This is an interview I did with Basil Kirchin in 2002, three years before his death. Please bear this in mind when I refer to dates. Since I wrote it, Jonny Trunk has done a superb job of sorting and issuing the Kirchin archive, much of which had never been given a commercial release, a favourite of mine being Charcoal Sketches. Oh, and I should say that Basil was more obsessed with music than anyone I have ever met.
Very charming, very intense, Basil Kirchin, 76, has spent the past 40 years sculpting music from "sounds never before heard by human ears, music from another dimension". His reputation rests on a series of works called Worlds Within Worlds, parts of which surfaced on two albums in the early Seventies and which have remained out of print but highly prized ever since. Brian Eno cites them as a primary influence on his ambient music. At the other extreme, he is praised by industrialists such as Coil and Nurse with Wound. He is one of the great innovators in postwar British music, and he remains - very much against his wishes - a well-kept secret.
This should change with Quantum, the first in a series of reissues from Kirchin's startling catalogue. It's jazz, of a sort. Hornbills replace bassists, a bassoon and some geese overlap until you can't tell which is which. There are guitars, amplified insects, saxophones, trams, lions and the voices of autistic children.
It's thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and - though over 30 years old - feels very new.
Uniquely, the Kirchin Band owned a PA system, which enabled Kirchin to record every show. They broke attendance records and starred in Melody Maker polls, but by 1957 skiffle and rock'n'roll were hitting the band's popularity and in any case Kirchin "realised it wasn't enough, because you're a prisoner of rhythm. And I was fed up playing other people's music."
He chucked it all in and escaped to India, where he spent five months in the Ramakrishna Temple on the Ganges. His next stop was Sydney, where disaster struck.
As his luggage was being taken from the ship, something snapped and it all fell into Sydney harbour. All Basil's tapes of the Kirchin Band, basically his whole life, was lost. It still distresses him.
But it was experimentation with tapes and sound manipulation that created Kirchin's big breakthrough. "There is no such thing as a long note," he explains.
"If you take the human voice and slow it down five octaves, immediately everything you can hear drops away. Take birdsong, all those harmonics you can't hear are brought down -sounds that human ears have never heard before. Little boulders of sound. In 1964 it was hard to capture. There was only reel to reel tape, and it took eight or nine years of my life. It was long and hard and painful. Now with the new technology you can hear these boulders of sound without changing the pitch, which is miraculous!"
Since the two Worlds Within Worlds albums, Kirchin has written 40 pieces, 12 of which have been recorded but none released. He's now very ill, but is "still working, still roaring, even if it is three months at a time. People of any age should know never to give up. I'm still young, I can't help it if my body's falling apart." This is the first time he's visited London in 15 years, and he seems genuinely delighted that people want to talk to him about his music.
"I'm only good for two things in this world. One is music and the other is this knowledge. It sounds so pretentious, man, my toes are curling, but I have to say it. I want to try and leave something for young people who are starting in music and looking for something as I've been looking all my life. The challenge is, you have to make your life meaningful. Because life is meaningless, the universe is meaningless. It's hilarious really."
Thursday, 15 December 2011
Friday, 9 December 2011
What happened after his run of hits was four years of heroin addiction, and a total immersion in New York's folk and blues scenes. This was the start of a slow-burning process that led to a Grammy nomination for 2006's Bronx In Blue, an album of Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed covers. Personally, I think it should have gone to the record that brought Dion back from the teen idol graveyard in 1968 - it was originally called Dion but is usually given the title of the hit single taken from it, the delicate Abraham Martin And John.
"Lemme tell you about that record" he begins, a practised storyteller. "After Martin Luther King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was at his coffin and he said 'Who'll be the next victim of a senseless act of violence?' And three months later he was assassinated. The record came out of a frustration. These guys are reaching for a state of love. People are cutting them down but we're not going to give up. The song was trying to be part of a solution."
The song exploded, a Top 5 hit. It had a soulful humanity that people hadn't heard from Dion Di Mucci before. And it coincided with a relocation - in the old tradition - from New York to Florida.
