her car and the road. The tune playing on the radio was one of her favourite hits from the 90s, one that she’d bought as a teenager and that she and her friends had created a dance routine for. She was about the launch into the chorus when abruptly, and totally, the music stopped. She was left singing the highest note without accompaniment, and her voice cracked into a giggle of embarrassment, despite her being alone.
‘What a twat,’ she admonished herself. It seemed that the signal for her favourite radio station had been lost. She sighed. It was the only one she listened to. The presenters were all familiar to her and the music they played just what she liked, except for the odd loud one which she presumed they played to keep the men happy. Gavin always moaned about it, but it was the station that they compromised on when together in the car, which wasn’t very often these days.
It was then she realised that she was also relying on her phone for navigation to the village and it was highly likely that, if the radio signal had gone, then so had her phone’s. She could see a junction approaching, a crossroads. Without her phone, she would, literally, be lost. Muttering to herself, she pulled the car over to the small verge, cleared of foliage in front of the hedgerow like many she had passed, and reached for her phone.
There was, as she had suspected, no signal. In fact, it was quite dead.
And so, she sat. The car idled, on the verge, a few yards from the crossroads. The sun was getting low in the sky, and the hedges were high, casting long, cool shadows across the road and the Mini Cooper.
‘Fuck.’ Abi was annoyed with herself. She had thought the phone was fully charged. She had been charging it as she drove and only unplugged it to check to see whether there were any messages from Gavin about 15 minutes earlier. How could it have gone dead so quickly? She reached for the charging cable, plugged it in and waited. Nothing happened.
It began to dawn on Abi that she had no idea where she was. She had been entirely reliant on the sat-nav on her phone and now that was gone, she was utterly and completely lost. Her memory would not supply her with the name of the village she was looking for. It had been quite short and typically Devonian; her mind grasped for it but it would not come. While she was trying to evoke some thought that might bring the place back to her something darted from the hedge on her right and bolted across the road, directly in front of where her car sat idling. She caught it in the corner of her eye and gasped, her already anxious state meaning that the sudden flash of movement caused her a further sharp shock. Before her eyes could catch up with the object, it disappeared into the hedge alongside her, rustling through the thorny branches and twisted brambles. Had it been brown? Or grey? Perhaps it was a rabbit, she thought as she once again breathed hard to regain her composure. She supposed it must have been, and logic would tell her so, but… it had been so large, much larger than any rabbit she had seen before. The way it had moved also suggested to her by now quite fraught mind that this was not a suitable explanation. Fast, yes, but loping…
A hare? She had never seen one before. Perhaps it was a hare? Larger than a rabbit; loping, lurching movements. It certainly seemed to be more likely than a mere rabbit. She glanced over at the hedgerow where it had disappeared and tried squinting through the mass of greenery and twigs into what she imagined must be a field on the other side. The only break in the foliage was the small gap through which the creature had disappeared. However, she did see a break in the hedge for a small dirt track about 20 yards ahead. Two large clumps of daffodils marked the entrance to a field which the hedge completely obscured from her vision.
And so, thinking that she needed to stretch her legs and clear her head a little before pushing on, and yearning for the warmth of the sun on her skin, Abi decided to get out of the car. She switched off the car engine and climbed out of the seat, feeling the blood start to pump again in her weary legs. The sun, now lower still, caught her face as she climbed out, immediately warming her; she stretched expansively, arching her back and pushing her head back. Her skin puckered at the touch of the sun. This was better. It was good to be away from it all for a bit, and amongst nature. She had read that it was good for the soul to open oneself to nature every so often and, right now, she believed it. She reached for her cigarettes from the well in the driver’s side door. Her secret stash, saved for emergencies. Well, if ever there was an emergency, she thought as she lit one and inhaled. The moment was perfect. She thought of posting on Facebook, perhaps a photograph and a comment about the beauty of England’s countryside before she remembered the lack of signal and power. She was disappointed; this would have been great on her timeline.
A bustle in the hedgerow startled her. The creature, whatever it was, must still be there. She pushed her sunglasses back onto her head, pulling her hair away from her face, and crouched down with her hands on her thighs to squint into the hedge again.
Something was there. Through the leaves she could make out an eye, like a polished obsidian stone, glinting in the shadows.
‘Hey, you,’ said Abi as gently as she knew how to. ‘Hello…’
Before she could move towards it, there was more scrabbling and the creature vanished again, this time back, away from her, into the field beyond. The branches seemed to close behind it so that there was no longer any sign of a gap at all.
‘Bollocks,’ said Abi, and she broke into a run, up towards the break in the hedge she had spotted from the car. It seemed further away to her now; it was some time since she had last run anywhere, and she was quite breathless by the time she found it. As she rounded the bend to enter the field her body moved out of the shadow of the hedge and into the full sunlight and, for a moment, she was dazzled. Her vision was a bright glare of white heat and it took some time for her to regain her normal vision. In that brief moment, whilst her eyes were still adjusting and the sun’s rays filled her body with a golden warmth, she thought she saw someone flying above her, a woman in white robes, and she heard laughter, playful giggling and chirruping, like a bird’s song. But only for a moment. Colour began to return to her world, and with it, a proper view of the vista before her.
