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Shorts and Found Footage with Crate Diggin’: Fridays at Rough Trade (Dec 19 – Jan 16)

20 Dec

CRATE DIGGIN FRIDAYS

Some short films and related found footage will be showing alongside the Truth & Lies nights upstairs at Rough Trade, Nottingham, over the next few weeks. The first selection, themed around the Cold War, screened on Friday 19th Dec, the second – films linked by an interest in Exotica – is on Jan 9th, and the final set of films, built around Disturbances and Design – plays on Jan 16. Crate Diggin‘ is a regular slot hosted by Joff & Ex-Friendly at Rough Trade and covers soul, funk, jazz and anything else the DJs feel like spinning from 7 – 11pm every Friday. The following post offers a few comments on the material selected (note that films are screened at Crate Diggin’ without sound, for obvious reasons, so I will add links to versions with their original scores and soundtracks intact to this post after each event).

Moscow 1972 (Kino)

Part 1: The Serendipity Loops and the Cold War (19 December 2014)

The Serendipity Loops (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

This film runs in six sections, made up entirely of still images, and draws on a large archive of print material produced on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War period, sequencing Western and Eastern Bloc material in ways that emphasise their essential similarities. Each section is edited to accompany a piece of music, ranging from Tom Dissevelt’s ‘Whirling’ and Dick Mills’ ‘Purple Space & White Coronas’, early experiments in sequenced and atmospheric electronic music; to the late Graham Dalley’s ‘Pacifico’ and ‘Surf Ride’ (both from his privately pressed 1966 LP ‘Graham Dalley At The Barn Restaurant, Solihull’); ‘Elusive’, a Studio G production for an Avon marketing flexi-disc narrated by Patrick Allen (who also did voice-overs for the British Government’s notorious ‘Protect and Survive’ series of 1970s Nuclear fall-out public information films); and the anonymously produced Radiophonic Workshop alien invasion scenario of The Cimex Corporations’s advertising 7” extolling the value of their industrial cleaning services. The introductory sequence, built around machine-like heartbeats and Andre Bazin’s 1946 comment about cinema returning to its origins, reflects this film’s own status as a kind of digital magic-lantern slideshow.

Out Of This World (General Motors, 1964)

A beautifully made commercial film produced by the Frigidaire division of General Motors and based on their exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York – a piece of corporate Cold War marketing that seems to echo the identical tendency in the Soviet Union at the same moment to promise a utopian future. Its vision is – as such visions usually are – both seductive and slightly terrifying.

Village Sunday (Stewart Wilensky, 1961)

In contrast to General Motors’ corporate and technological vision of the future, another strand of the Cold War narrative is seen in an early form here, as Jean Shepherd narrates a whimsical portrait of New York’s Greenwich Village, just on the cusp of its decisive transformation into a counter-cultural byword. Painters, small theatres, musicians, beatniks and drop-outs – all ending with some great footage of the Beatnik/Surrealist poet Ted Joans giving a recital with free improvised jazz-flute accompaniment at a Greenwich Village artists’ hang-out.

Biological Camouflage (New Zealand) [1978]

Part 2: Entropicalia and Exotica (09 Jan 2015)

Biological Camouflage: Entropicalia (Wayne Burrows/The Soundcarriers, 2013)

Something of an experiment, this film is made up of still collages from various iterations of the ‘Biological Camouflage’ series, made by fictional British artist Robert Holcombe between 1974 and 1978, set to music by The Soundcarriers, then punctuated with a short, repeated animated photo-sequence of a sleeping woman. The song – to whose propulsive rhythm the images are cut – is ‘Entropicalia’ from ‘The Other World of The Soundcarriers’, issued on The Great Pop Supplement during 2013 (a vocal version is available as the title track on the band’s first release on the Ghost Box label, released in May 2014).

Afro Mood (Unknown Director, c.1947)

A short burlesque film in which the dancer Amalia Aguilar pulls some incredible moves to some hot Afro-Cuban jazz. ‘Afro Mood’ is one of two numbers that she also performed in a movie entitled ‘A Night at the Follies’ (1947) which perhaps helps to date this particular clip, which was produced as part of an ‘exotic’ series, ‘Joe Bonica presents the Movie of the Month’, possibly intended for viewing as individual segments on reels sold for private entertainment and parties.

Exotica Fragment (Wayne Burrows/Paul Isherwood, 2014)

A very short loop of re-edited footage from a variety of public domain sources, ranging from a 1920s adaptation of The Lost World to undersea documentaries, Cheerios commercials, burlesque films, a study of ants and an advertisement for a wall street consultancy. The score includes an incantation from an Egyptian son-et-lumiere recording of the 1960s and an early sketch of a track made by Paul Isherwood for a forthcoming project, Exotica Suite, set to be released as a book, vinyl LP and series of films in late June 2015, financially supported by New Art Exchange and Arts Council England.

Disturbances (still) [2010]

Disturbances and Design (16 January 2015)

Disturbances (Wayne Burrows/Jon Brooks, 2010)

‘Disturbances’ is a short film compiled from found 35mm slides and it was originally screened with a recorded score made for the purpose by Jon Brooks, then narrated with a live voice-over as part of an Annexinema event at a disused cinema. Brooks is best known for his work with Ghost Box records, under the identity The Advisory Circle, though he has also released two LPs – ‘Shapwick’ and ‘52’ – on Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe imprint under his own name.

Design For Dreaming (General Motors, 1956)

A visually incredible long-form musical commercial advertising the General Motors Motorama of 1956, presenting consumerism as a fabulous dream world. It’s likely that this was exactly the kind of film that inspired the early days of British pop and youth culture, as seen in exhibitions like the Independent Group’s ‘This Is Tomorrow’, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery the same year.

Film Strip: 1966 (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

A digital reconstruction of a sequence of still images compiled in a concertina book by the fictional British artist Robert Holcombe in 1966, with a score by British electronics pioneer F.C. Castle.

Bonus Programme: the Beats, Smoke & Pickles New Year’s Eve party at Rough Trade, Nottingham, will involve a further set of films, 35mm transparencies and more screenings alongside music from Truth & Lies, Dealmaker & Can’t Stop Won’t Stop DJs and street food by Kimberley Bell (Small Food Bakery). All free, from 8pm till 2.30am.

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Exotica Suite at New Art Exchange (16 April, 2015)

10 Dec

Kapu (Forbidden) - Exciting Sounds of Milt Raskin (Crown Records, USA, 1959)

‘Exotica Suite’ (New Art Exchange, 16 April 2015)

New Art Exchange and Arts Council England are currently supporting Exotica Suite, a collaborative work by Wayne Burrows (text) and Paul Isherwood (music) exploring the ‘Exotica’ craze of the 1950s – and the threads connecting its play with real and fictional cultural artifacts and identities to artists like Sun Ra and E.A. Markham. To explore the themes raised by this new work, Wayne Burrows has invited a panel of artists to take part in a conversation. All address questions of identity and authenticity in their own work, but each does this in their own way and to a different purpose.

Fawzia Kane uses the voices of real and mythical characters to explore history and storytelling in poems and fictions set in London and Trinidad, with nods to traditions of Carnival masking. Kashif Nadim Chaudry grounds his sculptural work in his own experience as a gay Muslim male, born and raised in the UK, working with fabrics to create objects that are opulent and uncompromising. Maryam Hashemi, a London-based painter who grew up in wartime Tehran, regards her work as an interconnected autobiographical sequence, rooted in experiences that are simultaneously real and symbolic, magical and imaginary.

