Monday, May 17, 2010

Pan's People are in noisy chainmail and all is right with the world

In my previous post, on the subject of Freddie and the Dreamers, I pointed out how in the clip of them performing Do the Freddie it was an especial treat to hear Garrity's feet banging on the wooden boards of the studio, something you rarely get to enjoy in the more professionally sound-recorded tv of today.
Well in just the few minutes that have elapsed since the piece went live I have been inundated with emails, and even one postcard - very quick work, there, Mr C. of Wolverhampton - from readers who share my love of this lost joy of the 'let's just have one big microphone and point it roughly in the direction the noise is coming from' age.
And all are agreed that the all-time classic example is the performance by Pan's People, from an early episode of The Two Ronnies, that you can enjoy at the end of this post.
As you'll see, the girls are all done up with long braids of chain-mail, and all the time, above the track, you can hear this constant swishing and rattling, almost hypnotic in its distracting intensity. And I think, although I can't swear to it, there's also the sound of their boots scraping on the floor to be enjoyed somewhere in the mix too.

Incidentally, were Pan's People supposed to dance completely out of time with both the music and each other, and not do very much anyway, as if conceding that the reason we are watching them has nothing whatever to do with what they are ostensibly doing? Because my girlfriend was wondering.

"Pan's People have a particular attraction for me..."
I don't know what it is, all I know is whenever I see them I have to go out and steal tape.
You and me both, Keith. One minute I'm watching them cavorting on The Two Ronnies, the next the clock has mysteriously jumped forward one hour and I'm waking up in the middle of the room clutching an Asda bag and surrounded by unopened rolls of sellotape. My girlfriend is starting to ask where they keep coming from and, let me tell you, I'm running out of excuses. There's only so many things you can tape to other things in an average-sized flat without it starting to get obvious that you're just looking for things to tape together, just so you can use up some of the damned stuff.
If Keith Jackson is still out there and reading this, please get in touch. A problem shared is a problem halved, after all.
More on Pan's People can be located here, but for now, on with the show.
You may want to put a sheet over the budgie's cage first.

Anybody want anything sellotaping?

Do the Freddie

I don't get nostalgic about pop music by and large. In fact I hate most of it.
Like the movies, pop music obviously goes into decline around the time of the Second World War, and the sound of Elvis Presley is the sound of nails being hammered into the genre's coffin. And don't get me started on the Beatles.
Actually do. When are people going to grow up and see these amateur twang merchants for what they are? They sounded bad enough at the time. Now they don't sound like anything at all; just a vaguely perceptible noise that seems to be coming through the wall from the house next door.
I left a comment on somebody's site a week or so back about the Marx Brothers' film Duck Soup, explaining that though it is one of my least favourite Marx films, it's still a Marx film, and therefore I still enjoy it more than almost anything else in the universe, just not as much as most other Marx films. And the guy said, yeah, it's like Beatles songs: you have to look a long time before you find a bad one.
Oh, I don't know. There's Yesterday, for example, and that one about needing love. (There's nothing you can do that can't be done... So true.) There were a dozen or so on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band last time I heard it, including a real doozy called A Day in the Life. Still gives me a chuckle just thinking about it. Is John Lennon a genius? No. He's an ass. How profound are the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby? Answer: not at all. They're like a schoolboy wrote them.
Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. There are exceptions to every rule, and for some reason I must confess to an affection bordering on adoration for Freddie and the Dreamers. The late Freddie Garrity was one of the great oddballs of British culture, as well as one of its most refreshingly unpretentious. A friend of mine remembered his father, who worked with Freddie in the sixties, describing him as "an amiable former milkman from Manchester who couldn't quite believe the amount of sex he was suddenly getting." (One of the rules of being a pop star, I always think, is that you must never be pretentious, as you are making a great living doing one of the silliest, most trivial and least important things imaginable. Bob Dylan! Goodness me.)
Obviously, I love Freddie's stage presence, all that silly leaping around, and the man looks amazing with his big specs and curly hair: that much is obvious. But I also have a genuine affection for most of their songs. Some of the most interesting are to be found among their last, dating from that period of frantic activity when those big booby Beatles made pop even sillier by suddenly pretending to go all serious about it. Freddie and the boys obviously could never go po-facedly into the experimental age: their image forbade it. So instead, they briefly - all too briefly - took the Kinks route by way of Bonzos Avenue, and produced one of the greatest singles of all time: the fantastic Brown and Porters (Meat Exporters) Lorry, a song about which everything is perfect, from the title on.
Sadly, no film of them performing it seems to exist; it's odds-on they never got the chance to perform it again after the first recording. Their last single that had got anywhere near charting was Thou Shalt Not Steal, which reached the dizzy height of number 44 in 1965; Brown and Porters, in 1967, was their fifth in a row to not chart at all.
Freddie revived the Dreamers as a cabaret act in the nineties, though I'll bet nobody was shouting for Brown and Porters come encore time. I would have been, though. Now it's too late.
But here they all are again, with Garrity in exceptionally foolish form even by the man's own high standards, doing the Freddie in 1965. As well as great in itself, it's a lovely example of something you don't get with music acts on tv these days: the clearly audible sound of their feet banging on the stage.
Imagine no John Lennon. It's easy if you try.

