Thursday, July 14, 2011

auntie | stalking runes on stilts

The legacy of the British Broadcasting Corporation as laudable custodian of culture is something of a poisoned chalice.

Ever financially accountable to its board of governors, and - by extension of its reliance on a mandatory license fee - the public purse, its historic policy of erasing tapes of significance in a bid to balance the books has courted grieving and contrition.

At the same time, it is only as a direct result of its quite impeccable role in the fostering and nurturing of emerging talent, that such criticism might be justified.

Whereas in the commercial recording sector - EMI at Abbey Road; Decca Studios at Broadhurst Gardens - master reels may have been 'lost' due to human error, less than meticulously implemented systems of archiving, for decades the BBC deliberately pursued a quite ruthless policy of wiping - a relentless marching back to Year Zero - wholly at odds with its much trumpeted position as cornerstone of popular culture and the arts.

And while coverage of key institutional events was zealously preser
ved for posterity, a dusty corner in the vaults was seldom a given for the rattle of pots and pans in the servants' quarters.

Sadly, in the era before negotiating overseas rights became financially lucrative, and the domestic technological boom saw video transfer usher in a whole n
ew market, that which could not be recycled was all too often irretrievably destroyed or swept straight into landfill.

So many canvases painted over.

The millions squandered as it sought to compete with the ITA for a share of prime time audience make those pennies saved all the more ludicrous.

A curious paradigm of the cult of dubious celebrity. The galloping cost of auntie's costume jewelry.

The zeitgeist, then, through the 1960s into the late 70s and Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, may have been broadcast but it was glimpsed as a flash in the pan.

In 1998 Hux Records was launched as a conduit for hitherto unreleased archive recordings, often specializing in sessions originally commissioned at the BBC. Working in collaboration with those featured artists where possible, each release is a painstaking effort of restoration; compiling and remastering material where found, the end result annotated by extensive liner notes corroborating detail where speculation previously reigned.

The 2007 twin CD release of those BBC recordings made by the Incredible String Band between 1969 and 1974, 'Across The Airwaves', is an indispensable document gathering material from sessions for John Peel, Stuart Henry, and Pete Drummond, in addition to three 'In Concert' live performances at the Paris Theatre and Golders Green Hippodrome, London, recorded and broadcast between 1971 and 4.

With fourteen pages of liner notes researched by Adrian Whittaker, and - for the first time - a complete sessionography, '
Across The Airwaves' plays in perfect counterpoint to official studio releases. Across and through '5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion'; 'Wee Tam & the Big Huge'. 'The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter'. As Whittaker observes:

"The ISB soon adopted an adventurous approach to their BBC work, using the sessions to try out new, unreleased... or radically rearrange older material. This makes their sessions particularly deserving of a wider audience, as many of the tracks remained otherwise unrecorded."

Of the thirty-three cuts included here, thirteen had never been issued in any shape
or form.

Nothing from the band's first two sessions - Pete Drummond & Tommy Vance's Top Gear from October, 1967; John Peel's Nightride from March, 1968 - survives
in sufficient fidelity to merit selection (albeit both sessions may be accessed on the seven CD bootleg, 'God's Holiday'), but a further session for Peel's Nightride, recorded and originally broadcast in March of the following year is represented in its entirety; intriguingly so, given that the closing track of the session, the Robin Williamson composition 'Fine Fingered Hands' - which would only resurface years later on his solo 1998 release, 'Ring Dance' - missed its scheduled spot when a live poetry reading from Adrian Mitchell ran well over time.

The track was broadcast, but not until after the 1:00 AM news bulletin, into a wholly unrelated segment of programming, and the original tape was consequently mislai
d. That it features here at all is entirely fortuitous; preserved as it was by String Band aficionado, Richard Bartram, who captured its airing on his father's reel-to-reel.

The Incredible String Band, of course, trod a very peculiar path.

The highlight of those studio sessions, for me perhaps, is Mike Heron's arrangement of the traditional Hindu devotional, 'Raga Puti' (Ragupati) which was twice recorded for the BBC over separate sessions in late 1970: Stuart Henry's Sound of the Seventies in September, and Peel's Top Gear a month later, the broadcast of which was uncharacteristically postponed until January, 1971. The version which appears here, as on 'God's Holiday', is from the former; performed by Heron and Williamson, Rose Simpson and Likky McKechnie.

In the period broadly coinciding with the recording of 'U' for Elektra and Joe Boyd's departure as manager and producer.

