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-- CNBC.com "Bullish on Books" blog

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Broadcast/Paul McCartney and Wings

In The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years, Vincent Benitez writes:  "The Broadcast is the most experimental track in Wings' entire output."  David Bowie was reportedly so impressed by the track, which appears on the 1979 album Back to the Egg, that he thought it should be released as the first single.  Technically, the track isn't a song at all, but a spoken word piece heard over a fragment of melody--and the words aren't spoken by Paul McCartney or anybody else in the band.

The track was recorded at Lympne Castle in Kent, England, which dates from the 12th century.  The castle was owned by a gentleman named Harold Margary and his wife Deirdre.  Benitez quotes Wings guitarist Laurence Juber:

It's a bit hazy but the guy that owns the castle where we were recording, both he and his wife had these very plummy kind of voices
. . . . I think it was like, "Oh, wouldn't it be fun to have them read some classic English literature material and use the orchestral background to be just this kind of weird interlude."  And they were game for it.

McCartney selected books at random from the castle library and recorded the Margarys reading selections.  Harold Margary read from The Sport of Kings by Ian Hay and The Little Man by John Galsworthy, which is what you hear on the final track.  Deirdre Margary read lyrics from a song called "The Poodle and the Pug," from a 1946 light opera called Big Ben.  "Her reading didn't make the final version," reports Ian Peel in The Unknown Paul McCartney, "but a few lines ('...with tufts of hair stuck here and there which one would like to tug...') were spliced into Reception," another track on the album.

The Words and Music of Paul McCartney: The Solo Years (Kindle Edition)

The Little Man (Kindle Edition)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bukowski/Modest Mouse

Prolific poet, novelist and short story writer Charles Bukowski would have turned 90 on Monday (August 16th).  Bukowski, who died in 1994, lived a hard life of drinking, gambling, dead end jobs, and rocky relationships with women.  A strong autobiographical thread runs through his writing, which is peopled with losers, lowlifes, and hustlers.  Much of Bukowski's work is set in the seamy underside of Los Angeles, his home town.

An alcoholic, Bukowski had a difficult personality--his behavior could be disruptive, boorish, and combative at his public readings and other social events.  The song Bukowski by Modest Mouse, from their 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News, picks up on this trait.  The song can hardly be considered a tribute with lyrics such as these:

Woke this morning and it seemed to me
That every night turns out to be
A little bit more like Bukowski
And yeah, I know he's a pretty good read
But God, who'd want to be
God, who'd want to be such an asshole?

In his 2006 book Modest Mouse: A Pretty Good Read (yes, the title is taken from the lyrics of "Bukowski"), Alan Goldsher offers these thoughts on Modest Mouse lyricist Isaac Brock's attitude toward the late author:

Considering Isaac's love of both imbibing and literature, it was only a matter of time before he acknowledged eternally drunken poet/novelist Charles Bukowski in song.  But Brock's attitude toward drinking and drugging was slowly changing, so it would stand to reason that he might also take a different view of Bukowski.  While Brock sings about Bukowski being "a pretty good read," he was less than impressed with the author's worldview.  "He glamorized alchoholism and misogyny," Isaac says.  "I've seen friends get impressed by him and he seemed to impress himself by being a pain in the ass.  I just don't like alcoholism being put in a way that makes my friends wanna be alcoholics."  When Brock repeats the lyric "God, who'd wanna be such an asshole," you wonder if he's talking about Charles or himself.

Another musical reference to Bukowski can be found in U2's song Dirty Day, from their 1993 album Zooropa.  The song, which depicts a difficult encounter between an estranged father and son, is dedicated to Bukowski.  The phrase "these days, days, days run away like horses over the hill," repeated by Bono over the song's fadeout, alludes to Bukowski's 1969 poetry collection The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills.  Bukowski died a few months after the album was released.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell's 2005 album Hotwalker: Charles Bukowski & A Ballad for Gone was inspired by his exchange of letters with Bukowski.  The album features original songs, narration, and actual recordings of Bukowski and his contemporaries (including Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce).  Russell has also collected his correspondence with Bukowski into a limited edition book called Tough Company, published in 2008.

Finally, the Boo Radleys state the obvious in their song Charles Bukowski Is Dead, from their 1995 album Wake Up!, released almost exactly one year after Bukowski died.

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills (Kindle Edition)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Driving the Last Spike/Genesis

When composing a song, Phil Collins usually doesn't start with a particular theme in mind--he just lets the ideas and words flow freely as he's working out the melody.  "If you go right back to Face Value, I never sat down and wrote anything for that record," Collins says in the band's 2007 book Genesis: Chapter and Verse. "In The Air Tonight was totally improvised.  I sang what came out of my head and wrote it down afterwards.  And because it worked for that first record, that's what I've always done.  When I'm singing along the phrases come out."

For Driving The Last Spike, from the 1991 Genesis album We Can't Dance, Collins went the extra step of doing some research.  The song takes an epic look at the dangers and hardships that went into the construction of the British railway system during the 19th century, told from the point of view of a workman who took part in that process.  "To write 'Driving the Last Spike,' I ended up getting hold of a book about the navvies," Collins said.  ["Navvy" is a British term for an unskilled manual laborer, particularly someone who builds roads, canals, and railroads.]  He elaborated in an interview with Music Express Magazine [via genesis-path.net]:

The song's working title was "Irish," and that came from me making up words and phrases as I listened to the music...There's an Irish-sounding bit in the arrangement, so I thought about labourers and the working class.  And then as I browsed through a book called The Railway Navvies, I formulated this idea about the Irish workers who helped build the British railway system at the turn of the century.  I mean, when you're on a train and you're looking out of the window, you don't think about being 150 feet up in the air on a viaduct between two hills and how the track actually got there!

"I don't know why but I just thought there was a story to be told there," Collins says of the song in Genesis: Chapter and Verse.  "And that was one of only a few story lyrics I ever wrote."