The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’

Just imagine that you have written, or at least co-written a song. A song of genius, of powerful, heart-rending lyrics, full of moral ambiguity, allied to a melody of fragility and strength, that alone might move your audience to tears.  You’d rush to record it, wouldn’t you as soon as you can? Now imagine what it must feel like, give those circumstances, to record this classic song in the knowledge that someone else, to whom you have given the song, has not only already recorded it, but has recorded a perfect version of the song, one that leaves patterns on the heart whenever it is played, to which all other versions, including your own, will be forever compared and found inferior.
You are Elvis Costello. You were asked, by your producer Clive Langer, to put words to a piece of music he had written. You named it ‘Shipbuilding’. Robert Wyatt recorded it, creating a record of breath-taking beauty. When you choose to record this for your seventh album, ‘Punch the Clock’, how can you not feel intimidated, even on your own song, by trying to follow that.
Give Costello the credit: he did it. Given Wyatt’s version, the courage that must have required is phenomenal.
But it didn’t make a h’apporth of difference. This is the one, the only one.
It came about because Robert Wyatt was recording with record producer Clive Langer, one half of the legendary late Seventies/early Eighties Clanger-Winstanley production team, with Alan Winstanley, who were responsible for the vitality and joyfulness of the early Madness albums. Langer had written a melody, a slow, achingly beautiful melody, and he asked Costello to put lyrics to it.
And it was recorded with the sparsest of instrumentation: drums played by brushes, a stand-up bass, played by Madness’s Mark Bedford, an acoustic piano, and Wyatt’s unadorned voice, that cracked falsetto, alone in the midst of considerable silence and space, singing a song that,once you understood its allusions, broke your heart.
It was the time of the Falklands, of the stupid, unnecessary, pointless war that made my mother proud to be British, that brought down the Argentine Junta, that unleashed naked racism in our sickening press, that Jorge Luis Borges summed up best as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’. It revealed the stupidity of our government, whose penny-pinching brought it on, and it may have secured their continuation in power in a time of recession.
Costello’s words were neither direct nor brutal. Its just a rumour that was spread around town, a rumour that the shipyards will be reopening, that vital employment is coming back. We will be shipbuilding. And the men rejoiced at work and pride and money and respect, and their sons sailed off to battle. And the ship was sunk and the crew lost, sons lost in the ships that had salvaged their lives. Men lost. Diving for dear life, when (they) should be diving for pearls.
The song was stark and Wyatt’s version, in music and voice, was stark to suit it. Nothing was said or done to beat you over the head, yet there was nothing that you could mistake (unless you were the BBC who, when the record briefly broke into the top 40, featured it on Top of the Pops with footage of shipyards,  building ships).
Costello’s version, when it appeared was, in contrast, richer and fuller, and so much the inferior for that very reason. Robert Wyatt secured himself a place in whatever passes for an immortal heave among musicians by singing this as if he was going through every emotion himself, but then he was a socialist bastard himself. If you can listen to this song without becoming one, if only for four minutes, then you don’t deserve ears with which to hear music.
Don’t think, because this song is more than thirty years old, that it’s time is done. The words are never done with. Costello wrote well, his aim was deadly true.

The Great DC Crossover – Part 2 – The Flash

1, 2, 3...
1, 2, 3…

Now that was more like it.

The Flash part of the Great DC Crossover was the true start, with the arrival on Earth of the Dominators, invading aliens, necessitating bringing together every known superhero to face them. Given that this Earth-menacing menace was so big, it needed the combined cast of four shows to tackle it, it seemed clunky that the on going continuity of the three combined series should still go rattling on, but hey, it all just added to the density of affairs.

We started with Team Flash still testing the newly-powered Wally West, who’s shaping up to be faster even than Barry, but who everyone wants to keep away from actually getting out there to fight the good fight. This is interrupted by the arrival of a meteorite in downtown Central City, which turns out to not be a meteorite but rather a spaceship, out of which clomped the Dominators, in some of the worst CGI the show’s come up with to date. Just as soon as Lyla Michaels confirms these are aliens who’ve been around before in the Fifties, Barry decides to set up a task force.

This means pulling Green Arrow and Spartan out of the way of the Vigilante’s machine guns, plus Speedy jumping out of retirement because, hey, its aliens and that’s cool, plus a time beacon to summon the Legends – Ray has out of nowhere rebuilt his Atom suit – and Barry dragging a reluctant Cisco off to collect an alien of their own in Kara per yesterday.

