Monday, 19 December 2011

RAY DAVIES -Spring 1966

"Days went by, I walked around dressed in a disguise.
 I wore a moustache and I parted my hair 
 And gave the impression that I didn't care
 But oh the embarrassment, oh, the despair!
 Came the day, helped by a few large glasses of gin,
 I nervously mounted the stage once again, 
 Got through my performance and no one complained
 Thank god I can go back to normal again"
 All of My Friends Were There 

On the 16th April 1966 a moustached Ray Davies appeared on stage with The Kinks at the Locomotive Club, Paris. He'd been absent for 6 weeks, recovering from a pressure-induced breakdown. The day before, TIME magazine had published it's infamous "London The Swinging City" edition. The cover montage of dolly-birds and old-money aristocrat's strewn over Westminster Bridge, encapsulated the rough-hewn cut and paste exuberance of the moment and The Kinks radio hit of the day added a soundtrack that seemed to celebrate this resplendent Spring:

"He thinks he is a flower to be looked at,
 And when he pulls his frilly nylon panties RIGHT UP TIGHT
 He feels a dedicated follower of fashion"
NME March 1966 , Ray (right)

But the only thing right up tight was the song's beleaguered composer.

The previous month, ex-art student Ray had drawn a portrait of The Kinks on the cover of the NME at the request of management to promote the Dedicated Follower of Fashion single. Ray's self-portrait in floral roll-neck sweater was a picture of coiled rage and pent-up frustration. The song had been inspired by a punch-up he'd had with a fashion-designer at a pre-Christmas party and the actual recording sessions had been laboured with the composer emerging less than satisfied with the finished product. One speculates whether the jolly sounding camp of the final version came as a commercial compromise, with a searing personal character assassination hidden somewhere on scraps of paper in the Davies archive.

The period running up to Christmas 1965 had been marked with a rash of darker songs reflecting the rigours of the tread-mill music business, featuring increasingly acerbic lyrics. Sharpening around the grey reality of life, the songs were offering an uncomfortable reality check on the swinging decade. From the summer the contemptuous A Well Respected Man had heralded the first of a long-line of character portraits highlighting lives that offered little real reward. Where Have All The Good Times Gone and I'm On An Island were self-evident statements of Davies own state of mind regarding his own predicament and they were soon followed by I'm Not Like Everybody Else, a song so close to the bone that it was originally seen as being unsuitable for the band to record. The demos recorded at the time give an even more undiluted view of Davies world view. All Night Stand, from December was an essay in exhaustion:

"All night stand, been around seen a million faces, yeah
 All night stand, seen a good half a million places, yeah
 All night stand, can't get these people off my back.
 All night stand, ten percent for this and that.
 All night stand, all night stand..."

In early February 1966 the band recorded a song that would remain buried in the vaults. Influenced by Dylan's vitriol, Mr Reporter featured lyrics that did not not sit well with the hit-machine image that management had them firmly locked into. This was a song that would be impossible to promote:

At around this time Davies began to balance his increasingly dark satirical vignettes with a strand of quasi-philosophical lyrics seemingly written to pull himself out of depression. The songs varied in tone and delivery but they clearly reached out to "bigger forces" putting the everyday grind into perspective. Songs like Lazy Old Sun and Big Sky with their reference to heavenly bodies, have their origins in the sentiments expressed in The World Keeps Going Round which first appeared in November 1965. The lyric circles around a world-weary acceptance that this is how it is so we might as well just get on with it:

"You worry 'bout the sun, 
 What's the use in worrying 'bout the big ol' sun
 You worry 'bout the rain, 
 The rain keeps falling just the same"

On 4th February a group called The Lancastrians would release their version of the song, marking a period filled with cover versions of Davies product. With the encouragement of a management eager to utilise their prize songwriting asset, Davies would embark on his first forays into extra-curricula activity, writing songs to order like Leapy Lee's King of The Whole Wide World (featuring back-up from The Kinks) and a proposed LP project with "Private Eye" contributor and TV presenter Barry Fantoni. The resulting single Little Man in a Little Box emerges as a typically moody Davies lyric, with the song's protagonist lost in his TV world isolated from his audience and his love:

On 26th February 1966 in between TV performances in London and Birmigham The Kinks appeared in concert in Nelson, Lancashire, squeezing in an appearance at "The Inn Place" boutique in Blackburn. The first week of March was then spent touring Switzerland and Austria. At the end Ray collapsed with exhaustion.