In the middle of the field two large hares danced and spun. At times, they stood on their hind legs facing each other, as though engaged in a very formal stately dance. Then, they dropped to the earth and ran in elaborate patterns across the field, skipping around one another, moving first one way and then the other…
She could not speak. It was, in her mind, too beautiful. The field was brown, freshly ploughed and the earth was dry; she could feel the clumps pop into dust under her feet. At the edges of the field, oak trees stood, tall and ancient, laden with acorns, and apple trees, festooned with garlands of white blossom. Their heavy perfume made Abi giddy. She had never been so aware of the natural scent, nor of the delicate intoxication it could bring. Beyond the trees, the land stretched pure and open, fields of rapeseed and barley and corn, carefully bordered with low stone walls, or hedgerow punctuated by more trees: chestnut, ash, sycamore and wych elm, and on to distant hills, dark against the sky which, though still an azure-blue, darkened with the onset of late afternoon to a turquoise strip on the far horizon. Wildflowers bloomed around the fields too, despite the season, their vibrant reds and yellows and blues calling out to the insects which hummed in the air excitedly. Birdsong suddenly erupted from the trees around Abi and grew so loud that she thought it quite impossible. It was unlike any she had heard before. In the middle of the field two large hares danced and spun. At times, they stood on their hind legs facing each other, as though engaged in a very formal stately dance. Then, they dropped to the earth and ran in elaborate patterns across the field, skipping around one another, moving first one way and then the other, faster than Abi could really take in, before returning to the upright stance once more. Abi stood and watched as though hypnotised, her eyes wide and her feet rooted to the earth, quite still, so she thought.
After some time (she had no idea how much time had passed but the sun had begun to sink below the line of hills on the horizon and there was now a distinct chill in the air) Abi realised that she was staring at an empty field. She scanned the earth, presuming that the colour of their fur was so well matched to the soil that she had merely lost sight of them. But it seemed that the creatures had melted into the air. The birdsong, too, did not seem so loud. The flowers were less bright, and there were fewer of them clustered beneath the hedgerow. She could no longer smell the blossom, the apple trees being much further from where she stood than she had thought. And it began to dawn on her that her new white plimsolls, which she’d bought only last week, were grimy with soil. She was short of breath. Her hair, so carefully straightened and hair-sprayed that morning, was a little dishevelled. Had she been dancing? Unnerved by the whole experience, she turned and jogged back towards the exit to the field, and back to her car which waited as she had left it, parked on the verge to her left.
She had made up her mind to return home. The package could wait. She was running much later than she had wanted to, and without proper directions, there was no chance of ever finding the place anyway. She was about to open the car door when something small and black caught her eye. A stone, roughly the size of her palm, lay in the grass directly below her feet. She hadn’t noticed it before. It was unlike any stone she had seen before, in fact it looked more like a mineral or gemstone. She bent down to pick it up and noticed a pattern had been carefully painted onto the surface of the stone, in white. It looked like a very crude interpretation of a leaf, with one central stem branching off into three loops on either side. And it did seem to fit almost perfectly into her palm, so much so that, as much as Abi was unsettled by it, she wanted to keep it in her hand. It crossed her mind that it had been placed there deliberately, and she looked up and down the road for any signs of a potential culprit. To her right, the crossroads, empty and silent. To her left, the road she had travelled down, similarly quiet. There had been no sign of anyone. Surely, she would have heard, or seen, standing as she had been, only yards away from the car the whole time?
‘That’s enough of this shit,’ she mumbled to herself. She clambered back into the car, placed the stone on the seat beside her and started the engine. Perhaps, she thought, she would drive up to the crossroads, just to look, just to see whether there was anyone walking away down either of the side roads there. Anyway, she convinced herself, it would be much easier to turn the car around there. The low rumble of the engine was reassuring, even if the radio and charger still refused to work. It was getting dark. In the gloaming, she felt she needed the headlights. What made things worse was that whatever was affecting the radio seemed to have affected her entire media system; the clock now read 25:57 which made no sense at all.
Just before the junction, Abi saw a sign she had not noticed before emerging from the gloom and, as soon as she saw it, she remembered. It read: ‘Evercreech: 2 miles’. It pointed to the right.
‘Evercreech! Fucking Evercreech! That’s it!’ This was meant to be. She had found the bloody place, all on her own, no SatNav required. And with that memory, the entire address came back to her: Spring Cottage, The Lane, Evercreech. She would be there in 5 minutes, pick up the bag, find the main road out of here and be back home before midnight. She indicated right and turned onto the road, glancing as she did so, into her rear-view mirror. The light was certainly strange, that weird moment when a bright sunlight becomes slightly more night than day. Reds and browns seem more prevalent. Brighter colours fade. So, it may be that she didn’t see the bare-footed old man in the crumpled suit standing in the exact spot she had been parked only moments before, once more facing the road, once more screwing his head around to stare directly at her. She only caught a glimpse as the car turned and obscured the road behind her. And, she realised, she was still wearing her sunglasses. It crossed her mind to reverse and look, to be certain, but that, she thought as she threw her sunglasses down into the footwell of the passenger seat, would be insane. Better just to keep going. Better not to know.
