Musical Orgasms

Excuse the gap. I’ve been in a bit of an epistolary and blogging desert of late. Maybe it was the winter. But now it’s warming up and I felt that sense of rising energy and possibility that you do in spring. Ah, glorious seasonal renewal, and all that Wordsworth bit. I also broke my bloody iPod a few months ago, and my phone can only (“only”, he says! It wasn’t so long I had a 256MB mp3 player which I thought was the shit) hold about 20 albums. Thus the choice on the daily grind commute is restricted. (I know, I could change the albums around a lot more, but…)

So recent listening has been trimmed down to my absolute utter favourites. And what I’ve found, or been reminded, is that there are still lots of songs – well, brief intense moments – which are just absolute musical orgasms for me. The kind of thing where I go “Oh yes! FUCK YEAH! OOOOHHH MY GOOOOOOD!!” as I listen – inside at least; externally I probably have my usual gormless nose-in-a-book look. These bits are from songs I’ve been listening to for 10, 20, even 25 years, and their power to captivate and enthrall remain.

So what are some of them?

1. John Cale’s organ solo in “Sister Ray” (Velvet Underground)

In which John Cale on the organ takes on Sterling Morrison AND Lou Reed, both on electric guitars, and thrashes them. Cale is playing an organ through a guitar speaker, and by sheer gleeful noise-loving beat-the-fucker-til-it-breaks energy, brings the song to a tumultuous mid-point climax. It’s the opposite of the precise malevolence of so many death metal bands: “Sister Ray” is instead immensely abrasive and dissonant. Man, I love it!

I find “Sister Ray” an utterly fascinating song, structurally: there’s a terrific analysis of it by Jeff Schwartz in The Velvet Underground Companion (a very good book). It’s built on a simple three-chord riff (G-F-C, apparently) by Reed and Morrison, but against which Cale and then shortly Reed swiftly depart. By moving against the simple riff, they introduce abrasion and distortion – if you have a regular rhythmic figure, that’s when you can play off of it, as all metal guitarists will know. Reed and Cale get more and more in-your-face, soloing over Morrison who keeps the rhythm going, but by 3.57 it heads off into uncharted improvisational territory, speeding up at 5.30 (with some incredibly deft drumming from Mo Tucker, who somehow keeps pace), and Cale overpowering everyone else with a screeching exultant solo from 6.26 which even muffles Reed’s vocal. It really is incredible stuff.

(I haven’t even mentioned the climax, which is a incredible outpouring of energies, going beyond form into a supersonic slipstream… amazing).

Fact: the Buzzcocks got together after Howard Devoto placed an ad seeking to do a version of it. Another fact: Lou Reed cites “Sister Ray” as their version of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp freeform jazz kinda stuff. That was powerful stuff (like ramming themselves up against the very barriers of existence), but imagine that with the exponential power of massively redlining electric guitars and top-o’-the-line Vox amps. Final fact: consider the fact that the Velvet’s did this, and then on their next album did songs like “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free”, full of quiet nobility.

2. The relentless riff after the last “Battery” (Metallica)

Master Of Puppets was the first Metallica album I got, I think in about 1989 or 1990. I think it’s the best metal album ever and the title track I’ve eulogized several times before. The opening track “Battery” is an absolute stormer, though. It may the lack the ferocity of “Fight Fire With Fire”, the opener to predecessor Ride The Lightning, but it is perhaps more artful and more interesting – while no less intense. My favourite bit is after the final chorus, with the definitive shout of “BA-TTER-AY!” (4.45), how the riff kicks back in with an inexorable relentlessness. It sounded like nothing in the world could stop Metallica – their power, imagination, and indomitable anger would crush all before them. It was true, they conquered the world, but they never regained the heights of Puppets – the loss of Cliff Burton robbing Metallica of the one person who could stand up to both Ulrich and Hetfield. (Anyone who tries to argue that the Black Album is their best album will be laughed at, severely).

3. The instrumental/shift in “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)

There’s a nice line in Bad Wisdom about The Doors – how “you wanna hate them, but they keep popping up in your list of Top Ten All Time Bands In The World Ever”. I really only think they have two good albums, but then they are great albums at that, and The Doors is one of the best I’ve ever heard. L.A. Woman has a few more dips (“Crawling King Snake” is a bit of a snooze), but its peaks are amazing: not just the famous tunes like “Riders In The Storm”, but strong album tracks like “Hyacinth House”, “Love Her Madly” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”. “L.A. Woman”, though, starts up with this great careening rhythm (aptly enough), with Morrison gruffly crooning about “another lost angel in the city at night”. The terrific honkytonk solo from Manzarek goes from the second verse to a peak at 3.01 – at which point the band suddenly turns on a sixpence. Now it’s quieter, meditative, Big Jim saying “I see your hair is burnin’ / Hills are filled with fire”.

