Why I’ve a problem with “No problem!”

 

OK, here comes this year’s silly season, apropos nothing, totally off-the-wall post.

Fly in the soup

At a restaurant not long ago, my friend and I were served by a waitress who was both able and pleasant.  The only fly in the soup was that in response to everything – and I do mean everything – we said or even in response to nothing at all, she would say “No problem!”

“Do you have a table please?“ – “No problem!”
“That’s great, thanks” (upon being shown to our table) – “No problem!”
“Thank you” (for setting the table) – “No problem!”
“Ah, we haven’t quite decided yet…” – “No problem!”

And so it went on.  Each course arrived “No problem!” as did the wine and tap water and I think she might even have said “No problem!” as we exited through the doors.

Pat little phrase

Anything repeated ad nauseum becomes annoying but hearing this pat little phrase perhaps two dozen times (well it felt like it) over two hours brought home how it’s become the de rigeur, catch all response of our times.

Every era has one.  Which swinging 60s film has the young female lead repeating a bemused, bedazzled “Super!”?  Then there’s the hippy era’s “Groovy!” even if perhaps mostly in mythology.

Ours is not ‘Perfect!’ as proposed by a New Statesman columnist recently but this problematic little proposition.

Problem solving

So why do I have a problem with no problem?  Because why would there be a problem?  We were in a restaurant doing what people do, following the etiquette, enjoying our food, paying the bill, leaving a tip and the waitress was doing her job.  Why would we need multiple, ongoing confirmations that there isn’t a problem?

I suppose it’s trying to say “Nothing is too much trouble” except I don’t hear it like that.  “No problem!” is like the lesser relative of EastEnders’ bully boy Phil Mitchell’s “You got a problem?”  The phrase comes tainted with latent aggression.  It implies that the graciousness of declaring all is well is entirely the prerogative of the no-problemer.  It takes back power, is designed to induce unease.  It’s saying: I don’t have a problem with you right now, but If that changes you’ll soon know about it.

So please may we dispense with this robotic, passively aggressive patois?

How about adopting the charming and embracing “Prego!” (“You’re welcome!”) of Italian restaurants?  I’d have no problem with that.

The Songs of Scott Walker review

 

The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70), [Prom 15, Royal Albert Hall London, Tuesday 25th July 10.15pm, tx. Friday 28th July, 10.00-11.25pm, BBC Four] celebrated Scott Walker’s four plus one solo albums from the late 60s through interpretations by Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Richard Hawley and Susanne Sundfør.  This review is of Friday night’s broadcast.

In an interview shortly before the concert, Walker urged the performers to ‘make it as new as you can’.  In the event, a largely respectful tone was taken.  Perhaps the clue was in the so called Heritage Orchestra.

Not quite copyists

A copyist approach could be justified as it allowed us to hear for the first time live, material which had hitherto been restricted to vinyl as Scott never promoted Scott 1-4 through concerts and tours in the late 60s.

Karaoke was avoided by allowing the individual tones and textures of the artists to inform and occasionally uplift the songs.  So we had Jarvis Cocker’s husky hesitancy, Richard Hawley’s benevolent burr, John Grant’s faultless efficiency and something altogether idiosyncratic and more interesting from Susanne Sundfør.  On The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, she led the orchestra on the evening’s best performance, stronger than her stripped down On Your Own Again which got all the attention.

Unassailable beauty

Scott 1-4 is virtually unassailable in its beauty which presents a problem for any artist attempting a cover.  How can you better Scott’s Boy Child or It’s Raining Today?  You can’t, but you can show the depths of your appreciation by paying tribute.  I didn’t hear anything on Friday night to challenge the supremacy of the originals.  The interpretations tended towards friendly fare or hushed after-dinner devotions (this was a late night prom).

Nobody could doubt Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley’s sincerity but Scott’s classical precision and nuanced delivery were missing – and missed.  It’s these formal qualities of economy and attention to every detail along with the scrupulous thoughtfulness of the orchestration which, on vinyl, lifts already extraordinary material to the greatest heights.

