31 December 2009

Disco Inferno - The Trammps


It's 1976, a full year before Saturday Night Fever would tell you where to go when the record was over, a full year before Studio 54 began to fill up with the celebrities of the era. The Trammps, one of the original disco bands, down in Philadelphia, were about to release their defining single, the one song for which they would be most remembered. Not their first single, no - there was 1972's Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart and 1973's Love Epidemic. But Hold Back The Night and That's Where The Happy People Go weren't inducted into the Dance Music Hall Of Fame in 2005, were they?

The Trammps are better than just Disco Inferno, of course, but every band needs an anthem, a favourite song that excites the fans and keeps the royalties coming in when the imperial phase has ended. It was released with a b-side of You Touch My Hot Line on 7" and 12" by Atlantic Records, and there is even a ten-minute version on the Disco Inferno album. Rumours abound concerning an unreleased twenty minute version, mixed together by Tom Moulton, for the hardcore fans.

If you're wondering why, out of all the singles released by The Trammps, Disco Inferno should be the one to make it big, then you probably need to look at the soundtrack to the film Saturday Night Fever. Then there's the cover versions, including Cyndi Lauper's version on the soundtrack to A Night At The Roxbury, with accompanying single release. Oh, and Tina Turner - as if we could forget Tina, and her 1993 release with added Beatmasters remixes. There are other versions, of varying quality, and even Madonna decided to have a go at singing the lyrics from Music over an instrumental version of the song. 'Music Inferno', apparently.

As for the lyrics, apparently we're in a large discotheque in which 'the boogie' presumably reaches critical mass and begins to explode. Before you know it, everyone's getting completely out of control, there's some form of chain-reaction and woomph, everybody's becoming rather hot under the collar. They're probably dancing in a really outrageous way, that kind of thing, Halston dresses and Qiana shirts melting left right and centre due to the friction. Oh, it's easy to mock, I know; it's hardly as if anyone's going to imagine it's about a real fire - clearly it's a sort of metaphor, although not a particularly good one at that. You may now look erudite.

Actually, if you've ever seen Phoenix Nights, there is a delightful scene with an over-the-top fire safety inspector, who has received a letter concerning a fire which he reads out to show the severity of the situation. As he reads, it becomes obvious that he is reading the lyrics to the song, entirely convinced it describes a real event. 'Burn baby burn, disco inferno, burn that mother down,' he intones dramatically, adding 'Another kiddie orphaned there.' Ah, the genius of Peter Kay.

30 December 2009

Are You Hoping For A Miracle?


The miraculous is all around us.

28th May, 2009: Claire Allen, aged 36, is about to feed her son a slice of Marmite on toast when she notices Jesus watching her from the underside of the yellow plastic lid. Her husband, Gareth, cannot believe his eyes, but finds a camera to capture this defining moment. Her three sons agree that they can see a face, and one goes so far as to claim 'it looks like God'. Claire likes to think it's 'Jesus looking out for us'.

23rd July, 2008: Birnin Kebbi, whilst consuming fried beef, spots the name of Allah inscribed in the unpalatable curves of a piece of gristle. The restaurateur, upon further searching, discovers three more pieces of similar meat, each containing the holy message. A vet explains that the appearance defies scientific explanation, while visiting Islamic scholars claim 'it was a sign to show that Islam is the only true religion for mankind'.

31st January, 2006: A customer of Walker Aquatics in the UK town of Rawtenstall discovers a fish with markings which spell Allah in Arabic. It is believed the reverse side contains the word Mohammed. The customer offers ten pounds for the fish, and purchases a seven hundred pound tank in which to keep it. Shop owner, Tony Walker expects there to be more interest in the fish.

Christmas Day, 2005: The 'Nun Bun', a flaky pastry in the shape of Catholic nun Mother Teresa is stolen from a bakers shop in Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally discovered in 1996, varnished and placed in a glass case for safety.

April 21, 2005: Flowers and candles begin to pile up at a motorway underpass in Chicago, where a stain on the wall forms the face of the Virgin Mary. While city spokesman Mike Claffey said the image was likely to be caused by salt, he reassured onlookers that they had no plans to clean the site. Raven Leroux, 57, told AFP news agency that it was the first time he had felt something so deeply in his heart. "There is something in the air... her energy is here."

November 17th, 2004: Diana Duyser, 52, of Hollywood, places a half-eaten slice of cheese toast containing the image of the Virgin Mary on eBay with a starting bid of three thousand dollars. Mrs Duyser wants all potential bidders to know that 'this item is not intended for consumption'. It eventually fetches twenty-eight thousand pounds.

November 2nd, 2004: Thousands of people converge on the Catholic Church in Ghana's capital city after the image of Jesus Christ appears on rough marble stones within a small grotto on the church grounds. Some worshippers claim it is a sign that the world will end within the year. One woman pauses from her Hail Marys to explain why Jesus has chosen to appear at Dansoman: it is an unassuming place, and therefore in tune with his teachings about modesty and humility.

17th June, 2003: Catholic worshippers swamp a US hospital after a leaking chemical deposit inside a sealed window forms an image of the Virgin Mary. The hospital asks pilgrims to limit their visiting hours to between 1730 and 1830 as the crowds are making hospital work difficult. Bouquets are placed beneath the window, and one mother is observed to bring her son, who uses a wheelchair, to touch the wall with his legs. The hospital is keen to point out that it does not consider the flood of visitors to be a 'nuisance'.

November 16th, 2002: Shella Anthony discovers a chapati into which is burned the image of the face of Christ. The chapati is housed in a glass case, and pilgrims travel from nearby villages to offer prayers. Father Jacob George, of the Renewal Retreat Centre, is convinced it is a miracle, and is prepared to say so.