Part Two will follow…
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Probably because it’s Spring, and possibly because of the recent warm weather I went a bit ‘folky’ in March. I’ve also been working on a short story in which I have indulged my love of all things pagan and folk horror so that may also explain it. Anyway, here’s the tunes I’ve returned to in March:
Johnny: Jim Sullivan
Jim Sullivan only released one album. It was called ‘UFO’, released in 1969, and contained this song, about a boy who decides to fly away, or at least, to live in the sky, despite the protestations of the confused and envious masses. It’s weird in all the right ways: I particularly love the shuffling, ramshackle drumming and what sounds like a double bass bumping away. The strings are more reminiscent of Scott Walker or Serge Gainsbourg. There’s a beautiful mystery to the song, the whole album and the man himself. In 1975, he drove himself to New Mexico in a car containing his records and a guitar. Once there, he bought vodka. And then, he disappeared without trace. He has never been found. Seems like the Earth was just too small for Jim…
My Friend The Sun: Streetwalkers
The studio version is by Family, the band with whom Roger Chapman made his name, but this live version by Chapman’s next band Streetwalkers is so good I had to include it instead. This is such a warm song, befitting the title. I love the first minute or so of the video, where Roger strolls around self-consciously, and the rest of the band tune up. Nothing can quite prepare you for the sound that they make when it suddenly all comes together. Chapman’s voice is incredible and he is matched by Bob Tench. The two harmonise beautifully, particularly in the last section of the song. Tench also contributes a brilliant, understated guitar solo too. And if that doesn’t sell it to you, then maybe the knowledge that the drummer on this delicate, folky number went on to find fame and fortune with Iron Maiden…
Rambling Man: Laura Marling
I was walking on the fields around the canals in Worcestershire in the early morning of one of the hottest days this year. The dog was with me and we’d ventured off the beaten track a little bit, to explore the woods and hills we saw. The light was perfect, in the way that only early Spring can be. We stopped at the top of a hill just to enjoy the view and at that precise moment, this song started to play on my earbuds. One of those moments, I guess…
Feast of Carrion: Midlake
Something brand new. Midlake have a new record out. It’s great. This is my favourite track on it so far. Dig that flute…
White Mustang: Cat Power
Cat Power’s got an new album out. It’s great. This is my favourite track on it so far. Dig that Fender Rhodes…
Song for Insane Times: Kevin Ayers
I managed to get hold of an original vinyl copy of Soft Machine’s ‘Third’ from a record fair this month. Dunno if that prompted me to listen to Kevin Ayers again (he was the original bassist and singer for the band) but listen again I did. Rock journalist Nick Kent was a fan. He described Ayers and Syd Barrett as ‘the two most important people in British pop music’. Well, I suppose if you want to be controversial and ‘different’ then you might agree. Me, I just like that whole Canterbury scene sound, which mixes jazz and rock with Nick Drake. The title is apt, but then, when isn’t it?
The Belldog: Eno, Moebius, Roedelius
Another, ‘out walking in the hills’ tune. This is from the second album Eno made with German band ‘Cluster’. It was released in 1978 but I think it’s completely timeless; it could have been released yesterday. Eno says he saw a raggedy man sitting under the Arc de Triomphe playing strange chords on an old upright piano and singing ‘The belldog, where are you?’ over and over again and this inspired him to write the song. To him, the belldog was a herald who may not yet have appeared, or had disappeared. I love that; appeals to that ‘folk horror’ fan in me! The tune itself sounds very like something Underworld might do today. For me, it’s best listened to out in the middle of nowhere in the early morning, or late at night. Give it a try…
Here’s the link to the complete March playlist, with these songs and added Aretha Franklin, Billie Eilish and The Kinks. Plus The Adventures which appealed to me at the time!:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
I have, of late, become somewhat obsessed with this picture. Theodore Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ (1818-19) retains the power to shock, all the more so if we consider the horrific story behind the painting. On 2nd July 1816 the French naval frigate ‘Meduse’ ran aground just off the coast of what we now call Mauritania. In a desperate bid to reach safety, 147 people set out to find safety on a hastily constructed raft. Upon their eventual rescue 13 days later only 15 had survived.
The history is certainly tragic. But what is it that means that I keep thinking of the picture? Why does a depiction of an event that happened over 200 years ago mean anything to me now? The answer is in childhood or, rather, in the slippery art of growing up…
Adults are drowning in a sentimental yearning for our past, lost in a miasma of wistful nostalgia. It seems those of us who are the wrong side of 30 are afraid to let go of our childhoods, and those over 50 are unable to accept that they are becoming irrelevant. In other words, we are not growing up. The clearest evidence of this infantilization can be found in our popular culture. Grown men and women have threatened extreme violence against those they perceive to be blocking the release of a Superman movie. (Worst still, just like the spoilt toddler screaming their lungs out in the sweet shop, they eventually got their way). They have resorted to cheap, petulant rubbishing of all attempts to diversify their childhood heroes. The introduction of stronger female characters in James Bond films, the increasingly diverse roster of Marvel characters or the arrival of a female in the TARDIS: all have created a furore amongst ‘fans’ old enough to vote in national elections, drive cars and have a mortgage.
In fact, it has become almost demanded that we not lose sight of our ‘inner child’. JM Barrie’s Captain Hook or Mr Banks from Mary Poppins were both examples of the idea that growing up was to be avoided. Maturity meant sobriety where once there was fun, responsibility where once there was freedom. Adulthood was a time of bitterness, annoyance, anger, disappointment. CS Lewis, whose Narnia books were perhaps the defining statement of the magic of childhood, chose to reinterpret the words of Paul the Apostle when he wrote: ‘When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’
All of these writers, though, were fighting against the staid, cold and unimaginative ethics of the early Twentieth century. The world where children were seen and not heard and where, soon, the worst caprices of the adult world would be unleashed in two long and brutal wars. Theirs was no time for childlike innocence and it is easy to see why writers like Lewis were moved to search for something less cynical, less brutal. And any decent therapist will tell you that losing touch with the child you once were is a short cut to unhappiness. But the danger of clinging on to childhood is that it becomes nostalgia for a past where problems were all somebody else’s and could be sorted by someone else. In short, too much clinging on to our past stops us from growing up.