Subtle discipline

When you mention Scott 1-4, everyone gushes about lush romanticism but isn’t it the discipline and subtlety of the albums which marks them out?  I’d like to hear a Scott 1-4 selection performed by top, contemporary, classically trained vocalists perhaps accompanied by a chamber ensemble.

This is an approach which might have worked – actively acknowledging the classicism of the source material, its erudition, its refinement.

Compromised poise

On occasions, the Heritage Orchestra under Jules Buckley compromised poise, as if wanting to rush through the songs, not quite allowing them room to fully breathe.  Subtle phrasing, pregnant pauses, an almost imperceptible ebb and flow were flattened slightly.

These interpretations sailed too close to the originals and thereby highlighted their own shortcomings.  ‘Make it as new as you can’ might have meant the cracking whips and pounding meat of Scott’s later works like The Drift and Bish Bosch an approach which, although harder on the ears, would have obliterated comparisons.


The covers:
Jarvis Cocker: Boy Child, Plastic Palace People, The War is Over (Sleepers), Little Things (That Keep Us Together).

Susanne Sundfor: On Your Own Again, Angels of Ashes, The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, Hero of the War.

John Grant: Rosemary, The World’s Strongest Man, Copenhagen, The Seventh Seal.

Richard Hawley: It’s Raining Today, Two Ragged Soldiers, Montague Terrace (in Blue), The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinest Regime).

Bee Gees 1st

The brothers were lucky when they came to England from Australia in early 1967.  Not only was London in full swing but pop was taking on a range of new and exotic influences from medieval minstrelsy to mellotrons, ragas to Victoriana.

Much of this found its way into the Bee Gees’ music.  That was nothing unusual, it was what a lot of bands were doing at the time – absorbing, adapting and adapting again.  But when these influences combined with the brothers’ distinctive harmonising talents – honed over a decade of performing live – and their solidly melodic songwriting, the results were amongst the most solid yet engaging of the psychedelic pop genre.

Bee Gees 1st marked the beginning of a sustained campaign which kept the brothers’ Gibb in the charts throughout the remainder of the 60s, consistently balancing discipline with flair, accessibility with a desire to grow and change.

Ear to the zeitgeist

Some would say 1st is the Bee Gees’ strongest album and it’s not hard to hear why.  Their ear-to-the-zeitgeist is evident everywhere: the Edwardian toytown pop of Turn of the Century, the fairytale swirl of Red Chair, Fade Away and the bendy monastic weirdness of Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You.  As the 60s progress, the psychedelic trimmings gradually fall by the wayside but here they’re in full flight and put across with a confidence and, as always, terrific melodic ease.

They play with structure too, not just for the sake of it, but in a way which shows genuine musical understanding: listen to Robin’s sudden operatic digression taking Close Another Door to a whole other level and psychedelia triumphing over pop to bring an inventive fade to I Close My Eyes.

Startling soulfulness

And then there’s their soulfulness.  It’s startling just how fully formed were the brothers’ soul credentials even at this early stage and indeed soul forms the often underappreciated alternative arm of Bee Gees 1st.  There is incredible emotion in Robin’s vocals for I Can’t See Nobody – and that’s before you even get to Nina Simone’s cover.  And how To Love Somebody was so undervalued at the time is a mystery: what an utterly consummate pop ballad.

Interestingly, the album’s programming accentuates the psychedelia soul division with all the baroque pop/psychedelic tracks (Cucumber Castle apart) placed on side one and side two showing a definite leaning towards soul as well as a greater group feel.

Folk, Beatlesque pop art, cute whimsy, medieval psychedelic drones, soul ballads – beneath the genre hopping and sometime Craise Finton cheekiness these brothers simply write great pop music.

Bee Gees 1st sets out their stall and proves that they are songwriters to watch and be reckoned with.


