Category Archives: Music

Delia Derbyshire Day

Deliaderbyshire

In 2007, the taped archives of one of the most influential figures in British electronic music were delivered to Manchester University in cereal boxes. It was an inauspicious arrival for the legacy of a relatively unsung hero of British culture, although not unprecedented; even an attempt to get her a co-creator credit on her most famous work was foiled by bureaucracy. That’s why today’s Delia Derbyshire Day events are necessary; her work with electronica was incredibly influential and it deserves to be celebrated.

However, while Derbyshire may not be a household name, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with her work, particularly if you’re from the UK.

Because she’s responsible for the Doctor Who theme tune.

She didn’t compose it (that was Ron Grainer), but Derbyshire’s work is key to the theme’s success. Frankly it sounds like nothing else today, let alone on a cold winter in November 1963. The more bombastic arrangements of the relaunch obscure some of the tune’s weirdness – perhaps that’s in line with depicting the Doctor as a more obviously heroic character, rather than William Hartnell’s unpredictable, unnerving portrayal. The Derbyshire arrangement is scary; not too scary, of course, but disconcerting, promising something alien emerging from the dark. And yet it’s also futuristic, in the sixties sci-fi sense of the world. It’s a soundscape as much as a tune, and you can’t quite identify what instruments or gadgets are being used.

I remember worried internet discussions in 2005 – would Russell T. Davies use the police box? The Daleks? The theme tune? In retrospect it’s unthinkable; the theme tune is a fundamental part of the show’s DNA. When the writers wanted to illustrate the madness of the Master, they had John Simm tap a four-beat rhythm on a table. It was meant to represent the double heartbeat of a Time Lord, but let’s not kid ourselves, it was the bass line for the best theme tune on TV. And much of that is thanks to Delia Derbyshire, who created something that so inhabits a show that it leaks into the fiction.

With 50 years of hindsight, it’s hard to imagine Doctor Who as a newborn programme, with no history or legacy or reputation, no rabid fanbase to fight its corner. It was the new kid on the block, and in an era of casual, institutional racism and sexism, it’s a story in itself how Doctor Who was put together by ‘outsiders’ – a female producer, for instance, and a gay, Indian director. It’s a weird mix of the reactionary and the progressive, which mirrors some of the early themes of the show – Derbyshire falls firmly into the progressive camp. Sure, she’s best known for Doctor Who, but she worked with Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono. A fantastic theme tune would be achievement enough, but Derbyshire’s legacy is more expansive than that. It’s good to see Band on the Wall bringing that to a wider audience. Let’s hope it gets Delia the recognition she deserves.

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In Memory of Sophie Lancaster

I wrote this a while back, on the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. As today would have been Sophie Lancaster’s birthday, I thought it was worth a repost.

Back in 2007, Sophie Lancaster and her boyfriend were attacked and beaten in Rossendale, Lancashire. Sophie subsequently died from her injuries at the age of 20. The motive for the attack? Sophie and her boyfriend were goths.

I remember the news of this attack breaking, and being shocked at the senselessness of it all. That senselessness has lead to August 24, the anniversary of Sophie’s death, being commemorated as the International Day Against Intolerance, Discrimination and Violence Based on Musical Preferences, Lifestyle and Dress Code. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but in a world where the Sophie Lancaster Foundation is necessary, the day is worth remembering.

While labels can sometimes be used positively – consolidating a community, perhaps, or drawing together those with an affinity to each other – they’re also a curse. Too much of our worth can come from labels, superficial tags that can’t possibly represent the whole person, and at some point that can become dangerous. The teenagers who attacked Sophie and her boyfriend were living under a label, culture and mindset that saw ‘moshers’ as The Other, aliens to be attacked rather than fellow humans with different preferences in fashion. And while it’s horrifying that musical taste should become a life-and-death issue, it’s sadly unsurprising when we’ve been spending years killing each other over race, religion, gender, sexuality… Too often we base our labels around what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and when we do, bad things inevitably happen.