We see it in the peculiar relationship adult males have for comic book characters. Fans have grown to believe that they ‘own’ definitive iterations of the characters. These characters and stories had formed a part of their childhood, and they have ‘grown up’ together. They want the nostalgic buzz of old but with more ‘adult’ stories. For them, the ones who are insistent that The Godfather is the greatest film of all time, the ultimate movie would be one where Darth Vader was Michael Corleone. Films like Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ and Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’ gave them what they wanted, to considerable acclaim. They delivered the moral ambiguity, the darkness, the philosophical musing, all without stinting on the ‘ass-kicking’. It’s no wonder Mark Millar’s titular hero was named as he was in the 2008 comic book satire on all things ‘adult’ in the comic world ‘Kick Ass’. Above all, fans wanted security in knowing that their version of the character was the ‘right’ one.
The response to the Disney + show ‘The Book of Boba Fett’ exemplifies this strange desire to cling on to the past. After tasting success with ‘The Mandalorian’, Disney’s first foray into the world of TV, it was inevitable that Disney would look once again to the coolest of all the franchise’s helmeted (anti) heroes.
But, far from riding the coat-tails of The Mandalorian’s success, the show has not been well received by the ‘fanbase’. Very few, it seems, are happy with this iteration of the character. In all honesty, the show, which attempts to provide the once taciturn and sinister bounty hunter with a redeeming character arc, is a mess. Structurally, it is disjointed, even abandoning the central character and story arc for two whole episodes. It wants to to be an epic space-crime saga but has none of the required scale, or complexity in character development (there is no successfully drawn ‘big bad’) and plotting to pull this off. In the finale, these problems reach their nadir. A ridiculously simple shoot-out aped Rio Bravo or The Alamo with the brave few fighting off an entire town of outlaws plus a well-armoured crime syndicate with no losses and no real consequences; positively awful decision-making backed our heroes into a corner just so the writers could show Boba rampaging on the back of a Rancor; impossibly childish solutions were offered for what seemed to be a complex society of various races on Tattooine.
But, it was while watching the final episode that the penny dropped. I had been missing the point entirely. Of course the ‘fanbase’ were outraged. Of course they were disappointed with the representation of the character, the world-building, the lack of any real sustained menace or ‘real-world’ consequences.
They were no longer the target audience.
Maybe Disney is giving Star Wars back to the children. This stuff is for kids, they seem to be saying, and if you can’t let it go and entertain yourselves with more appropriate content then, well, that’s your problem. Commercial self-interest demands an ever-recycling consumer base. Disney know this better than most. In order to maintain their dominance of global markets in the future, the corporation must grab the attention of the young now. The old ‘family’ market is struggling. It is harder and harder to please everyone. The gulf between the young and the old is as wide as it has been for decades as the young, empowered by social media, push for radical change in gender politics, race relations and environmental issues whilst the older generation seek to defend increasingly tenuous traditional views. The days of the whole family settling down to watch a movie or TV show together are short. We are divided in what we watch and how we watch it. Entertainment is increasingly personalised: whilst the children watch YouTubers on mobile devices in their rooms, the parents are most likely watching their own shows separately too. Disney has had to make a choice: target their most popular franchises at the vocal but ageing demographic, or try to get the kids on board, thus ensuring longevity for the corporation. Disney have chosen to play the long game.
And times have changed. Society is changing: the young, as we have already noted, are challenging gender stereotypes and rigidity, and calling out racial bias or toxic masculinity more actively than ever before. Why aren’t more heroes anything but white? Why are female characters reduced to supporting roles? Where are the LGBTQ+ community represented? Disney have made clear efforts to respond to the criticism of the younger audience they seek and in the process further angered the predominantly white, male, thirty and forty-somethings that made up the core of the old audience, the ones who believed that these characters were theirs to command. These aren’t the characters they knew. This isn’t ‘grown-up’ Star Wars.
Well, no, it isn’t. Star Wars is a fairy tale set in a distant galaxy. It was never really intended for adult audiences; it was the 7 year old me that was blown away by the opening shot of the huge Imperial battle ship thundering over my head. I can attempt to recreate that feeling of awe by seeking out more of the same but it never quite works in the same way because I’m not 7 any more. And, anyway, is it healthy to be indulging in such shallow escapism, especially when it means holding on to something so tightly that we destroy it for others? Similarly, it is possible to write intelligent, challenging, ‘adult’ stories using these characters – but does that have to be at the expense of lighter, more child-friendly stories? Why darken the innocence of childhood heroes with the cynicism and moral complexity of adulthood all the time?
We see the same thing played out regularly with each new episode of pre-existing franchises be it James Bond, or Marvel superheroes, or Doctor Who. Superman resolutely refuses to fit this model; as the embodiment of light and hope he has proven impossible for film makers with darker intent to handle (just look at Zac Snyder’s tedious ‘Man of Steel’ for the evidence of that). But this desire to cling on to out pasts has broader and more concerning implications. For example, perhaps it explains the strange and disturbing post-millennium Western world we have made; where leaders behave like children who have realised that they don’t have to listen to the grown-ups anymore; where normally sensible people prepare for open insurrection if COVID plans had ruin their Christmases; where, terrifyingly, nobody seems to want to take the desperate situation with the climate seriously. It is as though we are all waiting for someone more grown-up to come along and make it all alright again.
