From 45rpm to 45 minutes: thinking about long songs

 

 

Something strange happened in the mid 1960s, as we moved away from the 45rpm singles culture, representing a time when albums were nothing more than collections of singles. [It was actually worse than that, since the albums would contain both the A sides as well as the B sides of the singles. Until the Beatles came along, B sides were B sides. With Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, they broke the mould. I didn’t have that single in my collection, my first experience of the phenomenon was Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane.]

People also started releasing albums that were meant to be listened to as albums rather than as a series of discrete songs, where the “bargain size” of listening to music became 45 minutes at 33rpm rather than 3.3 minutes at 45rpm. That tolled the end of the auto changer and spindle extensions and single stacking and release mechanisms. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.

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I was thinking about all this a few days ago, in the context of tl;dr and Long Reads. It’s a theme that has come up regularly over the past decade or so, the apparent social trend towards sound bites and powerpoint rather than any sort of depth of treatment of any subject. When does something become tl;dr? What does it say of a civilisation when tl;dr starts trending towards zero?

You’ve probably noticed that whenever I ask myself such questions I tend to switch context, usually to food or to music. There’s a part of my brain that doesn’t distinguish between a single, a snack and a soundbite, and I learn from the comparisons.

This was what was in my mind when I saw a tweet from John Taschek and the conversation that ensued:

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Long reads, three- or four-hour meals, albums where you listened to all the songs in sequence, they’re all the same thing to me. [There’s one twist. Simultaneity. I can enjoy the meals and the music with others at the same time, but haven’t yet figured out a good way of doing that with long reads: recitals, plays and films cover only part of the need.]

Anyway, to the gist of this post. Here’s a short list of 1960s and 1970s long songs and albums-meant-to-be-heard-as-albums, to remind some people of geriatric genres, and to let the rest of us wallow in remembered warmth.

Long songs (at least 7 minutes in duration)

Light My Fire (1967, 7:06)

Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands (1966, 11:02)

The End (1967, 11:41)

LA Woman (1971, 7:49)

Riders On The Storm (1971, 7:10)

Get Ready (1970, 21:06)

Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone (1972, 12:02)

Season Of The Witch (1968, 11:07)

Ball And Chain (1967, 8:13)

Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (1971, 11:35)

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (1969, 7:28)

California (1969, 9:30)

Thoughts About Roxanne (1969, 8:20)

(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired (1973, 7:31)

Roll Right Stones (1973, 13:40)

Glad (1970, 6:59 … OK it’s not 7 minutes but I’m not legalistic)

Foreigner Suite (1973, 18:19)

The World Is A Ghetto (1972, 10:10)

Living For The City (1973, 7:22)

Dear Mr Fantasy (1971, 10:57)

Forty Thousand Headmen (1971, 6:21, yes, not quite 7 either)

Layla (1971, 7:02)

Jessica (1973, 7:28)

Help>Slip>Frank (1975, 11:55)

The Music Never Stopped (1975, 8:24)

That’s all for now. There are at least a hundred others, all fodder for a post some other day. John Taschek, I think the appropriate loud melodic long song after Dreamforce is the long version of Living For The City. And Zachary Jeans, if you want long and instrumental, besides the Allmans’ Jessica I would recommend Traffic’s Glad.

Left to myself when the time of day or night doesn’t matter, there’s no competition for Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. And in some moods Help>Slip>Frank takes some beating, as does Layla. Late evenings and in the small hours there’s nothing to touch California or Sometimes I Feel So Uninspired. Next time I’m thinking of covering my top 20 long posts …. not posts written by me, but by others, posts I think everyone should read.  And I can never leave out the John Perry Barlow classic The Music Never Stopped.

Play up, play up, and play the game

THERE’S a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Vitai Lampada, Sir Henry Newbolt, 1897

 

 

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If LS Lowry had lived in Calcutta, he wouldn’t have been able to call his painting Going To The Match. He’d have had to have called it Going To The Matches. Now why would that be?

