U2 – Achtung Baby

In tandem with my life in music, I want to write about my favourite albums. I was going to do my top  5, but when I started writing down what I wanted to include it soon escalated, so I’ll just do them as and when.  I’m going to try to stick to actual albums, rather than best of’s or compilations.  And although they won’t be in any particular order, these first few are definitely clear favourites 🙂

From the faint ticking of the train approaching in the distance to the crash of the guitar, Achtung Baby roared into my life. I got it the same Christmas as I got a Super Nintendo with Super Mario Brothers, and now the two are inextricably linked. U2 were my soundtrack to 99 levels of Super Mario World.

It seems a pretty divisive album to fans, one of my lecturers at college said she didn’t like it or anything after it. It seemed to change direction for the band, less anthemic but more bombastic. For me it’s their best album, and is complimented perfectly by the Zoo TV tour (which I had an opportunity to see but had to turn down, one of the few regrets of my life), the Zooropa album and the brilliant book U2 at the end of the world, by Bill Flanagan.
The gestation was in Berlin, U2 were there when the wall came down, and in fact the band themselves were wondering whether they had anything left to give, whether to jack it all in.

First of all I loved Zoo Station, Mysterious Ways, So Cruel and Tryin’ To Thow Your Arms Around the World. I liked One some times but not at others, Until The End Of The World was the same, I loved the lyrics and the sentiment, but couldn’t get into the song as a whole. Then Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses crept up and the uplifting Ultraviolet (Light My Way) became my favourite. Acrobat was the only track I could never get into fully, but it doesn’t detract from the album as a whole.

Zoo Station approaches, you can hear it as the instruments join in until the loud guitar rolls the track out of the tunnel and into the air, loud and moving straight into your ears.
I’m ready / I’m ready for the laughing gas / I’m ready / Ready for what’s next
Bono is ready, the band are ready, regrouped, energised.  The slightly distorted vocals sounding electronic and robotic before the chorus, where the guitar and drums sound like a thundering, rattling train.

Even Better Than The Real Thing powers in from the start, all guitar before another train like drum beat rolls in and Bono’s voice, clear and deep rides in over the top.  The remix by Paul Oakenfold, who toured with them, was just as popular as the album version.

After the loud, rocking opening the third track slows down. It is anthemic in it’s sound and lyrics and is ultimately, the song that kept the band together.  Frustrated with their progress on the new album and wondering if they should stop while they were at the top, The Edge played the middle eight from another song, Ultraviolet, over and over, the others stepped in before Bono stepped up to the mic and the lyrics poured forth.
Did I ask too much? / More than a lot? / You gave me nothing / Now it’s all I got
We’re one, but we’re not the same / we get to carry each other / carry each other / One

Next is a song that for some reason reminds me of waves rolling over a beach (maybe it was the video?).  The drums set a running pace while the guitars stretch out and Bono’s voice blows over the top. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses is the story of that wild person you want but is to free spirited to be caught and held down.
Well you lied to me / cos I asked you to / baby, can we still be friends?
Whos’ Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses? / Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea / Who’s gonna ride your wild horses / Who’s gonna fall at the foot of thee

I could pretty much write down all the lyrics to So Cruel.  For a long time my favourite track on the whole album
We’re cut adrift / but still floating / I’m only hanging/to watch you go down, my love
I gave you everything you ever wanted / It wasn’t what you wanted
From the slipping drums to the bitter sweet piano and Bono’s voice crying out a lament, the song resonated with me more than the rest
Personal experience?  Maybe, but I loved the song long before she was so cruel
Between the horses of Love and Lust / We are trampled, underfoot

Just behind the melancholy So Cruel was Mysterious Ways.  One of the best guitar openings that sounded like nothing else I had heard.  The guitar crashing in for the chorus then disappearing during the verse as Bono sings over a rolling percussive beat.
Jonny take a walk, with your sister the moon / Let her pale light in, to fill up your room / You’ve been living underground, eating from a can / You’ve been running away, from what you don’t understand / Love