The contrast is utterly delicious, the skill incredible – if you ever thought The Doors were one drunken would-be Rimbaud and a backing band, check your head, dude – Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger were an extremely tight group who could go from barroom raucousness (“Roadhouse Blues“) to far-out meditative trippy Oedipal weirdness (“The End“). It’s a great moment from a band who (in)consistently hit my musical g-spot.

4. The opening riff in “Get Up Stand Up” (Bob Marley)

I am not really overly familiar with reggae: I’ve got a bunch of stuff by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh but neither of them hold a candle, in my humble opinion, to the great Bob Marley. In reggae terms this is a bit like saying Queen is your favourite rock band – but then I don’t smoke hash so I might be missing a vital ingredient. All the same, I think it’s undeniable how fantastic Bob Marley is, and I don’t care how much of a studenty stoner cliche it is. His range is incredible – from flinty and impassioned to slinky and sensual to angry protest to dark smoky dub to carefree to wry confession. The Wailers, of course, are an amazing backing band, but Marley’s songwriting craft is consistently strong, and his singing always passionate and soulful.

For a microcosm of how good they were, check the opening riff to “Get Up, Stand Up”. It’s a famous tune, an angry protest song perhaps more typical of Peter Tosh (who co-writes and shares vocals). After an opening roll around the tom-toms, the riff rolls in – tar-thick, dark, but goddamn groovy – for two beats, pauses for one, repeats for one and half, pauses for two beats with percussion, repeats for two, pauses for one then goes into the verse – like so:

DUH DUH – DUH DUH (pause) DUH UH (percussion)

DUH DUH – DUH DUH  (pause) – (percussion).

It’s incredibly deft and skilful, almost mathematically precise and both funky and muscular. Fucking awesome.

5. The instrumental break in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles)

If you only know The Beatles from school music lessons singing “Yesterday” or “Let It Be”, it might surprise you to learn that the Fabs were actually pretty radical. Sure, they processed everything into a audience-friendly package most of the time (with the exception of “Revolution #9”, perhaps, but surely I’m not the only one who actually really enjoys it?), but within the constraints of two or three minutes, they did so much. “Tomorrow Never Knows” might well be their most radical song, in terms of studio innovation and departure from traditional forms, but holy fuck, it delivers such a megaton blast of musical delight. The rhythmic texture (Ringo on huge fat tom-toms with that famous syncopation  (ONE and TWO and THREE AND FOUR) and a sizzling halo of cymbals, Macca accompanying on bass with a typically melodic line) is stable, but there’s no verse-chorus-verse: instead Lennon repeats his schema: “Something something something… It is something, it is something“, while five samples like nothing you’ve ever heard criss-cross with ever greater frequency. Whoa! That’s some dense and heady brew!

The instrumental break (starting at 0.56) tops all that though, totally overwhelming you and making you lose your sense of time and place. It consists of two of the loops brought more fully to the centre, and then Macca’s solo from “Taxman” (yes, him and not Harrison) slowed down and played backwards. Pollack tells me that the break is 16 bars, as you’d expect, but they’re divided into 6+10 (the loops being 4+2) instead of the standard 8+8, further throwing you off your balance. All of this makes the “instrumental” section a terrific sensory overload, and an example of the transfiguration which I believe Lennon the acid-muncher, Lennon the Lewis Carrol fan, Lennon the Joycean word-player, often sought.

6. The whole damn instrumental section of “Three Days” (Jane’s Addiction)

I can’t be bothered describing this precisely – but just listen to the way it builds up (starting from 4.43) via the great guitar solo by Dave Navarro to that amazing pedal point of immense tension and electric charge. It sounds like a gargantuan wall of static electricity, a vast forcefield of implacable and unmovable power. Amazing.