Bee Gees 1st

Side 1
Turn of the Century 
Holiday
Red Chair, Fade Away
One Minute Woman
In My Own Time
Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You
Craise Finton Kirk Royal Academy of Arts

Side 2
New York Mining Disaster 1941

Cucumber Castle
To Love Somebody
I Close My Eyes
I Can’t See Nobody
Please Read Me
Close Another Door


1967 Singles 

New York Mining Disaster 1941
I Can’t See Nobody

To Love Somebody
Close Another Door

Holiday
Every Christian Lionhearted Man Will Show You

Massachusetts
Barker of the UFO

World
Sir Geoffrey Saved the World


1967 unreleased 

Gilbert Green*
House of Lords* 
I’ve Got to Learn*
All Around My Clock*
Mr Waller’s Wailing Wall*

* released on Bee Gees 1st  Rhino reissue, 2006


1967 Other artists

Adam Faith – Cowman Milk Your Cow


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page
 

Bee Gees: final Words

After more than three years, seventy plus posts and a countdown of my fifty favourite tracks, I feel I’ve said most, but not quite all, of what I want to say on the Bee Gees.

I may post some stats on which albums fare best in the Top 50 but before reaching that possible pinnacle of geekiness there remain album overviews.

So we begin next Friday with Bee Gees 1st

Cuisenaire rods

I vividly remember these ‘mathematics learning aids for students’ at primary school.  This would have been at the very start of the 70s when Cuisenaire rods were at the height of their popularity.

Until quite recently I’d assumed they were called ‘quizinaire’ having never seen the word written down and only rarely spoken.  They were always simply ‘the coloured rods’ which lived in the bright red plastic drawers at the front of the classroom.

The ten rods measured 1cm to 10cm with each increment represented by a different colour:

White 1cm
Red 2 cm
Light green 3cm
Pink 4cm
Yellow 5cm
Dark green 6cm
Black 7cm
Brown 8cm
Blue 9cm
Orange 10cm

The rods were the invention of Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire in the early 50s.  Cuisenaire found that pupils who had difficulty with maths taught by traditional methods learned quickly when they manipulated the rods.  Child centred learning emphasised learning by play and Cuisenaire rods were a central part of the new ethos.

Magpie maths

In truth, my magpie instinct was more drawn to the colour element than the gradations in size.  I linked each numerical height with its colour so strongly that yellow was 5 and orange was 10.  The conflation held its own secret fascination.

I deduced that what the shorter rods lacked in height they made up for in brightness of hue as if each rod were granted an equality in power, balancing height with intensity of colour.  But why was red two and pink four and not the other way round?  Could there be a hidden significance to the order?

I might like to think all of this was some kind of synaesthesia but it was more likely an early manifestation of OCD or an autistic tendency.  Colours and car registration letters, numbers on front doors, the colours of clothes worn by particular people on particular days of the week quickly followed.

Unfortunately my appreciation of the rods failed to translate into lasting mathematical ability.  I obtained an ‘unclassified’ in my O level, the lowest possible grade (not proud of it in a “I’m hopeless at maths!” kind of way, just saying).

Tables or rods?

Child centred learning was central at my primary school.
Certainly in our earlier years, the emphasis was more on discovery not instruction, peer group learning rather than whole class teaching.

I even remember one teacher, straight out of training college, asking her class – did we want to do sums or painting?  Painting always won out so maths was neglected until at the age of ten I had a crash course in learning my times tables.  The class chanted them and my mother made me say them out loud or would suddenly demand over morning’s Golden Nuggets “What are twelve fours?”

But perhaps it was too little too late.

Seeing and doing

Still available but far less popular today, Cuisenaire rods now come in plastic which seems unimaginable as the woody feel and smell of them was very much a part of their appeal.  Rod No 4, the pink one, is now, for some reason, purple.

The most enjoyable thing to do with the set was – and still is – to build a pyramid.

Starting with the orange 10s, use four rods of each colour to form an overlapping square, working your way up through the blues, browns and blacks until you end up with a tight square of four white 1s on top.