Whilst the band toured France and Belgium with a stand-in guitarist and a Carnaby Street film promoted the Dedicated Follower of Fashion single on TV, Ray convalesed at his North London home. But things got worse. On 17th March he famously ran from Muswell Hill down to central London and attacked the band's publicist Brian Sommerville. Whisked away into the care of a psychiatrist, The Kinks were seemingly in disarray.

Yet the release of tension would turn out to be a godsend. Already banned from US touring, the band now scaled down their live commitments in the UK and Europe. The semi-retirement would effect the band members already parlous finances but the benefits would soon bear fruit. Davies would use the time to compulsively write out his problems in song and the greater proportion of the brilliant LPs recorded in the next 2 years would have their genesis in this public hiatus period. By the time Davies returned to the fold in Paris the band were back in full swing, recording their landmark "Face to Face" LP at the Pye Records Marble Arch studios. The songs reflected the turbulance of the period to a greater or lesser extent. Too Much on My Mind is a stark appraisal of mental health, Rainy Day in June a malevolent fantasy induced by depression and Fancy an altogether elliptical commentary on the enigmatic source of the band's stardom:
Face to Face 1966

"No one can penetrate me,
 They only see what's in their own fancy,

But the songs were wrapped in a sound that at least gave the impression that the good-time band were back. A garish pop-art sleeve added to the myth and despite further setbacks including the temporary loss of bassist Pete Quaife in a road accident, 1966 was turning into a good year after all. It is interesting to note how Davies reacted to the second Harold Wilson administration that Spring. The increased austerity gave the country a wake-up call and the newly impoverished Kinks would mark the changing times with songs about upper-class despondency (Sunny Afternoon, Most Exclusive Residence For Sale, End of the Season) and working class hardship framed in Dickensian terms (Dead End Street, Big Black Smoke). The sound was whimsical if not "chipper", but the dark clouds were never far away in Ray Davies world.

To balance this Ray continued to develop a strand of songwriting dedicated to the management of his own state of mind, writing songs that challenged him to transcend everyday circumstances. These songs were clearly therapeutic in their design and at their best, joyous celebrations of the simple pleasures of life. They would culminate in Days recorded 2 years later. Davies was now emulating the positivism encapsulated by the poet Rilke:

"...try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very    foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you  would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now."  
We leave with one such reflection, written with the wisdom of someone who's been run through the mill and come out the other side. This is Where I Belong:

Friday, 9 December 2011

MINA - The Tiger of Cremona

Mina Mazzini was an Italian singer responsible for one of the greatest pop-melodramas ever recorded. In her rise to stardom she encountered many obstacles and the bitter lessons learnt ultimately lead her to a life of self-imposed exile. 

By the early 1960's the former rock'n'roll Queen of the Screamers was beginning to experience the downside of her provocative stardom. The exuberant repertoire of her early songs reflected the usual teenage obsessions but they also reflected the deeper repressed vitality of life within a highly conservative society.

As a nation-state Italy is not unique in it's ability to dupe the masses with democracy, whilst an elite minority oversees a process that siphons off the nation's wealth. In Italy however this process is re-inforced by the alliance of Church and State which dictates a strong moral justification for the preservation of this status quo. Mina almost single handedly invented the pop-singer in Italian society through her immense popular appeal to the proletarian masses of both the working class north and the impoverished agrarian south. The hypocrisy of Italian society is however so entrenched that once she overstepped the moral code in her personal life, the recording industry whose pockets she lined, felt compelled to join as one in an attempt to sacrifice her.

Mina found herself banned from the the state controlled RAI public broadcasting company due to a scandal caused by her relationship with a married actor and the pregnancy that followed. New recordings and TV appearances were suppressed and after the death of her brother in a car accident, her withdrawal from public life was complete. The authorities however found it hard to maintain censure of a figure of such genuine popular appeal and unsurprisingly the ban was lifted despite renewed efforts from the RAI to maintain standards. Commercial considerations ultimately dictated how far morality could be pushed and the Italian public democratically voted Mina back with their lira. An image-conscious but impotent Vatican looked on, as Mina returned back to the charts, stronger than ever. It is interesting to gauge just how much damage had been inflicted on society by Mina's moral weakness by the haste with which the world of commerce would embrace her triumphant return. Indeed a contract with the Batolli pasta company would soon prove a lucrative arrangement for all concerned.