7. The arpeggio’s in “William, It Was Really Nothing” (The Smiths)

Morrissey some dismiss as a whining yelper – well, maybe. I hate the singer from Tool, Maynard James Keenan, though several metalheads assure me they are an awesome band. Johnny Marr, though, is without doubt an awesome guitar player – he has so many remarkable guitar riffs and leads from The Smiths that he’s often considered the best, or certainly the most influential, UK guitar player of the 1980s. Him and Peter Buck certainly reinvigorated the arpeggio, it having lain fallow since, oooh, maybe The Byrds. This is a dazzling example of his repertoire (note how many layers of guitar there are, particularly in the verse) – the sparkling, dazzling arpeggios after each verse (first seen at 0.41-0.48)… they just evoke the 1980s, or what they meant to me. Which means, I guess (how does one explain your own dreamscapes and evocations?) they give this romantic vibe of tender, yearning beauty. Yeah, really. (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” gives off the same feeling, to me anyways, as I’ve probably said). It just makes me almost shiver, as at some almost glimpsed isle of limitless delight.

8. Slash’s second guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)

This literally makes the hair on my arms stand up. Slash is surely the first since Hendrix to adopt the same kind of electric fluidity in his guitar sound, and he makes awesome use of it in this solo. (Compare, also, with the bone-head hair metallers of the time – CC Deville, Mick Mars, Warren DeMartini, Chris Holmes, etc – their sound tends to be very dry and lack Slash’s bluesiness). In comparison to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired fretboard wankers of the day, Slash doesn’t go overboard with hammer-ons, fretboard picking and all the miscellanea of lead guitar tosspots. He starts out at 3.35 playing simple notes, bending them for sustain, sure, but nothing too frilly – until the song hits a pedal point at 4.02, which rises the temperature and tension, Slash likewise increasing the speed of his picking. Once released from this into a more aggressive riff, Slash (again, complementing the song) goes higher up the fretboard, bending notes more, making the guitar wail, all rich with passion and conflict. It’s just stunning, and I’ve never bored of it in the 25 years I’ve had a copy of Appetite For Destruction.

How about you?

Songs Which Mean Something (To Me)


There are just some songs which stick in your head and in your heart. Sometimes it is simple nostalgia (as I’ve said about my youthful infatuation with hair metal), but sometimes – who knows why? – a song just clicks with something going on your life. This is something utterly magical, and something I don’t really think happens, or certainly not to such a strong extent, with other art forms. I’ve never looked at Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: No 1, 1950 and thought, “Holy shit, that reminds me of when I was doing an IT postgrad.” Or rather, it does – but entirely without the piquancy and vividity of a musical association. I still remember the song playing during my first youth club disco kiss (“Eternal Flame” by The Bangles – not too bad), the one going through my head when my daughter was born, and so on. But then there are songs which just feel richly symbolic to me, which seem to mean or allude to something…

So then here are some songs which just MEAN something to me, for whatever reason.

1. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

I had this particular adolescent period I find unusually memorable but find to hard to convey why. Maybe it happens to everyone, but there was a time when everything was keenly felt and rich with poetry. Yeah, I was in love. It hit me like a megaton bomb, radically affecting every part of my life. It was at this time that my writing took off – I had done some furtive scribbling previously, but during this love-lorn year it exploded, and I wrote ceaselessly. Fortunately by this time I had massively broadened my musical taste via The Beatles and the nascent Britpop scene, so the sense of new music suited my feeling of delicate tender exposure. This song is by no means The Smiths’ best, but there’s just something about it – the drama and urgency of the introduction, the restrained (by Morrissey’s standards) vocal but that breathlessness passion, the tight structure, the simple but effective solo (Marr is remarkably lacking in ego for being such an amazingly talented guitar player, more into serving the song than wanky pyrotechnics). In my occasional synaesthetic moments, I get strong vibes of purple and grey off this song – a pinkish purple, not a blueberry/Ribena shade. It constantly brings me back to those mooncalf days of insomnia in warm summer nights, discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster, long walks through nearby countryside (I used to leave about 9pm and get back about 3 or 4am), and the constant tantalising sense of possible rapture. Aaaah, being fifteen.

2. Sex Pistols, “Submission”

There was something about the Sex Pistols that just resonated with me. It wasn’t just Rotten’s outraged nasal sneer, or Jones’ powerful riffing, or the gleeful pissing on so many national monuments. The Sex Pistols just sounded like the late 1970s to me. I have no idea why this association should exist, given that I was born in 1979, and I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the (now many) documentaries which use punk as an aural signifier of UK political/economic decline, when I first got into the Pistols. The association was so strong that I used to wander round parts of town which seemed similarly “seventies” – there was a closed factory near the centre which strongly gave off that vibe, for me at least. It’s weird because I was only about 13 at the time and so didn’t really know about the Winter of Discontent or the IMF bailout etc. But somehow this vibe communicated itself to me…