When Dylan Thomas wrote about ‘raging hard against the dying of the light’ I don’t think he was suggesting that we become fixed in our minds, unyielding statues, rejecting progress and afraid of change; I think he meant that it is crucial to experience new things and embrace change to stay truly alive. And so, I see Gericault’s image of the remaining crew straining to hold on as their raft disintegrates beneath them as one which perfectly encapsulates the fear of dying and, perhaps just as powerful, the terror of becoming irrelevant. I imagine the raft to be crewed by middle-aged white men. The raft drifts towards the future, disintegrating as it does so. Those towards the front are reaching for salvation by welcoming change but those at the back are lost, desperate, clinging on the what they once had and, Gericault seems to say, doomed to lose their grip and be swept away by the tide of time. They’d probably post something unpleasant on Twitter as they go.
Anyway, as Henry Rollins likes to say to younger members of his audience, just let the old ones talk. It won’t make any difference. They’ll all be dead soon…
2022’s shaping up to be a belter already, ennit? I’ll dedicate all of this month’s tunes to the people of Ukraine, those who are currently searching for a safe haven for their children and those who have stayed to fight. Their courage is a daily reminder that our everyday problems amount to very little in the grand scheme of things. So, in the spirit of James Brown, let’s ‘get up offa our things’ and ‘try to release the pressure’ if only in a small way.
Not Too Shabby: Cerrone, Jamie Lewis
I started this month with vague plans for a club night based in the disco and electronic dance music of the late 70s and early 80s. Basically, a Giorgio Moroder type groove. I was looking for a very specific kind of uplifting hedonism, one that might just take our minds of the grind of daily life at the moment. Piecing together a playlist, I found this absolute banger. It fit the bill perfectly, except for the fact that it was released in 2005, approximately 25 years too late. Cerrone is that absolute master of this stuff. ‘Supernature’ is the masterpiece; this is more of his effortless groove.
2. Chaz Jankel: Without You
Another gem that nearly made it onto the ‘Moroder’s’ playlist, this is a great bit of 80s pop/funk, with a nice synth bass line. One of music’s unsung heroes, Chaz is probably best known for his work with Ian Dury and the Blockheads; he co-wrote many of the band’s biggest hits, including Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and Reasons to be Cheerful Part 3. Needless to say, I love this. And the video is the cherry on the top. According to the comments in the video, Chaz had never ridden a motorbike before this. Nice work, mate!
3. Roxy Music: Remake / Remodel
Wow. I fully indulged my Eno-isms this month, digging back into early Roxy and was reminded just what a stunning statement of intent this is. As the opening track to the band’s debut album, it takes what everyone thought they knew about pop/rock music to that point and chucks it all up in the air. I love the way it creeps up on you. The track starts with the sound of a small crowd chattering. I like to imagine pupils entering a school hall for assembly, and then Ferry starts plonking on the piano and all hell breaks loose. Mixing Bowie glam, Bonzo Dog madness, Eno’s synth bloops and Ferry’s ‘where the fuck did that come from’ vocal stylings (let’s not call it singing!) this must have been a riot for those lucky enough to have heard it first in the summer of 1972. It still sounds incredible today.
4. Picasso: Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band
Michael Head writes beautiful songs. That’s it. Everything he puts out is expertly crafted, whether it’s with Pale Fountains, the band that nearly made it, or with Shack, the band that nearly made it, or with The Strands, the band that… oh no, they weren’t the band that nearly made it. They were the band that should have bloody made it, what’s the matter with you all, what more do you want? That band. But still, he goes on producing timeless music for those that know. So now you do – no excuse. By the way, please can someone get Shack’s debut Waterpistol a re-issue on vinyl?
5. Aretha Franklin: Love The One You’re With
Found this album thanks to Norman Maslov’s excellent YouTube channel, specifically his soul video. Thanks Norman. This is awesome. I mean that in the true sense of the word. Aretha rips this song up and her band are as tight as you want. She says at the start that they’ve been ‘experimenting’ with the song. Christ knows what it would sound like if they ever thought they’d nailed it. Don’t be put off if, like me, you find the original Stephen Stills number not to your taste – give this a listen. I guarantee it will change your mind.
6. Nino Ferrer: Le Sud
To finish this month, a drop of Gallic sunshine. Nino was an Italian-born, French singer-songwriter. He was a bit of a maverick, describing the French music industry as ‘gaudy frivolity’ and he agreed with Serge Gainsbourg’s view that songs were a ‘minor art’ and ‘background noise.’ This is a shame because this song, a number 1 in France in 1975, certainly feels like more than that. The strings on the chorus are deep and brooding and the whole thing is structured so that it spirals downwards before climbing back up in an anthemic reach for the sun. It even has some funky 70s synth noises which add to the eccentricity without detracting from the lazy beauty of the whole thing. As ever with these achingly melancholic ‘happy-sad’ tunes, there is tragedy below the surface. Nino committed suicide in 1998. But let’s not end this month on the tragedy. Rather, let’s savour the hope that is in the grooves here; God knows there’s little of that around at the moment.
I really like Van Morrison’s music. I’m no rabid fan: I don’t have everything he ever recorded. Like many wankers, I ‘discovered’ him via the gateway album that is Astral Weeks, a glorious, stoned, jazzy, sprawling thing, during my very early twenties. The music was a predictable soundtrack to the experimental, hedonism of first year university students who believe themselves sophisticated and edgy as they lounge around the squalid front rooms of their equally squalid student houses whilst actually, really inhaling and nodding sagely as Van works manfully to find the tune in classics like Sweet Thing and Cypress Avenue.