After So Cruel, my favourite for a long time was Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World.  To me a song all about hangovers but the music is so quiet, soft drums and a deep bass line with ethereal guitars ringing in, you’ve gone so far, and for so long, maybe it’s time to come back.
Sunrise like a nosebleed / Your head hurts and you can’t breathe / You’ve been trying to throw your arms, around the world
And of course it contains the immortal line And a woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle

I don’t know what it was about Ultraviolet (Light My Way) that made it grow on me.  I think Ultimately I found it incredibly uplifting.
Oh sugar don’t you cry / Oh child wipe the tears from your eye / You know I need you to be strong / When the days as dark, as the night is long / Feel like trash, you make me feel clean / I’m in the black, can’t see or be seen
The choral beginning just dying out before the drums kick off the springing guitar and even the more down beat lyrics can’t stop the song from soaring.

Rounding up the album are the haunting and tragic Love is Blindness and The Fly, A great rock track that knocked Bryan Adams’s Everything I do off the top of the UK charts after a record breaking sixteen weeks.
So it’s my favourite album still, I don’t like anything before or after as much, excepting maybe Zooropa, but they are linked, Zooropa being written while the band was touring Zoo TV.  Even after 22 years it still doesn’t sound or feel old, and it still conjures up Mario and Yoshi in my head when I hear it.


Tina Turner – Lets Stay Together

So the two big passions in my life are books and music.  I’ve been posting loads about the books I’m reading and other bits and pieces, so I thought I’d do a bit more on the music side, which will also help me post stuff when I’m in the middle of a book and haven’t been to any exhibitions..

I’m gonna try and post about my favourite albums (it was originally going to be a top 5 but think it will go a bit beyond that) and I’m also going to do a kind of my life in music.  I want this to be songs that bring back certain memories, reflect my life at that time or show my changing tastes and interests, throughout which the one constant is that pretty much everything I do is done with a soundtrack.

So. Back to the beginning.
When we were kids my mum used to work in a hospital for a few hours on a Saturday and Sunday night.  And this meant a certain routine.  My dad would drive us to the hospital, drop mum off and drive us back.  There me and my brother sat and watched TV, The Generation Game, Blind Date, Only Fools and Horses and other TV classics, or played games with dad.  We would get sandwiches (nearly always ham and pickle) and possibly crisps.
After the TV we would get ready for bed, and then we would pack into the car, sometimes with pillows and duvets if it was cold, and go and pick mum up.  It is these car journeys that I remember the most, for that’s where we would be listening to music.  What I remember the most is Private Dancer by Tina Turner.  My parents had it on cassette (not sure whose it was, but I would go with mums) and it was on an almost constant loop.  I remember the journey seemed to take ages, especially if we were tired, but later on when I was driving I realised it was less than an hour there and back.

Even now, when I hear Tina’s voice as she starts Lets Stay Together, I can picture myself in the back of the car, looking out into the blackness, seeing the lights as they cast a glow over familiar sites as we drove through the night.  Inevitably we ended up hearing the whole album over and over again, but Lets Stay Together was the one that evokes that time.  Afterwards I ended up preferring Better Be Good To Me, the mighty What’s Love Got To Do With It and I Can’t Stand The Rain.   I have always liked Tina Turner since then, and I managed to see her in Paris and at Wembley (The old Wembley, she was one of the last acts to perform before they knocked it down) and the memories tied to that song, mean for me, it’s as good as the Al Green version.

River of Smoke [Amitav Ghosh]

Here, unable to retrieve the word he needed, Allow broke off to take a small pamphlet out of the sleeve of his gown. This was not the first time Bahram had seen someone consulting this booklet, so he knew what it was – a glossary called ‘Foreign Devil-talk’

The second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke follows Ah Fett, Neel and Paulette into the hongs of Canton and the hills of Hong Kong. The Emperor is trying to ban opium imports and the small enclave of Canton feels the noose about it’s neck as the merchants square up to a nations ruler in the name of free trade (oh, and vast profits).

River of Smoke is hugely enjoyable, for me, much more enjoyable than Sea of Poppies, the first book. In that the language was baffling and incomprehensible and although it’s still the latter, it was less baffling, even with the introduction of the pidgin used in Canton between the Chinese and the traders.  But it was necessary, to introduce the characters, to push the narrative out into the river, so it could be swept by the current, and that’s exactly what happens in River of Smoke.