This song was written at the instigation of Malcolm McLaren who wanted the band to write a song about “submission” and bondage. Rotten both took the piss and showed his wit saying “How about a submarine mission?” The song is really more about the submission (in the dissolution of the self sense, rather than naff S/M wank fantasies)  to the mother-ocean-goddess figure of male archetype.  This, funnily enough, didn’t strike me at the time: the song then suggested to me something about someone not wanting to work offshore (which in those days meant fishing, not oil – I come from a long line of mariners) but giving in and winding up in that backbreaking industry. Kind of like Kes and the kid ending up working down t’pit. (Those were the days when industry meant the destruction of potential and talent, rather than being venerated for economic generation). Though that impression has declined as I veer to the other reading of the song, it’s one of those examples where a song creates all these emotions, atmospheres and impressions on me.

3.  XTC, “Ball and Chain”

One of the happiest times in my life was in the latter half of my first year in China. Teaching was fun (and easy), the students were lovely, I had some good friends, no bills to worry about, and my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) was going great. Ah, happy days!  And this was when I got into XTC, through their several mentions in the inestimable Bad Wisdom, the greatest novel ever written. My god, but listening to that song brings back such vivid memories! Just chilling out in my teacher apartment, drinking a not-really-earned G&T with the Bombay Sapphire I bought in Nanjing. (The local supermarket only sold Gordons). Spending 10 hours playing pool on my days off (I got REALLY good that year). Visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi for the first time. Inviting all my chums round for a big dinner and introducing them to the shower scene from Porkies. The huge party I threw for my girlfriend on her birthday (the kind of party where language no longer mattered, all that existed was hilarity and goodwill and epic drunkenness). Starting to discover the Chinese internet and blogging scene. My sweet, kind, optimistic, industrious, students. Good times.

This song is typically upbeat XTC (they surely are the most Beatley band of the 80s) with a typically XTC under-cutting-the-happiness lyrics, though actually on the subject of urban “regeneration” rather than bemoaning marriage or relationships. The album English Settlement was much played by me at that period – though, again typically for XTC, it is uneven, in this instance having a classic side 1 and “meh” side 2. (I think only their masterpiece Skylarking is consistently strong – though I realise this is a bit of a circular argument). Still, with songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason And The Argonauts”, who’s complaining?

4.  Sade, “Smooth Operator”

Though an eighties child, being born in 1979 means that while I was exposed to the pop culture of the day, I missed out on the meaning or context of most of it. (My sister was the true eighties child, the one who was a Duran Duran, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Five Star fan). There are some songs though which just connect me to that decade, and this is one. Although I obviously never went to a wine bar then (the idea of even going to a bar and ordering wine was miles off my radar until I was over 30), this song just makes me think of 1980s wine bars and the pseudo-sophistication, the kind of thing absolutely slaughtered in American Psycho, the tasteful jazz, the absurd way that the upper-middle classes disguise getting pished with notions of taste and discrimination etc! Not that I think this is a bad song: on the contrary, I am a big fan of Diamond Life. It’s just so evocative of a particular time and place, one that is now rather despised for its gaucheness. The same dynamic occurs in cultural as in one’s own life: so easy to despise what you once were, even though it made you what you are now.

5. Bjork, “Venus As A Boy”

What was it Garth from Wayne’s World said about “Dream Woman”? “She makes me feel funny, like when we had to climb the rope in gym class.” The first time I saw Bjork was on – The Late Show? Later With Jools Holland? Something Friday night BBC2 anyway. I just remember feeling… enthralled yet mystified. This is when she had those cute ringlets (as in the video here) and whooo, I just felt something I’d never felt for a woman I’d seen on TV before. This was when “sexy” women were presented as dolly birds, the time of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies and ludicrous nonsense like that. The idea that women could be creative and cool and sexy and funny and smart was new to me. Stupid of me, but it’s true. Anybody who tells you about how feminists want everything and it’s not fair and poor men boo-hoo-hoo – slap them.

Bjork’s delicious melismatic singing, the sheer joy in her face, the understated sensuality of the music…whoa. Really takes me back. You remember how Friday nights used to be absolutely fucking awesome for TV? (Sorry, this is for Brits). Both BBC2 and Channel 4 had terrific shows, from Red Dwarf to The Word to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Naked City to Later to Passengers to Crapston Villas to Jam.