Again, the original session tapes, we are informed, have not survived. B
ut for amateur "off-air" recordings of the original broadcasts, such insights may almost certainly have perished.

Heron's 'Raga Puti' is every inch as gloriously deranged as anything by th
e Velvet Underground in their finest incarnation. Or the first Amon Düül. Well. Almost. Itself an interpretation of a treatment by Ananda Shankar - according to Whittaker's sleeve notes - Heron and Williamson weave an addled dervish over an insistent cauldron pulse, a Northern Irish lambeg drum, stirred over by Rose and Likky as watchful acolytes.

These two sessions focus on the Incredible String Band as an intimate circle in transition. A knot unravelling. By the time of 1971's 'BBC In Concert', recorded on 28th March, Malcolm Le Maistre was drafted in as official replacement for Simpson, an integral functioning part of the collective since 1968.

The performance is polished but - to my ears, at least - queerly inhibited, showcasing new material which would not grace their first album release for Island that August, 'Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air', or find its way onto vinyl at any later date.

Further sessions for Peel and Drummond were commissioned in October and November but are not represented on either 'Across the Airwaves' or 'God's Holiday'. A subsequent session for Peel's Sounds of the Seventies was recorded in February of 1972 and broadcast - in part - that March. Once more, the original tapes were wiped, but a transcription produced by BBC International yielded 'Secret Temple', a joint composition by McKechnie and Williamson tentatively slated for release on 'Earthspan', and never aired.

"Lyrically it's rather an opaque song - is it addressing a lover, or a deity, or both ?"

Neither Williamson or Heron profess any shred of understanding as to motivation, seemingly preferring to maintain a respectful distance. Allowing it to speak in tongues. A language lost.

As it stands, it steals out of the lungs of Autumns gone as Likky's last breath as part of the Incredible String Band.

By no means, though, would I wish to suggest that this changing of horses effectively hobbled progress. Even a casual listen to 'No Ruinous Feud' refutes that, and further sessions for John Peel through August 1972 to October 1973 demonstrate Williamson and Heron experimenting with a revolving personnel to fine effect.

This last session, in particular - featuring promoted roadies Stan Schnier on pedal steel and Jack Ingram on drums, alongside Le Maistre and the newly recruited Graham Forbes - is arguably one of the String Band's most successful in that it produced the immediately engaging and never officially released Mike Heron composition, 'Jane'. And Williamson's 'Dreams of No Return'; the latter later resurfacing on their twelfth and final album release, 1974's 'Hard Rope & Silken Twine'.

Admittedly, this particular session was covered previously through Strange Fruit's 1997 CD issue, 'On Air', compiling 12 songs from various Peel Sessions, but where 'Across the Airwaves' excels is in mitigating the damage done by the very body responsible for commissioning such a tangle of fabric in the first instance. The administration of a trust fund under a benign but bipolar tottering maiden aunt.

Setting it out in something approaching a fully lucid chronological context; inviting the listener to draw educated comparisons between material in the raw, and the evolution of a very fluid winding jaunt as presented by a series of definitive studio releases.

No small undertaking. No ruinous feud.

Painting detail(s) and study by Richard Dadd;
Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix.

INCREDIBLE STRING BAND: RAGA PUTI from "Across The Airwaves: BBC Radio Recordings 1969-1974" 2 x CD (Hux Records) 2007 (UK)
INCREDIBLE STRING BAND: DREAMS OF NO RETURN from "Across The Airwaves: BBC Radio Recordings 1969-1974" 2 x CD (Hux Records) 2007 (UK)


Holly said...

Thank you, ib - I had no idea!

BTW, Did you ever have occasion to send the Fall link?

ib said...


What ? The Fall link ? I'm confused. Aglow.

Well. I think the Fall are more than admirably covered, regards sessions into print. Also. I believe Mark E. is too curmudugeonly to allow the associated royalties to fall fallow, but I could well be wrong.

Basically. John Peel's demise left a huge void. It has never been adequately filled, not by a long chalk, but... the infrastructure within the BBC is no longer so naive. Nor, sadly, is it remotely as adventurous or capable.

This is the very sort of (administrative) progress which leaves me cold.

On the one hand, the BBC throughout the 60s and 70s was staffed, it seems, by a tiny but hardcore group of extremely talented individuals working on a shoe-string. A lousy salary. This modus operandi percolated throughout. From the best of current affairs to childrens' broadcasts.

Such is no longer the norm. For good and bad. The worst.

Well. Should I ever feel so inclined, I will certainly contact Hux with some very vague proposal.

Freddie Phillips, anyone ?

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