George Chinnery, on the other hand, had earned fabulous sums of money while in Calcutta and his household was as Chuck-muck as any in the city, with Paltans of nokar-logue doing Chukkers in the hallways and syces swimming in the istabuls, as for the bobachee-connah, why, it had been known to spend a hundred sicca rupees on sherberts and syllabubs in one week.

The main character in the narrative is arguably Bahram, the father of Ah Fett.  An opium trader who allows us to view the inner workings of Canton’s traders and committees. His generous heart, he takes on Neel as his munshi at the request of Ah Fett, is at odds with his business head as he sails with one last shipment.
Meanwhile Paulette meets Fitcher Penrose, a nursery owner from England with whom she sails on the Redruth to Hong Kong as he goes in search of an extremely rare flower.  En route they enlist the help of an old childhood friend of Paulette’s, Robin Chinnery. The painter sails to Canton, and as Paulette is unable to go as no women are admitted, he writes letters to her relaying the goings on in the enclave and his search for the flower on Fitchers behalf.

The breadth and depth of Ghosh’s research is incredible. Canton is painted in bold and detailed strokes in his narrative, a bustling hive of commerce, where the men of industry have tiffin, attend the club for dinner, and make their own entertainment, such as waltzing with each other. But like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burns, the traders all refuse to Kow-Tow to the Emperors demands to cease trading. They refuse to believe the severity of the situation, all the while blustering about free trade until Commissioner Lin is sent to end the smuggling once and for all.  The tension slowly builds as rumours fly regarding the Commissioner, followed by proclomations and edicts from the Mandarins, until Lin arrives and acts decisively.
Bits and pieces are leaked through Robin Chinnery’s letters and slowly the story of Neel and Paulette intertwines, one watching from the hills of Hong Kong, the other in the eye of the storm.

The prose rolls along at a pitch perfect pace with an epic amount of detail that never bogs it down. The meeting between Bahram, Zadig Bey and Napoleon was a great inclusion and of course the book was not without it’s humour.  After the slow start of Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke powers up to full speed, roll on book three!

Far be it from me to reproach you for your spontaneity, Puggly dear, but you must not always assume that it is safe to transpose French expressions directly into English.  The English equivalent of baton-a-foc, for instance, is definitely not ‘foc-stick’ – it is ‘jib-boom’. And no dear, nor were you well-advised to tell the baffled bosun that your intention was only to compliment him on his skill with ‘the mighty mast that protrudes from the front’.

92 Days, Travels in Guiana and Brazil [Evelyn Waugh]

Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting? (I will make a present of that sentence to any ill-intentioned reviewer).

92 Days is a witty account of , well, the 92 days Evelyn Waugh spent in what was at the time British Guiana and Brazil.
He explains that his absolute lack of knowledge  about Guiana prompted his trip, although we learn in the afterword that his marriage had just ended and he was also seeking some respite from his claustrophobic London society. Armed with a rudimentary map, his wit and baggage that seemed to always be ahead of or behind him, Waugh in effect disappeared deep into the heart of the far flung British Colony, often sleeping in native indian shelters after spending all day on horse back crossing the limitless bush..

Thwarted in his attempts to travel deeper into Brazil, he tracks back into Guiana and back up the other side.  He describes the characters he meets as well as his feelings towards them, as any number of guides help him traverse the little travelled terrain, in between his refilled glasses of rum and indian subsistence diet.

You could always tell a Freemason, he said, because they had VOL branded on their buttocks.  ‘It means volunter, I suppose’, he said, ‘I can’t think why’ (Mr Christie)

Having recently read John Gimlette’s Wild Coast I realised I might have read this first, but no matter, Waugh’s humour and practicality were enough to make this an enjoyable read of somewhere I have no place to visit, which probably means I’ve taken leave of my senses.

The python averted it’s own delicately pointed face and slipped away into the bush; the toad showed little gratitude or surprise at his escape, but dragged himself laboriously under a log and sat down to consider his experience.

Contemporary Chinese Seals by Li Lanqing

Nestled in about 5 or 6 cabinets in the Asian room at the British Museum is a small exhibition of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.