6. Happy Mondays, “Step On”

This one isn’t such a personal connection, but a cultural/national one. I was in Sanlitun one night with my good lady wife, and in whatever bar we were in, “Step On” came on. I really like the song and started semi-drunkenly grooving along with it (that’s the only kind of grooving I do, I’m afraid). This piqued her interest, and I wanted to explain the whats and whys and wherefores of the song. But, really, how can you hope to do that to someone Chinese? How can you explain “rave” culture, the late 80s ecstasy explosion, the remaking of Ibiza into some kind of sun-kissed drug haven (though long since, of course, degenerated into a tourist ripoff attended by the UK’s Darrens and Sharons), the conversion of the football casual hardcases into beaming euphoric whistle-blowing goons, and the “Summer of Love II”? (Most Western musical revolutions, it seems to me, are drug-led and the rave thing seems to be about the last organic bottom-up pop culture boom – just as hippy was led by acid, mods and punk  by speed and folkrock, to some extent, by grass). You can’t, of course. So I probably just mumbled something about it being a cool song.

Life Changers

I’ve rather neglected the books aspect of this blog so far: mostly ideas for posts occur to me as I’ve been sat on the laptop, listening to music with headphones on, working away at something else. (Is there any greater spur to blog than having some work to do?). But obviously books are very important to me: I’m a voracious reader, always have been. Some books have had a massive effect – what was it Cathy said to Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights?

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

If books are waking dreams, then this is undoubtedly true for me. Books have affected the colour of my mind, the shape of my ideas, the texture of my imaginings. So in this blog I want to chart the books that have been deeply influential.

1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardobe

This is the first “great” book I ever read, where it just kept getting better and better as I kept reading. I think at the time I had mostly been reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl, but TLTWATW felt magnificent, epic, compared to them. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong but Blyton or Dahl – I loved all the Famous Five, Malory Towers, Twins at St. Clairs, and Five Find-Outer series, and Dahl’s gruesome imagination tickles my humour-spot, even now. But TLTWATW had great themes, like sacrifice and betrayal and redemption (I didn’t pick up the whole Christian symbolism until much later on), even while its setting seemed familiar and (as with Mr and Mrs Beaver) homely. It was the first book I ever read which expanded my vision of what life was about.

2. The Lord of the Rings

My dad and uncles, being 1970s prog rock types, were natural Tolkien fans, and were keen to press The Hobbit onto me as soon as I was old enough. Oddly enough, I didn’t think it was all that great (it suffers, as Tolkien himself regretted, occassional instances of him writing down to his audience). It did though clear the way to Lord of the Rings, and I still vividly remember the first time I took it out the library. I asked the elderly gentleman librarian (he used to wear a panama hat) if they had it; he was standing by the stack of books to be returned to the shelves, and by happenstance had it to hand. He passed it over with a great look in his eyes, one that said “You are REALLY going to enjoy this, my lad.” I spent about an hour just leafing through it before I took it out: I loved the dwarvish runes and the elven script in the opening pages; I loved the cover, a magnificent, monstrous depiction of Mount Doom; I loved the appendices with the alphabets and timelines and family trees; I loved the sense of a complete world, an imaginary universe, just waiting to be explored.

Though I barely had the reading maturity to comprehend it all (I remember getting confused between Sauron and Saruman and having to backtrack several chapters), Lord of the Rings completely swamped me. My first attempts at writing were absurd imitations, and I spent ages trying to read sundry Tolkien books like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales before I realised that I wasn’t interested in the “unexplored vistas” of Middle Earth. But there can be no doubt that LOTR truly is an astonishing creative effort, one in which many people are indeed happy enough to reside in.

3. Educating Rita

After Lord of the Rings, I spent a lot of time reading horror (mostly Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, and James Herbert) – hey, I was 13-14 and massively into heavy metal. Goes with the territory. I can’t say that, except from King’s fine novel IT, many of them left much of an impression. Eventually, though, we started doing books at school which spoke to me in some fashion. Educating Rita was the first: the story of a working-class woman who wants to improve her mind through an Open University course in English Lit., it dazzled me with its demonstration of how one’s mind, one’s life, could be improved through literature. Though my family were readers,  they inclined towards best-sellers rather than literary novels etc. Not that there’s anything so wrong with that, but there was a whole world out there beyond my ken. Suddenly, there was Rita reading Ibsen, Forster, Blake, Shakespeare, Ferlinghetti, and the like. This led me to seriously extend my own reading range, and I became an insanely ambitious reader, trying out DH Lawrence, EM Forster, James Joyce, Martin Amis, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde and James Kelman within the next year. Which leads me to:

4. Maurice

Yeah, EM Forster’s homosexual-themed novel. What can I say? I was young, callow, adolescent – in other words, I was 15. But I loved Forster’s feeling for the countryside, his subtlety and lyricism, his symbolism and his rejection of conventional, unthinking morality. Maurice led me, of course, to Howards End and A Passage To India, the true greats in his canon.