The answer’s below:

 

 

 

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You see the little cross above the word Maidan near the centre of the map? Guess what all the rectangles around it represent? They’re sports grounds. When I was a boy in Calcutta, things used to be simple. You had the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium to the south of the city for large scale athletics events, and Eden Gardens for the cricket. Everything else was played at the maidan, in one or other of the stadia there. In those days the larger clubs had their own stadia, the smaller ones had sharing arrangements.

These were permanent temporary structures, the sort of things that were probably only possible as a consequence of the best strains of British bureaucracy mating with their Indian counterparts. Permanent enough to be able to accommodate tens of thousands of people safely; temporary enough to get past the “you can’t build here” zoning laws for that area, on land owned by the Army.

The proximity of the structures meant that when it came to the Saturday match, all roads led to the Maidan. Everyone was going to the match. Except there was more than one match. All the matches were held in that small space. It was like having the Dundee Derby every weekend, with ten teams rather than two.

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This was a Good Thing. Supporters from rival teams didn’t fight each other quite as much as they might have otherwise, possibly because of the unnerving possibility that the “neutral” fan passing by was actually next week’s opponent. [That was what it was like when I was young, things may have changed since.]

You supported your team win lose or draw … if you supported a team, that is. It was all right to be a neutral and to visit without allegiance, nobody cared.

It wasn’t about winning. It was about “play up, play up, and play the game“. There were things that were “just not cricket”. Jerusalem may have had its Gate called Beautiful; in Calcutta, it was the Game that was called Beautiful. [Even today, it astounds me that India does so poorly at world soccer. I have a theory as to why, but that’s for another day].

How you played the game mattered. At school, there were many things you could do on the playing field. Challenging authority wasn’t one of them. Questioning the official’s decision was the quickest way of getting sent off. You shook hands before the match, and “three-cheers-hip-hip-hurrah”-ed your opponents after the match, regardless of the result. Coaches focused on teamwork; selfish stars found themselves dropped with alacrity. Football matches reached their conclusion without language, spitting or shirt-tugging. Yes, fouls were committed, yes, there were crunching tackles, yes, there was blood and there were broken bones. But not in malice.

Every sport had its rules, but the rules were underpinned by values. Phrases like the “spirit of the game” meant something.

Today, in many sports, the spirit of the game means nothing. Winning is what appears to count. Winning at all costs.

We all lose as a result.

We have drug cheats, match fixers, rule benders; we have divers and dissemblers, Oscar-winning injury-feigners, sly shirt-tuggers, all apparently in the name of “gamesmanship”. We use terms like “professional foul” where we mean “cheating”.

We all lose as a result.

The money involved in sport has become astronomical, so it’s not just the games that get fixed, it’s everything. Where events take place. What equipment is used. Everything.

We all lose as a result.

I love cricket. What happened at Lord’s yesterday was shocking. If Ben Stokes was truly considered to have handled the ball “wilfully”, the consequences could be serious. In a world where only winning counts, a world where the letter of the law counts more than the spirit, there is now an incentive for members of the fielding side to shy the ball, with extreme force, at a batsman anywhere near the stumps.

Situations like this have been simmering for a while, a consequence of poor blood on the pitch. Unfortunately England’s position on spirit-versus-letter has been inconsistent. Spirit of law when Bell is given out legally; spirit of law when Buttler is Mankaded; letter of law when Broad is given not out legally. Such inconsistency breeds frustration, and leads to situations like yesterday where the batsman, Stokes, isn’t given the benefit of the doubt by the fielding team or the third umpire.

The ludicrous “umpire’s call” rule makes a mockery of DRS, above and beyond the damage done by unilateral choices of equipment provider.

Why does all this matter? Because sport is about learning to do the right thing first and everything else second.

If we make sport about winning, we all lose.

We all need to play up, play up, and play the game.

Not just in sport.

In life.

From me to you: musings on food

If there’s anything that you want
If there’s anything I can do
Just call on me and I’ll send it along
With love, from me to you

The Beatles : From Me To You : Lennon-McCartney : 1963

I don’t think it’s possible to grow up in Calcutta without becoming an inveterate foodie. Food and drink were essential punctuation marks in the conversations and get-togethers, the addas that were (and still are) defining characteristics of the city. Much of the food was vegetarian; much of the drink was nonalcoholic; the venue was often the street; it was a classless, reservation-free, standing-up, affordable part of everyday life.