Notes on the panellists:

Fawzia Kane reading with Stonewood Press (2014)

Fawzia Muradali Kane was born in San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago, at the cusp of the country’s change over from being a colony to full independence. She came to the UK on a scholarship to study architecture and now lives and works in London where, along with Mike Kane, she is co-director of KMK Architects. Her poetry has been widely published and is collected in Tantie Diablesse (Waterloo Press, 2011) and Houses of the Dead (Thamesis, 2013). She has also written a novel, La Bonita Cuentista.

Kashif Nadim Chaudry - Swags & Tails (2014)

Kashif Nadim Chaudry  is a sculptor whose work focuses on negotiating an identity as a British born, Pakistani, gay Muslim. His installations bring together a family history of tailoring, borrowing from historical periods such as Mughal India and Tudor Britain, and draw on the creative disciplines of sculpture, architecture, interior design and Bollywood cinema. His work is both opulent and abject, including luxurious fabrics, human hair and animal bones. Recent exhibitions include Memes (Djanogly Gallery), Nads (Lace Market Gallery) and Swags & Tails (Asia Triennial, Manchester).

Maryam Hashemi - Motherships (2010)

Maryam Hashemi’s work is rooted in her wartime childhood in Iran, layered with everyday, subconscious and often absurd events. She studied Graphic Design at Azad University in Tehran, held her first solo exhibition in 2001 at Haft Samar Gallery and was selected for a group show of Iranian female painters in Brussels the same year. She moved to the UK in 2002 and recent exhibitions include ImaginHer (198 Gallery, Brixton), Inner tales of my outer shell (Westminster Library) and Edinburgh Iranian Festival. In May 2014 she featured in a BBC 2 documentary, Making Art.

Yma Sumac - Mambo (Capitol Records, USA, 1954)

Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography:

“Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. He maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared. Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was in Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of still visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been at least partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.

XeroKline&Coma

Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly referenced work by both these neighbouring artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.

Datblygu

One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.

Datblygu

If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Raven Burrows: An Old School Happening

5 Dec

RAVEN BURROWS Banner Image (first version)

The artists’ studios where I have my office, Primary, recently staged its annual Open event, and it so happened that our turn to deliver another part of the ongoing programme in the building coincided with it. Early in 2013, a series of public events titled Old School Breaks was launched, pairing the 30 or so artists who work here into fifteen randomly selected partnerships, each to create some kind of collaborative event on whatever terms seemed to work best in one of fifteen randomly allocated months. Some gave talks, others collaborated over a whole month then showed the work they’d made at the end, others delivered a performance or small exhibition and discussion. As I’d been teamed up with the performance artist and pug painter Simon Raven, we decided to create an immersive environment inside the semi-derelict Blue Building (a disused modern school block) and then explore it over five hours, spread across the three nights of the Open Studios event. With no budget and not much time, the fact that we’re both, if nothing else, hoarders of vaguely interesting things – slide projectors, masks, 78rpm records, BBC radiophonic LPs, a toy Tardis, perspex mirrors – meant we managed to suspend fabrics, build a hidden Ubu room, set up projectors and light sources, installed record players, negatives, light-boxes and detuned radio sets…then waited till it got dark and opened the doors.

On the first night, a big crowd arrived at the start and watched our inhabiting of the space as if it were a performance, which slightly missed the purpose of the exercise, which had always been more intent on generating an atmosphere to be explored rather than a spectacle to be watched: fortunately, once that initial crush subsided, the smaller groups of three or six tended to enter the space as required, watching us for a bit, then making their own way around all the nooks and crannies of the building: a small installation of modified record sleeves under the stairs, labelled ART GALLERY: MIND YOUR HEAD. The Ubu room, with a seven foot figure of Alfred Jarry’s anti-hero staring down at whoever entered like a gigantic crowned bird surrounded by dunce’s caps (and with one or two photocopies of Alan Dixon’s woodcuts on a nearby shelf). The old toilets, with a laptop playing a loop of rehearsal footage from a choral collaboration with composer Hilary Nicholls called ‘Breath‘ while candles flickered on a cistern. Simon’s film of himself as a grotesque blue grub, The Bookworm, crawling through London towards a library. But most of the activity was in one particular space, where it seemed, over the three nights, we moved from ghosts, haunting the space under sheets, to something like Batman villains’ henchmen in face masks, to just doing strange and (hopefully) visually interesting things with mirrors, light and the room we were in.

Was it a performance? Yes and no. With its ambition to be immersive, to generate an atmosphere rather than a meaning or narrative, it was probably closer to the old 1960s arts lab style of improvised happening than anything more formally categorisable, and perhaps the mostly analogue tools reinforced that link. Either way, it was an interesting experiment and certainly produced a result that neither of us would have come up with individually, and I suppose that’s most of the point of the Old School Breaks series (next up in the Primary Old School Breaks series, incidentally, are Frank Abbott and Lauren O’Grady – there’s more information on their collaboration here).

Breath Variations (Britten in Oxford, November 2013)

10 Nov

On the 9th November, Britten in Oxford, in association with the John Armitage Memorial Trust, staged a Festival of Choirs at the University Church of St Mary on the High Street, to premiere six works made as part of the Writing for Voices project. Six writers were teamed with six composers and each allocated a choir, then tasked with producing a five minute choral piece. Nine months on from the starting point the completed settings were performed and recorded, with the project set to feature on Radio 3’s The Choir to be broadcast on December 8th. Ahead of that, the text for the piece I worked on with York-based composer Hilary Nicholls is given here, alongside the programme note putting the bare lyric into a bit of context. The finished work was sung by the Schola Cantorum of Oxford last weekend.

Britten_in_Oxford_Concert

Programme Note:

Our starting point for Breath was a fragment of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Eighth Elegy, from The Duino Elegies, which Hilary had already begun to set before the project began: “Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht” (“Always world/ Never Nothing without No”). Taking Rilke’s line as an oblique starting point, its sound and the negative affirmation of its meaning, Wayne created a series of fragmentary texts which celebrated breath as the essential physical element of the voice and as a force both inside the body and in the world beyond it. The mystical abstraction of Rilke’s affirmation is returned to flesh and desire through a series of images built around ripening and growth. Hilary’s setting employs elements of the Messaien and diatonic modes and is primarily polyphonic, with significant solo elements.  Four part writing at the beginning broadens to eight parts at the conclusion. The whole uses breath as both its subject and material.

[Hilary Nicholls & Wayne Burrows, October 2013]

Breath Variations

“Immer ist es Welt/Niemals Nirgends ohne Nicht”

Rilke: Duino Elegies – Eighth Elegy (c.1922)

(i)

Hear this – our breath

(ii)

we speak blown leaves
alveoli swell with air

Hear this – our breath

(iii)

no sound not ours
no flow inside

our skins not us

no voice of ours
not raised

Hear this – our breath

(iv)

These notes shift
where buds grow
on green vines

words drop
in clear space
as fruit falls

Hear this – our breath

(v)

Our throats fill
with blown leaves

a wind shakes
lungs                  trees

Hear this – our breath

(vi)

our flesh                       warm breath
these lungs                     grow leaves

words rise                      clear space
shall float                     through us

words breathe                 on skin
desire                          new growth

Hear this – our breath

(vii)

Hear this – our breath

as breath falls             still

Britten in Oxford (BB Portrait)

Marine: A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle)

23 Jul

“The oceans are a great swirl of changeable currents. In this element, where serendipity governs all, nothing can be guaranteed or truly possessed for more than an instant. Rules are installed by force to bring certainties to the volatile flows of trade; laws are carried to new lands so that an investor can consider his paper certificates absolute proof of ownership of some place he has never seen, or some mountain of goods he will never use, only buy and sell then buy again. In a walnut bureau near Fleet Street or St Paul’s, all the opium of Bengal, the coffee of Jamaica, the tobacco harvests of Virginia, might still be held captive by an ivory lock and brass key any child could break. Stocks and monopolies, gunships, conscripts and lawyers: these direct the circulation of all things in the interests of that mysterious substance, money, which is itself alike to an ocean, though an ocean that neither exists, nor truly serves any man subject to its brute operations in the world. Despite all this, and sooner than we think, all our histories, all our symbols and artifacts, must slide inexorably into footnotes then disappear, like sea-molluscs from the smooth chambers of their shells.”