5. Trainspotting

Irvine Welsh exploded into my life like the Sex Pistols: noisy, anarchic, visceral, ugly, truthful, real. Living in Scotland was then to wallow in this great sentimental image of national life, one of twee Scottishness and a ridiculous feeling of superiority over England. (Measured ever-watchfully, of course). They (the English, of course) were racist, were hooligans, had more poverty and worse schools, were less community-minded, were war-mongering, Thatcher-voting snobs. You name the lazy prejudice, it was smugly applied. Welsh exploded all those myths with a novel of extreme bravery: the first book I’d ever read which mocked the Scottish cultural cringe, the first which explored the council estates in all their gaudy, brutal, helpless squalor. (Kelman’s characters were usually so good, so honest, so stymied-by-exterior-circumstances: Welsh’s were the full technicolour range of characters you might meet down your local pub).

I immediately recognised the truth of what Welsh was saying and spent ages trying to write like him, in dialect, with working-class characters, concerning drugs and crime etc. Took me a while to realise that these weren’t really my subjects, or to find a way to something different with them. Also, Welsh’s career has been a sad decline from the visceral Trainspotting to the adequate Filth and Porno to the abject Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. Still, I very much look forward to reading his prequel, Skag Boys.

6. Bad Wisdom

Being Scottish, I absorbed all the new Scottish writing, things like James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Duncan Maclean, Jeff Torrington. All are good writers – at one point I felt Kelman was as good as Joyce, which I now think highly overvalues Kelman, who isn’t much fun to read – but most of them have a highly realist style, jagged and impressionistic perhaps, but always trying to avoid seeming literary. Fidelity to the moment and capturing the reality were always the priority. There wasn’t much space for florid metaphors, put it that way. But as Wilde says, a truth in art is one whose opposite is also true. Consequently, when I first discovered Bad Wisdom I was absolutely enthralled precisely by its overblown prose, its insistence on imagination and fantasy. Written by two musicians, Bill Drummond (formerly of the KLF) and Mark Manning (Zodiac Mindwarp), chunk by chunk, the Manning sections contain the most (intentionally) ludicrously over-the-top prose you are ever likely to read: it makes Nabokov read like Hemingway. The subject matter is as OTT, with insane fantastical sections about supermodels wrestling in shit, biker vikings with a chainsaw execution ceremony, shamanistic rituals concerning “the Lost Chord” and the destruction of the world, and the key of Elvis to world peace. It’s just jaw-droppingly mind-blowing. Never have I read such rich metaphors, such juicy adjectives, such dazzling lush prose. Bad Wisdom is an amazing tour-de-force and one which completely changed the way I look at the world. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.

7. The New Industrial State

Bilbo tells Frodo in Lord of the Rings that paths lead to paths, that the road is endless. The same is true if you’re a reader: books lead to other books, albums lead to others. For example, the Velvet Underground is one of my all-time favourite bands, and reading that their “Sister Ray” was an attempt to do a free-form jazz song in a rock style led to me explore Ornette Coleman, Cecil Tyaylor, Archie Shepp, as well as less wild stuff like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which I rather prefer! Reading a book from the library called Fifty Key Modern Thinkers, I was blown away by the entry on Jean Baudrillard, my head exploding with understanding and implications. Unfortunately, I don’t find many of Baudrillard’s works very comprehensible: I can read explications of his theories and understand, but I don’t have much of an engagement with him personally. Anyway, so one book of his I did like and which is easy enough to understand is The Consumer Society, much of which is a critique of The Affluent Society by someone called JK Galbraith. I hadn’t heard of Galbraith before, but one day browsing through a second-hand book store I found a copy of The New Industrial State, and so bought it. Until then, my understanding of industry and work had been adolescently Marxist (yeah, I know), but reading TNIS gave me a sense of how the post-war economic structure actually operated. Galbraith is essentially a Keynesian, but his analysis of how corporations function and how they aggregate into a broader system seemed to accord with reality far more than anything I had ever encountered. Some of his descriptions are pre-1973, or pre-Reaganite, or pre-Milton Friedman, however you prefer to look at it, but given the current world economic troubles, Galbraith’s points seem more salient than ever.

TNIS gave me a taste for books about finance and economics, and those are the books I still tend to read: for some reason, I don’t have much of an appetite for fiction these days. So this is the last life changer amongst the books I have read.