Incidentally, I know we’re not exactly sticking to the classic DC Multiverse but it was a little demeaning I thought to have Kara’s Universe down as Earth-38. Something in single figures, at least.

So, its everybody hurriedly practicing how to be an en masse team, Wally keep getting pushed out of the way, everybody crashing and burning against a Supergirl who wasn’t even sweating and time to advance a couple of Legends of Tomorrow plot-points. First, there’s this mysterious  message from Barry itself that Jax and Professor Stein have been concealing from everyone else the past few weeks, which turns out to be for forty years in the future, confessing to the Flashpoint thing and warning everyone to beware because Barry could have fucked over all their futures.

Needless to say, Ollie counseled keeping it schtum, since Barry was Mission Leader (even though Ollie was giving the proxy orders), which didn’t even last ten minutes of screen-time before Cisco found the mp4 player, thus furthering his own Flashpoint-fuelled resentment of his erstwhile friend.

So, when everybody shot off to rescue the President from the cardboard cut-out CGI aliens, nobody wanted  Barry around, and Ollie stayed with him out of sympathy.

(I haven’t forgotten the other Legends bit, the one about Martin Stein having headaches and visions about a dark pageboyed young woman who he loves, rather than Isabella Hofman, aka his blonde and still lovely wife, Clarissa. He gets Caitlin to accompany him to his home, where Pageboy jumps out at him, hugs him, says she loves him, puts the wind up him good and proper until she calls him ‘Dad’. Phew! Cue near sprint away).

Back at the crossover Team Everybody But the Leaders walks into a trap that has them mind-dominated by the Dominators (heh, heh) and coming to get Barry and Ollie, but not before our franchise-holders have done a bit of deep background bonding. Barry shows Ollie the hidden room from season 1, and the Crisis headline newspaper from 2024, whilst Ollie goes back to his season 1 to speak of how his Dad sacrificed himself so Ollie could live.

Then they face off against the rest of the teams, until Barry gets Kara mad enough to chase him and smash through the Dominators’ machine, restoring everyone to their right minds.

Or are they? For some reason everyone chooses to stand outside STAR Labs, in the pouring rain, to discuss their next move, which is going to ask Argus what to do. Suddenly, beams of light transport away everybody but Barry…

To be serious, given that bringing together so many characters into a single story posed serious logistic problems of itself, it did surprise me that The Flash devoted so much time to internal continuity, and more so that it crossed all three related series. We can only assume that that’s going to be the pattern for both Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. It makes for densely-packed, if relatively thin TV, and it makes the crossover story, which after all is only an alien invasion that appears to have vaporised the President, fairly unimportant. We shall see where things go tomorrow.

Incidentally, I did thoroughly enjoy the cramming together into one super-superimposed tangled of every show’s logo – The Flash on top, of course – and look forward to tomorrow’s version.

The Great DC Crossover – Part 1 – Supergirl

Tomorrow, probably...
Tomorrow, probably…

It’s been heralded for weeks, I’ve been avoiding trailers and set photos, but now it’s here, and I wouldn’t be the guy I’ve been this last fifty years or thereabouts if I didn’t blog it.

If you’re mystified by that introduction, let me quickly explain that, once Supergirl transferred from CBS to the CW, settling into a neat little four night strip of television series based upon comic book superheroes from DC, the temptation to do a single story featuring everybody, leaping from show to show, became irresistible. And now the Distinguished Thing is here, the first part is frankly a bust.

What we have had tonight is an ordinary episode of Supergirl, concerned entirely with its own story-lines and ongoing set-ups… except that twice, at random points, events were interrupted by one of those dimensional rifts they do on The Flash to indicate that someone is traveling between Earths in the Multiverse.

Twice, nothing happened. The third time, about ninety seconds from the end credits, out popped Grant Gustin and Carlos Valdes, aka Barry (Flash) Allen and Cisco (Vibe) Ramon. Barry’s calling in the favour Kara owes him for helping her out last season…

And that’s it. It’s highly disappointing, even as I recognise the story logic of it, in that Supergirl is acknowledged as taking place in a completely different universe from the one shared by The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, so Kara is having to be imported to help, but it’s a teensy bit of a cheat to basically leave her show out of the Crossover, which is now a three-show affair, with guest star. Not what we were promised.

So tune in tomorrow, hopefully a bit earlier in the day, for Part 2. In which it really ought to start getting going. Gotta run.

Brothers in Tragedy

I’m sure I speak for all football fans, and not just Manchester United fans, who have had this kind of tragedy happen to our team, when I say that my heart goes out to the friends and families and the fans of the Brazilian club, Chapacoense who have died in a plane crash today.