Sir Henry Whitehorn: Journals (1836)*

Marine (Nottingham Castle, 2013)

There’s definitely been something very wet in the air this weekend, and I don’t mean the massive and impressive thunderstorm that’s just passed over Nottingham. Rather, I mean that on Friday night a new exhibition curated by Deborah Dean and Yasmin Canvin, Make Believe: Re-imagining History & Landscape, opened at Nottingham Castle, and included the launch of a new publication, film and installation under the title Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, in which the sea looms large. The same night, Aquatopia, an exhibition stuffed full of oceanic images, artifacts and sounds, opened at Nottingham Contemporary.

The reason for the coincidence is obvious, given the importance of the sea in trade and human history, but it’s odd that it hadn’t occurred to me at all during several weeks of writing, recording and editing material for the Castle exhibition and only hit home when walking into the Contemporary’s galleries on the night of the opening. Whatever the reason for this sudden appearance of the ocean all over Nottingham (there’s a fake beach in Market Square at the moment as well) the resulting publication (designed by Joff + Ollie) is available from the Castle, and the film remix of that text can be seen installed alongside the eight objects that inspired it, and a related collage work, Biological Camouflage: New Zealand (1978), by the fictional artist Robert Holcombe.

Make Believe also includes work by Susan Collis, Alan Kane, Debbie Lawson, Mark Dixon, Shane Waltener and Jason Singh, and it runs at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery until September 29, 2013. Here’s a bit of information from the gallery information panel:

Marine takes its cues from items displayed in the Every Object Tells a Story gallery of decorative arts and crafts. The objects in question are: an American Plains Indian bear-claw bag; a Lambeth Delft bleeding bowl; a majolica plate; a gaming set carved from bone by a French prisoner of war; two wooden panels showing fish; a miners’ guild ceremonial axe; a Victorian porcelain plate showing butterflies and beetles; and a sample packet of Hawaiian bark papers brought back from the islands by the botanist Andrew Bloxam in the 1820s. Sometimes, the objects themselves appear in the publication and film. More often, the places, times and historical forces that made them guide the material. Sometimes, the text is fiction: sometimes it is non-fiction.

The central thread, concerning the deaths of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamâmalu of Hawaii in London in 1824, and the voyage of HMS Blonde to take their bodies home under the captaincy of George Anson Byron, successor to the title of Lord Byron from the poet himself, are genuine historical events: the facts are real but their re-telling should not be taken as entirely reliable. What really connects these objects is the sea and the circulation of goods and people around its surface; and perhaps there’s also a feeling I wanted to explore that the history we think we know is not carved like an epitaph on a gravestone, but is a fiction constantly remade from the jigsaw puzzle of facts and objects it has left behind for us. I like to believe there’s something liberating in this.

*FOOTNOTE: Unlike most of the facts and stories on which the published text and the approximately 13m looped film that make up Marine are based, the quotation above, which claims to be from the 1836 Journal of Sir Henry Whitehorn, is entirely fictional. Neither he nor his journal exist.

Street Dance

21 Jan

Street Dance (Sneinton, 2009) [image credit Julian Hughes for Home Live Art)

Choreography Text: Instructions for Street Dance (Lone Twin with Jane Mason, Nottingham 2009)

Cue: There is someone at the door. Three raps of the cast-iron knocker. A policeman’s knock.

She counts slowly to fifteen under her breath –  one… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… ten… eleven… twelve …thirteen… fourteen…

Fifteen. She opens the door, leans out, disappears into the street.

He waits. Counts five long beats on his fingers, out of sight. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

He picks up a white chair, descends the steps with it, carefully, then raises it above his head.

Walks slowly downhill, balancing the chair. Places the chair with its back against the bay window.

He retraces his steps – slowly, slightly exaggerated – back to the doorway.

On the doorstep, he braces one hand against the doorframe, stretches out, one arm forward, one leg back.

Holds.

Moves one hand to the stone, edges back. Stretches again, arm out, lower, closer to the ground.

Holds.

Draws his body upright, walks – still slowly, slightly exaggerated – to the kerb, hands together behind his back.

Moving his weight from foot to foot, kerbstone to road, he writes, tightrope-walks, plays, placing his feet at angles, echoing her pauses and turns as she dances, but only occasionally.

He is marking time.

After a moment or two, she goes back inside the house, is out of sight.

He turns, watches the door without breaking the marking sequence on the kerb.

She reappears with a pair of blue glittery high-heeled shoes in one hand. Shoes too impractical to walk in. He watches her step towards him, place them on the ground, watches as her eyes scan the street, her hand on the heels of the shoes.

He keeps marking time, pauses only when her eyes meet his.

They hold – a beat. Two. Three…

Then they both run, very fast, in opposite directions.

He tears downhill, running hard and fast. Taking a marker at the first car on the opposite side of the road, he skids to a halt, switches direction, runs uphill, finding whatever path is open to make a route.

He keeps on, vanishes briefly from sight on the corner, slows, loops back, then – once in sight – accelerates to the bay window, leaping onto the white chair to throw the window wide open.

A Jacques Brel song, previously quiet, already halfway through, is suddenly loud and clear.

She dances, but he sees her only in his peripheral vision.

Out of breath, he walks slowly towards a particular spot in the road, steps from the kerb, assumes his position.

He stops. Draws himself upright, breathing hard, still slightly breathless. He pauses. A beat, two.

He extends one hand behind his shoulder, looks back. Holds.

He turns around three points of a finger at twelve, nine, six o’clock, until he faces the road.

He closes his hand.

Considers – a beat – then makes two marks in the air with the curved side of his hand: one, two.

He motions as though drawing back a curtain with the same hand, squints in the light.

He makes karate chops, twice: an edit, turning on the second cut to face uphill.

He reaches up, his arm outstretched, fingers hooked, as though taking a book from a high shelf.

Holds. Holds longer…

He drops to a crouch, passes his hand over the ground with a low sweep, fingers outstretched.

Pauses.

He rises, moves one outstretched finger across the air, left to right.

He moves into a position with leg back, arm outstretched, echoing the first position in the doorframe.

Holds.

He steps back, stretches the arm again, lower. Finger and thumb move, very deliberately, one then the other, as though turning a light switch on and off.

Holds.

Rises to his feet, turns to the kerb, hands behind his back, leaning forward.

Brings the hands round, makes two spider-webs with his fingers.

Turns, glances at the blue shoes on the pavement, then turns again, to face the road.

He repeats the sequence, with variations.

He extends one hand behind his shoulder, looks back. Holds.

He turns around three points of a finger at twelve, three, six o’clock, until he faces the road. The opposite hand to the earlier turn.