October 11th, 2000: The combined effects of a street lamp, wooden fence and tree cause the image of Christ to be projected in a miraculous vision which brings an influx of visitors to South Australian town Port Germaine. Father Arno Vermeeren of the local Catholic diocese admits he needs convincing the apparition is the result of any supernatural power. Peter Moore, of the district council, is more mercenary in his approach: It is yet another reason to come to Port Germein, he said.

September 6th, 2000: Christians converge on the town of Assiut after the Virgin Mary repeatedly appears with outstretched hands, accompanied by a large number of pigeons and the smell of burning incence. Additionally, Father Mina Hanna claims to have seen a large, white, brightly-lit pigeon appearing and disappearing. He announces the sightings as a blessing for Assiut, and extols the manner in which the visions have served to bring both Christians and Muslims closer together.

September 9th, 1999: While preparing a meal for her family, Shabana Hussain slices a tomato in two and finds bismillah traced out in the veins of one half. The other half of the vegetable reads la illaha illala: There is no God but Allah. The Imam from the local mosque confirms that the tomato contains the scriptures, and it is suggested that the tomato may act as a holy panacea for the ill.

May 28th, 1898: Amateur photographer Secondo Pia took a picture of the cloth believed to have enclosed Jesus' body after his crucifixion. The negative of his image, taken from the display of the shroud in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, showed a startling representation of a male figure, and Pia was immediately accused of forgery and not vindicated until 1931. His discovery has never been officially endorsed by the Catholic church, though in 1958 Pope Pius XII approved the image as the holy face of Jesus.
The miraculous is all around us: all we have to do is sew our eyes tightly closed and swear blind we can see it too.
Sources:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/8071865.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7520149.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/4667610.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/2484195.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/967421.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4468275.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/2999172.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/4034787.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/912026.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3976161.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/2775461.stm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracle
http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080723000604AAtj6sA
http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/10166, http://www.yoism.org/?q=node/379
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shroud_of_Turin

Erosmachine - Jean Michel Jarre


Erosmachine is the 2:54 b-side to Jean Michel Jarre's 1971 7" single 'La Cage'. Like La Cage, it is an experimental track based around manipulated tape loops and acoustically-altered analogue recordings. In a later interview around the time of Chronologie, Jarre recalls measuring and splicing the magnetic tape to create the background rhythm track, composed of clanging metal and twanged steel rulers, forming a mechanical, machine-like background. The same rhythmic pastiche is re-used in Chronologie Part II as a representation of time passing, this time created with far less effort using a computer.

Erosmachine is a disturbing track, as over these mechanical twangings and grindings is the breathy sound of a woman, gasping and moaning, and electronic chords straight out of early David Cronenberg soundtracks. It's like the theme song to some mad, sexual horror film - the rape scene from 'Tetsuo: The Iron Man', or those penetrating cables from a H.R. Giger painting. And then, at the end, the screaming starts...

29 December 2009

At Home With The Snails

At Home With The Snails is a thoroughly odd British comedy series from Radio 4. It was originally broadcast in 2001, and the fact that I didn't even notice it existed until 2008 probably says something about its success and popularity. Because when I say 'thoroughly odd', I mean it.

There have been sitcoms about dysfunctional families before, but this has to beat them all. Over the four episodes of the first series we meet Alex Fisher, a boy obsessed with snails, his father George and mother Beverly. Beverly spends much of her time in the conservatory making 'nice things'. George, on the other hand, spends much of his time wiring up mikes and video cameras to observe his son. Alex's sister, Rose, meanwhile is entirely socially inept, selling 'chocolate excretions' in her sweet shop, but nowhere near as odd as Alex.

I mentioned that George was observing his son, apparently trying to write a book covering his slow descent into madness. And there's plenty to observe. Through nightmarish childhood gardening rituals, Alex has developed an unhealthy interest in snails. We progress from merely keeping them to allowing them to graze freely over his naked body, with cuttlefish nestled in various locations, cutting them in half and eating them raw with a visiting Frenchwoman, insisting on only sliding everywhere whilst wearing deely boppers and a backpack, not to mention spending hours rootling around the rubbish dump in search of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, so called because he decorates the walls with his slime.

At Home With The Snails was written by Gerard Foster and broadcast in 2001 with a second series in 2002. It stars Geoffrey Palmer, Angela Thorne, Gerard Foster, Miranda Hart and Debra Stephenson. The music, and if anyone could tell me what it is I'd be delighted, is fantastic. [Edit: Waltzinblack by The Stranglers; thank you anonymous commenter!]

28 December 2009

London Symphony Orchestra

The London Symphony Orchestra, or LSO, is an independent orchestra - at its formation the UK's first. It is, in fact, a limited company, managed and owned by the orchestra's members.

Founded in 1904, the orchestra boasts a long line of distinguished conductors. Beginning with Hans Richter, the orchestra has played under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham, Pierre Monteux and Claudio Abbado. Currently, Sir Colin Davis is Principal Conductor, taking on the role in 1995.

A top-quality conductor is essential, as are top-quality players. The orchestra operates a joint Principal scheme, similar to a jobshare, which allows quality musicians to work with the LSO whilst maintaining solo or chamber orchestra careers. The LSO also welcomes a wide range of guest musicians, including Nathan Gunn, Piotr Anderszewski and Maxim Vengerov.

The London Symphony Orchestra has, over the years, attracted high regard from both British and overseas admirers. It became the first British orchestra to travel abroad, visiting Paris in 1906, America (1912), Israel (1960) and Japan in 1963. In 1966 the orchestra was invited to take up a residency at the Florida International Festival, and seven years later was invited to appear at the Salzburg Festival.