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My memories of Calcutta are interlaced with feelings of being spoilt for choice when it came to street food. The puchka has a special place in my heart, because it was the only street food I can remember that was served dealer-style. It was like being in a casino playing blackjack. You had your slot at the table. You waited your turn as the dealer went from hand to hand.

And, unlike at the casino, you won every time. A good thing.

There was something else. While I salivated over my bhel poori and my jhal moori, while I mowed down mountains for my kati roll, there was something different about the puchka. Something that built a relationship between the maker and the eater. It was a simple something: the puchkawala didn’t just serve you, he served you multiple times in a single session, rapid-fire. He memorised the particular spec you wanted your puchka made to (how much filling, how much spiced water, how much “heat”, even the level of fragility) and then delivered it to you custom-made, perfect, time after time.

With love. From me. To you.

It’s one of those things that I will never stop appreciating about food. It is so inherently social. It is so part of what makes us human. When you eat, there are multiple relationships that blossom, all at the same time. You have the bond of eating together, eating family-style, common, even de rigueur, in cultures ranging from Italian to Iranian to Indian and everything in between, and a few places beyond. You have the bond between the eater and the eaten, the one that can take you from gourmet to gourmand all the way to glutton if you’re not careful. And you have the bond between the cook and the guest.

Food is essentially and intrinsically cultural. Which is why I found Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 book, Eating Animals, utterly compelling and occasionally unnerving.

I was born a vegetarian, in a vegetarian household. Many of my relatives have never eaten meat.

I’m coming to the realisation that it’s only a matter of time before I become a vegetarian again.

While there are many reasons for this, the catalyst was reading Eating Animals. If I were to write an elevator pitch for the book, I’d say something like this: “I want to be a selective sustainable omnivore. But there’s a problem. I can’t be a selective sustainable omnivore in society, because there’s no simple way for me to communicate what that means to society. So it’s better for me to say I’m a vegetarian or a vegan: that way, people will be able to understand what I’m saying. So even though it’s not perfect, that’s what I’m going to do.

This is a hard thing.

My path away from vegetarianism was an easy accident. I had vegetable samosas at a friend’s birthday party. Loved them. Asked for the recipe. Turned out they weren’t vegetarian after all. Oops.

So I became an omnivore. And loved it. I’ve eaten most things, pretty much everything bar long pig.

I’m still an omnivore. I still relish a masala dosai or a matsutake dobin mushi the same way I would relish tournedos Rossini or a Chateaubriand (with béarnaise sauce of course).

But now I know I need to be a selective omnivore. I can’t eat meat as much as I would like to. My reasons aren’t religious; my beliefs allow me to eat whatever I want, in moderation. They aren’t “medical” either; no doctor has asked me to ease off anything, although that may still happen if my cholesterol or blood sugar went doolaly. [An unlikely occurrence, especially since I’ve been reducing my meat intake, have no alcohol or nicotine or coffee, and am learning to watch my weight]. They aren’t financial; I’m blessed to be able to afford whatever I want to eat.

So why do I want to be a selective omnivore? Why do I want to put myself into a position where I tell people I’m a vegetarian to all intents and purposes?

It’s simple. We can’t all be meat-eaters. Not seven or eight billion of us. The natural-resource cost of providing meat as a staple to everyone will bankrupt this earth rapidly. When I say rapidly I mean “in our lifetime”. Soon.

Simply put, when we look at the energy and water costs of food production, the meat-eaters amongst us are being heavily subsidised by the vegetarians and the vegans. Heavily.

That was fine in the past. It’s not fine now. We have serious issues to deal with when it comes to energy, and even more serious ones when it comes to water.

In the end it comes down to renewable resources, the cycle time those resources take to be replenished, the other resources they draw on in that cycle. No different from any other conversation about renewable resources.

As human beings, we’re at a time in our evolution where the opportunity to get better information about the causes and effects of what we do is increasing. That’s a good thing, because we’re only just beginning to understand just how interconnected everything is.