He closes his hand. Considers – one beat – then makes two marks with the curved side of his hand.

He motions as though drawing back a curtain, squints in the light.

He makes karate chops, twice: an edit, turning on the second cut to face uphill.

He stretches up, as though taking a book from a high shelf.

Holds.

Moves his hands towards his body, opening them out, then letting them fall like pages from a binding.

He drops to a crouch, moves his hand in the air, fingers hooked, reaches for something that he draws to his lap.

His hands open like the wings of a Bible on a lectern, palms up.

He turns one palm downward, measuring the weight of an unseen object.

His hands come together, remain clasped as he rises from the knee.

He parts his hands, moves one outstretched finger through the air, left to right, draws something unseen to chest height.

His hands fall open, wide.

He folds his hands behind his back, turns to the kerb, leaning forward.

Brings the hands round, makes spider webs, fireworks, with his fingers: one, two, three, four, five.

He returns his hands to the small of his back, turns, steps forward, glances at the shoes, holds the glance.

Holds it longer…

Continues on, a slow deliberate walk back to the chair beneath the bay window.

He picks up the chair in the silence – Jacques Brel’s song has long since ended – lifts it above his head and walks slowly, deliberately towards the door.

He goes inside, taking the chair with him.

The door remains open.

A Sampling of Spoken Word on Records: 1952 – 1993 (from: Staple – The Music Issue, 2010)

27 Mar

Staple 72 The Music Issue (Image) The story of spoken word as a recorded medium really begins at the birth of the technology itself, with Thomas Edison reputed to have tested his earliest prototype phonograph cylinders in 1877 with his own recital of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’. The technology was sufficiently advanced by 1890 for Alfred Tennyson to make wax cylinder recordings of around ten poems, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ among them. In the years that followed 78rpm discs featuring Biblical readings and passages from Shakespeare were plentiful, and many examples of interest exist in the richly populated hinterland between music and poetry: the twisted ballads and song-poems of the ‘Old Weird America’ gathered on Harry Smith’s epochal Anthology of American Folk Music and the Red Bird Poetry and Jazz sessions of Tony Kinsey and Christopher Logue are only two of the most interesting. Despite the riches available even before the full advent of the 12″ LP record, however, it seems to be the 1950s that saw spoken word recordings really take off, and the births of such idiosyncratic labels as Caedmon in America and Argo in the UK were particularly significant in creating a commercial market for what were otherwise seen as largely educational and archival artefacts. In the selection that follows, we’ve gathered a mere 17 recordings to represent a cross-section through the many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of possible inclusions, but they hopefully touch on key strands in the development of spoken word as a distinct literary medium and offer an introductory gesture towards that larger story.

T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

From: T.S. Eliot reading Poems and Choruses (Caedmon, 1955)

The serious-minded Modernism of T.S. Eliot, and the poet’s drily ironic delivery of his own lines on records like this one, are often lazily condemned (in some circles, at least) as the antithesis of the spoken word scene’s more democratic energies. But any reader or listener who can’t imagine this 1955 reading of his early masterpiece The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock bringing down the house in a live setting with the same riotous force as the poem manages on paper is allowing Eliot’s forbidding reputation to get between the actual words and a more instinctive response to their effect. The truth is that however dry Eliot’s reading seems, there’s humour in the play between his high-serious tones and the absurdist doggerel of couplets like “I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michaelangelo”. This LP, released as part of the Caedmon Literary Series in 1955, opens our selection of recordings made between the 1950s and 1990s, all precursors of today’s spoken word scene, and many by poets more closely associated with the page than the stage. As such, it’s also, I hope, a means of bridging the gap often perceived to exist between the realms of written and performed poetry in the UK. We very deliberately open proceedings with this recording of a man who is in many ways held up as the totemic ‘difficult page poet’ by both his supporters and detractors in the belief that Prufrock – first published in 1917 – unsettles that view at a very fundamental level. It’s not just our view that Eliot bridges the divide between page and stage approaches, either: the poet’s love of music hall is well known (he even wrote an essay on Marie Lloyd) but perhaps more revealing is that during an interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson in a Brixton café for The Big Issue in the North in March 2001, the renowned dub-poet mentioned in passing that he had himself recorded a reggae version of Eliot’s poem, to make exactly this point. At the time of writing, Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Prufrock remains unreleased, but it would be wonderful, and no doubt transformative, if Eliot’s estate were to one day relent and allow Johnson’s so far unheard dub take on Prufrock to take its place beside Eliot’s own reading.

Edith Sitwell: Façade

From: Façade: performed by Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft with The London Sinfonietta conducted by Sir William Walton (Argo, 1972) [Link to different performance]

While the position of Eliot’s Prufrock in the Modernist canon is assured, there’s still a lingering suspicion that Edith Sitwell’s cycle of nonsense-poems set to music by William Walton – and first performed at the Aeolian Hall in London on June 12, 1923 – is some kind of in-joke, perpetuated by the Sitwell clan as a wealthy bohemian indulgence at the expense of a gullible public in search of novelties. Listening to this version, recorded to commemorate Walton’s 70th birthday, and conducted by him with Paul Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft performing the recitals, suggests that it’s a singularly odd blend of verbal humour and musical experiment – not (as is sometimes claimed) in a jazz idiom, but with the quirky tenor of Erik Satie’s compositions, sharing its general atmosphere and tone with his score for Rene Clair’s silent film En’tracte (1924), an enterprise in which erstwhile Dadaist Francis Picabia was also involved. Seen in this context, it’s a good example of British modernism produced with lively humour and a lightness of touch, a point that seems self-evident in such nonsensically playful lines as “And why should the spined flowers/Red as a soldier/ Make Don Pasquito/ Seem still mouldier” (‘Lullaby for Jumbo’), “The light is braying like an ass” (‘Trio for Two Cats and a Trombone’) and “Herodiade’s flea/ Was named sweet Amanda,/ She danced like a lady/ from here to Uganda” (‘Came the Great Popinjay’). Taking its cues from the delight in wordplay of folk poetry and nursery rhyme, Sitwell’s verses seem both modish (“Lily O’Grady/Silly and shady,/Longing to be/A lazy lady”) and – at times – dug from some oddly distorted memory inside the language itself:

Bells of grey crystal
Break on each bough –
The swans’ breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely am I…
The clouds, grey Chinese geese,
Sleek through the sky.

This is ‘Bells of Grey Crystal’ in full, and like much else in Façade it manages to be entirely superficial yet affecting simultaneously; the combination of Sitwell’s nursery-rhyme verses and Walton’s settings, with their parodies of sea-shanties and music hall comedy songs, suggest a peculiarly English sensibility at work. Just as Façade borrowed the devices of European modernism to build a path back to childhood, so English psychedelic bands such as The Kaleidoscope and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd would later eschew the harder formal experimentation and political edges of their American and European contemporaries of the later 1960s in favour of acid-tinged reworks of The Wind in the Willows or a full embrace of Lewis Carroll’s mindbending Victorian doll-house aesthetic. Sitwell’s later work may have fallen rather too often into grandiose pomposity but her early material has its own undeniable energy and appeal, perhaps coming as close as England managed to a native strain of Dadaism – or perhaps a development of the musical genre now known to adherents as Toytown Psychedelia four decades ahead of schedule. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine a 1967 English band in velvet jackets and frilly shirts performing many of these lyrics to the backwards tapes, fuzz guitars and distorted brass bands of the day: “The rooms are vast as sleep within:/When once I ventured in,/Chill silence, like a surging sea,/Slowly enveloped me” (‘Clowns’ Houses’).