"The album was done, and all the arrangements, within a week. They were songs I sang around the house. I just went in with my little nylon string guitar. John Abbott from Staten Island did the arrangements. He was a beautiful guy. He always had some french fries. He'd lead the band with a french fried potato."
After Drip Drop was a Top 10 hit in early '64, Dion began to release singles like Hoochie Coochie Man, Willie Dixon's Spoonful and his own folk-blues The Road I'm On. The latter made it onto the young Marc Bolan's setlist but Dion's teenage fans were more than a little confused: a few months later they'd be lapping up imported versions of the same songs by the Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things.
"There was a guy called Buddy Lucas, he played sax for me on The Wanderer, a 300 pound guy. Big guy. He recruited a bunch of guys from the Apollo Theatre. Blues were their roots and they supported me, tried to help me out. I was experimenting." Columbia, who were hoping he'd become a "legitimate" singer like Bobby Darin, were in no mood for experiments. Among the finest, and rarest, of his Columbia 45s is the folk rock stormer Tomorrow Won't Bring The Rain - teeth-clenched, ringing like the bells of Rhymney, it's a match for any Byrds or Dylan 45. Its rarity suggests just what Columbia thought of it.
"I had to leave! They didn't know what I was doing! Tom Wilson, my producer, he encouraged me. And I sat in on a couple of Bob Dylan sessions. But they'd signed a popular rock 'n' roll artist, not a guy who hung out in the Village with Tim Hardin and Richie Havens."
Yes it does. Looking back, Dion's career - and his forays into folk, blues, soft rock and doo wop - makes a lot more sense than it would have done to Columbia in 1964. There is a love of American music in Dion that he shares with Dylan: few other singers could pull off an album as diverse and delightful as Abraham Martin And John. Maybe the pick of the whole set is a heartfelt version of the Motown-written Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.
"That was a Four Tops songs. How did I end up recording it? Probably they were playing it the night before in a saloon or something!
"The way I explain it is I don't sing white and I don't sing black. I sing like Bronx. I don't know exactly what that is, but it's definitely black music filtered through an Italian neighbourhood. It comes out with an attitude."
Posted by Bob Stanley at Friday, December 09, 2011
Tuesday, 6 December 2011
Ringo probably wouldn't have been the people's candidate for favourite Beatle before this outburst, not because of any other ill-advised Youtube postings, or for any animosity towards Thomas The Tank Engine, but simply because he was the fourth member of a group that featured three of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation.
In spite of their oneness, and the inability of anyone outside Britain to tell them apart in 1964, everyone tends to have a favourite Beatle. At various points in their career and afterlife the world seems to have had a collective favourite. In the eighties, after his death, it was undoubtedly John Lennon; when Oasis and the Anthology series brought their music back to the Britpop table in the nineties, John was still regarded as the most innovative, the most significant, the sharpest Beatle.
George was the underdog, the indie Beatle. It might be something to do with the recent folk boom, or the general feeling of achievement by understatement in the most lauded pop (Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective) of the last few years, but a straw poll amongst friends, colleagues and musicians places George at the top of the table in 2011.
Of course, favourite Beatle and best Beatle aren't the same thing. "It's a peculiar testament" says Todd Rundgren, whose links to the group are a public spat in the NME with Lennon in the seventies and played in Ringo's All Starr Band two decades back. "'Favourite' used to just mean the cutest, or the funniest. Now each has his own body of work it's different."
Gem Archer's own Beatles obsession began when he was fed tapes by his cousin from the age of 8. "I remember hiding The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl in the schoolyard. Punk was happening and people thought they were poofs, because they wore ties and stuff. Some kid came to my door and sold me his sister's copy of Imagine for 50p. I was known as the Beatles fan in the village."
Lennon was his favourite, "of course. It was a journey with him. It still is, man. He's still there with all of us. He was perfect - the Rickenbacker, the hair, the boots - but he was imperfect. Completely human. He let his hair down on all of us."
