great album covers of our time - no 1

years ago i was given a whole lot of stockhausen on vinyl - hymnen, carre, telemusik, stimmung, mixtur - all the hits. in fact there was even a double album called stockhausen's greatest hits. really. but kurzwellen became one of my faves, much to my mum's annoyance.

the instruments are (from the composer's notes) piano, electronium, large tam-tam with microphone, viola with contact microphone, 2 filters with 4 faders, 4 short-wave receivers. and it's a sort of directed improvisation. and it's strong stuff. as is the cover.

by most standards this probably wouldn't qualify as music. as you might expect, it's atonal, peppered with bangs, bleeps, squeals, static and scrapes. and it was a double album. certainly my mum found it utterly repellent and i think, genuinely upsetting that anyone would want to listen to it. i probably slightly enjoyed this reaction.

i remember showing her the cover, in the hope that the picture might convince her that these were serious musicians. they wore suits and looked as though they had washed recently. and they were on deutsche grammophon too. that was a label for proper music, wasn't it?. i think she was actually slightly horrified that karlheinz and chums looked like bank employees rather than the usual bearded, longhaired creepy types to be found lurking on the album covers that usually littered my room.

i loved that cover, because it represented some other world - where people wearing suits and who probably didn't take that many drugs made weird noises for a living. it exuded seriousness - i got the feeling that these guys had devoted their lives to making this alien, harsh, unforgiving music. their world was as foreign and exotic to me as the worlds of haight-ashbury in 1967 or new york in 1977 or chicago in the thirties. and it still is.

ICP Orchestra

ian sent me this, for which i thank him unreservedly. it's fucking brilliant.

in church

a few weeks back i was invited by mr paul may to a session with himself, carolyn hume and charlie beresford. installed in a wee studio at the bottom of carolyn's garden, we generated a couple of hours of improvised music, some of which arrived like fully formed songs. it was good stuff, and the recordings backed that up to the extent that we all got rather excited about it. it felt to everyone involved that we should do more. so last night we did some more, this time in the rather lovely surroundings of St James' church in Weybridge, where paul and carolyn have recorded before. i do rather like churches but have never recorded in one. generally i end up playing in acoustically dead or aesthetically uninspiring places, like most musicians do. and there was something about that church that was sort of unique. it had enough, um, 'churchiness' to give the ambience a certain seriousness and calm yet was kind of welcoming enough to allow us to feel comfortable. and it had a great acoustic - not too cavernous or harsh, but live enough to allow us to exploit the possibilities of the space. man.

as well as singing, playing guitar and providing the odd spot of bamboo mouth organ, charlie is an excellent engineer and we set up pretty quickly, spaced around the choir, altar and pews. it was great to play in such a beautiful acoustic, though our initial positioning meant it was sometimes hard to make out exactly what everyone else was doing. this may have been a plus point as it led to some really poised, delicate stuff. moving closer in allowed us to stretch out a bit. the more we played the more i became aware of what worked in the space, turning the bass away from the mic from time to time to send high bowed squeaks and harmonics towards the back of the church. on the quarter hour, the clock would strike. the bell itself was pretty much inaudible but the muffled rumbles, thumps and strikes of the mechanism could be heard from the tower. as it struck twelve, we were recording a spacious, percussive improv, punctuated by dark piano rumblings. it felt like a special moment.

while we were setting up i took the opportunity to shoot a bit of footage of carolyn and paul warming up. also included is a brief snatch of us exploring the musical possibilities of the humble jam jar lid (another paul may innovation).

charlie will be mixing and editing soon, and i can't wait to hear the results. some of it felt pretty magical, and i think we covered a lot of ground. again, there were things that felt like songs; at other times it was more like morton feldman or one of paul bley's early trios. etc. etc.

note that paul's pose here is a homage to the cover of frank sinatra's nice 'n' easy, while the rest of us are attempting to look like sensitive artists. as charlie noted, we do not look like the kind of people you'd invite to tea.

without the beatles...

one of my favourite alan partridge moments is where he solemnly declares that wings were 'the band the beatles could have been'. we're meant to laugh at alan for getting it hopelessly wrong - opting for paul and linda's cosy platitudes over the beatles' experimentation and lennon's edginess.

of course it was actually paul who chose stockhausen as one of the characters to adorn the sleeve of sgt pepper, while lennon's experimental phase was inspired either by psychedelic drugs or more crucially, yoko. lennon was essentially a rock and roller with the occasional pretension to something else more significant. if you ask me.

which of course, you didn't.

the beatles were on the radio a lot when i was a kid. 'penny lane' was one of those records that i remember hearing that alerted me to the possibility that music was a good thing - that it could for a few minutes, take you somewhere else. i must have been five or so when it came out. but the beatles were never to be part of my musical education. as i grew up to be a music obsessed nerd it was clear that popular music would not have been the same without them, but to this day i don't think i've ever heard all of 'revolver' or the white album. and i don't really feel the need to.

this is possibly due to snobbery. and it's true that many of those things i do love (todd rundgren, for instance) would not have been what they were if it wasn't for those loveable lads from liverpool. but i think partly it was a sense that i wanted to discover things for myself. the beatles were universally accepted as brilliant. their greatness was a fact, as much as these things can be, in the same way that bach, mozart or beethoven were great. they were up there with the mona lisa, van gogh's sunflowers, the sistine chapel or macbeth. unassailably great, important, and impossible to have an unmediated relationship with. i felt that i wanted an intimate relationship with the music i listened to - this didn't seem possible with a group whose every utterance had been pored over, analysed and dissected by everyone on the entire planet. much as i enjoyed dissecting music, i wanted to be able to do it for myself. so todd rundgren or spirit or brian eno or pere ubu or john cale seemed like better choices.

at the age of 15 or so, i bought a copy of the 1967-1970 compilation for my girlfriend julie. julie liked the beatles a lot. her friends were all into the undertones. when we split up so she could become a lesbian, i was awarded custody of the album. i would play it occasionally, mainly for penny lane, but the music felt like it was happening somewhere else, to someone else.

my lack of interest in the beatles puzzles some of my friends who possibly ascribe it to perverse snobbery, and it's always surprised me a little when i find that some of them have a deep knowledge and love of the moptops. though just this morning i discovered that one of my colleagues shares my feelings - he acknowledges that without them, a lot of the things he loves wouldn't exist, but he essentially he doesn't have any interest in them.

today i listened to that blue compilation again. and felt the same things; i knew every note, every funny noise, everything. and yet with a very few exceptions (all by paul, natch) i felt unmoved or unengaged by any of it. i think i might genuinely agree with alan partridge, and not for comedic effect. it's probably a consequence of a weird set of personal circumstance, but 'listen to what the man said'. 'silly love songs' or even 'let 'em in' mean more to me than the entire beatles catalogue put together. with the exception of 'penny lane', of course.

lennon, meanwhile, remained a massive fucking irritant to me, and not in a good way. if i never hear 'imagine' again it will be too soon, or read some fawning mojo, Q or uncut feature on his lost weekend or whatever. still, two things lennon related stand out for me - one was hearing my daughter sing 'merry christmas war is over' at a christmas concert (she was 6 or 7). and i cried buckets, because for once it seemed to actually mean something.

and then there's this, which still gives me the shivers. don't ask me why. i wish it didn't.