Dylan Thomas: Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait

From: Dylan Thomas reading Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait (Caedmon, 1952)

Dylan Thomas was both an early protégé of Edith Sitwell’s and, in some respects, perhaps the indirect instigator of the boom in both public readings of poetry, and spoken word releases on vinyl LPs and 45s, during the 1950s and after. It was Thomas’s renown as a reader (as well as writer) of poetry that saw him endlessly touring the United States in his later years, and Caedmon’s phenomenally successful LP recordings (beginning in 1952, when two young American women, Marianne Roney and Barbara Cohen, brought Thomas’ voice and the medium of vinyl together) became instrumental in showing a market for recordings of such readings existed. Some of these LPs, such as Thomas’s own readings of Under Milk Wood, or his seasonal story A Child’s Christmas in Wales, added at the last minute to his debut recording of five poems for the label, sold in great quantities. That’s probably less true of this far from obviously commercial single, recorded in New York in 1952, on which one of Thomas’ more oblique and knotted late poems is spread over both sides of the record. But if the meaning here is frequently obscure, the language and rhythms are sufficiently rich for a listener to treat the piece as an immersive rather than interpretative experience. Hearing Thomas’s deeply musical reading of such lines as “Sails drank the wind, and white as milk/ He sped into the drinking dark;/ The sun shipwrecked west on a pearl/ And the moon swam out of its hulk” is to allow the long-lined ballad stanzas driving the poem forward to wash through the mind like the sound of the ocean itself: “…nothing remains/Of the pacing, famous sea but its speech,/And into its talkative seven tombs/The anchor dives through the floors of a church”. As Marianne Roney noted in a 1999 interview, looking for an explanation of the success of her fledgling company’s Dylan Thomas recordings with the public, Thomas always “wrote to the thunder of his voice. His poems are inconceivable without that voice”. While it’s possible to hear other voices successfully reading at least some of Thomas’s work (Richard Burton’s performance in Under Milk Wood comes to mind) or appreciate Thomas’ thunderous tones applied to the works of others (notably Yeats and James Stephens, whose poems he often incorporated into his public readings) it’s certainly hard to imagine Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait being this successfully transmitted by any voice that is not Thomas’s own.

Louise Bennett: A Jamaican Alphabet

From: Childrens’ Jamaican Songs and Games Sung by Louise Bennett (Folkways, 1957)

Already well-known at the time of this record’s release as the editor of several anthologies of Jamaican folklore, dialect and stories, and as a newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster, Louise Bennett is often considered the most important figure in carrying the oral traditions of the Caribbean into the post-war evolution of a distinct written literature. While she could be biting and satirical as well as warm and witty in her own poems, with pieces such as ‘Colonisation in Reverse‘ and ‘Independence’ having enormous influence on the writing that developed in her wake, Bennett – always an enormously popular figure in Jamaica – was not widely acknowledged as a poet deserving of literary respect until the 1960s. Jamaica Alphabet is typical of her earlier output, in that a piece of folk poetry is redefined by Bennett’s sensibility, and her linguistic and rhythmic invention, releasing the oral into a written form:

A is fe Ackee Saltfish bes’ frien’
B is fe Bammy Banana an den
C is fe Cocoa, Coconut, Callalloo
D is fe Dumplin’ an Duckoonoo
E is fe Egg nourishin fe eat
F is fe Fu-fu when you lose yuh teeth…

Bennett’s other achievement, of course, was to marry the oral as performance with the new mediums of radio and recording, and it’s worth remembering that Jamaica Alphabet was released on the legendary Folkways label as part of a 10″ album of traditional songs and games in 1957, barely a decade after the SS Windrush had first docked at Tilbury. Its contents – doubtless somewhat exotic to English ears on its initial release – have since become so deeply woven into the fabric of British culture that Bennett’s voice now seems as familiar as Thomas Hardy’s or John Betjeman’s. As a precursor, pointing towards the future of English, and for her immense importance in shaping the spoken poetry and performance that flourished from the 1960s onwards, it’s probably not going too far to suggest that Bennett has been as energising and transformative an influence on the English language poetry of the twentieth century’s second half as T.S. Eliot was on that of the first.

Edward (Kamau) Brathwaite: Calypso

From: Rights of Passage by Edward Brathwaite (Argo, 1968)

As though taking positions on either side of Louise Bennett’s commitment to an oral literature, the two towering figures of Caribbean poetry since the 1960s have been Derek Walcott and Edward Kamau Brathwaite, but while Brathwaite was undoubtedly considered the senior figure during the 1960s and 70s, he has subsequently been eclipsed in Europe and America by Walcott’s ascent to Nobel status in recent decades. As a question of mere literary reputation, this shouldn’t much matter, but it’s the difference in approach between the two bodies of work that perhaps explains how the discrepancy arose. For while Walcott’s response to the poetic marginality of his St Lucia home was to occupy the traditional forms and models of European literature, Brathwaite’s to that of his native Barbados was seemingly to tear up that tradition and begin again, from the example of such Francophone poets as Aimé Cesaire and Nicolás Guillén. The 1967 publication of Rights of Passage, the first book in his first trilogy, sees modernist techniques interwoven with an English that shifts between standard form and the dialects of ‘Nation Language’. Brathwaite re-told the story of the migrations and disruptions of the Middle Passage in a form that echoed the collective experience described: in broken lines, fragments made coherent by a constantly changing rhythm. As Brathwaite himself stated in the sleeve notes to this recording, “the rhythms… convey a great deal of the meaning of the poem. The drum-like beats of its African beginning (‘Drum skin whip/ lash’) give way to the blues of the ‘slave’ section, which in turn develop into the boogie-woogie train rhythms of emancipation, the jazz phrases of urban ghetto life and the creole dialect speech rhythms of the peasant countryside”. For this reason (and not unlike Basil Bunting’s 1978 recording of Briggflats for Bloodaxe) what can seem difficult on paper comes into clear and accessible focus when heard aloud, with the musical structures foregrounded. Brathwaite’s impact on the younger generation of British and Caribbean poets who went on to develop dub poetry and other performance-based styles – Michael Smith and Linton Kwesi Johnson among them – has been undeniable and profound, but his less frequently noted effect on Walcott’s sense of scale in works like Another Life and Omeros probably shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Herbert Read: Exile’s Lament

From: Echoes of My Life by Herbert Read (Argo, 1967)