Then, the exploration of the rest of his work, searching at first for something as mysterious and, well, difficult and finding that the rest was all a bit Radio Two, really. It took a few years for me to get my head around his mix of Celtic folksiness, Dylanesque rootsiness, jazzy punchiness and bluesy earthiness. The songs were all tightly structured! The choruses were singalong! There were no extended, loose jams on one chord! (Of course, there were, I just hadn’t found them yet). In amongst the punk and pre-Britpop indie Van just didn’t fit.
And yet… I bought St Dominic’s Preview and couldn’t get the rolling I Will Be There out of my head. I loved the Celtic gospel of the title track and there was at least a hint of the wiggier stuff on Listen to the Lion. Into The Music, which I bought next, lost me a bit; too much violin, too folksy. But still, I loved Bright Side Of The Road even though its breezy tunefulness went against all principles of what I believed music was at that stage in my life.
As I got older, so my interest grew. I listened to more, bought Moondance and the live album, Too Late to Stop Now, each time finding that there was a hole in my life that Van and only Van could fill. Meanwhile the man himself continued to release music. I tried to ignore Whenever God Shines His Light, which he recorded with Cliff Richard (this before I had my Road to Damascus epiphany with Cliff’s late 70s early 80s purple patch. I won’t have anyone say a bad word about We Don’t Talk Anymore these days but that’s a whole different blog post). I gritted my teeth through Have I Told You Lately, impossible as it was to ignore through the early Noughties. I tried to understand what he saw in Tom Jones. By now Spotify allowed me to dig deep and I discovered TB Sheets, which is just about the greatest of all 9 minute plus folk rock grinds, far more emotional and gritty than anything Dylan or Neil ever recorded. To me, it placed him in a similar place to Lou Reed – a reporter from the frontline of despair.
I knew he was a curmudgeon but I loved him for it. I didn’t want to know his thoughts on ‘the big issues of our time’ because I feared we probably wouldn’t agree and that would put me in a difficult position. But Van kept his cards close to his chest and everything was fine. And then came COVID-19 and it bloody ruined everything. Van decided that he was going into full twat mode with a trio of anti-lockdown songs, then joined forces with the tirelessly twattish Eric Clapton to ram home more of the same message as the deeply embarrassingly named ‘Rebels’.
It won’t matter to him one bit and it’s a first world problem but there’s a whiff hanging around Van that I can’t shift now. It’s there when I play Moondance. It’s there when I play Jackie Wilson Says. It’s always bloody there now. He’ll say that he’s a human being and that if I don’t like his opinions then I can stuff it (or words to that effect) and he’s quite right, but from a purely selfish perspective, it’s a bloody shame.
It all comes back to the thorny issue of whether an artist’s political views make any difference to your enjoyment of their art. Can I listen to Van Morrison, or Morrissey, or Isaac Hayes and Prince (both Jehovah’s Witness’ with some nasty views on women) or even (God forbid) Crapton, knowing that their politics don’t align with mine? This isn’t the same as Gary Glitter or Michael Jackson. Obviously, it is very very difficult to hear their music without feeling disgust at their crimes. It’s not the same in my view because in Van’s case, we are talking about a political or personal choice rather than any directly inhuman behaviour.
It’s all to do with our relationship with artists we love, I guess. We can never know them, not really but we think we do because we have their music. Van in particular leaves himself open in his music; his whole approach insists that he holds nothing back and it is this more than anything that pulls us in. We like to think that the ‘real’ Van is there in the grooves of every record and, because so much of the music is joyful and beautiful then that is the man’s true soul so he can’t really be campaigning against taking measures that protect the most vulnerable can he?
But what really happens when we lose ourselves in a piece of music? What is that magic alchemy that happens when we let a song into our hearts? The language we use is interesting: we ‘let music in’; we are ‘touched’ by it; we ‘lose ourselves’ in it. The music slots into our psyche, like a missing jigsaw piece and we build an intense relationship with it; to us it is a gift from a deity, one that we utterly ‘relate’ to and, most importantly’gets’ us. It is completely understandable that we extend those intense emotions to the human being who created the music. So, when we find that they are human, that they say things we don’t like, or choose to live their lives in a way we don’t agree with, then we feel that personally and deeply. We can’t match up our feelings for the song to the person who made them.
Van would say that’s our problem, and he’s right. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t live up to the godlike expectations we have of him. It’s ours. We have created a whole meaning, personal to us, around the man and the music and projected it onto him. No one could possibly live up to it. He’s even tried to get us to understand this in his recent work: in ‘Only a Song’ he says his words are ‘only a poem that could change in the long run.’ In interviews, he talks about ‘free speech’. Anyway, he may well add, is it so surprising that a man whose music so often pursues spiritual freedom would rail against state-enforced lockdown? That a man who sees himself as a poet in the gypsy tradition would not like being forced to stay at home?
Ultimately, we have to decide whether what we now know about the person behind the music will effect the relationship we have with their music. Deep down, I’ve always known that Van Morrison was a bit of a tosser. But he would say the same about me if he knew me. And this is how the world turns. I don’t know why anyone would look to artists for political insight anyway; their lives are not like ours. They won’t get it. They can help us to make sense of the personal but they rarely get the political stuff right.