Like this:

Cuisenaire company


PlayPlax
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

PlayPlax

I recently rediscovered my PlayPlax set, looking as bright and modern as it did nearly 50 years ago, minus only two squares of the original forty-eight.

PlayPlax (rather pedantically, I thought it should be PlayPacks as a child) was invented by Patrick Rylands in 1966 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.

Ryland’s ‘spatial construction game’ consists of 48 brightly coloured plastic squares in red, blue, green, yellow and transparent.  An incision on each side allows them to be fixed together to form myriad, interlocking abstract shapes or architectural structures.  The Montreal Convention Centre is a real PlayPlax building.

Rylands became chief designer at Ambi Toys and PlayPlax a staple of children’s play during the late 60s through to the 80s with over a million packs sold.

Plastic fantastic

I used to spend many happy hours with PlayPlax, sometimes simply revelling in the bright colours.

The structures I made were part abstract imaginary, part versions of real-life buildings rendered bright, open, transparent and looking even more fantastic if the sun cast stained plastic reflections over the bedroom carpet.

I thought of my buildings as kinds of churches.  They bore no resemblance to a traditional spire and steeple church yet felt inspirational, hallowed in a very modern kind of way.  They would probably be urban art galleries now.

Six years ago, the original PlayPlax was reissued, no doubt with baby boomers in mind, using the same dyes and even manufactured in the same factory as back in the 60s.

I am sure I have seen a circular/cylindrical version in the intervening years but it’s the squares which have stood the test of time.


 
PlayPlax company
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands
 


Cuisenaire rods
Growing up with Lego
Moving house
 

Not just a Casual affair

I surprised myself a little in writing no less than eight posts on The Casuals who, by any stretch of the imagination, were a minor pop group of their time and no more than a one hit wonder to a majority of the public who might have heard of them at all.

Casuals

When I started lightspots, I said I would try to avoid reproducing information available elsewhere – discographies, biographies, reeling off a band’s career.  But for The Casuals, to fill in some of that background has felt necessary as it appeared to be barely out there.  What existed was widely scattered and tended to be brief, focusing on their ‘one hit wonder’ status.

I hope something of my appreciation of the band has emerged through what were fairly straight and narrow biographical posts.  But writing them has made me think further about why The Casuals hold a particular appeal for me.

Two aspects spring immediately to mind – the abiding quality (and qualities) of their big hit and the underappreciated elegance of John Tebb’s unique voice.  But there’s more.

Making arrangements

I’m also interested in the role of these 60s arrangers whose talents often seem severely undervalued.  It’s as if the arrangements are regarded as unfortunate necessities for young bands signed to major labels who had to endure their creations being ‘dressed-up’ for commercial success by older, more conservative record company stalwarts.  Well that was how it might have seemed at the time and to rock cognoscenti subsequently whereas by and large, I find the arrangers add a great deal of expertise, colour and interest, taking the music to another level of sophistication rather than reducing it down or blanding it out.

It makes more sense to hear these bands in the round – as an amalgamation of the talents of performers, composers, arrangers and producers rather than focusing only on the frontmen.

There is something I find quite endearing about young groups being nurtured by the talents of a largely older generation who were themselves informed by earlier and other traditions: big band, orchestral, jazz, classical and so called easy listening to name but a few (George Martin obviously springs to mind here).  That collision of the old with the new – psychedelia, rock, experimentalism – produced something rare and unique to the mid-late 60s with everybody benefitting from the cross fertilisation.  I think the ‘old’ was as essential to the ‘new’ in the mix although it tends to be the new which gets the attention.

But there are other aspects of bands like The Casuals which appeal, more personal ones, perhaps, which are harder to pin down but which have quietly crystallised as I’ve written these posts.  Now I’d like to say something about these too.

