Happiness Stan

Happiness Stan

Feb 242012

Great Scotsman!

I fondly imagine that the homes of most Town Folk are filled with music for much of the time, and have been since childhood.

As I have mentioned previously, Mrs Happiness mistrusts as a matter of course any of the music I enjoy, having awoken once too often to the dulcet strains of Trout Mask Replica, Oar, a bootleg tape of Smile, or something by the Incredible String Band while dozing with our eldest still on board as I tested the theory that babies will respond positively once born to music they have heard in the womb.

Consequently, although music plays almost constantly in my head, almost all of my actual listening is through headphones, as is the (electric) piano practice of our first-born. I will occasionally pluck up the courage to strum an electric guitar unamplified as far away from where she sits reading as possible, but mostly we enjoy a house full of silence, punctuated only by the bickering of children and the happy screams of an over-stimulated 5 year old trying to use up the last of his energy before bedtime.

I am quite used to it, having grown up in an environment where music might as well not existed. Mrs H’s dislike of The Rock and All Of Its Doings is nothing compared to the pathological disdain exhibited by my Father towards any music other than the big bands of Glenn Miller or Joe Loss, whose records he still wouldn’t have in the house. It came as a real shock when I discovered a few years ago that he and my Mother met at a weekly dance: I had to go and listen to Trout Mask Replica, Oar, Smile, or something by the Incredible String Band to get over it.

When I was about 4 or 5, he brought home a Radiogram, comprising a high-end-of-the-market record player and a fantastic looking valve radio that lit up when it was switched on but which despite many Dad and Son hours trailing a long aerial made of pink plastic out of the back and through the house in a variety of directions we never actually succeeded in getting it to work. It was a great big piece of furniture as tall as me at the time and wide enough for myself and both of my younger sisters to lay behind end-to-end without any part of us sticking out, and speakers more than adequate to provide cover during games of hide and seek. I was not supposed to touch it, but eventually he gave up trying to stop me as I acquired records of my own and demonstrated vinyl-handling techniques to his satisfaction.

The coming of the Radiogram heralded the arrival of a box-set, or at least a large number of albums encased in an Apple Green vinyl sleeve with gold lettering. Dad would wake up on a Sunday morning, make a cup of tea, repair to the front room and the house would be full of the sound of these records, played at quite startling volume.

I can’t remember exactly how many records there were in the set, although the number 12 seems to have stuck in my memory.

Side one began with a rush of steam, the closing of doors and a whistle, then a slow clanking growing faster, as the Flying Scotsman – brought into service on the 24th February 1923 – set off on its record-breaking journey from London to Edinburgh, a journey of eight hours on the fastest steam train of them all.

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Feb 152012

I’ve just heard on the radio that Dory Previn has died at the age of 86.

Sometime around 1981, having mined the Leonard Cohen canon and on the lookout for something a bit less frivolous, I was delighted when a friend played me Mythical Kings and Iguanas.

I’ve returned to it often ever since. I am possibly in a minority in the Hall in admitting to enjoying confessional singer-songwriters, but that album knocks most other albums of the genre that were being made at the time sideways, a quiet and extremely controlled dissection of a howl of agony which, as the last song winds down, it is quite clear has only just begun. You get the sense that if she allowed herself to let rip at any point she would never get up again. This is, in fact, Lou Reed as he was always meant to sound

I know very little about her life other than that she married Andre Previn, and when he left her for Mia Farrow she had a breakdown and made a short run of albums to exorcise her distress, all of which are worth a listen, although Mythical Kings is the best one to start with for the uninitiated. A glimpse at Wikipedia suggests that the last 3 decades had been happier times for her, and even collaborated with Andre Previn again in 1997. Her last live appearance was in 1988; I wish I had been there.

Jan 252012

Supper's ready!

Tonight is Burns’ Night, the anniversary of Robert Burns‘ birthday, a poet whose work was written in Scots dialect and is largely incomprehensible to anyone reared outside of that beautiful country’s borders. For example, his poem “To A Mouse” begins:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

It is big business north of the border, the culmination of all of the eating and drinking training that has been put in over Christmas and New Year; here in England it is more often than not overlooked unless it is a very slow news day, in which case the telly will be taken over by burly men in kilts explaining why it matters, generally with the benefit of subtitles for the nesh southerners. I am not proud to admit that I know little of the poet’s work, or his life, other than that he died young and that enough wee drams are sunk in his honour to keep the majority of Scottish distilleries in business the whole year round.

Many cultures enjoy a national dish which as soon as they are able to exercise sufficient mental dexterity to poke a nearby animal in the eye with a pencil they are sworn to a solemn promise under pain of losing their place in heaven that they will never admit to any other human being is completely inedible, but which on at least one occasion a year they have to force into their mouths and keep down. These are usually meat-based, and if ever I am faced with them I thank my secular God that I decided to become vegetarian when I left home.

The people of Iceland enjoy the delicacy known as Hakarl, which is shark that has first been buried in sand for 6 to 12 weeks to “ferment” (or “rot” as non-Icelandic people generally describe it), and then dug up again, cut into strips which are hung out to dry for several months. It is washed down with Brennivin, which is schnapps made from potato. A friend and I went to Iceland on holiday many years ago and I have not forgotten the sensation of drinking Brennivin: it is as close to pouring white spirit down ones throat as I ever hope to experience.

On Burns’ Night the people of Scotland enjoy the Haggis, which to a faint-hearted vegetarian like myself appears to be a huge bloated sausage constructed from parts of animals that even Ozzy Osbourne would hesitate to put into his mouth, bulked out with horse food and whatever is left laying about, served with neeps and tatties, which is mashed swede and potato, presumably so that those who are not drunk have something on their plates which they are prepared to eat.