Released on the Argo record label to commemorate Read’s death in 1968 at the age of 75, the very English sensibility on display throughout Echoes of My Life seems at first glance as far removed from Brathwaite’s concerns in Rights of Passage as it’s possible to be. Yet listening to the two recordings together, it quickly becomes clear that both are concerned with roots and displacements, and Read – a Yorkshire-born poet, anarchist and art critic who first came to prominence with poems and diaries written in the aftermath of war service between 1915 and 1917 – had once described himself as a young man “cast into the frenzy of war with no better personal covering than the philosophy of Nietzsche,” suggesting that his own life had seen its own exiles and disruptions. In this recording, he moves back through his own experience in an effort to bridge the distance between his origins and later years, interspersing passages of prose autobiography from The Contrary Experience with selections and excerpts from the poems, and weaving his own voice with those of Peter Orr and Yvonne Bonnamy to describe a series of landscapes, and the resonances of these in his own sensibility. Read’s frequent sense of the impact of natural forces on an individual consciousness follows in the tradition of Coleridge, and perhaps anticipates Ted Hughes, as when he notes “A rising fish ripples the still waters/And disturbs my soul”, or observes a rook, that “if it should swerve in the sky/Will move the whole world momentously”. Despite his own poetry’s broadly conventional feel, that English Romantic ideal underlay Read’s promotion of Surrealism during the 1930s, and in the book he edited at the time of the 1936 International Exhibition in London, essays by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Hugh Sykes-Davies sketched out the connections between the French movement’s concerns and the longer traditions of Romanticism and political radicalism in England that Read felt made the movement a natural fit with this deep-rooted sensibility in his home culture. It is these interests, rather than his broader role as a polemicist, educational writer and public explicator of modern art, that informs this recording. As the poems move forward from ‘Childhood’ and back into the deeper history of a Saxon and early Christian England glimpsed in such poems as ‘The Ivy and the Ash’ and ‘Dirge’, the record ends with a conjunction of ‘Exile’s Lament’, a polyphony of voices in apparent conversation with Caedmon, the first Christian poet of England, and ‘Lines from Moon’s Farm’, in which the central symbol is a clock. In one passage, Read finds belonging in a village whose inn, to his delight, is named The Wings Of Liberty, and these homespun details combine with reminiscences on the ancient kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, and the thought, voiced by an exile, that we might live “for fifty years in successive states of illusion”, our best hope to believe “it is not too late for these illusions to be re-established”.

Joan Baez: The Magic Wood

From: Baptism: A Journey Through Our Time, Sung and Spoken by Joan Baez (Vanguard, 1968)

This selection of spoken and sung pieces with settings – both musical and atmospheric – by Peter Shickele, also emerged in 1968, and while Baez’s concept presents itself as ‘a journey through our time’, the record draws mainly on older material to present its portrait of the political turbulence of its day. Works by Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, James Joyce, Countee Cullen, Wilfred Owen, William Blake and Norman Cameron’s translations of Arthur Rimbaud appear alongside Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s ‘Colours’, Norman Rosten’s ‘In Guernica’, Jacques Prevert’s ‘Song of the Blood’, Kenneth Rexroth’s ‘Poems from the Japanese’ and the anonymous lullaby ‘All The Pretty Horses’ in a surprisingly effective and considered meditation on war, love and idealism, allowing the many voices gathered into Baez’s own to create a deeper perspective on an age of slogans and easily-chosen sides. Perhaps the most surprising inclusions are three poems from the now largely forgotten 1940s Faber poetry collections of Henry Treece, whose ‘Old Welsh Song’, ‘Who Murdered The Minutes’ and ‘The Magic Wood’ each offer a fusion of the early WB Yeats’ elegant lyrical impulses and Dylan Thomas’s more extravagant linguistic compression. Baez’s version of ‘The Magic Wood’ is – like her setting of e.e. cummings’ ‘All in Green Went My Love Riding’ – a case of a poem written under the influence of folk song re-translated back into that tradition. In ‘The Magic Wood’ this creates not just a very fine setting of an unduly neglected poem but one of Baez’s own best performances, beautifully poised between the breathless innocence of her singing voice and Treece’s wonderfully nightmarish imagery:

I met a man with eyes of glass
And a finger curled as the wriggling worm,
And hair all red with rotting leaves,
And a stick that hissed like a summer snake.

The wood is full of shining eyes,
The wood is full of creeping feet,
The wood is full of tiny cries;
You must not go to the wood at night!

The Open Window: The Priests of the Raven of Dawn

From: The Open Window: Peter Shickele, Stanley Walden, Robert Dennis (Vanguard, 1969)

A very different proposition from Baez’s arranger Peter Shickele is this 1969 recording of a song built from two different William Blake poems, presenting the verses of ‘London’ intact but inserting a refrain from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ as a kind of chorus. The mood is set by repeated electric piano vamps and a doom-laden organ, creating an experience akin to an otherworldly progressive rock sermon. It’s superbly atmospheric, and delivers Blake’s extraordinary poetry – “In every cry of every man/ In every infant’s cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban/ The mind-forg’d manacles I hear” – without worrying about possible archaisms, and deploying its late sixties musical armoury with unusual sensitivity to the text’s own shifting moods. As Shickele’s sleeve-notes rightly emphasise, Blake’s ‘London’ may have been written in the 1790s “but there’s no need to update it, or to pretend that it’s not also about, say, New York”. As with the 1970s jazz settings of Blake’s poetry by Mike Westbrook and Michael Horovitz’s adoption of Blake as the figurehead of his late sixties anthology of performance-based poetry, Children of Albion, ‘The Priests of the Raven of Dawn’ offers a lesser-known piece of evidence in support of Blake’s currency in the underground culture of this time on both sides of the Atlantic.

BBC Drama Workshop with Ronald Duncan and David Cain: July

From: The Seasons. Poems by Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, Radiophonic Music by David Cain (BBC, 1969)

As you’d expect from the national broadcasting body, responsible for most of the UK’s schools programming on radio and television for the better part of 70 years, the BBC archives are a rich seam of recordings in which pretty much every possible approach to presenting text in audio formats is tried out. From well known actors reading the works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth to specially commissioned scripts devised for radio by many of the post-war era’s best-known poets, perhaps the most fascinating today are the readings set to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s distinctive and hugely influential electronic sounds. On this 1969 recording, the Workshop’s David Cain creates abstract soundscapes for the poems of Ronald Duncan, who moves through each of the 12 months of the year in turn, and Derek Bowskill, who offers four poems on the four seasons, from Spring to Winter. For ‘March‘, Cain generates minimal rhythmic scales that seem to skip happily along, but periodically stumble on dry synthetic rustles, like feet dragging in leaves, as Duncan intones “The Earth is washing, who will wake her?/ Burn the brambles from the hedge./ Fire will rouse her/ Bring a scrubbing brush of ice/ Frost to soap her,/ Till the fingers of rain/ Fall and rinse her”. The effect is curiously disjunctive, as when the decayed folk-tunes of ‘May’ accompany imagery of a female-personified Earth going “in impudent loveliness/ To meet the wind’s wantonness:/ Wet leaves of vine, her lips;/Their kiss, the heather rose…”, or the stately but melancholy processional of ‘July’ evokes Duncan’s “Empress with an endless train”, followed by “white swans and modest little boats” whose “cortege goes/ Down to the indifferent sea”. Throughout, nature is powerfully evoked through sounds that are far removed from the natural. The vivid poems (“Like severed hands the wet leaves lie”, writes Duncan in ‘October‘; “Now night on all fours/ Crawls cautiously through the valley”, he adds for ‘November‘) are steeped in the neo-pagan imagery of fertility, death and resurrection, and set here to a sonically inventive palette of clicks, bleeps, rustles, whooshes and rhythmic patterns that will be familiar from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s other early productions. These – the work of composers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram and John Baker – domesticated the alien sounds of electronic music into such familiar yet startling shapes as the Dr Who theme and the 1960s call signals of BBC Radio Nottingham and Sheffield. The sleeve-notes of this LP suggest that David Cain was responsible for a 1967 setting of Eliot’s The Waste Land that should also be well worth tracking down, if it still exists.*

[Note: Since first writing this, I had the opportunity to ask Cain himself about his Waste Land setting. It turned out this was never recorded, to his knowledge, and was made as an arrangement for a live performance.]