How  about you?

I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings”

(N.B. this was previously published on my old Bucket of Tongues blog, but I think the post bears repeating. I have also added some pictures and further comments).

I have a confession to make – lean close and I’ll whisper it in your ear… I’m a Lord of the Rings nerd. Only the novel mind you (not a trilogy!! It is a novel which was published in three parts due to the postwar paper shortage); I’ve never managed to get into The Silmarillion, despite numerous attempts. I first read it in 1990, and have read it at least once a year since then; it’s one of the staples of my reading life, along with Shogun, Bad Wisdom, and Howards End.

So when the film trilogy came out  I was pleased. I saw them all at the cinema and was astounded at numerous scenes – jumping the falling bridge in Moria, the battle of Helms Deep, the magnificent part played by Andy Serkis. I devoured the extended versions and savoured the success of the films, financially and critically. (Especially when Return of the King was awarded so many Oscars – it almost made up for the monstrosity that is Titanic being so grossly overrewarded).

However, as time has gone on, the weaknesses of the films have become ever more apparent. They are not films which age well, films which merit repeated viewings (like Chinatown or Pulp Fiction or Groundhog Day). I can imagine them in ten or twenty years time being viewed as historical curiosities, like epics such as Ben Hur or Cleopatra, rather than living parts of cinema which are vital parts of beloved film collections. I’d go so far as to say that the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi is a superior cinematic experience which is far closer to the spirit of the novel, although it’s not by any means perfect.

Peter Jackson took a lot of credit for the success of the films. He must take the blame for their failings. (There is a story that he only read the book once – whether it’s true or not I don’t know. But it would explain a lot, especially his superficial treatment of the whole concept).

So what are the failings? Let’s go through them. (I have a feeling I might be some time on this…)

Characterisation. This is frequently completely off, to such a degree that it must be deliberate. While some modifications and condensations are to be expected (especially in such a large novel), why Jackson felt the need to change numerous characters for the worse I’ll never know. Gimli for example – reduced from a representative of the noble dwarf race to a Snarf (from Thundercats), a figure of fun for cheap laughs. Frodo loses all his nobility and “stature”, becoming a tepid victim. Merry and Pippin are reduced in a similar way to Gimli, becoming joke-figures – and without their apotheosis in “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter, there’s not enough development. For Gandalf, the difference between him pre- and post-Moria is too great; it’s like he’s a different character, rather than revealing different aspects of the same person. In Fellowship, he’s a kindly old man, with a bit of a temper; in Return he’s a  a philosopher-warrior-king: there’s little connection between the two. Sauron – apparently this source of all evil, this destroyer of worlds, this ancient power and unholy dread, is a glorified lighthouse. What a fucking joke! Denethor should be stern, cold and proud – introducing him as broken by the death of Boromir removes all the dramatic tension from his escalating hopelessness, and reduces the impact of the palantir. And what they hell is with his eating scene? What a waste of time!

Mishandling Scenes. Several scenes are understandably telescoped or skipped altogether (we’re dealing with a novel that’s over one thousand pages long and whose principal action takes place over one calender year). I doubt many would complain about the loss of Tom Bombadil or Ghan Buri Ghan. Nonetheless, there are several examples of Jackson getting scenes completely wrong, to such an extent that you wonder if he understood the book at all! The Council of Elrond for example – Jackson usefully gives some backstory at the start of each part of the trilogy, which reduces the need for such a lengthy, unwieldy scene. So what does he do with it instead? He has the various characters squabbling and then Frodo pipes up with “I will take the ring!” and all fall silent. This is just utterly ridiculous. Arwen making the river rise up is foolish, suggesting that any old elf can do “magic”, whereas it is Elrond does it, as he possesses one of the Three Rings. The fight between Gandalf and Saruman in Orthanc is just absurd – why the hell would two wizards have a glorified stick fight?! The scene between Theoden, Gandalf and Saruman in the ruins of Isengard is also handled appallingly, with all tension removed, and a complete lack of subtlety. Jackson, as always, goes for the conflict without considering what it might mean symbolically or thematically: it’s just good people against bad people, i.e. simplistic, reductionist nonsense. In Moria, we see the skulls of dead dwarves right away, rather than an rising feel of dread through the emptiness and darkness, and the battle in the Chamber of Records is much longer than it should be, and the troll unnecessary, reducing the impact of the later climactic scene with the Balrog. And what the hell is with that scene with Aragorn being nearly drowned in The Two Towers? With so much choice material being cut, why add more? We know he loves Arwen already, for christ’s sake! I also hate the entire section with Faramir – gone is Frodo’s nobility, gone is Faramir’s ability to resist the temptation of the Ring. It’s his ability to withstand the temptations of power which make him worthy of it – just as Aragorn announces that he will never set foot in the Shire. But such subtleties seem beyond Jackson, who seems more concerned with action and fighting than with conveying Tolkien’s thematic points.