To lose so many young men, talented young men, friends and teammates and idols to fans who expected to see them playing on for years and years, provided joy, excitement, drama, success is an experience that, to the best of my knowledge has only happened twice before, to United and Torino. The limited nature of this tragedy, the fact that sixty-eight years have gone by since it last happened, is of no consolation.

Torino came back, we came back, Chapacoense please come back, please regain your strength, please honour your lost by playing on, in their name, for their name and yours. Our Brazilian friends, we wish that you had not been forced to share this experience. Our thoughts, our love as fans, our support goes out to you.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e19 – Through the Looking Glass

A missed opportunity
A missed opportunity

I was all set to declare this a third successive strong episode, and to query if I’d had that experience before in this re-watch, but despite its overall quality, I ended up disappointed in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, for its end and what it did not do and where it didn’t sufficiently go, and what it didn’t ask its two most important actors to approach.

The episode was quick to set itself up. A very brief opening sequence with Quark and Odo was interrupted by the appearance of Miles O’Brien, out of uniform, bearing a gun and kidnapping Commander Sisko. The latter is very quick to realise it isn’t our O’Brien, but rather ‘Smiley’ O’Brien, from the Mirror Universe.

The plot is simple, but its underpinnings aren’t. Terran rebels have risen against the brutal, decadent Klingon/Cardassian Alliance but things have gone badly. A Terran scientist is on Terak Nor (i.e., DS9) developing a new sensor array that will reveal the whereabouts of the Rebel bases in the Badlands, ensuring they will be wiped out. Captain Sisko has been killed trying to get to the scientist and persuade her to change allegiance. Hence Smiley has snatched our Benjamin to complete the mission.

It’s not just Sisko’s leadership qualities that are required, but something more. The scientist is Professor Jennifer Sisko, the Mirror Universe version of Benjamin’s dead wife.

I might as well say this now. This was the most significant part of the scenario as far as I was concerned, bringing Sisko into contact with the wife he still loves, five years after her death, albeit a version of her that has been estranged from, and hates him, for the past five years, and who is actively aiding the opposition. It’s a tangled situation, fraught with deep emotion, and by far the most interesting element. I mean, the rest of the story, entertaining as it was, was largely rooted in the fun of seeing most of the cast playing against type: Bashir the bloodthirsty, wild-haired rebel, Dax as Sisko’s mistress, with a radically different and far more flattering haircut and Nana Visitor having a whale of a time camping it up and slinking around as the super-sexy Intendant, wiggling her hips as far as they could wiggle.

Andrew Robinson, in contrast, demonstrated that the Mirror Universe Garak is light years less interesting than the enigmatic version we have at home.

In the end, Sisko and the rebels persuaded Jennifer to their cause and got away to fight another day, as we knew they would.

But the episode fudged the most important part, that of Sisko’s reunion with the woman he loves, returned from the dead. Sisko is far too in control of himself: unthrown by her hostility towards his alternate version, unmoved by the sight of the woman he loves, brought back from the dead, concerned only with his mission, and far too smooth about leaving her without explaining himself, even after she recognises that he’s not the Sisko she married.

Every emotional beat is downplayed or, worse still, avoided. Felecia Bell is excellent in her part as Jennifer, but she is asked to do too little in the role, not even to display anger or loathing towards ‘Captain Sisko’.

Part of it comes from Avery Brookes’ theatrical, often stilted delivery. His low-key approach to Sisko is antithetical to the role as it should have been written. The part should have involved hidden emotions, tortuous ones, but Brookes his them beyond sight. And the writing abdicated the scenario it had set-up by preferring the easy route of quasi-campish parody and basic thriller routines.

Writing Benjamin and Jennifer would have been hard work. As so many times already, the writers decided not to work their socks off.

In analysing the flaws, I’ve made the episode sound worse than it was. It was still very enjoyable, and a dimension above ‘Prophet Motive’, but it was unambitious. If it couldn’t properly handle the scenario of Sisko and the exact equivalent of his dead wife, it shouldn’t have introduced it at all. It made promises it had no intention of keeping and lets its audience down. Better was offered, then skated round. A solid B+ was delivered when an A multiple plus was dangled, teasingly.

Saturday SkandiCrime: Modus, episodes 1 & 2

I’m late coming to this newest example of SkandiSaturday night entertainment because this happens to have been one of my working Sundays. Indeed, I’ve done a full day’s shift between the first and second episodes, so excuse me if my thinking is a little disjointed.