The Liverpool Scene: Winter Poem

From The Liverpool Scene: Bread on the Night (RCA, 1970)

When the Penguin Modern Poets series published its tenth volume, bringing together three young Liverpool poets, there might have been some calculation that poets from the Beatles’ home city might prove a popular choice, but probably few clues as to the mainstream best-seller status that followed. While the contributors continue to be spoken of together, as the Liverpool Poets, the three were all notably different, even in 1967, when The Mersey Sound first appeared. Brian Patten’s work displayed a stumbling but often likeable adolescent sincerity, Roger McGough’s updated older music hall and cabaret traditions, while Adrian Henri’s interests were more underground and bohemian, encompassing jazz, painting and literary modernism. McGough and Henri both moved into making records that travelled a long way from the idea of merely recording their own poems, and McGough’s trio The Scaffold (with John Gorman and Mike McGear) scored mainstream novelty hits like Lily The Pink alongside occasional pop-psychedelic curiosities, and they continued to work as a cabaret and recording act well into the 1970s. Henri’s The Liverpool Scene – an altogether more volatile outfit that also included the independent song-writing talent of Andy Roberts – is more varied in its blend of music and word, with Roberts’ grasp of folk, blues and jazz idioms meshed into Henri’s knowing (and often satirical) approach to the key bohemian tropes of his time. The version of Henri’s long poem ‘The Entry Of Christ Into Liverpool‘, based on a painting made in the early 1960s as a homage to James Ensor, unrolls against a backdrop of loose jazz, while the Henri-penned instrumental ‘Come Into The Perfumed Garden Maud’, with its Eastern scales and heavy improvisation, seems to anticipate such current cult bands as Voice of the Seven Woods and Six Organs of Admittance, demonstrating that Henri’s input was not always, or even predominantly, on the lyrical side. Even so, perhaps it’s his own ‘Winter Poem’, an effective mood-piece with atmospheric and minimal backings, that comes closest to the mood generated by David Cain, and it’s tempting to wonder if Henri had that BBC recording in mind when recording this track. The influence of the Liverpool Poets is often spoken of today in terms set largely by knowledge of McGough’s most accessible work, with its clear sentiments, gentle comedy and love of puns, but the recordings of The Liverpool Scene (alongside the best of Henri’s poetry, and such publications as Environments and Happenings, his 1974 study of installation and performance art) suggest that the phenomenon was both wider ranging and more attuned in significant ways to the traditions of modernism than is usually acknowledged, by either the advocates or detractors, who continue to debate the Liverpool Poets’ influence.

Edwin Morgan: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

From: The Barrow Poets: Magic Egg (Argo, 1972)

A music and poetry aggregation who made records from around 1963 into the early 1970s, The Barrow Poets’ core members were William Bealby-Wright, Gerard Benson, Cicely Smith, Heather Black and Susan Baker. They began with a cabaret presenting a broad range of material, from Shakespeare, Walter de la Mare and Robert Graves to Ogden Nash and Jack Kerouac, and on later recordings for Harley Usill’s marvellously eccentric Argo label – such as Joker and Outpatients – added more material written by the poets and performers themselves, with music by Jim Parker, whose CV also includes work on John Betjeman’s recordings for the progressive rock-leaning Charisma label, of which more later. Magic Egg is billed as the group’s childrens’ LP, and the title track recasts an Assyrian legend as a song that shares some DNA with the material created by the noted folk musicians Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner for Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Bagpuss in 1973. Elsewhere, though, the material covers Edwin Morgan’s noted sound poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, Miroslav Holub’s ‘How to Paint a Perfect Christmas’ and Adrian Mitchell’s version of the English ‘world turned upside down’ poem, ‘Nothing Mass Day’, alongside a variety of folk pieces such as ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘The Turtle Dove’. The version of Edwin Morgan’s piece is especially strong, taking the witty print version of this entirely wordless poem and presenting it as a piece of anarchic vocalese full of gurgles, roars and other meaningless but evocative glossolalia, part childrens’ party piece, part distant cousin of the Dadaist experiments of Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball, as the monster herself surfaces, looks around, and – not liking what she sees – returns to the depths of Loch Ness.

Sir John Betjeman: The Licorice Fields at Pontefract

From: Sir John Betjeman: Late Flowering Love (Charisma, 1974)

Jim Parker adds his musical stylings to the familiar tones of the best-known post-war Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, on several recordings, with recordings like Banana Blush and this one, Late Flowering Love, picking up on the popularity of Betjeman’s films and documentaries with settings that sometimes create 1920s pastiches or summery string arrangements to frame his words, but occasionally offer something more sinister and interesting, as in the crawling bass-line that underscores ‘Late Flowering Lust’, Betjeman’s account of an old man’s vision of entwined skeletons as his speaker “runs his fingers down your dress/ With brandy-certain aim” and concludes, in the aftermath of reignited passion, that “Too long we let our bodies cling,/ We cannot hide disgust/ At all the thoughts that in us spring/ From this late-flowering lust.” In another piece here, ‘The Licorice Fields of Pontefract’, Parker adds the feel of a psychedelic brass band to the typically cosy voice that intones: “In the liquorice fields at Pontefract/ My love and I did meet/ And many a burdened liquorice bush/ Was blooming round our feet…”. Located somewhere between a downbeat take on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ and the darker, more unsettling hallucinations being created by former Mr Fox member Bob Pegg on records like Ancient Maps around the same time, it’s a reminder that Betjeman could be a surprisingly strange poet at times, deploying his reassuring tones to slip all kinds of sex and death-obsessed peculiarity under the radar of his audience. No wonder Philip Larkin liked him.

Peter Redgrove: From the Reflections of Mr Glass

From: British Poets of Our Time: Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter (Argo, 1975)

Alongside its many releases of train-sounds LPs, Shakespeare plays, radio ballads by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger and a wide-ranging series of ethnographic field recordings edited by Deben Bhattacharya, the Argo label also gave what looks like free rein to Peter Orr to compile a series of recordings of contemporary poets reading their own works. Besides Orr’s rightly renowned The Poet Speaks compilations, each featuring four or five poets, and widely used in schools, a separate strand of LPs was produced under the general heading British Poets of Our Time. These differed from the anthology approach of The Poet Speaks titles by devoting either a whole record to one author (as was done for Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn and W.H.Auden) or – as was more common – splitting an LP between two contrasting or complementary voices. Intriguing connections were thus forged between Stevie Smith and Adrian Mitchell, Norman Nicholson and Tony Connor, and, as here, the urbanely witty early work of Peter Porter, already trailing the shadows that would deepen through the next decade, and the free-associative Cornish strangeness, with its unique strain of scientific romanticism, of Peter Redgrove. Both poets read on this LP without accompaniment of any kind, and do so very engagingly indeed, proving that, sometimes, the words themselves and the poets’ own voices are all that is necessary.