This period would also mark the beginning of an artistically rich period with her highly melodramatic multi-octave vocals given free reign over material edging into uncharted taboo areas. Here is a pregnant Mina back on the TV demonstrably proving that "one kiss is not enough" :

Songs became dedicated to a liberalising agenda glorifying the pleasures of sex and the similarly outrageous act of smoking as in "Ta-ra-ta-ta (Fumo Blu)" (Blue Fumes). Pushing things further she covered Wilson Simonal's Brazilian samba "Nem Vem Que Nao Tem" which toyed with sex and religion with it's references to the devil (Tellingly the song would be camped up by Brigitte Bardot as "Tu Veux Ou Tu Veux Pas" a couple of years later). A run of memorable songs would follow culminating in a moment of genuine creative genius that would transcend the lower-brow nature of this thing dismissed as "pop-music". In 1966 the collaboration with composer Ennio Morricone would result in the phenomenal and deeply moving "Se Telefonando" (If Over The Phone). Famously inspired by the sound of police sirens, the song eschews Anglo-Saxon pop-song conventions with a unique repeating crescendo of choruses mirroring the rising emotional intensity of the song's protagonist. The song is a revolutionary experiment in pop and arguably un-equalled by anything recorded in Britain or the USA at the time. In this song we have to concede that verses are irrelevant when the chorus is this immense:

Mina was now the iconic symbol of assertive Italian womanhood. She'd ridden the wave and crashed but was now back, firmly in control of her own destiny. In this period she married and embarked on very public affairs with actors Walter Chiari and rising star Gian-Maria Volonte, then making a name for himself in the Morricone-scored westerns of Sergio Leone. By 1969 she had entered the third phase of her career mixing bossa-nova and easy listening songs to reflect the upwardly mobile direction of a maturing fan-base then enjoying a relative boom in living standards. Blues and soul work-outs featured in her repertoire and her sound mirrored the influence of singers like Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield. At 5ft 10" Mina cut an imposing figure. At the start of her career she'd been dubbed The Tiger of Cremona and she was now emulating that image with her shaved eyebrows and heavily made-up eyes glaring through a mane of long golden dyed hair. The 1970 song "Viva Lei" (Hurray For You) was a virtual manifesto of what she was now all about with it's depiction of a woman breaking free from chains she didn't need. One wonders if this is a song about a relationship or whether it's actually about Italy itself. The song certainly starts with a look that says "Don't mess with me!" and the smile at the end screams "F##k you!". It's mid period Mina at her very best:

The "Insieme/Viva Lei" single marked the tipping point where the Tiger of Cremona transcended her role as a record industry sex-object to become THE diva of Italian pop music. It also marked her 30th year.

The success of the record set the template for her future career and ushered in a productive collaboration with songwriters Lucio Battisti and Mogol. (Mogol had penned the original which as "I Who Have Nothing" would become a standard for Sinatra and Matt Monroe amongst others). She now had greater control over her albums and recorded in Lugano, her Swiss home since the mid-60s exile, she was now geographically and symbolically just beyond the control of the Milanese record industry. Each year an album would appear following the same formula, highlighted by European hits like "Grande Grande Grande", a song covered by fellow-diva Shirley Bassey as "Never, Never, Never". One of her best albums 1972's "Cinquemilaquantre" would feature "Parole Parole", an almost comical duet with Alberto Lupo, where the singer mocks her suitor, degrading his fawning confessions of love as mere words, words, words. It would become a much-parodied song and it's popularity would lead to a similar duet in France between Dalida and Alain Delon.

In the mid 70's like Bobbie Gentry in the USA, Mina would commence her retreat from the public eye making her final TV appearance in 1974. In 1978 she performed an emotional and final concert performance at the Bussola Nightclub in Tuscany. She continued to record and to this this day releases at least one new LP a year to a fan-base bolstered by a new generation taking advantage of the availability of iconic 60's and 70's recordings.

It might be said that she compromised her sound in the 70's through the adoption of the prevalent mid-Atlantic trends of the day and it is certainly true that the work is more formulaic than some of the truly innovative records that she made in the mid-60's. However there is much to admire in her 70's output and Italian pop music in general enjoyed something of a renaissance in this period with the rise of other female singers like Patty Parvo, Milva and Ornella Vanoni.

Ultimately however the musical legacy of Mina is constantly referred back to that collaboration with Morricone. A recent poll in "La Repubblica" voted the song as Mina's finest achievement. It is intriguing to consider that in theory the pair could get together and do this live in concert....

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Un Soir, Un Train - ANDRE DELVAUX -Director

Released 1968

And now a trip to the complex patch of European mud called Belgium.