(Of course, this affects public policy too. In the wake of the UK riots, politicians were quick to blame things on criminality, dismissing such issues as poverty and a breakdown in authority. Maybe there’s some truth in that, but it’s still a them-and-us mentality.)

So maybe there’s an opportunity today; to listen to a genre of music we’ve never bothered with before, to chat with someone outside our clique, to rise above our labels and comfort zones. Because no-one should die because of what’s on their iPod.

PS. It’s just occurred to me that this story has thematic links with Deborah Bryan’s excellent but heart-rending posts on bullying over at The Monster in Your Closet…

Strange Fruit and a Big Parade

History has some strange coincidences, unrelated moments that, when put into a wider context, take on extra significance or irony. For instance, it’s April 20th, 1939, and in Berlin, the Third Reich is holding the largest military parade in its history.

All the pomp, all the stage-managed show of power, is to commemorate Hitler’s 50th birthday, and repugnant as it is to modern ears, the man was loved, even deified. People sent him gifts, buildings were erected in his honour, and low alcohol beer and a new edition of Mein Kampf were released.

And yet despite this outpouring of adoration, his intentions were clear – countries such as Austria and Czechoslovakia had been annexed, and just a few months earlier, Krystallnacht had made the Third Reich’s intentions towards the Jewish population quite obvious.

So, on one continent a show of power for a regime based on oppression and racism. Elsewhere…

Elsewhere, also on April 20 1939, Billie Holiday walks into the World Broadcasting Studios in New York and records ‘Strange Fruit’. The first time a protest song really enters the ‘mainstream’, ‘Strange Fruit’ is devastating; written by Jewish poet Abel Meeropol, the song conjures a horrific image – bloated, rotting fruit hanging on trees in the southern states which turns out to be the victims of lynching. At the end of an evening out at a nightclub, patrons were confronted with the realities of race in America, and ‘Strange Fruit’ is now considered to be one of the most important songs ever recorded.

There’s no direct correlation between Hitler’s birthday parade and a Billie Holiday recording session, other than them taking place in the same day. But they seem to illustrate two extremes of human nature – on one hand hatred, oppression, intolerance backed up by numbers and firepower; on the other, righteous anger at the same. Two moments, two countries, two contexts, but somehow they speak to each other across the years.

So Hitler’s parades remind us of the dangers of idolising dictators; ‘Strange Fruit’ helps bring those dangers right down to earth, focusing on individuals (a photograph of the bodies of lynching victims Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith was the inspiration behind the song) and serving as a terrifying reminder. The primary victims of racist madness in Germany were Jews, African-Americans in the US, but strange fruit hangs from trees throughout the world.

 

Elvis, Comic Fans and Captain Marvel Jnr

(Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that, due to the mainstreaming of geek culture, San Diego Comic Con tickets were sold out in minutes, meaning that I’m not going to get to attend. That reminded me of the post below, which I thought might be worth a repost…)

 

Fandom is a funny thing. You think you can recognise other fans – they’ll make obscure references, they’ll have Star Trek mugs, they’ll wear t-shirts with the Green Lantern oath on them. Geeks love their referencing; I think it’s a tribal thing.

But then there are people you don’t come into regular contact with – one day you learn they’re a Fan and all of a sudden you’re dealing with that strange disconnect that comes with newly revealed geek cred.

Take Nicolas Cage. He doesn’t strike me as being particularly geeky. Okay, his son is called Kal-el, which is a major tip off (am I the only one who thinks Clark Cage would have been way more superheroey?), but what pinged my geekdar was when he sold his comic collection in 2002. Admittedly, the geekdar encountered some interference, because I struggle with the concept of a Superman fan selling Action Comics #1, but still. I’m glad he never played Superman but it looks like Nicolas is a geek. He’s One Of Us.

And don’t get me started on Obama. I’d never have pegged him as a Spider-Man collector who makes nerd references in speeches. But he is!

The king, excuse the pun, of unexpected geekery is Elvis. I mean, it’s Elvis. The archetypal rock n roller. They once refused to film him below the waist because of his dancing, for goodness sake, how could Elvis possibly be a geek?!

