Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Peter Vaughan 1923-2016

It was with great sadness that I today learned of the death of the British actor Peter Vaughan.

He had a varied and distinguished career, but I will always remember him best as "Genial" Harry Grout in the classic 1970s television sitcom Porridge, which was set in a prison.

In Porridge the Harry Grout character was the prison's "Mr. Big", who appeared to control most things which occurred in the institution, and who inspired fear and apprehension in his fellow inmates as well as the staff.

The character only appeared in three episodes of the show, as well as the 1979 movie spin-off, but the impact of Vaughan's portrayal, and the superb writing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, made it seem like he was a permanent fixture.  Vaughan managed to convey an effortless but almost avuncular menace, and his scenes with Norman Stanley Fletcher (played by Ronnie Barker) were particularly memorable and amusing.

Interestingly, Peter Vaughan also appeared in an excellent episode (entitled "Stay Lucky Eh?") of the groundbreaking crime show The Sweeney, playing a character not totally dissimilar to Harry Grout, with the difference that he was "on the outside".

However, the Harry Grout character remains as one of the most enduring and fascinating in British sitcoms, and as an illustration of Peter Vaughan's talents.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Don Revie - Portrait of a Footballing Enigma - Andrew Mourant

Whilst sifting through some of my books recently, I came across Don Revie - Portrait of a Footballing Enigma, a biography of the former Leeds United and England football manager.

This book's value to me lies primarily in its focus on the periods both before and after his tenure at Leeds United. The nature of his background and upbringing give clues as to the evolution of his character and temperament, and also the way that his footballing philosophy was to develop.  It also serves as a snapshot of professional football as it was between the end of the Second World War and the arrival of big money.

Some of the characteristics of that football scene seem mildly bizarre now.  The meagre, hand-to-mouth finances of many clubs, the spectacle of players from outside the top flight regularly featuring in the England national team, and the prevalence of injuries and fixture congestion.

The reminiscences of associates, acquaintances and colleagues form a large part of this telling of the Revie story, and they help to give the book its balance and flavour, and to explain the origins of the personality traits which became well-known;caution, superstition, thoroughness and insecurity.

Detractors might grumble, but Revie was on balance a progressive and innovative football thinker. I might be biased, but his Leeds teams played outstanding and compelling football, and had flair in abundance. Allied to their famed attributes of resilience and a fierce will to win, they were a formidable unit.  They did not win the number of trophies which they should have done, and the book seeks to explain why this was the case. The solution to the question is as complex and elusive as the subject of the book himself.

The concept or notion of blending brains with brawn has always appealed to me as a sporting world-view. Think, but work hard. This was what made football in the four decades after World War Two so compelling, absorbing and popular, and it was a hallmark of many of Revie's teams.

It is noteworthy that Revie in his pre-Leeds footballing endeavours seemed restless, until he arrived at Elland Road, where he finally found his niche, and a place where he could put what he had learned, or taught himself, to good and constructive use.

I found the chapters dealing with Revie's early days at Leeds quite illuminating, especially the methods employed to recruit and motivate young players. The "family atmosphere", and some of Revie's man-management methods, seem quaint and even bizarre from the vantage point of 2016, but they worked at the time, and still induce a smile and twinge of regret and nostalgia that those days are now gone forever.

The book also goes into Revie's turbulent and unhappy spell as the England team manager, and his controversial departure from the post, as well as his final years. I think that there is a balanced and realistic assessment of some of the contentious aspects of his career, and there are lots of good anecdotes and quotes.

The book might appear concise, but in the latter stages the analysis of Revie's character and motives becomes quite intensive and nuanced.

If hardly definitive, this is a good, satisfying read, and leaves one concluding that the man was indeed an enigma.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

In Through The Out Door - Led Zeppelin - album review

It seems to have become the received wisdom that In Through The Out Door, Led Zeppelin's last real studio album, released in 1979, is a downbeat postscript to their glittering career. However, a closer listen reveals that this is quite a strong record.

In revisiting the album, I found myself slightly afraid to poke my head in, for fear that I would be confronted with sad thoughts of an era coming to an end with a whimper. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how vibrant it is.  It is arguably more consistent and convincing than Presence, a patchy work which was redeemed in large part by the coruscating "Achilles Last Stand".