As a limited company, the LSO partially supports itself with its own CD label: LSO Live. This label provides an opportunity for the orchestra to release exclusive recordings of their performances.
The LSO currently enjoys residency at the Barbican Centre in London. Refurbished in 2001, the Barbican is widely considered to be the finest symphony hall in London. March 2003 saw the opening of LSO St. Luke's, a centre of education housed in a converted church. This provides a centre for the orchestra's LSO Discovery programme.

24 December 2009

Battlecat


Every hero needs an appropriate sidekick, and Adam, Prince of Eternia and eponymous hero of He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe, was no exception. Prone to holding aloft his magic sword and calling upon the Castle Grayskull, at this point Adam ceased to be a rather wimpish prince with a girly blond bob and became the mighty He-Man. (Sadly, he still retained the girlish blond bob.)

Almost simultaneously, with a swift point of Adam's sword, his cowardly cat, appropriately named Cringer, would be transformed into the mighty Battlecat, complete with a hawk-inspired helm and some sort of seating device upon which He-Man could perch appropriately. Battlecat and Cringer's voice was provided by Erik Gunden, who also provided Man-At-Arms' gruff dialogue.

Of course, the aspect of Battlecat's transformation that really appeals to children, and possibly one or two nostalgic adults, is the notion that Cringer - cowardly to the core - actually fears being turned into Battlecat and will go out of his way to persuade young Adam to keep stumm with the 'By the power of Grayskull!' stuff. It's never that bad, of course, and the idea of overcoming such childlike fears is entirely in keeping with the moral stance of such cartoons; very rarely did an episode end without someone realising the error of their ways and finding out that evil never really paid off in the end.

23 December 2009

Aunt Bessie's


Who is Aunt Bessie?
Aunt Bessie does not exist. Nevertheless, she's a ruddy-faced individual with her hair drawn back into a rather severe bun, clad in a polka-dotted blouse with a Peter Pan collar. Her right hand clutches a slightly over-filled mixing bowl, in which she is vigorously stirring a sturdy wooden spoon. I say vigorously - you can't really tell, as the style of the drawing tends more towards a pastel sketch than cartoon graphics, and thus motion lines are not included. However, the contents of the bowl appear to be swirling, and possibly in danger of spilling over the side. For protection against such accidental spillage Aunt Bessie is equipped with a white apron that only just covers her rather ample bosoms, which are permanently projected over a red swoosh of ribbon, upon which the words Aunt Bessie's are proudly emblazoned. Aunt Bessie, whilst unashamedly mammiferous, may have no legs; we will never know.

Whenever you see Aunt Bessie, she's guaranteed to be chilled to at least 0°C, and usually to even less. Well known for hanging round chill cabinets and freezer units, mention Aunt Bessie to almost anyone in the United Kingdom and you're guaranteed at least some sort of response. If you're not sure why... read on!

So who is behind Aunt Bessie?
Aunt Bessie is the product of Tryton Foods, a long-established company based in Hull, UK. Tryton Foods itself, should you be interested, is also part of the WJS Group, which includes Kwoks, a company aiming to become "Europe's best oriental food company ... by providing authentic, exciting and convenient food of the quality that you would find in the best restaurant", Jackson's Bakers, who offer "quality high specification sandwich and other bread products for the fast food industry", and The Ferguson Fawsitt Arms, a pub and restaurant near Beverley. Beverley itself is local to Hull, and in fact one of the stops between Driffield, near where I used to live, and Hull. Mentioning Driffield, since I've never heard of any of the other partners in the WJS Group, it was at the famed Driffield Show where I first encountered Tryton Foods: Their stall offered a giant yorkshire pudding with onion gravy for a notably nominal fee. Who could resist, even if you did have to eat it from a plastic tray with a wooden fork?

Notably, at this time, Aunt Bessie did not exist. Or maybe she was there, just a gleam in the eye of a marketing executive. Maybe, one day, sitting down to a cosy roast dinner at someone else's house, everything just clicked.

executive thoughts: . o (The Way To Sell More Yorkshire Puddings!)

Well it's obvious, isn't it? Who wants to buy mass-produced yorkshire puddings with a vague link to the Greek god of the sea's son when you can have home cooked goodness from dear, dear old Aunt Bessie; the very name conjuring up images of Sunday lunch, Nan fresh home from Church with the grandkids to find the roast potatoes growing crisp around the rib of beef, thick gravy bubbling on the stove with all the tasty bits scraped out of the bottom of the roasting pan. There's Aunt Bessie, with her florid cheeks and good, strong arms that have wrung out a thousand sheets, banging warmed plates onto the cork mats. Good creamy farm milk from Old Buttercup stands in jugs, everything set out just so on a big checked table-cloth and there's Uncle Simon shouting "Who's seen t'big servin' spoon?" and Granny proclaiming her intention to have just one more small sherry before everyone retires to the summer house for cloudy lemonade and an apple and custard tart while Grandpa Alf plays cricket with the young 'uns on the cow pasture over t'hedge. Come on, Barney, you tousle-haired oaf! Ginger nuts for everyone! Oh - I do apologise; I've just come.

But, yes, let's get serious. Marketing genius, that's what Aunt Bessie's is, cleverly offsetting the idea of a traditional family lunch against the slightly repulsive idea of purchasing a TV dinner. And the beginnings - the humble yorkshire pudding - what a place to start. Everyone knows yorkshire puddings can be troublesome. I had some go flat for no reason at all last week, the bastards. They do it on purpose. Oh, the convenience of Aunt Bessie's - the oven's already hot, you fling them in, wait three minutes and bang - instant crunchy Northern pleasure.