For 2500 years, seals have served as commanding emblems of identity and authority in China. Since the fourteenth century seal carving was invested with the same status as the three perfections, painting, poetry and calligraphy.
Li Lanqing is a former vice premier of the People’s Republic of China and one of the engineers of China’s opening up policies of the late 197os.  After retiring in 2003 he devoted himself to seal carving, amongst his other passions.

The display, remarkably, has over one hundred of his seals and calligraphic works on display, and celebrates the tradition and innovation in Li’s work, as he promotes seal cutting as a popular art in modern China.
The first two cabinets show examples of  Li’s seal work, along with implements.  The most striking is the great seal used for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in Heitan Jade.  The seal takes the character of ‘Jing’, meaning ‘capital’, part of Beijings name, and shapes it like a dancer.

He also cuts phrases into the seals that reveal his life philosophy and the expressive power of seals, such as A Stone Speaks of Beauty (2008 Shoushan Stone) and  A Stone Declares One’s Interests (2008 Qintian Stone). The implements include a seal cutting fastner, Calligraphy brushes and three carving knives.  Seal carvers call a chisel an iron calligraphy brush.
Li also exploits the inherent pictorial qualities of Chinese characters and each seal is like a minature work of art, like song from a fishing boat at dusk (2010 Shoushan Stone) and water receding and stones emerging (2006 Balin Stone) while his changing outlook on life as he gets older is also reflected in seals such as my heart calms as water (2010 Shoushan Stone), eat like an ant (2009 Stone) and honesty (2012 lacquered wood).

A couple of Yinpu are also displayed, these are a book or album of famous seals or seals by famous engravers.  The seal is stamped into the book and a rubbing taken of it’s side.  One of the Yinpu was done especially by Li for this exhibition.

For Li, China’s forward development is grounded in an understanding of the past.  A long arduous journey (2011 Stone) is his characterisation of the path towards revitalising China after the Cultural Revolution.  Reflecting on the past a selection of the seals commemorate some of the strategies and maxims espoused by politicians during China’s opening up from the late 1970’s.

The last section looks at innovations, Li Lanqing takes an age old tradition and uses it to work with the issues of his time.  For his calligraphy Li employs all 5 of the major types of script developed before the Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907), sometimes in the same piece of work and on show are a couple of examples of brush written calligraphy, towering over a fantastic dragon seal and a number of character seals, with a bust on top of each one and their translated names on the bottom.  Included are Dickens, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare amongst others, all intricately detailed brass.  It’s not just foreign icons that are celebrated, also included is Li Bai (701 – 762), the immortal poet, who I remember from the Art of Drinking exhibition as one of the 8 immortals of the wine cup.  His seal is a small column block of Qinatian stone.

An example of Li’s wit can be seen in a seal of Balin Stone called Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person).  Some strokes were carved to print in red, and some in white, to mimic a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out.  If you read only the red strokes it alludes to the illiterate person examining a bad official, instead of advertising a famous Beijing restaurant, which is the full seal.

My favourite though, is nestled between seals for Ballet, Matisse and Goethe. Made in Shoushan stone, the seal is for Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and Don Quixote himself pops up above the seal itself.

This is a small but enjoyable exhibition that serves an engaging, contemporary introduction to the ancient art of seal carving.  Unfortunately I’ve been slow as usual, and it’s only on until the 15th of Jan, so get on the good foot!  Details here

Paco Pena – Quimeras [Directed by Jude Kelly]

So only a month and a half after the event, but, you know, it was Christmas, and all that jazz.  But with the Flamenco festival fast approaching in Feb I thought I’d put this out.

On a limited run after it’s original showing in 2010, Quimeras tells the story of a group of migrants who leave Africa for Spain to search for work. The elegant, proud Flamenco is juxtaposed by the graceful and flamboyant African dancing, whose leaps around the stage were almost gazelle like.  The trio of African drums were a perfect compliment to the traditional Flamenco guitars, and, although I had absolutely no idea what was going on it was a brilliant show, full of powerful dancing as well as beautiful moments.  The music was just as good as the dancing on both sides, the almost formal guitar and the energetic drumming working well together in such a simple harmony that both retains the traditions of both yet sounds incredibly refreshting. When it finished I all but rampaged my way down to the stalls to get a copy of the soundtrack.  There isn’t one! Paco, you let me down.

