Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Ultimate Christmas

So, here we are at the end of another year, in the unenviable position of having to dust off those Christmas CDs for their annual outing. So what will be playing at chez Music Obsessive this year whilst the tree is decked and mince pies sizzle? Will it be that famous convicted murderer and his celebrated Christmas Album? Perhaps not.

Nor will it be any of the usual Christmas suspects by The Beach Boys, Maria Carey, The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Elvis et al but something quite different. In fact, despite its humble background this CD has become an established part of the Christmas ritual at our house along with the Christmas morning fizz and evening slump in front of the TV.

It arrived in our house some years ago as a freebie with the daily newspaper and unlike most of its stable mates did not end up in the bin but was rather unexpectedly, played quite a lot. Like most free CDs it can only be described as a right old hotchpotch of songs from artists old and new(ish) but somehow it has a Christmassy charm that has saved it from the fate of others. Perhaps because it does not comprise traditional carols, which are still played in our house, or recent chart pop songs it falls neatly into that area of Christmas nostalgia – the period from the 1940s to the 1960s.

So in amongst the obvious and slightly hackneyed contenders like Bing’s ‘White Christmas’, Perry Como’s ‘Silver Bells’ and Nat King Cole’s ‘Christmas Song’ there are some interestingly irreverent additions like Eartha Kitt’s sultry ‘Santa Baby’. Quite what my children think of this is unclear – clearly they’ve never seen Marilyn Monroe singing it. Another favourite is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ sung with satin-like silkiness by Crystal Gayle.

The only hint of more contemporary fare is given by Dolly Parton’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Paper’, together with Tom Jones and Michael Ball who also get a look in, but overall there is not a hint of Wizzard or the Pogues which, of course, is a huge seasonal blessing. This disc does not pander to in-store browsing pop but harks back to an era when snow decorated every Christmas and families sang around old upright pianos and drank mulled wine whilst breathing in Dad’s pipe tobacco smoke.

It is rather heart-warming to note that these old chestnuts seem to signify Christmas rather than the usual Slade and Band Aid offerings even to my iPod-generation children. Frankly, I’d rather that they take away memories of these songs with them into adulthood than Shakin’ Stevens.

I'm off to take my usual seasonal break from the keyboard, so I'll see you all in the new year.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Your Move

Last week, I attended the London Chess Classic at Earls Court Olympia and followed the four games being played in Round 3 of the 7-Round all-play-all competition as they unfolded live on stage.

This is only the second year that the London Chess Classic has been staged but already it is gaining momentum. This year the players are: the young Norwegian, Magnus Carlson (currently rated the world’s number one), Vishy Anand (the current World Champion), Vladimir Kramnick (the ex-World champion), Hikaru Nakamura (the US number 1) and the top four rated English players (Messrs Adams, Short, McShane and Howell). Quality or what? Play started at 2.00 pm and spectators may remain until all games are complete which can be anything from 2 hours to 7+ hours. And the cost of a ticket? £10.

Where else in the world of sport can a spectator get to see the current and ex-World Champion and the World Number One player for a tenner? It seems that Chess is the last bastion of a time gone by when the average punter could get up close and personal with the elite of sport – and all for a modest cost. I even shared a lift with veteran world title challenger, Victor Korchnoi and held the gents' door open for eventual tournament winner, Magnus Carlson. Only in chess would this happen.

In the early 1990s, I attended a Chess Event in a Park Lane hotel that is now known, rather quaintly, as the Snowdrops v Veterans Match in which a team of young-up-and coming Women players takes on a team of Veterans. The event I attended featured some of the best women players at that time and the vets team included a seventy year old Vasily Smyslov, World Champion I957-58, who eventually won a gruelling 7 hour game. He died earlier this year, aged 89, but I am so glad I was able to witness his success on that day from little more than a few feet away from the board.

The event didn’t start well as the lights failed in the playing area and we were told to go away and come back in an hour when play would start. Taking the lift down to the ground floor, I found myself in the company of half the women’s team including Sofia Polgar and Pia Cramling, two of the best Women players the world has ever seen. What is it about chess players and lifts? Anyway, they sauntered off down Park Lane as if it was the most natural thing in the world – no entourage, no bodyguards.

A year or so later, I found myself browsing the foyer bookstall with Vassily Ivanchuk, the Ukrainian Grandmaster, rated number 5 in the world at that point, during the London Rapidplay competition. I cannot think of any other sport where the world’s top players have such freedom to come and go, usually unrecognised and where the likes of you and I can mingle with them and watch them perform for so little.

Unfortunately money is already raising its ugly head in the Chess world and prize money is increasing. How long before we, the public, lose contact with the players as we have in virtually all other sports?

Friday, 10 December 2010

Pop Charts

A slab of research a while back gleefully revealed that in the year of 2009, ‘pop’ music trounced ‘rock’ and most other forms of music in the singles chart, by a considerable margin. The report cites the success of Lady Gaga and Cheryl Cole and others as proof that ‘pop’ is back in a big way and all traditional rock bands are running for cover. The first question that immediately springs to mind is: who did the labelling?

Music is notoriously difficult to categorise. The music press love to put labels on all music but as far as you all know by now, there are only two types of music; good and bad. However that doesn’t stop the media devising ever more complicated structures of genres and sub-genres with which to box up every known utterance. In truth, pop music never really went away no matter what the media would have you believe and I cannot remember a time when rock music dominated the singles charts. So the second question is not only, is it true, but does it matter?

The singles chart has always been the more frivolous sister to the deadly serious older brother album chart and there is no reason why this should not continue. At its extreme in the late 60s and early 70s the singles chart was cut adrift in an open boat. After all, no rock band worth its salt released singles as it demeaned their serious intent, thus the singles chart was a veritable cauldron of silly songs and one hit wonders. Just don’t get me started on ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’…

Rather ironically, it was the anti-establishment punk bands that broke the stand-off in the mid-70s and rock once again vied for contention with pop and the singles chart reverted to basically what it was designed to be – a barometer of what is popular (but not necessarily any good). But then you did get Top of the Pops and Pan’s People to act as your guide so it wasn’t all bad. As far as I can recall, the singles chart has been that way ever since so quite where all this ‘pop makes a comeback’ nonsense came from is debateable.

Personally, I like a bit of pop me, provided it falls into the ‘good’ category (Gaga, Abba, Madness) and not the bad (Black Lace, Gary Glitter, Dawn) and don’t really care a fig if the serious bands don’t join in.  I wonder what will be the epitaph of 2010?

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Smiths

So here I am, busily writing this blog when I glance at the calendar and…heavens! I’ve been tapping away for over three years now - and I still haven’t got around to The Smiths. So here is a post to redress this appalling oversight.

If ever there was a band that split the music community, it was the Moz and Marr cooperative (Manchester division). On the one hand there was (and still is) a hardcore following of fanatical devotion and on the other, a bevy of critical and equally fanatical Moz-haters with me sort of in the middle ground but with leanings towards the devotees.

Actually, I’ve become more of a fan as the years have gone by but it was only recently whilst I transferred all my Smiths vinyl LPs to MP3 files that I have undertaken a proper retrospective. And the findings have been not quite what I expected. Back in the day, I bought each album as it arrived and rather leaned towards the earlier works like ‘The Smiths’, ‘Hatful of Hollow’ and ‘Meat is Murder’. By the time ‘The Queen is Dead’ arrived my interest was waning and when ‘Strangeways Here We Come’ was released I very nearly ignored it.

Undoubtedly, as a complete body of work, you really can’t fault it. The marriage of Marr’s complex guitar driven melodies and Morrissey’s grimly realistic kitchen sink lyrics is a gift that doesn’t get offered too often. It is simply like no other song writing partnership before or since. Then add in the killer rhythm section of Joyce and Rourke and it’s difficult to see how they could’ve gone wrong.

Listening to the albums again in sequence my initial view that the early stuff is best still holds but only for ‘Hatful of Hollow’ the compilation of BBC sessions, which remains their finest hour by a big margin. The playing, enforced by the live session environment, is tight and crisp and the material exemplary. Funnily enough, I now find the early studio albums a bit bland and have begun to appreciate the later ones more. In particular, ‘Strangeways’, the album that almost didn’t get bought, I now find is very listenable indeed.

So, I’m still a big fan of The Smiths, but not in the same way that I once was. ‘Hatful of Hollow’ is still the album to buy, but where I would’ve pointed newcomers to the early studio albums, I am now going suggest ‘Strangeways’ and possibly ‘The Queen is Dead’. Just don’t ask me again in another ten years as I’ll probably have changed my mind again.

Here's 'William, It Was Really Nothing' which just aches with 80s nostalgia.