Monday, May 10, 2010

No sadder sight

I’ve been finding out about pigeons.

Did you know that the feral pigeon is in fact the descendant of domesticated rock doves?
Or that they have 37 taste buds (as opposed to our 10000)?
Or that they cannot take a continuous drink from a pool of water, but must instead take small sips and tilt their heads back to swallow?

Actually, the urban pigeon has always struck me as the saddest thing in the world. Now, tragedy is presumably in the eye of the beholder. Things that seem tragic and sad to me may be hilarious to you - indeed, if you work for BBC Light Entertainment it’s virtually a dead cert.
But there is a case to be made for the proposition that, correctly understood, the pigeon shuffling its way through life is a sadder sight than almost anything: sadder even than the sight of Ronnie Corbett appearing on Little Britain. The lot of the pigeon is, I think, the ultimate symbol of the essential futility of existence, which is not a compliment I throw about lightly.

For some reason, the aesthetic joy almost everybody takes in birds stops short at the pigeon. True, they do not sing, though their cooing is far from unendearing. Neither are they beautifully marked, though their dappled grey giving way to green around the necks and piercing orange eyes are far from ugly. They waddle rather appealingly like ducks, their heads in constant absurd motion like chickens. Yet we seem to loathe them.

At least until a few years ago, and probably still, London’s Victoria Coach Station (which lines its every level surface with spikes in the hope that lost souls waiting in vain for the arrival of a coach that runs for longer than fifteen minutes without falling over might be diverted by the sight of birds impaling themselves) ran an endlessly looped tape message, warning that pigeons are “a potentially fatal health hazard”.
You could try writing to them to ask for the exact number of pigeon-related fatalities in England and Wales over the last century or so. Or you can just take my word that the answer is none and they won’t bother to reply anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of this commotion is a polystyrene tray containing three chips and half a kebab

“They’re rats with wings!” people say, a comment which isn’t true, wasn’t funny even the first few hundred times you heard it, and presupposes a shared low opinion of rats that finds no echo in my soul, I’m afraid. Rats are sensitive and charming mammals, as intelligent as dogs, and if they were kept solely as pets while dogs were allowed to breed freely in sewers and rubbish tips people would call pigeons ‘dogs with wings’ and it would be, if anything, an even stupider thing to say.
What pigeons and rats do have in common is that they more than any other animals have done the seemingly impossible: successfully carved a niche for themselves in the howling grey concrete and steel wilderness of human cities. Both profit from human wastefulness and are then blamed for their success. Their eat-anything policy pays off in all realms other than the aesthetic.
But the rat is secretive, flees from human contact and tries to avoid drawing conspicuous attention to itself. Pigeons by contrast are everywhere all the time, and their strategy for avoiding danger, according to one authoritative website I have consulted, is “keeping still and trying not to be noticed”.
Despite the manifest failure of this plan, they persist in stumbling about the streets, pecking at discarded cigarette ends, their feet often deformed, or missing, or trailing lengths of nylon wire, their lifespan a three to five-year cycle of being born, causing others to be born, eating crap off the pavement and dying – with never a second’s rest, peace or pleasure.
Yet in captivity they can live anything between fifteen and thirty-five years. So I just want to get hold of one of them and say: What are you DOING? You could live ANYWHERE! According to this website here you are excellent fliers and can reach speeds of 50 mph – so what’s with all this walking? If you can outmanoeuvre almost any bird of prey in the air, as once again the internet assures me is the case, why hang around on the ground where you can't even get out of the way when there's a truck coming? Why not fly to the woods, or the seaside, and rediscover the taste of wholesome insects and berries? You’ve got wings! USE THEM!
But do they? No they do not.

See - you can do it!

Far from inviting our derision and contempt, the lives of the pigeons should speak to us as deeply and profoundly as the lives of the poets. (More so, actually: when was the last time you saw a poet crushed under the wheels of a bus? As opposed to merely wanting to, I mean.)

I think we hate pigeons because we look at them and see ourselves.
They have freedom all around them, yet they choose enslavement. They could have beauty, and they choose ugliness. Theirs is the skies, but they choose the pavement. They have access to a world without limits, and they choose confinement. All for the sole and dubious advantage of comparatively easy pickings. And when those pickings take the form of human vomit that’s about as dubious as advantages get, I don't care how few taste buds they've got.
And yet that’s the point, isn’t it? They don’t choose. They don’t know they live lives of uniquely unnatural horror. They don’t know that if you don’t like your life you can change it. (H G Wells, to them, was just one more moving target.) They think the world they have is all there is.
That is their small tragedy: how much greater the tragedy, then, to know exactly what we are forfeiting, as we do, and still opt for the narrow, the easy, and the tenth-rate. Willingly eating vomit pales beside this insanity.

I’d hate for you to think that all I’ve been doing is finding out about pigeons. Here’s some of the other great stuff I’ve discovered this morning:

The copyright on the song “Happy Birthday To You” expired last year.

A man called Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby in 1939 that does not feature a single use of the letter e, and he died on the day it was published.

Pot Noodles have been around since 1977 and are made in the Welsh town of Crumlin to the tune of 155 million pots a year.