The Lure Of Aunt Bessie: A Lament
But that's all it is, really, a cleverly packaged TV dinner. I'd hate to proclaim all TV dinners as poor fare, of course; it's quite possible to buy processed food of a high quality, just as it's exceedingly easy to buy processed food of low quality. As processed food goes, Aunt Bessie's is damn fine stuff. The yorkshire puddings are crisp and uniformly risen. While you may end up adding non-biodegradable plastic packaging to landfill sites around the UK, at least you don't end up with any messy bowls and wooden spoons, and there's absolutely no need to get any flour all over those pristine weighing scales you've been keeping in the kitchen. But yes, yorkshire pudding can be a tricky little beast, as previously mentioned, and so the convenience drags us in. Only it doesn't stop there. Allow me to introduce the entire range. If you're sane, you'll feel a slow sense of despair as you progress through this part.

Aunt Bessie's Range
Aunt Bessie's Frozen Meal Solutions includes pies containing chicken or steak, and cottage pie. There's oven-ready toad in the hole, vegetarian toad in the hole and something mysteriously called Tidgy Toads. That's miniature sausages in miniature yorkshire pudding. You can get giant yorkshire puddings filled with either beef steak in gravy or sausage casserole. And that's it for the TV dinner department. I don't know about you, but there's something about pre-made pies that doesn't draw me in. For about the same price, you can grab some beef skirt, braise it gently for a couple of hours and whip up a quick batch of pie crust yourself, engendering awe in your dinner guests, particularly if you cut out little crinkly leaves from the left-over pastry and stick them to the top of the pie with a dab of water.

Aunt Bessie's Frozen Baked Yorkshire Puddings we've already mentioned. There's a 12-pack of bun-sized puddings, a four pack of larger puddings, a single or even twin-pack of giant puddings, or 40 mini yorkshire puddings, endearingly known as 'tidgy puds'. They're quite good for when you're having curries, by the way - you can dip them in like naan breads. If you've got the oven on already you can buy frozen, uncooked puddings. Oven-ready uncooked puddings, that's right - each in a little individual tin. 12 small ones, in normal or organic, or 6 large ones. And to complete the pudding range, you can buy a small tetra-pack of batter. That's right - pre-mixed flour, eggs and milk. This is where convenience and laziness become blurred, I feel; it's hardly convenient and it is entirely lazy. Oh, hang on - that's not blurred, that's really is ridiculous.

Still, if we're resigned to being unforgivably lazy now, what else can we find? Which other simple kitchen tasks are beyond us? Aunt Bessie's Frozen Stuffing Balls, Aunt Bessie's Frozen Dumplings and Aunt Bessie's Frozen Pancakes. There's Aunt Bessie's Frozen Cookies - not actually cooked, just mixed together and ready-to-bake. Scones, too. I mean, what is wrong with people? It's flour, butter and a splash of milk, then you put them in the oven. I worry, I really do.

I forgot the vegetables! Is peeling a parsnip too much for you? Worry not - Aunt Bessie's got it covered. I can understand oven chips - that saves getting out the pan of hot oil and risking life and limb from scalding oily splashback. Oven roast potatoes I'm having trouble justifying - parboil potatoes and place in a tray of oil - not too different from 'open freezer, cut open special cutting-resistant plastic bag of Aunt Bessie's Frozen Roast Potatoes and place on oven tray'. But parsnips? You peel them and cook them. Oh, the inconvenience!

Enough.

The Madness Of Aunt Bessie: The Website
Finally, we come to Aunt Bessie's pride and joy, her ready-made frozen website. Simply unwrap, pop in the oven and thirty minutes later you'll have a complete website. Ha - not true. Aunt Bessie's own website is an amazing place. Why not join Aunt Bessie's club? Contact Aunt Bessi to share recipes - perhaps suggest a new range of pre-mixed salt and pepper - the convenience!

There used to be a lovely 'News' section, which featured quotes from the media, such as:

"Love freshly baked cakes but can't be bothered to make them? Then try Aunt Bessie's new frozen range. It includes fairly cakes, cookies, a Victorian sponge - and our favourite, fruit scones."
- Chat Magazine

We assume that 'fairly cakes' was a typo, rather than a sad indictment on the quality of the sponge. Even better was this one:

"Good batter - crisp, tasty and well risen - with two generous sausages."
- That's Life! Magazine

Presumably they take the less-philanthropic sausages out on beneficial trips, treating them to an ice-cream.

Sadly, too, in a recent update Aunt Bessie saw off her 'History' section. Not, as you'd expect, a history of Aunt Bessie's, waiting for an eager writer to find out information about Tryton Food's origins, but instead 'The Discovery Of The Parsnip' and 'The History Of Yorkshire Puddings'. Apparently, parsnips were cultivated by the early Romans, and Emperor Tiberius liked them so much he had some shipped from France each year. Oh, and yorkshire puddings originally started as flat pudding cooked underneath a roasting joint, slowly absorbing all the fatty juices from above, until one day in the 18th Century Hannah Glasse, in a move which is not made clear, somehow produced a puffed-up version. Perhaps she used the wrong flour.

I think, and I probably shouldn't say this, but I think that despite her unashamed inculcation of laziness in the common man, her yorkshire puddings are firm and crisp enough that I must confess that I'm helplessly in love with Aunt Bessie.

They're right about the flat version, by the way.

22 December 2009

Babycham

The inventors of Babycham were, in my opinion, geniuses. They somehow took a light, sparkling perry, which is basically pear cider, and whipped up a host of 60s and 70s advertising to appeal to a couple of decades worth of women. It worked - at one point 'brandy and Babycham' (for those who wished to splash out) was considered the height of sophistication, if a little pricey, and was almost certainly guaranteed to get you wobbling on your barstool.