English modesty

There is sometimes a sense when listening to pop of imagining yourself as part of the band.  Sometimes this might be subtle or what you might call ‘psychic’ – feeling an intense part of the music simply by being a listener or a fan – sometimes it’s much more overt – identifying with particular band members, or relating to a group’s ethos or sympathising with the scene they represent.  I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a rock god (which is perhaps just as well as I was never going to be one).  I don’t much relate to the macho, muscularity of that nor of wanting to hog the limelight.  But I think I can imagine what it might have felt like to be a Casual – part of a working band from the provinces, hoping for that elusive breakthrough hit.  Yes, it’s a  fleeting fantasy of being in a POP group at that time, the comraderie in music, being on a shared quest.  The excitement yet modesty of it appeals.

I feel it in a closer way still with groups such as Honeybus who wrote all their own material but, like The Casuals never made it big. Their lack of grandeur or spectacular success beyond the one hit seems curiously English – defining them as unassuming though they never intended it to be like this of course.  Pete Dello’s  diffidence probably played a part in crashing the band’s career.  Still, I find these qualities immensely appealing and a huge loss once they slipped out of music during the Americanisation of the 70s before being effectively demolished under the weight of international stadium rock in the 80s.

Experimenting with the mainstream

The Casuals’ music may not be the most ambitious and yet it provides an ideal example of how ideas from outside the mainstream come to influence that mainstream and why this is so redolent of the 60s.  The Beatles exemplified this.  The Casuals highly arranged, orchestrated pop sound with its sometime nods to a flower power/psychedelic sensibility would not have been possible two years before and was already cut adrift two years later. The narrowness of this window gives their music an added poignancy.

There is a sense too that because music has moved on so much since then, music which at the time simply did not qualify as ‘artistic’ has acquired a certain piquancy or even potency.  Nothing sounds remotely like it today and we simply don’t have the means – the backgrounds of the arrangers, the jobbing nature of the touring band playing in a myriad small venues, that unadulterated style of smooth ballad singing, the ability to distil something in song primarily through melody – to capture that sound anymore even if we wanted to.

Here come the nice

Another thing which fascinates me about The Casuals’ music is that it is a refinement of quintessential pop in 1968.  The Herd were perhaps its trendy embodiment but The Casuals offered something less modish, less gimmicky, friendlier (‘you’re really too kind’).  Their songs are often characterised by a courtly quality, a niceness, a kind of politeness so that when they do kick-ass (Seven Times Seven) they do so within parameters which are fundamentally pleasant!  To some this might seem like damning with faint praise but I believe that there is room for music which isn’t necessarily utterly outré, world changing, in your face, ‘out there’, banging – and that that music can be appreciated for its particular virtues just as can any other.  It need not be bland, boring or disposable but charming, delightful, understated.

Although I don’t recall hearing The Casuals at the time (being only four in 1968), there is something in their music (as with The Family Dogg) which powerfully takes me back to the late 60s/very early 70s, as if it was in the air when I was a child – the sunshine brass, blissed out harmonies, that ‘honey and buttercups’ vibe.  The Casuals‘ juvenilia themes intensifies this, as if their music describes both my childhood – Toyland, Daddy’s Song – but then also what it might have felt like to have been a teenager in 1968 – I’m thinking Here we Go Round the Mulberry Bush – with fare such as Fool’s Paradise, Sunflower Eyes and even Toy.

Songwriting

I have tried my hand at songwriting and from time to time have borrowed some of the feel of songs like Toyland and Letter Every Month without consciously trying to do so, let alone emulate them.  I just find it’s there as a part of me – the desire to write a three minute, melodic pop song which is modest but in its own way hopefully eloquent, crafted, going beyond guitar, bass and drums – a kind of 1969 Casuals’ single in other words.

I might even post some of these songs up one day…

 


Posts on The Casuals

The Casuals: beyond Jesamine
The Casuals: before Jesamine: 1961- mid 1968
Jesamine Part 1

Jesamine Part 2
When Jesamine Goes: Singles 1968/69
Hour World 1969
With Jesamine Gone: 1970-76