Directorial Tics. There are several terrible examples of these littered throughout the films, things which become increasingly grating. The habit of showing the Ring in Frodo’s hand, the camera zooming in on the hand and Ring is one. The ridiculous elven music which comes out of nowhere at especially vital moments (Gandalf riding out to rescue Faramir, for example) is unwarranted by any dramatic necessity, and just seems absurd. And worst of all, the Hulk Hogan-esque displays performed by Gandalf and Galadriel when they display their hidden powers – these are frankly embarrassing. Tolkien was a man of great sensibility and subtlety – there is not the slightest chance he would have them rampaging in such an absurd fashion. And when Frodo is variously injured, the camera lingers on his pained expression far too long, emphasising his victimhood at the expense of his other qualities (which are never really shown).

The Scouring of the Shire. This chapter may have added little to the overall plot and action of the film, but it is absolutely fundamental in terms of theme, atmosphere and dramatic synchronicity. Tolkien himself said “it is an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. The chapter shows not only how much the hobbits have grown, but that after wars, the Shirefolk choose to revert to their prior mode of life. Wars traditionally bring mechanisation, regimentation and industrialisation, all of which Tolkien deeply opposed. The Lord of the Rings is not (let me emphasis this a million times over) a sword-and-sorcery epic, it is a deeply-felt parable on the hidden powers of the “little people” based on the heroism of ordinary men Tolkien saw during the First World War, and is based on Tolkien’s anarchism and opposition to government. That the hobbits come back and reclaim their land from the usurpers and despoilers is a metaphor for what Tolkien wished, after the war brought increasing regimentation and government control. In this sense, it is similar to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, where the First World War is won at the cost of the freedom of the small farmers amongst whom Gibbon sets his novel.

Frodo and Sam. Frodo (still less Gandalf or Aragorn) is not the hero of the book, Sam is. It’s that simple, and Tolkien himself acknowledged as much. Although Frodo gets top billing, this just goes to show Tolkien’s ultimate sympathy is with the underdog. To be fair, Jackson does acknowledge this to some extent by showing Sam and Rose’s wedding near the end, but because Jackson omits the Scouring of the Shire chapter, there’s nowhere to show Sam’s real growth, his leading role in the restoration of the Shire,  his planting of the mallorn tree (trees being a symbol of lineage, as Tolkien well knew); nor do we see Frodo’s pacifism, illness and withdrawal from Shire life, which lead to his desire to leave for the Grey Havens. Given the addition of some pointless if not absurd scenes (Gimli getting drunk, Aragorn revealing his real age), it is endlessly irritating that vital sections were chopped.

Religious subtext. Though not religious myself, I think it is fatal to Lord of the Rings if the religious aspect is not conveyed. By “religious”, I mean the sense of perhaps mystical power some characters and indeed some places demonstrate. The wizards, Elrond and Galadriel are clearly angel-like, while Sauron is a Satanic figure – their powers are obviously hard to demonstrate, but Jackson never seems to bother his arse in even attempting to do so, with little revealed about Elrond, his lineage and his importance. The Old Forest, Rivendell, Fangorn, Lothlorien, Mordor, and the Shire meanwhile all have a power of their own, something beyond an atmosphere, a power that’s not quite sentient or tangible but can be felt in the soil, whether for good or ill. Little of this is ever conveyed, yet one does get a sense of the bucolic richness of the Shire, the horror and damnation of Mordor, and the timelessness of Rivendell (albeit in a kinda hippyish way) in the Bakshi film. Jackson’s vision of Mordor seems to be a place where your face gets dirty.

More could easily be said. But my fundamental faulting of Jackson’s films are that they are action films, sword-and-sorcery epics. They fundamentally miss the archaic tone and atmosphere of the book, the freedom, the sense of maps with areas not yet explored. The films do the action sequences remarkably well; the scene at Helm’s Deep is astonishing, and the race through Moria, and the collapsing bridge, a remarkable piece of cinema. But I expect more than that from any adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, of which Jackson only ever captures the surface. For such a thorough, all-encompassing, deep book, that has to count as an failure.