Babycham was the first alcoholic beverage to be advertised on UK television, beginning in 1957, with the exciting, if baffling, slogan: 'the genuine champagne perry'. A small prancing fawn was used as a mascot, and the factory in Shepton Mallet is still guarded by a large plastic version complete with blue bow.

Magnus Mills


Potentially the world's most famous bus driver, Magnus Mills is a British writer who was flung into literary fame upon the publication of his first novel, The Restraint Of Beasts. Restraint was published in 1998 and swiftly shortlisted for The Booker Prize as well as the Whitbread. It didn't win either, but it was nominated, nevertheless.

The Restraint Of Beasts was followed by All Quiet On The Orient Express, Three To See The King, The Scheme For Full Employment and 2005's Explorers Of The New Century. Additionally, two collections of short stories are available, Only When The Sun Shines Brightly and Once In A Blue Moon. The two books of short stories are particularly notable for their extreme shortness and diminutive size: both books are published by Acorn Book Company, an independent publisher who specialise in what are described as 'small, high-quality editions'. At less than a hundred pages each and with dimensions more akin to a pocket diary than a book of short stories, they are indeed high quality and somehow incite the reader to treat them with a strange reverence.

It may well be argued that five novels is more than enough space in which to establish a style, and one might well be impressed that the works can immediately be identified as Mills' work: compared to Kafka, occasionally mentioned by Thomas Pynchon and with an undeniably sense ofotherness caused by the close meshing of the surreal and the mundane. Manage this within two books, however, and the establishment of such a style can lead to what is described as critical acclaim.

When it comes to critical acclaim, then, the whole point appears to be this way in which Mills' takes a range of mundane, everyday situations (paying considerable homage to his working-class background) and places his character (or characters) in an unrelenting stream of peculiarity, often with a splash of wickedly dark humour to help keep the reader on track. It seems to happen in every book, and despite the enjoyment gained one is led to wonder just how hard it can be to create a slow, growing dread; a realisation that everything is reaching a point of utter horror but in a most cheerful, everyday sort of way.

It would be unfair to delve further into the plot of the novels. Each one is a masterfully-crafted affair, in which a single, significant event is almost dismissed by the reader only for the very last chapter of the novel to reveal its significance. There's a sense of everything falling apart, hinged on this single event, and a realisation, as in Kafka's work, that we struggle eternally against forces we can never truly hope to understand.

That said, they're an excellent way to spend a Saturday afternoon, accompanied by a mug of coffee and a packet of biscuits. Start with The Restraint Of Beasts, and continue...

21 December 2009

Spermaceti and the Sperm Whale

As if it wasn't enough that the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, was cursed with a cruelly descriptive name that translates directly as 'bigheaded blower', beginning in the late 18th century it was doomed to have its oversized head - about a third of its body - hacked open to get to the cavities and hollows within. Why? At that time the whaling industry began to take off and whalers discovered its head harboured a fatty tissue which turned out to be most useful, not to mention rather lucrative. This white and waxy substance, called spermaceti, was used making candles, ointments and cosmetics, and since the whalers were going to slit open the whale for the ambergris in its intestines and the blubber beneath its skin, they were only too happy to collect the spermaceti as well.

Spermaceti's scientific composition is basically ethereal salts of palmitic acid with ethal and a few other hydrocarbon bases. It is insoluble in water and doesn't putrefy. It is clear, therefore, why it was so popular for lubricating leather bindings, waterproofing oilskins, making candles and so on. In fact, it practically revolutionised candlemaking at the time - it didn't smell when burnt, it was harder than tallow or beeswax and it didn't soften or bend at the heights of summer. At one point, spermaceti would be mixed with sugar and used to dose children with coughs, colds and catarrh. (It would seem pretty much anything's worth a try when you've got a child indiscriminately hawking up phlegm, even feeding them the contents of a whale's head.) It also lends itself to the creation of a soft crayon which can be used to write on clean glass.

After using hot water to extract it from the whale's head the spermaceti was usually brought back to shore in barrels, where it would have had plenty of time to separate out. A preliminary pressing would remove some of the sperm oil, and the wax could be remelted and washed with a weak solution of carbonate or other caustic alkali before casting it into moulds. These blocks could then be cut up and sold commercially. Refined spermaceti is sometimes called cetin.

Thankfully for the sperm whales, a substitute formed from tallow and coconut oil was developed in the 1980s, so the more civilised amongst us tend to leave the poor beasts alone now.

19 December 2009

Valkyrie

Terrible warrior women, the Valkyries soared through Norse mythology in gleaming armour. Their roles were numerous: to attend Odin, to direct his battles and, most importantly, to choose from amongst the slain those worthy of the glories of the afterlife. Choosing carefully from the fresh corpses, these brave souls would be conducted in honour to the great hall of Valhalla. Every Viking warrior yearned to encounter these awe-inspiring maidens upon his death. The alternative, alas, was the grim, underground domain of the goddess Hel.

The Valkyries are often portrayed as creatures of great beauty, though their initial role in Norse mythology was that of a corpse goddess, represented by the raven, devourer of dead flesh. Those familiar with the tales of the Viking gods will remember Thought and Memory,Odin's raven lieutenants, and it is to be noted that the Morrigan, a Celtic warrior goddess, is also given to assuming the form of a raven. The Valkyries, to begin with, were far from beautiful, and far from the benign, welcoming maidens they have become.