As we build and develop and evolve more sensors we’re going to have better information and feedback loops. Take for example the number of trees we have on earth. Turns out there are three trillion of them. Seven times the number we had estimated previously. Seven times.

As we get better information, as we learn more about the root causes, we’re going to make better decisions. Decisions about climate change and energy and water and nutrition and wellness will turn out to be high on the agenda. I can be sure of that. Because the alternative scenarios are peppered with terms like death and extinction.

Man is intrinsically social. Food is part of the machinery we use to be social. The earth we live in is all we’ve got, all that exists in the known part of the universes around us that is capable of sustaining life as we know it.

I’ve got to do my part. And so I’m going to continue on my path to becoming a selective sustainable omnivore.

Some of you will find yourself on that same path. For the same reasons. And when I meet you there, I look forward to enjoying some puchkas with you.

With love. From me. To you.

There are places I remember

 

 

I’d never ever left the Indian subcontinent until November 1980, a few weeks after my 23rd birthday. [Technically I’d ventured across the border into Bangladesh, and into Nepal via Naxalbari as well, but these were deliciously illicit and very very brief, all part of being a teenager in Calcutta at that time].

When I did leave, it was a convoluted process. CCU DEL FRA LHR LPL. Walking out of Speke airport (as it was known then) I took my first real steps on land that wasn’t part of the Indian subcontinent. That was late November 1980.

I was like a child, intensely curious, observing everything around me with raking eyes. I’d never seen trees without leaves, nor a sky that stayed grey all day, without the faintest smidgen of sun. I’d never considered the possibility of walking down a street with no one else in sight in what passed for broad daylight; of hearing the postman enter our road, ten houses away; of watching strange bug-eyed objects making even stranger noises as they slowly traversed the street at dawn. [My strange object turned out to be a milk float.]

That was my state of mind as I walked down St Anthony’s Road, Blundellsands, on the 9th of December 1980, to get my morning paper from the newsagent. Within a minute I realised something was different. There were other people around. They weren’t just around, they were almost frozen in time. Standing. Sitting on the pavement. Leaning against the fences they’d been passing. Huddled  at the bus stop. More people than I’d ever seen on that stretch before.

And they were silent. Crying, but silent. And I didn’t know why.

[This was before Twitter, before mobile phones, before 24 hour news on TV and cable. This was a time when people went to bed and went to sleep. When the morning radio and the morning paper actually carried stories about things that you’d been completely unaware of earlier.

I walked into the newsagent, picked up my paper. Started reading the headlines. And sat down on the pavement and cried. Now I knew why.

John Lennon had been killed.

Like millions of others of my generation, he, and the Beatles, were an integral part of my life. The effect of that tragedy was amplified because I was living in Liverpool at the time; although I treated my arrival in the city as the beginning of a pilgrimage, I hadn’t even had time to visit Penny Lane or Strawberry Field as yet; the Cavern Club had already been demolished and was yet to be rebuilt.

Those memories came flooding back these past few days as a series of disconnected events nudged me towards remembering. Today would have been the 64th birthday of one of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, my cousin Jay’s husband, Gyan Singh. Sadly he’s no longer with us. But when I saw her post this morning, a part of my brain went “Vera, Chuck and Dave.”

A day earlier, erstwhile colleague and friend Charlie Isaacs retweeted another friend Vala Afshar’s tweet about “the greatest photo bomb ever”, and I was transported to an earlier time, standing at that iconic crossing with friends who lived in the adjacent apartment block, air-drumming to the tune of Come Together. Even today, I get goosebumps when I play that song, on vinyl, nice and loud.

The day before that, I was standing near the entrance to the Albert Hall, waiting to meet someone. And a part of my brain was going “Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”. That happens every time I pass by there.

The last time I was at the Albert Hall for a concert, it was with a friend who’s also a music nut and a Beatles nut. It was a Clapton concert. And we were reminiscing about Pattie Boyd and how one person could have had three blockbuster songs written about her: Something; Wonderful Tonight; and Layla.