In Through The Out Door has a modernistic flavour, largely by virtue of the heavy use of keyboards and a warm and clear production. The sound points towards where Zeppelin music might have ventured during the 1980s. "In The Evening" embodies these sentiments, and in keeping with much of the album, it exudes confidence and no little ebullience.

In fact, most of the songs here have an energy, belief and confidence which belies the record's traditional reputation. "South Bound Suarez" is likeable if lightweight, and much the same might be said of "Fool In The Rain" and "Hot Dog". To me, these tracks represent an advance on the torpor which characterized parts of Presence.  There is some zest in the rootsier numbers, and the guys sound like they enjoyed making these recordings.

"Carouselambra" mines similar territory to "In The Evening", except that it is more keyboard-intensive. It reminds me somewhat of late 70s/early 80s Genesis.  My gripes are that it goes on too long, and occasionally the keyboards threaten to drown out Robert Plant's vocals. Again, this is a hint of where the band might have been heading sonically and stylistically...

"All My Love" is a strong and emotive song, very personal for Robert Plant, and in feel it anticipates some of his later solo material. My feeling is that the songs, melodies and arrangements are good. The ideas were there, and some thought and time was clearly devoted to them.

"I'm Gonna Crawl" possesses a kind of cinematic grandeur (heightened again by those keyboards), as well as bluesy charm. A classy way to round off what was to be the group's final proper album.

The impression is that Robert Plant and John Paul Jones dominated things creatively, and the relative absence of guitar pyrotechnics is conspicuous.So, on reflection, this is a fine album, albeit not a traditional Led Zeppelin one.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Books About Sports

Most of my non-fiction reading in recent times has focused on history and philosophy, but it is notable how good and absorbing the best sports-related writing can be. Here are some of the sports-orientated books which have made the greatest impact on me in recent times, or which I just found enjoyable, informative and enlightening.....

Bodyline Autopsy, by David Frith.  An absorbing, erudite and meticulously researched chronicling of England's contentious cricket tour of Australia in 1932-33...

Several works on cycling have left quite an indelible impression.....

Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, by William Fotheringham...

Eddy Merckx : The Cannibal, by Daniel Friebe.  Another excellent portrait of the great Belgian cyclist....

Put Me Back on My Bike : In Search of Tom Simpson, by William Fotheringham.  A fascinating and candid biography of the tragic English cyclist...

The Lost Generation, by David Tremayne.  An intensely compelling, highly moving and beautifully illustrated telling of the story of three British racing drivers who died young during the 1970s....

Gilles Villeneueve: The Life Of The Legendary Racing Driver, by Gerald Donaldson.

Inverting The Pyramid : The History of Football Tactics, by Jonathan Wilson.

Back Home - England and the 1970 World Cup, by Jeff Dawson.  A highly entertaining and nostalgic look at the national football team's campaign in that fabled tournament in Mexico....

All of these books I would recommend.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Future Days - Can (1973 album) - review

A few years ago, I resolved to get into the music of Can, the legendary German avant-garde rock group. However, I may have made a mistake in commencing my Can journey by listening to their 1973 album Future Days.  I was left rather bemused and unimpressed, and it took a while for the Can "bug" to genuinely bite, once I had explored their more accessible material, such as that from Ege Bamyasi, and their 1971 magnum opus Tago Mago.

I suspect that Can are one of those bands who might take a while to impress themselves fully on some listeners, but when that invisible threshold is crossed, the wonders and infectiousness of their work are acutely felt. This was definitely the case with me, and Future Days suddenly made a lot more sense in that context.

With the exception of the punchy and relentless "Moonshake", this record is more ethereal and soothing in tone than either of the works which immediately preceded it. "Chill-out" music might be an appropriate phrase to describe the epic closer "Bel Air", certainly, although it does have its livelier and pugnacious moments.

The drumming of Jaki Leibezeit is less dominant in these tracks, based as they are on relaxing soundscapes, with more emphasis on melody, mood and texture than on rhythm. There is some stylistic and sensual continuity between the title track, "Spray" and the aforementioned "Bel Air".  I don't see "Moonshake" as a fly in the ointment;it serves a purpose in providing backbone.

With its habitually hypnotic and laid-back flavour, this LP doesn't jump out and grab you like some of their other work, and as my experience perhaps illustrates, it needs more work, concentration and patience.