The odd thing about John Lennon, the most anti-establishment Beatle, is that he is now the one with an airport named after him, the one who wrote the cosy, fathomless, unofficial world anthem Imagine, the one who created proto-Live Aid 'event pop' with All You Need Is Love, and thus, in 2011, the most revered by the establishment. Gem Archer's wife "is a teacher, and they teach him now: Recent History, year 5. It's because he grew up in the war, and then he preached peace. And of course there's no danger of him spoiling it by shooting some granny now."
Altman's first taste of the Beatles "was Please Please Me, on the radio in the wintertime. I'd never heard that sound before. It was a bit like the first time I heard Hendrix, exciting and vibrant. The next stage in my Beatles habit was getting Please Please Me, the album, for Christmas. I left it on the Dansette record player, and it warped. I remember desperately trying to iron it flat on an ironing board with a damp towel on top. A sad end."
As he grew up with the band Altman would "listen out for George's contributions, the songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver, like Taxman. They were quite special. And they built up to All Things Must Pass - every musician has an apex and I think that was his."
They never met. "Pete Best was the technical advisor on Birth Of The Beatles, and he was the only Beatle I met. The only quote I heard from any of them about the film was that Ringo found it quite amusing." Altman still sounds slightly disappointed by this.
George's allure could also be down to his vagueness, which allows fans to fill in the blanks any way they wish. John and Paul are open books, foibles exposed, but if George had a dating profile it would be of the one photo, one-liner variety, mystique unquestionably enhanced. He was the only Beatle without an obvious role. "Paul was the cute one" recalls Todd Rundgren, "John was the smart one; each had a bailiwick they were in charge of. Ringo was the cuddly one. The short, homely, cuddly one. Girls liked Ringo, at least girls who thought Paul was out of reach, too cute by half."
In the early eighties, while he was still Orange Juice's singer, Edwyn Collins had his My Top Ten list printed in Record Mirror. Alongside entries by Al Green and George McCrae was The Beatles' She Said She Said - Edwyn wrote that he particularly liked "George's astringent guitar". I was a huge Orange Juice fan - I remember having to look up "astringent".
When Edwyn Collins met his partner Grace Maxwell he told her his "favourite guitarists were John Fogerty and George Harrison. When people say they don't like The Beatles, they may as well say they don't like fresh air. 'I hate fresh air!' It's ridiculous."
After Collins had a stroke in 2005, lying in a hospital bed, he didn't want to hear any music. Three years before, he had written a song called The Beatles, which managed to lyrically condense their career inside four minutes. "After nine or ten weeks Grace brought in an old tape I'd made, a compilation. The first track, I remember, was Promised Land by Johnnie Allen, and the second had me in tears."
"Tears?" laughs Grace, "You were in floods! You were bawling."
The song was Photograph, sung by Ringo Starr, and written by George Harrison.
Mojo has featured some combination of Beatles on their cover more than a dozen times in just under 200 issues. Editor Phil Alexander reckons there are still plenty of untold, or at least unexplored, stories to make them newsworthy. He has noted George's ascent to the summit. "You can see why people say George now - he was the coolest. Not acerbic like Lennon, not thumbs aloft, and he wasn't playing the Ringo good guy role. He was mystical and cool. He's the fashionable choice. Stupid as it might sound, I think the unsung hero of The Beatles today is Paul."
As a teenager, Anneliese Midgley worked in Liverpool's Beatles Shop on Mathew Street. "People would ring up and say 'Can I speak to The Beatles?' We got a bundle of letters for them every day. Not everyone was a loony, some were just asking for mugs, or fridge magnets, or where Paul lived, but quite a few would say 'I LOVE YOU' in scrawly capital letters. Paul got the most, definitely. George? No. He was really the outsider, not like today. He was not as fashionable."