Modus differs from our usual run of SkandiCrimes by being Swedish rather than Danish. Considering that the Swedes have brought us both Arne Dahl and Crimes of Passion, that’s not exactly the highest recommendation, but on the evidence of the first episode, those were comparisons I didn’t see myself as having to make anytime soon. It’s also an eight part series, not ten, so taking us snugly up to Xmas (when the series happens to be set), and the episodes run to 45 minutes, not an hour.

It’s also a ‘whydunnit’, not a ‘whodunnit’, of which much has been made. That’s certainly unusual in SkandiCrime of the kind we’ve received since The Killing first made its mark, though not necessarily an original notion, given that that was the basis of practically every episode of Columbo. We see the killer and the killing in the opening ten minutes of episode 1 (and another in the last five minutes), but we don’t know the name of the killer nor what links the two murders (though it’s hinted at heavily in the trailer for episode 2). All we know is that they guy’s a professional, and he’s acting on instructions.

Appropriately enough, what we get in episode 1 is a series of introductions to characters of different ages, few of whom we get to know in any depth, nor do we know about the relationship between them, if there is any. The three central characters, who get the most screen-time, are Inger Johanne Vik (Melinda Kinnaman), Ingvar Nyman (Henrik Norlen) and Stina Vik (Esmerelda Struwe).Inger is a criminal psychologist and former profiler, now turned academic, Ingvar is an investigator for the National Bureau – the Swedish FBI – who has worked with Inger when she was a profiler for them, and Stina is Inger’s fourteen year old autistic daughter. Who witnesses the first murder.

Thus a fruitful situation is set up.

The first two murder victims are Isabella Levin and Elisabeth Lindgren. The first is an attractive blonde in her late thirties, who presents a cookery series on TV (which information is smoothly passed on in conversation with a businessman trying to chat her up in the bar). She’s leaving her partner behind on Xmas Eve to travel to Finland to visit her ex, not out of any residual feelings for him but because he got custody of the kids. On her way to a massage, she is strangled in the lift by Mr Assassin: Stina sees his face when he’s attempting to dispose of the body (which, incidentally, he has done so, offscreen, so successfully that by trailer time, nobody has yet discovered that she’s dead).

The other is a progressive Christian Bishop in her early Sixties. We successively see her and her husband Erik welcoming their grandchildren – who are black – on Xmas Eve morning (parents unseen, parking the car), conducting the service in Church and, in the evening, getting into a quarrel with Erik over some unspecified but deep-rooted issue, leaving the house to walk to the Church and being grabbed and stabbed very efficiently by Mr Assassin.

What is going on?

Answers to this start to be intimated in episode 2. Mr Killer watches an internet broadcast of a religious ceremony, in English, that looks to be a bit fundamentalist flavoured. Immediately it’s over, the cult leader, who has a really weird voice, Skypes our man about hoping he’s not getting sloppy over the girl. Given that Isabella’s partner turns out to be another woman (who spends most of the episode trying to find out where the lovely Isabella might have got too and taking far too long over getting suspicious of foul play), and that there’s a male gay couple also on the series’ radar, I have a big, shiny suspicion forming.

As for Bishop Elizabeth, first her husband tells Ingvar the Detective that it’s none of his business where the Bishop was going when she was murdered very professionally in public then he follows her steps and knocks on a door. We have yet to see who opens it, but given that he’s been burning her papers nonstop since daybreak, not to mention hiding a photo of a young woman, my big, shiny suspicion is working on overdrive.

And incidentally, I am beginning to find it a tiny bit of a cliché in SkandiCrime that, the moment a murder occurs, everyone close to the victim decides to keep back any information that might assist the Police identify, locate and arrest the killer. Hell’s bells, I would be volunteering every little scrap of gen I had if it were someone I cared about who got killed.

Not that Ingvar presses Erik the Bishop’s husband about it. Actually, he doesn’t press anyone much at all. Yes, he’s not your cliched maverick, but so far he’s not anything at all, but wet, flavourless and clueless, in both senses of the word. His only idea to date is to ask Inger to become the Bureau’s consultant on this case, and you half get the idea that it’s as much because he fancies her as he thinks she can help. Not that you’d blame him for that: Melinda Kanniman is refreshingly nice-looking, easy on the eye but not an outstanding beauty.

She’s quite clearly the star, but the best and most affecting acting is coming from Esmerelda Struwe as the autistic Stina. Without any histrionics, she is quietly and utterly convincing, and the part is superbly written (though I am slightly doubtful over her dream, just before episode 2’s end, which is heavily implied to be a vision of Ulrika finding Isabella’s body at last).