This change in depiction did not occur suddenly, of course. Instead, somewhere between the third and eleventh centuries - a space of eight hundred years! - the Valkyries were gently tamed. Amulets and carvings began to depict fair-skinned women, blonde of hair and blue of eye, welcoming the heroes to Valhalla. Gone were the swooping, black-feathered harpies, swinging low over the battle-field to choose the bravest souls to be separated from their blood-stained flesh.
Part of this change, too, may be attributed to the depictions of Freya, a fair, blue-eyed goddess widely considered to be the chief of the Valkyries. This association may also account for the occasional reference to swan maidens: Freya possessed a feather cloak, enabling her to transform into the shape of a falcon. Capture a swan maiden, so the story goes, or grab a feather from her cloak, and a single wish would is yours.

While the exact number of Valkyries ranges between three and sixteen, the names mentioned in the Eddas number far more. Each name has meaning, and are easily separated into two distinct groups: quite simply, warlike and not. Brynhildr (mailcoat of battle), Skögul (rager), Hlökk (battle noise) and Róta (She who causes turmoil), appear alongside Randgridr (Shield of Peace) and Friagabi (Giver Of Freedom).

Those wishing to discover more about the Valkyries, or Norse Mythology in general, may wish to examine The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland. Alternately, on a more chilling but undeniably fictional note, the second volume of The Wyrd Museum Trilogy, The Raven's Knot, by British children's writer Robin Jarvis is recommended.

18 December 2009

Trancefer - Klaus Schulze


Trancefer is an electronic music album by Klaus Schulze. It was released in 1981 and runs about forty minutes length. The work fits nicely into the 'Berlin school', with a twiddling, sequenced line running over the top of a synthesized bassline, over which Schulze plays chords on a Yamaha CS-80 synth. It also features Wolfgang Tiepold on cello, and percussion by Michael Shrieve.

Klaus Schulze was, for a little while, a member of Tangerine Dream, and the music easily reflects the style of tracks like Stratosfear or Tangram. It also reminds me a little of Red Birds Will Fly Out Of The East And Destroy Paris In A Night by Coil, come to think of it. The album contains two tracks: A Few Minutes After Trancefer and Silent Running. There was also a pre-release version of Trancefer, which features different mixes of the songs. These are now available on the Trancefer CD release, and are known as Version 33 Halfspeed and Version 45.

Trancefer (1981)
1: A Few Minutes After Trancefer (18:20)
2: Silent Running (18:57)
3: A Few Minutes After Trancefer (Version 33 Halfspeed) (18:17)
4: Silent Running (Version 45) (19:07)

16 December 2009

Sex Dwarf - Soft Cell


Sex Dwarf is a track by Soft Cell, and let's hope you were aware of that when you clicked on this, lest you turn out to be curious about actual dwarves and wish to see them in a range of sexual situations. Actually, if that is the case, you'd be better off hunting on Google Images, or some other specialist site. However, while you contemplate this, consider the real truth, which may or may not be a revelation to you: in the mid-eighties the band Soft Cell, comprising Marc Almond and Dave Ball, produced a track called Sex Dwarf with a video so awful, so disgusting, so downright perverse, that the police seized the master tapes and burnt them. That's right - we're talking the levels of perversion that get your master tapes seized.

Take a pause. Do a little research... it's true.

Really, it's true. Mind you, so is the fact that most of it would be considered quite tame if you accidentally spliced it into the middle of 'Saw IV'. There's a sobering moment, if ever I saw one.

So let's be calm for just a while. Let me tell you about Soft Cell's first album, a joyously sleazy affair called Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. You may wish to consider exactly where they thought they were going with that title. It's hardly demure, and you wouldn't expect a coy glance and a blush to follow once you'd placed the pristine black plastic twelve inch on your turntable. Coy glances, as predicted, failed to follow...

'Frustration', the first track, was the story of a man doomed to a life of middle-aged hell, and the video seemed to centre about the poor bastard's death, with Marc Almond doing everything apart from dancing on the coffin. No, wait - he more-or-less did that, actually. Literally. 'Tainted Love', the second, was destined to become Soft Cell's most celebrated song, despite (or perhaps because of) the peculiar 'Roman Cricket' visuals (complete with 'Please God Make Marc Almond's Skirt Longer' moment), but the following tracks: Seedy Films and Youth, were far more indicative of the depths Soft Cell were determined to plumb. All credit to them, in my book, and do take a breath now, ready to fill it in later, because this is where 'Sex Dwarf' clunk-clicked. 'Entertain Me', the follow-up, was sardonic, but 'Chips On My Shoulder' redeemed it all, despite the over-acting, and 'Bedsitter' is amazing, even more amazing than 'Secret Life' and the celebrated (which means covered by David Gray) 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye'.