I have found a recipe for a “vegetarian haggis,” which contains ingredients that I not only recognize but would be prepared to put into my mouth, and thought that I would share it…after the jump…with the Hall, in case anyone is stuck for something to cook this evening.

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Dec 222011

I felt a pang of sadness on hearing of the death of Ross MacManus, who left us on either the 24th or 25th November (depending on which obituary you’re looking at). He started out as a jazz trumpeter, sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra in the 1950s and ’60s, was father to Declan, and became something of an institution in the UK thanks to an advertisement for R Whites Lemonade, which ran on British telly for 11 years.

The ad features Ross on vocals and acting, while Declan sings backing vocals, three years before he re-named himself Elvis (along with the surname of one of Ross’ pseudonyms – Day Costello). He repaid the favour by playing trumpet on “Out of Our Idiot” and “Mighty Like a Rose,” while an LP he made in 1972, Elvis Presley’s Golden Hits Sung By Big Ross and the Memphis Sound, was re-released in 2008 under the title of Elvis’s Dad Sings Elvis.

And so, by way of tribute, here is his greatest hit.

Dec 142011

A maths professor entertains:

I spent my formative years wandering about on beaches rearranging the stones and shells into pleasing shapes, going through life moving things about to look nice, enjoying learning how to use words for their sounds rather than their meanings, wearing stupid clothes just to annoy people. One of my best friends grew half a beard on the left-hand side of his face just because we couldn’t think of anyone else who had done so recently. The music I loved (and love) most acts on feeling and emotion, to be funny or sad. There is no requirement for it to make sense lyrically or musically, as long as it sounds more like a painting than a maths exercise. By the time I left school I had such a profound loathing for the English educational system and the regular beatings involved that I had no desire to go to University. If I had I would not have opted for the sciences.

Mrs Happiness, on the other hand, has a degree in Theoretical Physics, and we met while she was studying for an MBA, which seemed to be trying to apply mathematical logic to the science of shopping. She doesn’t like music much, taking particular exception to most of the music I like, (and especially – as I have mentioned on previous occasions – Frank Sidebottom), although she has been known to listen to Queen for pleasure, claims to have listened to Yes on occasion, and prior to meeting me the only gig she had been to was a vast outdoor thing to look at someone who might have been Jean-Michel Jarre in the far, far distance. I have often wondered whether astronomer Brian May’s playing speaks to her very logical mind, enabling her to recognise something going on his playing which I’m missing – because goodness knows I’ve never been able to work out where Queen were coming from. John Deacon has a BSc in electronics, Roger Taylor a BSc Honours in biology. Freddie did art, but for the sake of this argument may be considered the exception that proves the rule.

One of my oldest and dearest and artiest friends married a lady who went on to get a PhD in Psychology, and one of the things she and Mrs H particularly enjoy talking about, especially when we are in earshot, is their pathological disdain for Trout Mask Replica. Or any music that either of their husbands enjoy.

Google doesn’t seem to want to yield which subjects Thomas Dolby studied, and Eno may look the part but is educationally as arty as they come. Mira Aroyo of Ladytron has a PhD in Genetics, but otherwise musical scientists seem fairly thin on the ground.

Does anyone know of any other musicians with actual science qualifications who might provide a bridge across this familial divide? And would scientific debate be more interesting in the long run if the Higgs-Boson particle is proved not to exist?

Dec 022011

A few months back I was trawling the net for something to take the edge off the pointy bits of life and stumbled, after nearly a quarter-century of looking, upon someone’s vinyl rip of Frank Sidebottom Salutes The Magic of Freddie Mercury and Queen and Also Kylie Minogue (You Know, Her off Neighbours). I tried to make the family listen to it while we were driving around Wales in the summer, the kids loved it, but Mrs H had views. This song was re-released as a single last Christmas, and reached number 66 in the UK charts. I am fairly confident that it will divide opinion in the Hall, indeed I would be keen to learn whether anyone present will join me in its defence.

Frank Sidebottom was the alter-ego of Chris Sievey, who started his musical career in The Freshies, and moved on to find precious little fame and even less fortune while trying to change the world by wearing an enormous papier mache head and singing his own compositions and idiosyncratic cover versions to the accompaniment of a rinky-tink Casio keyboard in a northern nasal whine.

His persona was that of a rather insular and naive teenager, trying to play music and record in his bedroom or shed while trying not to attract the attention of his Mum, with interruptions and occasional assistance from his ventriloquist puppet Little Frank, comprising a smaller papier mache head and a body cut out of a cardboard box, with neither of them able to move their mouths. Life mainly revolved around his home village of Timperley, and was either “fantastic” or “bobbins” (bobbins of cotton = rotten).

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Nov 242011

I love this record, adore it, I want it played at my funeral and I want to be alive during my funeral so I can hear it just one last time. Whenever I hear it I then have to play it another three or four times just to bask in the llveliness of it. I want to line up everyone who bought “Need You Tonight” by INXS in 1988 and demand to know why they didn’t buy this instead.

It is such a gorgeous song that I want to buy everything that The Mekons have ever recorded, and all of Sally Timms’ solo records, and follow them on tour just in case they play it. Here’s where it all falls down, though – I’ve heard almost all of their other records and they do nothing for me at all, leave me stone cold. For over thirty years.

By way of a reversal of the “one rubbish track on a great album” debate: Which band or artist (who have released at least two albums) would be completely without interest if it wasn’t for just one song which gives you a nice sunny feeling inside whenever you hear it and vindicates an otherwise not very interesting career?


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