I’ll still listen to Van’s music, like I still listen to Bowie despite the Nazi salutes and flirtation with fascist imagery (and just writing that makes me question myself). But the whiff of his cranky bollocks is stronger than ever. Maybe, the less we know about Van ‘the Man’ the better…
Can we really learn from history? It is a long-held belief that somewhere in the intertwined threads of our past lives there are clear lessons which others had to learn so that we wouldn’t have to. Most famously expressed by George Santayana, a Spanish American philosopher and poet as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ the belief has sustained History faculties the world over as the standard reply to the jaded student who asks how any of this stuff about dead kings matters.
The obvious and depressing retort, however, is simple. As George Bernard Shaw, everyone’s go-to figure for a pithy aphorism said, ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.’ The past is a graveyard full of hubris, arrogance, and failed dreams. It is a tale dominated by the powerful, the male, the white. And it is a tale which repeats itself over and over again. Each tyrant, each failed state, each defeated idealist will have believed they were on the side of history. But, as historian and academic Margaret MacMillan explains, ‘we… deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.‘
So, we must be cautious if we look backwards in an attempt to explain our present. But, given all of that, ‘The War of the World,’ Niall Ferguson’s 2006 exploration of the 20th Century’s predilection for violence is turning out to be a work of remarkable prescience. In it, he examines the social and economic upheaval which contributed to ‘the bloodiest century in modern history,’ and then offers some pointers for how this might matter to us now. And this is where things get interesting, if not downright terrifying. Because, if he’s right, then the world is in a very parlous state indeed.
He posits that there are three factors which he believes ‘explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century… ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.’ The three are intertwined; no one element stands alone and apart as a causal factor. Rather, he suggests, they combine to cultivate the conditions in which mankind becomes aggressive and violent; in the case of nation states, this means war.
Ethnic conflict. Economic volatility. Empires in decline. Sound at all familiar?
Ignoring ethnic conflict for a moment, let’s take economic volatility first. Ferguson argues that this can mean boom or bust. Any kind of sudden change to economic conditions can create unrest. With the news today that millions of households in the UK will face a £693 hike in fuel bills as global energy prices soar, combined with surging inflation, it’s difficult not to describe the UK economy as anything but volatile. Across Europe the shock tremors of Brexit are still rippling, creating uncertainty in markets and driving inflation. And there are global problems. The pandemic caused the global economy to stall; this may be addressed in 2022, and we may see sudden growth. Either way, it is not stable. Sudden rises, sudden slumps, economic hardship and the threat of war in Europe… Ferguson would, I’m sure, be concerned. Add to that a growing global population, increasingly elderly in the West, limited natural resources and the economic realities of a greener approach to power as well as the threat of war in Europe and in the South Seas and it is easy to understand market instability.
Ferguson also sees the 20th century as a time of decline for the Western powers, describing ‘the death of the West.’ This is in contrast to many historians who saw the end of the Cold War as the ‘triumph of the West.’ Perhaps they were looking in the wrong direction. Compare European dominance of the globe in 1900 to where it was in 2000 and it is hard to argue that the Western hegemony had triumphed at all. Perhaps if Western culture had been adopted wholesale by Asian countries, he argues, then we might still have described the century as a victory for Western culture, but that has not been the case. China’s economy may have embraced a degree of capitalism but it maintains it culture and state control; it has cherry-picked what it believes to be the most useful elements of Western capitalism and thrown away the rest. The USA is becoming increasingly insular and divided. Trump’s clarion call of ‘America First’ was a clear indication that they were happier as the ‘leader of the free market’ rather than the ‘free world’. Similarly, Brexit has left Europe divided and inward-looking, economically and militarily weakened and wrapped up in red tape whilst its borders creak with immigrants, seeking safe haven from war-torn Middle Eastern and African home countries abandoned by the last century’s superpowers after the Cold War.
And the first scapegoats of economic hardship and a decline in power? Those who are ethnically different to us, who become ‘the problem’. Antisemitism, that blight of not just the last century but centuries before that too, has once again become a feature of Western discourse, not just in the US. Furthermore, I believe that the decision to leave Europe was as much about closing England’s borders (I absolve Scotland, Wales and NI on the grounds that they didn’t want to leave) to Eastern European or Islamic migrants than it was about trade deals. The years of austerity (economic volatility) had pushed its people to the point where they needed someone to blame. A poorly administered immigration policy (nothing to do with the EU) didn’t help.
And there is little question that the English’ concerns about immigration are grounded in a fear of those from different cultures rather than anything else; few complained quite so vociferously about Australian immigrants, or those from predominantly white ‘Western’ democracies. Rather, it was ugly stereotypes of Eastern European or Middle Eastern immigrants which were the dominant feature of much of the debate. If anything, the Brexit referendum revealed a truth about a country which was feeling the loss of its imperial past and which was clinging to a nostalgic vision of itself which hasn’t existed since the Second World War: an overwhelmingly white, conservative nation with genuine power and influence in global issues. As such, Brexit provides ample evidence of the way that the fall of empire, economic volatility and ethnic conflict can intertwine to create conflict and division. Brexit also provided a clear indication of the country’s changing demographic, something else Ferguson discusses in the book. The country is getting older. He examines the impact an increasingly aged population has economically. Statistics suggest that the over-65s will be almost 19% of the country’s population in 2022, the highest this proportion has ever been. Combine this with a declining birth rate and it is not hard to see problems arising with welfare and pensions to which, as Ferguson points out, pre-Brexit and hence without irony, the only answer is immigration.