In her nineties stint at the shop, Anneliese met all three surviving Beatles - Paul left the greatest impression on her. "I was 14 and I'd got a Saturday job there. It was just before he did the Liverpool Oratorio. He was rehearsing at the Philharmonic one week, and me and my best friend waited outside. His crew were really nice - they could tell we were just kids, not crazy fans. We went most days, and Paul would come out and say hello. It must have been easter, 'cos one day he brought us all creme eggs."
Up in Glasgow, Grace Maxwell had to use her imagination for a Beatle fix. "You know the metal poles that hold up clothes lines? There were four in our back garden. We'd make each one a Beatle. You'd run over, snog the clothes pole, and say which Beatle it was. Mine was Paul. Does that sound weird?"
"Paul is the best Beatle" reckons Anneliese. "It's obvious. Take Double Fantasy and McCartney II, made in the same year (1980). I heard Front Parlour (from McCartney II) in a club in Shoreditch a few years ago, and everybody was asking what it was, everyone thought it was some German electronic group. Paul was thinking of the future, how the eighties would be. On Double Fantasy, John was going back to his roots, again. Boring, really. Paul still makes a real effort, and maybe that's just not fashionable."
Phil Alexander is inclined to agree. "John's crusading mentailty made him a cult figure, compounded by his passing. He was the bravest - the records he made with Yoko are still controversial, so ahead of their time, but Paul still wants to do new things even to this day. The last Fireman record was really musical and brave, despite the bizarre, politician aura around him."
A compilation of tracks from the last five McCartney studio albums would, I reckon, be enough to cement his legend. They contain songs that are at least equal to any of his post-Beatles output, and good enough for the thumbs aloft, 'good little band' persona to be forgotten: The End Of The End is quite possibly the saddest, and most elegant song written by any sexagenarian pop star.
The Beatles' reach goes beyond just their music. "If anybody was going to make the sixties explode it was John Lennon" says Gem Archer. "It wasn't David Crosby. It certainly wasn't Elvis. And Dylan didn't put himself up for it, did he?"
And Ringo? His comments about Liverpool on the Jonathan Ross show have to be seen as tongue in cheek, his fanmail comment the outburst of a grouchy 69-year old having a bad day. Anneliese Midgley, who has only had to field a fraction of the questions from Beatles nuts that overworked Ringo has, nails the conundrum.
"My favourite Beatle is The Beatles. They're like four quarters that make up a circle. They're inseparable."
Posted by Bob Stanley at Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Monday, 5 December 2011
Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of Rope is best remembered for being shot in a sequence of eight minute takes. It also played up the Leopold and Loeb link, inferring the killers were gay (Loeb was killed in prison after making advances to another inmate) which was enough to see the film banned in Chicago, Seattle and Memphis. The tension of the script, though, is dissipated by both Hitchcock's experimentation - you can't for a second forget that the takes are v-e-r-y long - and Farley Granger's continuous darting around the screen like a sweaty chicken. His performance couldn't be further from Hamilton's cold, clipped script. The author was unimpressed, describing the film as "sordid and practically meaningless balls."
"I don't think so, sir" she replies, with a sly air that Hamilton must have been quite familiar with.
The BBC chose Hamilton's best early work for their 2005 adaptation, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, a trilogy in which Hamilton captured the whole rootless population of London by focusing on just a few characters, and one setting - The Midnight Bell. Bob and Ella work behind the bar. He is young and handsome, but drinks heavily, and fatally falls for a prostitute called Jenny who slowly tears his life to shreds; Ella, secretly in love with Bob, watches helplessly.
It's hard to fault the settings (recognisably Fitzrovia) or the score (think Pennies From Heaven), though, and the attention to detail in a BBC period drama is something to be treasured after catastrophes like their make-over jobs on Casanova and Beau Brummel. The final episode - with Ella fending off the grisly, grasping Eccles - is particularly claustrophobic, engrained with sooty black humour. No small feat: this is the first time anyone can claim to have captured the real fug and fog of Hamilton's novels.
Posted by Bob Stanley at Monday, December 05, 2011