Dave Dallwitz Jazz Band: Patterns for Slatterns

From: Dave Dallwitz & His Jazz Band: Ern Malley Jazz Suite (Swaggie, 1975)

The story of Australia’s most notorious modern poet, a man who never existed, was told in fascinating detail by Michael Heyward’s 1993 book The Ern Malley Affair, in which Ern’s creation as a tool to discredit Australia’s nascent avant-garde by the conservative poets James McAuley and Howard Stewart while on active service in 1943 set in train a compellingly unlikely series of events and connections. Malley’s poetry and fictional back-story were embraced by the young Melbourne editor Max Harris, who published the works in his magazine Angry Penguins. Harris’ subsequent trial for obscenity over the publication of these poems, and the debates in court and elsewhere over their value, is all laid out in brilliantly entertaining detail by Heyward’s account, which also includes copies of all the letters, poems and collages faked up by McAuley and Stewart in Malley’s name. Far from an ordinary hoax, however, Malley’s invention left a legacy in which the fake collection of this fabricated poet, published under the title The Darkening Ecliptic, ended up becoming one of the iconic works of the Australian modernism it had been created to discredit and Malley passed into Australian culture as a folk-hero to rival Ned Kelly. Which is no doubt why more than thirty years after the original hoax and its attendant dramas had been played out, Australian band leader Dave Dallwitz felt inspired to create his Ern Malley Jazz Suite, setting selections from Malley’s cut and paste texts to 1930s style jazz music, intercutting songs based on such poems as ‘Culture as Exhibit’, ‘Boult to Marina’ and ‘Perspective Lovesong’ with instrumental passages evoking portraits of Max Harris, Sidney Nolan and Malley himself – whose best-known likeness was the painting of Nolan’s creation featured on the LP’s sleeve. The raucous jazz pastiches of the band’s music generate a synthetic feel that complements the texts well, and Penny Eames’ singing enunciates the absurd poetry of such lines as “And I must go with stone feet/ Down the staircase of flesh” (‘Sweet William’) with a deadpan brilliance that is hard to fault.

R.S. Thomas: Welsh Landscape

From: R.S. Thomas Reading his own Poems (Oriel Records, 1976)

In the drought summer of 1976, The Welsh Arts Council visited the home of R.S. Thomas with some basic recording equipment and taped his readings of around 40 poems, releasing the results on this LP, a fascinating back-to-basics project that frames Thomas’s sometimes odd lineation on the page in the brittle, old-fashioned voice (not unlike Eliot’s, and the opposite of Dylan Thomas’s thunderous delivery) that helps to make sense of his signature poetic techniques. Side one covers material from his work between 1946 and 1968, and includes such poems as ‘A Peasant’ and ‘Walter Llywarch’, while side two divides equally between his two early 1970s books H’m and Laboratories of the Spirit, poems that seem marginally less bleak only because they encompass a more mythic dimension than the earlier work. Despite the poems’ focus on human suffering at the hands of an arbitrary universe and its largely absent creator, their angular music and Thomas’s ability to create compelling, often beautiful, images from his bleak material gives the effect of a hard-won transcendence; the Crucifixion is “love in a dark crown/ Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree/ Golden with fruit of a man’s body” (‘In a Country Church’), while for all the general despairing tone of ‘Welsh Landscape’, the vivid “spilled blood/ That went into the making of the wild sky” and half-comic dismissal of the past (“Brittle with relics,/ Wind-bitten towers and castles/ With sham ghosts”) ensure that however disconsolate the words may be, their grounding in the passing beauties of the world, even (perhaps especially) at its least picturesque, ensures there’s an ultimate sense that life might, in the end, mean something after all.

Cecil Rajendra: The Animal and Insects Act

From: An Evening of International Poetry (Alliance Records, 1982)

By the early 1980s, the shape of what was already becoming a distinct spoken word and performance poetry scene was well established, and one of its key strands is given a showcase on this double album presenting a rising generation of African, Caribbean and Asian poets, many with roots on the page, but all equally interested in the possibilities for immediate communication with audiences offered by performance. Recorded live at Camden Town Hall in March 1982, it’s a snapshot of an historic moment, sandwiched between the punishing recession and inner-city riots that greeted the early years of Conservative government and the launch of the Falklands War that year, widely believed to have saved Margaret Thatcher from electoral defeat in 1983. Edward Kamau Brathwaite is the senior figure, lending his considerable weight and sense of history to the evening with a reading of ‘For The Third World’, and (perhaps not surprising, given the event’s links to 1982’s First International Fair of Black and Third World Books, the brainchild of John La Rose) the concerns of many – though not all – contributors are political in nature and subject. James Berry writes from the perspective of a ‘Black Man On Trial in London’, E.A. Markham presents a woman transferring her anger into bread making in ‘Don’t Talk to Me About Bread’, Linton Kwesi Johnson performs ‘Di Great Insohrekshan‘, his definitive poem on the Brixton riots, and John Agard offers observations on the attitudes revealed by ‘Graffiti in a British Rail Waiting Room’. Jack Mapanje’s quirky perspective in ‘Travelling on London Tubes’, Valerie Bloom’s comic ‘Recommendation’ and the absurdist legal satire of Cecil Rajendra’s ‘The Animal and Insects Act’ ensure the tone is varied, taking in voices from India, Cuba and Africa as well as the Caribbean. Some of the material is of its day, but much still has a clear resonance: in hindsight it’s easy to see that these voices were transforming English speech, and the poetry written in it, in ways that are still very much with us.

Marie Osmond: Karawane

From: Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, by Greil Marcus (Rough Trade, 1993)

Punk’s relationship to poetry is usually defined by the stick-thin figure of John Cooper Clarke, and in his early recordings (notably his adaptation of a 1940s barrack-room ballad into the mordantly funny, expletive-laden ‘Chickentown‘ and his bleak portrait of the more desolate corners of England in the late 70s and early 80s, ‘Beasley Street‘) Clarke set an example of accessible, sweary rhyming that bred a legion of imitators, and his approach is still used as a template by many contemporary spoken word artists; pretty much any open-mic night in the country will bring a few verbal stylings directly traceable to Cooper Clarke into plain view. Yet while this side of punk created its own form of alternative cabaret, Greil Marcus’s 1989 book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century proposed a different lineage, with its roots in a very different kind of cabaret: the Cabaret Voltaire, established in Zurich during the first world war, and the starting point of Dada as a movement in art, literature, politics and design. His book generated sufficient interest for this 1993 ‘soundtrack’ to be released by Rough Trade, pushing raw punk demos by The Slits, Liliput, The Raincoats and Buzzcocks into the same lineage as The Orioles’ 1948 doo-wop hit ‘It’s Too Soon To Know’, Benny Spellman’s 1962 recording of ‘Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)’ and Bascam Lamar Lunsford’s 1928 take on the Appalachian ballad ‘I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground’. Threaded between these more conventional tracks are such works as Raoul Haussmann’s ‘phoneme bbbb’ and Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck’s ‘L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer’, examples of sound and nonsense poetry made in the years between 1916 and 1918, and in Marcus’s view the founding documents of what came to be known as punk during 1976. Perhaps the most intriguing piece featured is a version of Hugo Ball’s ‘Karawane’ performed by the clean-cut Mormon pop-star Marie Osmond, recorded for an episode of the American TV series Ripley’s Believe it or Not in 1984. There’s a certain logic to the incongruity here; just as punk became cabaret during the 1980s, and it transpired, anyway, that the Sex Pistols’ sole LP had drawn heavily on the session bass playing of Chris Spedding (previously a member of Mike Batt’s bubblegum children’s TV cash-in group The Wombles) so it seems strangely fitting that an Osmond, of all people, might create her own fleeting moment of cultural insurrection.

The cultural confusion her recital creates seems a fitting place to close the story, for now. By the early 1990s, of course, the vinyl LP had already largely ceased to be the format for spoken word recordings, replaced by cassette and CD audio books, and those in turn are now being pushed to the margins by podcasts, downloads and online streaming video formats. As the formats continue to mutate the one sure thing is that the story outlined here continues, and poetry will keep finding outlets far beyond the traditional confines of the printed page, even as the book itself – one of the most resourceful technologies yet created – continues to hold its own.