Perhaps it is also possible to look beyond hard borders which are really no more than arbitrary lines on a map, and to consider a broader interpretation which includes barriers on information. If we expand the definition of a border to include the firewalls and barriers which protect a state’s information, then it is possible to see that conflict has already begun. Cyber warfare between states is now commonplace. The US has cited cyber attacks from Russia and China stretching back to 2010, including ongoing controversy over the Russian interference in the election of Donald Trump, whilst in the UK, similar claims surround the Brexit referendum. Certainly, Trump in the White House and Britain out of Europe suits Putin’s worldview just fine. In the new world then, these borders are equally crucial and just as inflammatory where different cultures collide; where East meets West in cyberspace.
So, do we learn anything from this particular history lesson? If Ferguson is right, then the factors are moving into place for a sizeable conflict of some description. Perhaps we are witnessing the end days of Western democracy and the rise of a new Eastern power-base. China and Russia are not slow to recognise signs of decay and division in the West. Russian aggression in Ukraine is brinkmanship to match the days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis in 1962. President Putin suggests that he is acting in defence of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the Middle East but his defiance is indicative of the weakness he sees in the old centres of power, Western Europe and the US. He has also moved Russia into a more concrete alliance with China, the two countries agreeing to co-operate diplomatically and militarily more closely than at any time since the 1950s. President Xi Jinping cites Putin as ‘his best friend’. Elsewhere, China watch carefully to see how the Western powers respond to the situation in Ukraine as they begin to stake their claim to Taiwan, whilst also reaching out to the Middle East, making polite and respectful overtures to Egypt, as another like-minded state. China and Russia are united by a common goal: the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) claim that the two countries ‘seek to undermine the democratic and liberal West.’ It is not hard to see how these two huge countries, rich in resources, with shared ideologies and, in China’s case, a strong economy, forming a dominant world power as old Europe and the US dissolve into in-fighting and economic uncertainty.
Niall Ferguson ends his book with a warning. ‘We remain’ he says, ‘our own worst enemies. We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one – the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis, and in doing so, negate our common humanity.’
I fear that the legacy of the 21st century will be to prove George Bernard Shaw right.
This month’s music sampler. It’s been a cold, grey start to 2022. Let’s see if we can warm up with some tasty tunes which have been warming my cockles this month. I hope you find something new to love.
One Way Glass: Manfred Mann Chapter Three
This starts with a pounding groove, a real jackhammer drumbeat and thumping bass combination and explodes into a triumphal horn blast which attracted the attention of Liam Howlett, who used it in The Prodigy’s Stand Up. The band liked it so much they had another pop at it on a later album, but it’s the hornier version that has all the swing.
It Hurts So Good: Millie Jackson
Millie Jackson is a victim of the strange prejudice audiences have for music produced by artists who do not appear to take the world seriously. It’s the same problem that artists such as Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa and to a degree, The Beach Boys had. If you’re not serious then the music is meaningless, seems to be the argument. Seems like bollocks to me. God forbid an artist has more than one facet to their personality. This is one of the great soul singles of the 70s and Millie was a pioneer of the half sung, half spoken style so beloved of Teddy Prendegast and Isaac Hayes amongst others. That Muscle-Shoals sound is in full effect here too.
Ford Mustang: Serge Gainsbourg
Effortlessly cool, this track features another of those late 60s pumping basslines, and the breathy vocals of Madeline Bell adding a counterpoint to Gainsbourg’s own. The combination of sex and cars was later explored by JG Ballard in his novel ‘Crash’; a controversial film adaptation was made by David Cronenberg in the 90s. But here is the real deal. You don’t need a degree in Philosophy to feel the weirdly erotic allure of the motor vehicle here. It just is.
Somebody New: Swim Mountain
Bursting sunnily from the fertile imagination of London-based artist and producer Tom Skyrme, this one skips along on a massively infectious slab of rhythm guitar, which slips beautifully through subtle chord amendments (they’re too slight to feel like whole chord changes) over analogue synths. It’s a template that Tame Impala have made their own but this is accomplished enough to stand apart. Add a beautifully Californian break in the mid-section of the song and you get a perfectly formed funky pop song.
Anima Latina: Lucio Battisti
It’s miserable outside; let’s stay in the sun. This is just incredible, a heady mix of Latin rhythms and progressive rock, like what would happen if Seu Jorge got high with Peter Gabriel in a samba bar. The truly incredible thing is that it was released in 1974, yet it sounds totally fresh. Although well known in his native Italy, Battisi, who died in 1998 deserved much wider acclaim.Totally indefinable, this is uplifting, soul-affirming music.
Sub-Rosa Subway: Klaatu
Klaatu have a fascinating history. Formed in 1973, they released 5 albums between 76 and 81. The first album was released to a generally disinterested public and it appeared that that was going to be that for the band. But then journalist Steve Smith wrote a piece positing the idea that Klaatu were, in fact, the recently disbanded Beatles, recording in disguise! Enough people bought the idea, and the records started to sell, until the cover was blown and the public, unhappy at being duped (although the band did nothing to stimulate the rumours), dropped them like a stone. Which leaves the records. This comes from the first album, and you can hear why the idea gained some traction back then. If you close your eyes, you can imagine that this is a song recorded in the heady days of the early 70s, in the afterglow of Abbey Road. Their other claim to fame? Weirdly, The Carpenters had a hit single with the band’s ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’, taken from the same album. Got to love the 70s…
Stoned at the Nail Salon: Lorde
Pretty song. Reflections on time passing from someone who has plenty of time still to reflect on it. This works especially well if you put it on headphones and pretend it’s a late summer evening, and you’re outside, and the sun is warm, and bees are humming lazily around you.
Hope that’s put you in the right place to deal with February!