My advice would be to listen to the two previous albums, and then this one will be more palatable and welcoming than otherwise might have been the case.  This record, in rounding off Can's classic early Seventies trilogy, as well as being the last one to feature vocalist Damo Suzuki, is a delight in its own right.  Just immerse yourself in the early passages of "Bel Air", and float away....

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920 silent horror film)

To mark the onset of the Halloween "festivities", I recently re-watched the 1920 German silent horror movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

Described by some pundits as the first "real" horror film, it was also seen as the epitome of the German Expressionist style, partly because of the nature of the set designs, with their distorted and pronounced contours and architectural features.

The film tells the story of a hypnotist "Dr Caligari" (played by Werner Krauss) who uses a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. However, there is a "twist" ending, and this only multiplies the number of possible interpretations of aspects of the plot.  Largely because of the time when it was made, and the country in which it was produced, this must be one of the most (over) analyzed films in history.

It is easy to see why parallels were drawn, in the aftermath of the First World War, between the hypnotist/sleepwalker relationship and the societal dynamics which were perceived to have characterized the conflict. Some other inferences may only have been made in retrospect, but there may have been some sense of the writers including devices subconsciously.

Whatever messages and lessons one chooses to draw from it, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a powerful piece of work.  The exaggerated mannerisms and body language of the acting during the silent film were sometimes strangely suited to the horror genre, as is the monochrome format, obviously.

Another thing to bear in mind is that in those early pioneering days of cinema, film-making was still almost an extension of other visual arts, with many of the defining traits of film yet to emerge, and this imbues this film and others with a distinctive flavour.

I have heard it said that the "twist" ending in some way compromises the impact of the picture, but I personally don't see it that way.  It depends how one views the epilogue section, but I don't feel that it diminishes some of the unsettling and sobering symbolism of the main body of the film.  It also sharpens the other sub-texts, about perception, and the duality of human nature - that there may be a fine line between sanity and insanity, between benevolence and evil or tyranny.

"Cesare", the somnambulist, is one singularly disconcerting and memorable creation, both visually and in a "philosophical" sense.

I'll try not to give too much away, but watch this movie and you will be set thinking. Try not to detect a new layer of meaning in every single frame, and it will still have a strong effect.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Come Taste The Band/Deep Purple Mk IV

The 1975/76 "twilight" period of the original Deep Purple is customarily deemed to be most noteworthy, by many people, for the extracurricular antics of certain band members, and the setbacks which afflicted the group. The Mk IV line-up (signifying the arrival of Tommy Bolin in the line-up) only released one album, Come Taste The Band, in October 1975.

While it is fair to say that the post-1973 output of Deep Purple lacked the eclectic quirkiness and humour of the Mk II line-up, mostly due to the loss of the Gillan/Glover songwriting input, it would be unfair to universally denigrate it as meat-and-potatoes hard rock. Come Taste The Band has a certain energy and intensity about it.

I have heard it said that this is not a "real" Purple album.  This notion possibly stems from the absence of Ritchie Blackmore, and the fact that much of the creative strength on the record comes from David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes and Tommy Bolin, thus bringing about a different sound.

In tone the LP is very much of its time, exuding some of the ennui and hedonism of the mid-Seventies. The active participation of the newer members of the band, and the shrinking input of the Purple "old guard", gives the album its feel, with soul, funk and blues influences more to the fore.

David Coverdale's vocals are agreeably soulful and bluesy in the best bits, with the song "I Need Love" springing to mind in this respect. That song also has a strong R&B component, with a funky interlude in its middle section. "Drifter" has a contemporary, frenetic style, and "Love Child" prefigures later hard rock in some ways.

It is also pleasant to hear Jon Lord's organ actually sounding like a proper organ, and not constantly seeking to imitate guitars. It adds a classy and welcome sheen and texture to several of the tracks here. Ian Paice's drum work is inventive, unorthodox and excellent as always.

"This Time Around/Owed to 'G'" has attracted much comment, and it represents something different in its dreaminess, with some detecting the influence of Stevie Wonder.

Another intriguing number is "Keep On Moving", with its menacing beginning and its harmonies. A strong and atmospheric way to close out the record, and strangely apt when one bears in mind that the band would fold within a matter of months.

Approach this album with an open mind, and it is a surprisingly enjoyable record, especially considering the backdrop to its recording. Some inventiveness and imagination is evident if one looks and listens hard enough.  It might not be the "true" Purple, but it is by no means a bad album.