Still I’ll forgive as it was an amazing show, and if it comes your way again I highly recommend it.
Roll on Feb for the full flamenco festival at Sadlers Wells, details here

Ritual and Revelry: The Art of Drinking in Asia

An exhibition looking at the diverse and rich traditions associated with water, alcohol and tea across Asia.

With three quarters of the worlds surface covered with water, major cities worldwide built on rivers, coasts and lakes, water holds a significant place in our lives.  It’s power over us, with its ability to vitalise is delicately balanced against its ability to kill or pollute.

In room 91 the British Museum displays the acts of pouring, drinking and offering in different cultural contexts.

Kicking off in India, where Hindu’s have a profound connection with water.  In Hindu tradition water is sacred and dictates the rhythm of life.  Rivers are revered as personifications of the divine, such as the Goddess Ganga.  A painting showing King Harischandra and his family bathing in the sacred waters of the holy city of Varnasi, while the river creatures parade underneath them.  There are also spouted Lota’s, a vessel with a globular body and spout made from bronze and silver.

In a similar vein are the Kendi, a Malay term, from the sanskrit Kundi, a pot with a spout.  It’s shape removes the need for the drinkers lips to touch the spout of the vessel, making the form an embodiment of hygeine and purity.
A Yay Khwet Gyi, in bamboo and lacquer, is displayed, the large red bowl decorated with red, yellow, green and black designs.
Originating in South Asia, Kundika slightly differ from Kendi by the addition of a lidded opening on it’s side.  Water is poured into the body by this opening and poured out of the tall spout.  These were used to sprinkle sacred water in Buddhist rituals and were one of the few permitted possessions of a monk.

Perhaps the most striking item in the exhibition is the Kapala or skull-cup.  No points for guessing what this is.  Made during the 18th and 19th centuries and consisting or part of a human skull mounted on a richly ornamented brass base, inlaid with precious stones. the Kapala would have been used during drinking rituals where a Lama would have drunk beer or another kind of alcohol from it.

But enough about ritual, what about the revelry?

“Become not like Shou the King of Yin, who went quite astray and became abandoned to drunkeness” Duke of Zhou, quotation from the Shangshu C1100BC.

Firstly you should know your Jue from your Jiu.
A Jue vessel, used to warm alcohol over a fire, has tripod legs and is jug shaped, while a Jiu is a large vase like cup used to drink alcohol.

India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur (1526 – 30) used intoxicants such as alcohol and opium to encourage camaraderie amongst his men.  A number of Toddy tapper jugs are on display.  Toddy was a mildly alcoholic drink extracted from the coconut or palm tree flower.
Meanwhile in China during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), the state encouraged the combination of alcohol related intoxication and prostitution to collect higher tax incomes.
The 8 immortals of the wine cup were a group of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) who produced their poems while drunk.  A brush washer depicts the poet Lin Bai (701 – 762) smiling and leaning on an empty alcohol container, in porcelain and enamel.

Finally comes the Sake, made from fermented rice.  Sake was distributed widely thanks mostly to the development of large entertainment districts with large tea houses, restaurants and brothels, in places such as Edo (Tokyo).  Three Netsuke, miniature sculptures used as kimono toggles, show men displaying the 3 effects of Sake – Sadness, Euphoria and Fatigue.

Possibly coming somewhere between ritual and revelry, Tea became the national drink in China during the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) while it was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 800’s.  It was associated with tea gathering, a distinct philosophy with great emphasis on simplicity, humility and austerity.  The display includes tea bowls, caddies, netsuke and teapots of various materials as well as paintings.  Also shown is a Tibetan tea brick.  In Tibet a persons daily consumption of tea often exceeds 40 cups.  Butter tea is a churning tea from bricks made of fermented black leaves with yak butter and salt.

The exhibition, although only one room, covers ritual and revelry in Asia in a surprising level of detail with a good mixture of objects that leave you gasping for a cuppa, or a tipple when you’ve finished, just remember to heed the warning of the Duke of Zhou.

The exhibition is on until January the 6th, details here