There’s a neat twist in the tail to give us thought for next week. Mr Assassin (who, according to the cast in imdb, is called Richard Forrester) is supposed to be taking out young Stina as the only witness who can identify him. Except that he saves her from being smashed flat by a truck, he spends all of episode 2 moodily trailing her around and taking none of his chances to do something about it, and at the end looks to be handing the job over to a colleague.

Who, unless I am mistaken, is Isak Vik. Former husband of Inger, and father to Stina. Hmmmm.

The Infinite Jukebox: Pete Atkin’s ‘The Eye of the Universe’

There are three versions of this song, but unfortunately the one I want to talk about exists only in the recesses of my memories of a concert almost twenty years ago.
As I’ve mentioned before, Pete Atkin’s music career reached a premature end in 1976, with the release of the contract-fulfilling album, Live Libel. The near-simultaneous arrival of punk, closely followed by New Wave, changed the zeitgeist, not to mention the commercial concerns, of the British music industry to push the likes of Atkin – already an unclassifiable singer – off the edge.
Atkin and James were always well-stocked with songs, and were still writing more. In preparation for a seventh album, Atkin pulled a dozen or so together and began to put together demo versions of these, before it became apparent that it was to be a redundant exercise.
One of these tracks was ‘The Eye of the Universe’, then shorn of the definite article. The Smash Flops website features audio clips of these demos, giving an indication of how Atkin’s thoughts were then running as to the arrangement and instrumentation. ‘Eye of the Universe’ 1977 would have been an guitar based, midtempo song.
But of course that never happened.
Move forward twenty years, to 1998, and a sunny, late Sunday afternoon drive from Hyde to Buxton, visiting the Opera House for the altogether unanticipated pleasure of seeing Pete Atkin play live on stage. A pleasure compounded by the unadvertised presence of Clive James, joining him on stage.
It was a nostalgic pleasure, never mind that, for the most part, it was nostalgia for something I had failed to experience the first time round. There were old songs I’d never expected to hear on stage, and ‘new’ songs I’d never suspected the existence of. One such was ‘Eye of the Universe’.
Atkin was switching between instruments according to the demands of each song. Acoustic guitar, grand piano, electric piano. Had I known of ‘Eye of the Universe’s prior half-life, I would have been surprised to see Atkin sit himself down behind the electric piano, whilst James expanded on the inspiration for the lyrics, which lay in poetry: I no longer recall the details.
Then Atkin started to play, a driving, attacking arrangement, the piano pounded rhythmically, his voice full of anger and passion. The PA was so clear, his voice so distinct, that I didn’t miss, or misunderstand a word of these hitherto unheard lyrics. In a single bound, ‘Eye of the Universe’ became one of my five favourite Atkin songs, an instant classic.
After the concert, whilst I was getting an autograph, I mentioned how impressed I’d been by this song. Being always happy to talk music, Atkin said that he’d want to record it with a full band, that it needed that full-bore treatment. The idea suited me.
It took three years from then for Atkin to get around to tackling the backlog of Seventies songs, two dozen of which appeared as The Lakeside Sessions double CD. Not until this was a finished product were we faithful fans of Midnight Voices let in on this and, though he wasn’t intending to start listing tracks etc. at that point, my instant, eager plea for confirmation he’d included ‘Eye of the Universe’ was answered. Yes, it was on the CD.
And in due course, the CDs arrived. I eagerly scanned the track listings, discovered ‘The Eye of the Universe’ as track 3 on the second CD, A Dream of Fair Women, and hustled it into the CD player. And sat back and listened in shock and dismay as a light, smooth, dreamy, almost jazzy and floaty electric piano intro led to Atkin singing the song with an easy, languid air, in a similar tempo to the old demo. The passion of the song at Buxton, the anger and drive, the pace he put into it, all of it gone.
Pete Atkin has spoken about how a song is never really finished, that no matter how many times he has played it, he is reassessing it. Over time, his music has changed. And to my considerable disappointment, in respect of this song, it changed dramatically in the three years that separated the stage at Buxton and the studio at Bristol.
The song exists. The words exist. All that has happened is that everything that made the song so alive to me, that made me want to have it, to repeat it, to fully absorb it into my ears and my head in the way the best of music, the music that fills the Infinite Jukebox always has, was refiltered through the songwriter’s ears and removed from consideration.
I can listen to the soft jazz version. I can listen to the guitar snippet. I only have a near twenty-year old memory to provide me with the version of the song that I loved. This is a particularly ethereal element of the Infinite Jukebox.