I’m not just an avid concert goer but a music history buff to boot. I’ve done my pilgrimage to Pere-Lachaise cemetery, eaten at Croce’s and at Threadgill’s, downed a pint or three opposite Eel Pie Island, visited the site of Max yasgur’s farm, mooched around Haight-Ashbury, walked down Bleecker St, investigated all I could about the Laurel Canyon phenomenon, posed in the right spot at Heddon St, even stood on Preston Platform. I’ve had the chance to meet and speak one-to-one to many of my heroes, ranging from Neil Young and Elliot Roberts through Donovan all the way to Pete Townshend. They all mean a lot to me. But they haven’t permeated me in the same way as the Beatles have done. A Hard Day’s Night was the first album I can remember hearing. The Beatles’ Oldies But Goldies was the first album I can remember buying “with my own money”.

I’ve been thinking about all this ever since I saw a post by Hilary Saunders on “the 50 best Beatles songs”, published a week or so ago.

I tried, and actually found it hard, to compress my own list down to 50. Ridiculous. But true. I found myself thinking “Who else do I listen to where I’d have a similar problem?”. CSNY? Not that hard, as long as I could pick their solo songs and Buffalo Springfield and Stills-Young Band and Hollies separately. Traffic? Grateful Dead? Croce? The Who? The Band? Pink Floyd? Jethro Tull? Don McLean? The Rolling Stones? Peter, Paul and Mary? Elvis? Neil Diamond? The list went on and on, but there were rare exceptions.

Bob Dylan. Yup, I could find it hard to choose 50. Simon and Garfunkel? A little easier, but close. Leonard Cohen? Possibly, but I could do it. Joni Mitchell? Gordon Lightfoot? Cat Stevens? Joan Baez? Same story, possible, but I know I can do it, I know I can get my favourites down to 50 or less easily.

The hardest one remained The Beatles. It says something about them. Fifty shades of great. In decades to come, in generations to come, I wonder how many more artists or bands will pose a similar problem.

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends
I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

The Beatles: In My Life

 

 

 

musing, a little fearfully, about beautiful mornings

I was brought up in a family where we loved to listen to music. Now, half a century later, that love of music remains rampant and unchecked.

The music we listened to came from a limited number of sources: the radio; my father’s original record collection (78rpm lacquer platters, 33rpm 10″ vinyl and 33rpm 12″  LPs); the albums and cassette tapes we acquired as children and teenagers. I didn’t buy my first album till 1972; I was 14 then. It was this one:

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A collection of Beatles oldies. That album summed up many things about the context I grew up in. It related to something English in origin, no longer in existence, packaged for Americans, manufactured locally, by what was then the Gramophone Company of India, in Dumdum of bullet and airport fame.

My father’s tastes were eclectic and so we grew up listening to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Jelly Roll Morton; we learnt to love Perry Como and Pat Boone; we savoured great orchestral works by Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. There were a few “modern” albums: A Hard Day’s Night, With the Beatles, Time Out, In the Wind. A few oddballs like Burl Ives and Edmundo Ros.

And a bunch of musicals. My Fair Lady. South Pacific. Carousel. Paint Your Wagon.

And Oklahoma.

For years, whenever I heard that name, my brain, my heart, my memories would all be in this song:

Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’. I still get goose pimples when I hear the song belted out nice and loud, the way it should be heard.

As I grew older, as I read more, as I began to travel (I’d never left India until after my 23rd birthday), I learnt more about Oklahoma. The Sooner State. An edge of the Dust Bowl. Part of Route 66. Cimarron County. The bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building. And the capital of fracking.

Many years ago, I remember reading about the response of the state to the phenomena that created the Dust Bowl, the way those that ran the state took steps to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. Extensive soil and irrigation and conservation strategies. A programme that included building 200 manmade lakes.

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More recently, I read in the New Yorker about fracking and Oklahoma. How manmade earthquakes were becoming exceedingly common. The article referred to some data from the USGS:

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I’m not a geologist.

What the New Yorker wrote, what the USGS had to say, did make me think that such phenomena would make it harder for people to be able to sing “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'”

I hope I’m wrong. If it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck.

I hope I’m wrong.