Soft Cell was doomed to a life of sleaze: right from the moment Marc Almond tarted himself up with black eyeliner and Dave Ball set the synths up inside a cage for their very first Top Of The Pops appearance, their fate was sealed. 'There's more to Soft Cell than sleaze,' claimed Marc Almond in one interview. A page later, he was discussing the Marquis De Sade and 120 Days Of Sodom. It's in the sleeve notes of the 2005 live release, if you want to confirm it for yourself. But let's get back to the video, controversial as it is:
The video begins with a starlet chained to a table. The chains are gold, because no expense has been spared. Marc Almond is stroking her, all over. Yes, all over - breasts included. Naked, dirty, sexy breasts. Which, considering the Soft Cell audience is mostly gay, simply makes us admire Marc for doing what must be done. Deep breaths and stroke...
At this point, Dave Ball, who usually (wisely) constrains his efforts to pressing bits of synthesisers, brings a meat cleaver down on a wooden crate. It's really quite ironic that it's surprising when a dwarf leaps out, dressed in some sort of sadomasochistic leather outfit, including a massively prodigious jockstrap. We are, if I may side with the viewer for a moment, utterly shocked. It's a dwarf in a jockstrap. What's worse, he's going to indulge in sexual relations with anyone in sight, and this is where it all goes horribly odd...
I have failed to mention the meat carcasses. You see, the meat cleaver fits in with Dave Ball's outfit, as he is inexplicably dressed as a butcher. In fact there are approximately six meat carcasses hanging enticingly from the ceiling. They are props, and they are clearly there to be used. Dave Ball has already been seen playing a chainsaw with a violin bow, and it's hardly suprising when he begins running about using the chainsaw to cut pieces of meat from the carcasses.
Breathe. Let's take stock. As we speak, Marc Almond is cavorting in raw meat with a scantily clad tart, while Dave Ball chainsaws raw meat into smaller chunks. Try to imagine why the British police impounded the tapes and burnt them as we continue with the show...
There are a few more semi-naked men, and now Marc's stripped off his black vest and is clad only in a jockstrap, too. There are women about, also dressed in leather, and - oh, lots of blood, bits of meat, the odd bit of offal. You see, the chainsaw's spitting blood about as it carves up the carcass, and Marc Almond appears to be smearing the blood over his body as he gropes at his jockstrap-clad crotch.
Meanwhile, there's a be-wigged woman with a rib of beef on her tits, and a dwarf with a liver (which isn't, technically speaking, his) humping her. The blood's everywhere, and it's true - at one point Marc Almond pulls the elastic of his jock strap rather lower than you'd want him to and rubs the blood into what must surely be his pubic hair. By the end of the video we see a panting Marc Almond leering through an orgy of blood, beef and cheap tarts to giggle 'That's nice!' as something white and horrible drips from his lip.
A little history. Tacked onto the end of Tainted Love in the official video collection, Marc Almond reads dramatically from a tabloid newspaper. Here's what he reads:
"Soft Cell have made a pornographic video as outrageous as those shown in London's Soho. Lead singer Marc Almond is shown masturbating through his clothes and rubbing raw meat into naked women. He strips down to only a jockstrap and appears with a dwarf in the same attire.'
People familiar with the history of the band, and of Some Bizzare records boss will be delighted to watch as an obviously drugged-up Stevo incisively comments 'Yes. Yes. Analysation of people!'. The aforementioned DVD, incidentally, does not feature the original Sex Dwarf video, instead there's a be-suited Marc Almond conducting some nicely-dressed dwarves with a baton; it's all rather sarcastic, really.

I expect you want to watch it now, right? Well, it was here, but sadly it seems to have vanished again. Good luck finding a copy; it's been the holy grail of Soft Cell fans for years, and while it hardly compares to some of the more shocking videos available on the internet now, remember that the whole sleazy affair took place right in the middle of the Thatcher years, when homosexuals were threatening the very fabric of society with their evil, evil agenda. Dwarves, raw meat, gold chains and jockstraps probably didn't help the cause much...

15 December 2009

Jarlsberg



Jarlsberg cheese, and let's all pronounce it with a 'y' instead of a 'j' right from the word go ('Yarlsberg, darling?' - 'Yes please, dear...'), is a Norwegian cheese that is absolutely delicious and also has the benefit of looking exactly like cheese is supposed to look in cartoons.

It's mild, but full of flavour. It has big holes in it, and with only a little coaxing you can get a mouse to peek out through one while you take photos and subsequently post them on flickr for fun and profit. It's slightly rubbery, with a yellow, waxy rind to it that you don't eat. (You do nibble as much cheese as possible off the rind before throwing it in the bin, but that's uncultured so make sure you treat it as a chef's prerogative and only do it in the privacy of your own kitchen. It's like those tinned confit of duck legs you can buy in France - if there's an extra one when you open it, keep your mouth shut and pop it in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow...)

Other words that describe Jarlsberg (Yarlsberg, remember!) are nutty, mellow and buttery. I simply use 'delicious'. It melts nicely without spewing out masses of unpalatable grease, works superbly as little cubes in cheese scones (you know, rather than size-zero-model-thin grated shavings which simply get lost in amongst all the flour...), or as an ingredient for cheese straws, sauces and even in souffles. True, it's not as strong as a ripe Gruyere or a nicely mature cheddar, but that's not always a bad thing - even the most splendid Stilton can be a little too much at times, no matter how much Port wine you have to hand. Jarlsberg has nothing, believe me, in common with 'American Cheese' or Kraft Singles. Dairylea Lunchables (an abomination) can go fish. 

Monterey Jack pales in comparison. Even the veritable Port Salut, my seventh favourite cheese, has nothing on Jarlsberg. (Although it must be noted that Jarlsberg is only my sixth favourite cheese.)

I laud Anders Larsen Bakke, who died in 1899 but between his birth year of 1815 and that lamentable day managed to produce the (sixth) finest cheese I've ever tasted. Astoundingly, they stopped making the stuff in the nineteen hundreds, goodness knows why, and only caught up with the scene again in 1950. Mad.

Wikipedia tells me, and I have no idea how it knows, that one ton of Jarlsberg cheese is eaten every hour. It doesn't say by whom, and I don't like to ask.

14 December 2009

Penis Landscape


Penis Landscape is the affectionate name for work 219: Landscape XX, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Created in 1973 from airbrushed acrylic on paper covered wood, the original piece measures 70 x 100 centimetres. To those who have seen Giger's work before, it comes as no surprise that of the two names, Penis Landscape is the more appropriate.