Well, in all fairness he probably wasn’t. Back in the day, comics were actually mainstream. You could buy them from newsagents and corner shops rather than specialist stores where you have to fight your way past mountains of t-shirts and Twilight memorabilia to get to the comics. But there’s no denying that Elvis was a fan, and when you look at it more closely, he was One Of Us before people made the distinction. Because Elvis was a fan of Captain Marvel Jr.

Some context, and we’ll get the complicated stuff out the way first: Captain Marvel isn’t a Marvel character. Well, okay, A Captain Marvel is a Marvel character, but THE Captain Marvel isn’t; he’s a DC character (nowadays anyway – he was created by Fawcett Comics but became part of DC in the seventies). This explains why DC can’t publish a comic called Captain Marvel (Marvel copyrighted the name), and so has to rely on the name ‘Shazam’ for brand awareness, Shazam being the magic word that transforms young boy Billy Batson into Captain Marvel.

(That last paragraph must hold some kind of record for the number of times the words ‘Captain Marvel’ were used in a limited space.)

Now, back in the day, Captain Marvel was the biggest superhero of them all. It’s hard to imagine that now, because he’s something of a second stringer in terms of his role in the DC Universe, but in the forties he was comfortably outselling Superman and Batman. And, in an effort to broaden the franchise, Fawcett decided to give him a family – his sister, Mary, and his friend Freddie Freeman, who became Captain Marvel Jr. That’s where Elvis comes in.

When I decided to write about this, I googled the subject and it turns out someone got there before me, with an essay that’s way longer and more researched than I could ever hope to achieve – for the full story, check out Captain Marvel Jr and Elvis Presley. Basically, Elvis was a big fan of Captain Marvel Jr, not just in the ‘okay, that was a cool story’ way, but as a major influence, particularly in terms of iconography. Young Elvis’s hairstyle was based on the character; Jumpsuit Elvis’s jumpsuits were based on Freddie’s costume, particularly the cape (it’s a half-cape like the Marvels’, not a full cape like Superman’s) – check out the comparison pictures in the linked article. Even Elvis’s TCB jewellery was adorned with a lightning bolt influenced by Captain Marvel’s logo. Yes, the iconography of the King of Rock and Roll was firmly rooted in comic books, which I think is awesome.

So maybe Elvis was a bit geeky. Maybe we all are, just about different things. And maybe, with geek culture becoming increasingly mainstream (Glee at Comic Con?! C’mon!), we’re heading back to the days when Elvis could become an icon partly by basing himself on a superhero. Comics may be a fringe hobby nowadays, perhaps even facing their final Crisis, but geekery remains, a driving force in pop culture.

So if you’ve always wanted to wear a cape, go right ahead. After all, if it was good enough for Elvis, it’s good enough for you…

 

In Memory of Johnny Cash

Today would have been Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday. That’s worth noting; I’m not a great connoisseur of country music, but Cash somehow transcended his genre, becoming an iconic figure, especially in his later years.

For me, someone with limited musical knowledge, my favourite Johnny Cash songs have a weight to them that goes beyond the music. ‘The Man Comes Around’ sounds like someone gave a biblical prophet a guitar and told him to hitchhike round small-town America, preaching Cassandra-like about the imminent Second Coming. It’s all tied up with Cash’s faith, sincerely held and vital, driving a man who, even so, could still sing about prisoners and outlaws and the damned.

Then there’s the song for which Cash will be remembered among my generation. His cover of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails is heartbreaking in its beauty, and if just hearing it is emotionally draining, watching the video is devastating, an old man surrounded by the relics of his life. There’s a moment where the lyrics drop out and footage of Cash in his earlier years kicks in; “Stay the hell away from me” he growls, looking straight at the camera and making the viewer feel like a voyeur into a man’s darkest memories, an intruder in an empire of dirt. This is a song you listen to when you know things have gone to hell and when you need music not to cheer you up but to understand you.

Johnny Cash was a legend. But he was also a human being familiar with weakness and failings. And sometimes that’s what you need from the guy standing before you with a guitar, not the icon but the man. Someone who knows what it’s like to be in hell; someone who knows there’s a way out.