In Andre Delvaux's film, the opening shots of the frozen, misty Flemish landscape symbolically reflect the distancing bond between Yves Montand's linguistics professor and his stage-director partner Anouk Aimee. The doom-filled love song played over the titles makes this impression explicit but the surreal turn of the narrative gives the film a unique depth that reveals a great deal more. If you can imagine what a collaboration between Bergman and Tarkovsky might have looked like, well this is it.

Aimee's portrayal of Anne reveals an independent woman, marooned in an alien culture, drifting iceberg-like from Montand's Mathias. Through flashback we gain insight into their relationship beginning with a fable-like first encounter at Christmas Mass in Spain, their two lost souls magically connecting before an open fire. Then through a chilly detour in London, a scruffy pack of kids by the Rotherhithe quayside, puncture an afternoon, emphasising the absence of children in their life. By late summer they wrap themselves round each other in a fatalistic show of tenderness, with one eye on a farmer malevolently chopping wood on the horizon. The scene acting as a literal and metaphorical preparation for the cold days ahead.

In their flat they dine in oppressive silence sipping wine over oysters. Rejecting Matthias' plans for a romantic afternoon Anne finds herself rejected when the offer to accompany him to a University in the Flemish north is dismissed as linguistically in-sensitive due to her French mother tongue. Yves Montand in the midst of a compelling run of mid-career acting performances, stands passively aloof to Anne's isolation, failing to grasp how close he is to losing her. When Anne unexpectedly appears in his train carriage they exchange words and a smile, teetering on the edge of reconciliation, teetering on the edge of an abyss.

Like a maverick travelogue director, Delvaux connects artistic portrayals of his culture, to the different phases of the film. Here the gloomy pastoral imagery of Breughal is evoked by the wintery flat-lands flashing by the train windows. Outside a stark church organ in homage to Cesar Franck, accompanies the wind whipping the ploughed fields. And before long the film unexpectedly lurches into the subconscious dream world of the 20th Century Belgian surrealist masters.

Awaking from sleep Matthias finds Anne gone, the train at a standstill and the passengers asleep. Leaving the train in the company of an older colleague and a former pupil, the men suddenly find themselves stranded on the tracks as the train abruptly pulls away. With a rational resolve to find a telephone they wander across the landscape, finally huddling round a fire as the night closes in. Then finding a deserted town they search for human life and food.

Here the director evokes the world of his namesake Paul Delvaux. In his canvasses Delvaux obssesses about empty nocturnal train stations shining in moonlight and archaic vistas decorated with owl-eyed alabaster nudes. In all his paintings there is a feeling of people and time waiting portentously for things to happen. The mood extends to the three strangers as they wander through the illuminated empty terraced streets. Finding a cinema they sit impassively through a bizarre and disturbing film depicting floating bodies suspended in mid air. Then gaining directions from a man speaking in an alien tongue, they find their way to a busy back-street hotel restaurant. Here they encounter the enigmatic Moira.

The film lends itself to multiple interpretations due to its multi-layered symbolism and a direction which gives the most innocuous scenes added significance. The Belgian setting in itself is a master-stroke, exploiting the Director's conservative and culturally divided homeland with the underlying tension forever threatening the bourgeois status quo. It is interesting to note that the student protests over linguistic dominance that we see rumbling in the background, were also captured in the contemporary James Coburn thriller "Hard Contract". At the same time the films of Harry Kumel were similarly exposing the eeriness found in the Flemish landscape with both "Daughters of Darkness" and "Malpertuis" turning this corner of northern Europe into a cerebral landscape of lonely terror and dread.
Andre Delvaux

In this period Delvaux would produce another mysterious meditation on human relations, releasing "Rendez-vous a Bray" in 1971 with Mathieu Carriere and Anna Karina. Set during the First World War the film appears to centre around two friends divided by conflict, women and ambition. Though lacking the fantasy element of its predecessor the film maintains a similar mood of unfathomable mystery.

At the beginning of  "Un Soir, Un Train" Matthias promises his mother that he will lay chrysanthemums on the grave of his father. En route to his life-changing train journey he wanders around the cemetery in search of the grave. Finally in despair he places the flowers on an empty plot and makes a hasty retreat. It's a scene straight out of the repertoire of Belgian singer Jacques Brel, a poet divided by both love and hate for his homeland. In his songs Brel drifts between the good intention to do good and the corresponding bitterness and despair found in failure. I leave you with Brel's "J'Arrive" and the symbolic chrysanthemums of his own imagined memorial. I trust Delvaux would approve of the connection: