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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Alan Sillitoe 1928-2010: Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not/Arctic Monkeys, and more

Writer Alan Sillitoe died today at the age of 82.  Although he considered himself primarily a poet, Sillitoe also produced novels, short stories, screenplays, stage plays, and children's books.  He is best remembered for his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, published in 1958, and his 1959 short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Both of these works have inspired popular music.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, about a hard-drinking, womanizing British factory worker, captured the frustrations of the working class in post-War Britain and helped get Sillitoe lumped into the "angry young man" school of British writers, a label Sillitoe resisted. The book, and the 1960 film version starring Albert Finney, had a major influence on Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, the debut album  by the Arctic Monkeys, released in 2006. The album's title comes from a line in the book, when the protagonist Arthur Seaton thinks to himself: "I'm me and nobody else, and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me."  Alex Turner, the primary songwriter for the band, told the British tabloid The Sun: "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is what the album is about," adding that "songs including The View From The Afternoon, Dancing Shoes, Still Take You Home , and From The Ritz To The Rubble all cover that bit of the weekend and feature the same character" [via Yahoo! Music News].

In The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Sillitoe portrays Colin, a rebellious working-class youth who is sent to Ruxton Towers, a prison school for delinquents.  A talented distance runner, Colin is offered the chance of early release if he will represent the school in a cross-country race.  In the end, Colin--well ahead of the pack and certain to win--deliberately stops short of the finish line as an act of defiance against the authority figures he detests.  The story inspired Iron Maiden's song The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, from their 1986 album Somewhere in Time: You reach the final stretch/Ideals are just a trace/You feel like throwing the race/It's all so futile.  Sillitoe's story also influenced the Belle and Sebastian song The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner, from their 2005 album Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, particularly the lines: Have you seen The Loneliness of A Middle Distance Runner?/When he stops the race and looks around. Sillitoe's story also provides the title for recordings by Belinda Gillett, Gunnar Mossblad, and the Angelic Upstarts, as well as for albums by saxophonist Dave Liebman and the band The Lost Society.  In addition, the school in the story provided the name for the band Ruxton Towers.  Also noteworthy:  A video by internet musician Jacob Ruefer for his song Not Too Late, which features clips from the 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner--including the story's climax.

As for Alan Sillitoe's own musical preferences?  Last year when he appeared on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs, Sillitoe provided this list of recordings he'd want to have with him if he were a castaway:

Mack The Knife, Bobby Darin

Ol' Man River, Paul Robeson

The Battle of Agincourt, Sir Henry Walton (from the 1946 film Henry V)

"Seventeen Come Sunday," Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley

Le Ca Ira, Édith Piaf

"Let's Slip Away," Cleo Laine

Chopin: Prelude in D flat major "The Raindrop," Arthur Rubinstein

Where'er You Walk, from Handel's Semele, Bryn Terfel

Monday, April 19, 2010

Odes to Literary Volcanoes: The Consul at Sunset/Jack Bruce, and More

When news broke that a giant ash cloud caused by the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull was disrupting air traffic throughout Europe, the first thing we thought of was Jimmy Buffett's song Volcano.  For all those publishing folks who are now grounded and will not be able to attend the London Book Fair, which starts today, the lyrics I don't know where I'm a gonna go/When the volcano blow seemed quite apropos.  However, there's no book associated with Buffett's ditty (though he himself is an accomplished author), and since we deal in songs about books, we thought we'd see if we could find any songs that were inspired by works of literature that feature volcanoes.

"The Consul at Sunset," from Jack Bruce's 1971 album Harmony Row, was inspired by Malcolm Lowry's semi-autobiographical novel Under the Volcano, published in 1947.  The book focuses on an alcoholic British ex-consul in Mexico and a group of characters that includes the consul's ex-wife, his half-brother, and his childhood friend.  The action takes place in 1938 on the Mexican Day of the Dead (November 2nd) in a small Mexican town dominated by two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtachihuatel (or Ixta).  The lyrics portray the debauched consul--He's been going too far in his drinking/Running a little too fat/Eyelids becoming so heavy, sadly/But he tries not to sleep while he's living beneath the volcano--and there's also a reference to the date: It's the Festival of Death.  A band called the Young Fresh Fellows also did a song inspired by the novel, Back Room Of The Bar, from their 1987 album The Men Who Loved Music. As the title suggests, the emphasis is on the main character's drinking--And the storm clouds hide the volcanoes/But they shall never find me here/Where I torture myself with the memories/That stay clear through tequila and beer--and again there is an allusion to the date: Now I drink to Death on this Day of the Dead/And only wish it could be quickly done.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii spun a fictional tale around the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. that destroyed the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. No less a figure than John Philip Sousa--the March King himself--was so taken with the book that he composed an entire suite around it in 1893. In the book Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America, Neil Harris writes: "Sousa's Last Days of Pompeii drew on Bulwer-Lytton's novel, and the program notes included lengthy quotations.  Indeed, these descriptive numbers were all accompanied by extended program comments enabling the audience to follow the narrative."  The final movement of the suite, The Destruction of Pompeii and Nydia's Death, is a dramatic musical evocation of the volcanic eruption. According to Naxos.com, "Sousa often referred to the suite as his finest composition and programmed it more often than any of his other suites." A more recent composition inspired by Bulwer-Lytton, Michael Smith's witty song Last Day of Pompeii, available on his 1992 self-titled album, portrays some citizens of the doomed city who, foreseeing their fate, imagine how they might have lived their lives differently by doing the things they'd always meant to do:  And when Vesuvio came to call/Arrivaderci I'd've had a ball [I'd've had it all].   A song on Nova Mob's 1991 album The Last Days of Pompeii borrows Bulwer-Lytton's title, but takes the point of view of Pliny the Younger, who left the only known written eyewitness account of the destruction of Pompeii. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, a Roman naval commander, died in the eruption.  Woke up, I got dressed and went to Herculaneum/With no idea what the future deemed it would become/My uncle, he is an admiral, as for me I have no trade/My  name is Pliny and these are observations I have made/These are the last days in the city of Pompeii....

With so many references to J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterpiece The Lord of the Rings in Led Zeppelin's songs [see our earlier post about Ramble On], we're surprised they never got around to writing one about Mount Doom, perhaps the most famous volcano in fiction. Also known as Orodruin and Amon Amarth in other tongues of Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Mount Doom is the ultimate destination of the Fellowship of the Ring--the only place where the Hobbit Frodo Baggins can destroy the One Ring in order to bring about the fall of the evil Dark Lord Sauron.   A composition entitled Mount Doom can be found on the 2003 compilation The One Ring: Music Inspired by The Lord of the Rings by Kevin Pearce and James Prior, and another Tolkien-inspired track of that title, this one by Torog, can be found on the 2008 dance/electronica compilation Out of Time. Swiss pianist and composer Sylvia Courvoisier recorded a piece called Orodruin, which appears on the 2003 album AbatonAllAboutJazz.com calls it "an obliquely conceived transportation to J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional universe." The metal bands Orodruin and Amon Amarth take their names from Tolkien's volcano; the latter features a song called Amon Amarth on their 1998 album Once Sent From the Golden Hall.

Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth features not one but two volcanoes:  the dormant volcano Snæfellsjökull (in Iceland, no less), where Verne's heroes begin their trek, and Stromboli in Italy, where they emerge at the end of their journey.  Rick Wakeman's 1974 concept album Journey to the Centre of the Earth retells Verne's story using a combination of music, song, and narration.  In the album's first part, The Journey, the lyrics describe the beginning of the excursion:  Roped as one for safety through the long descent/Into the crater of volcanic rock they went.  In the final part, The Forest, Wakeman's narration describes the conclusion of the journey: "Trapped in the shaft of an active volcano they rose through the ages of man to be finally expelled out on a mountainside riddled with tiny lava streams. Their journey was completed and they found themselves 3,000 miles from their original starting point in Iceland.  They had entered by one volcano and they had come out another."  Or, in one caldera and out the other, as it were.  [In 1999 Wakeman took it upon himself to produce the sequel that Jules Verne never wrote, with an album called Return to the Centre of the Earth.]

By disrupting the London Book Fair, the angry volcano in Iceland could have an impact on the future of literature that's impossible to anticipate but which could be quite significant. So if anyone comes up with a song about it, we'll be happy to feature it here on Classics Rock! No doubt tunesmiths are already asking themselves: What rhymes with Eyjafjallajökull?

Under the Volcano (Kindle Edition)
The Last Days of Pompeii (Kindle Edition)
The Lord of the Rings (Kindle Edition)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Kindle Edition)

Be sure to test your knowledge of literary volcanoes with The Guardian's recent Volcanoes in Literature Quiz.