You are familiar with Giger's work, by the way. It's almost impossible not to have heard of Alien, lovingly designed by Giger with an appropriately phallic head. Species, too, provided an opportunity for grotesque sexual imagery, and the idea of loving Giger's work has become something like a mark of the elite. William Gibson mentions Giger's paintings of New York in Idoru, and the underworld of the internet is almost smothered in Giger-esque imagery. Failing that, album covers by Emerson, Lake And Palmer, as well as artwork involving Debbie Harry may well have come to your attention.

Landscape XX, however, remained entirely unremarkable for a decade until the Dead Kennedys chose to feature it on the sleeve of their 1985 album Frankenchrist. At this point, work 219 became of the utmost importance to a San Francisco court. In 1986, the painting, and various newspaper clippings associated with it were scrutinized fiercely. Eventually, the image was declared to be art, and therefore not pornography, after a period in which the album remained unavailable.

The image itself is as visually stunning as all Giger's work. It features six whole penises and three half-penises, their base and scrotum cruelly snipped off by the image's edge. The head of each penis is inserted into a vagina, though at least one appears to be on the verge of slipping out, and only one has been prudent enough to use protection. All but the buttocks and genitalia of each individual are hidden by that peculiar, scummy surface Giger seems to love painting, leaving a repeating pattern of penis, vagina, penis, vagina, which you realise could easily continue on to infinity. The style fits with Giger's obsession at the time, vast repeating landscapes of tiled images, always with a grotesque or shocking theme: the heads of diseased infants wail at us from the image, or a cracked metal skull, held secure with wires, is drilled from above by a sinister and filthy mechanism.

We may be led to ask why. Aside from the standard answer, confirmed by court ruling (It's art!), this painting is merely part of Giger's usual theme-based work. From the earliest moments in his career Giger has focused on specific themes, whether it is the Passagen series - stark images of dimly-lit passageways, many blocked in some way by curious yet simple metal devices - or the Erotomechanics portfolio: images of sex between things which are part metal, part flesh, sometimes part of the landscape, all seen from strange viewpoints - either unbearably close up or so distant that the act itself becomes simply a part of the surroundings. This is what the landscape series achieve: these infinite planes of image simply serve to reduce their contents to near-meaninglessness. Their purpose, save for existing in their own right as 'art', seems merely to entertain or, if we read Giger's accompanying words in his book ARh+, to horrify.

13 December 2009

Black Lace


More infamous than famous, Black Lace are best known for their agonisingly bad hit single Agadoo, possibly the only song in which the listener is encouraged to jostle fruits and jiggle foliage with gay abandon. Agadoo, despite its negative reputation, must have something going for it: it has hit the UK charts twice, and is almost certain to be played at any village hall disco or wedding reception. Failing this, the risk of other Black Lace hits popping up makes it almost worthwhile carrying a pair of emergency earplugs, as Superman and Do The Conga are at least as irritating, and just as popular.
Right from their first appearance in 1979, when their song 'Mary Ann' represented Great Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest, Black Lace had a clear agenda. Their self-appointed mission, embodied in such albums as 'Party, Party', 'Party Crazy', 'Action Party' and the more recent 'What A Party!', is to bring simplistic and well known tracks (Generally with a 'party' theme, the careful reader may have noted) to the masses, each one perfectly designed to increase audience participation at... well, at 'parties'. The songs' very nature lends them to horrific acts of organised dancing and allows the keen 'party'-goer the opportunity to demonstrate their in-depth knowledge of what are colloquially known as 'the actions'.
It was the 1983 top-ten hit Superman which first brought Black Lace real success. A repetitive synth bassline with an occasional stab of melody, not without its charms: Superman featured a set of instructions to which the audience provided the appropriate action. Similar in this sense to Madison Time, the culmination of such dance moves as 'Squirt!' and 'Comb your hair!' was the intensely exciting instruction 'Superman!', at which point everyone (including the grannies, thank you) would raise their right hand in an abysmal imitation of the aforementioned super hero. Even now, it's disturbing to see...
Agadoo quickly followed, met with great success, and was eventually hounded by Spitting Image's satirical 'The Chicken Song', which perfectly captured all that was wrong with Black Lace and added large rubber puppets to the fun. 'Do The Conga' allowed dancers to chain themselves together (not literally) and shuffle aimlessly around the local area, the distance which could be travelled constrained only by the three minute length of the song. Even now, the drunken chain will happily leave the establishment on New Year's Eve, recognise, in temulent despair, that inside was far warmer than outside, and trundle back in for the denouement, just in time to sing Auld Lang Syne and hug an acquaintance they've secretly hated since childhood..
In November of 1984, Black Lace faced disaster as their distribution company collapsed, taking with it a sizeable quantity of royalties. Thankfully (for Black Lace, anyway), their album 'Party, Party' (heralding a new theme... oh, hang on) hurtled for the top ten. Shifting 650,000 copies in five weeks produced enough cash to ensure Black Lace's continued survival. A 1986 appearance in the cult film 'Rita, Sue And Bob Too' helped matters along, and their rendition of 'Gang Bang' is typical Black Lace stuff and certainly fits the theme of the film.
Although Black Lace are easy to mock, from the content of their work right down to the inane, 80s timewarp clothing they still insist on wearing, it must be understood that Black Lace still exist. It is this continued existence that is, to some extent confusing. Given that everyone - everyone! - hates Agadoo, the question must be asked - how did it once again return to the charts over a decade later? Why is Black Lace consistently played at hired discoteques? Why did The Old Grey Whistle Test recently play tribute to Black Lace with a fifteen minute documentary? And the fifteen appearances on Top Of The Pops - how do we explain those? Are Black Lace really absolute tosh, or are they merely misunderstood musical geniuses?
Let's look to Black Lace themselves, for we cannot discount their appearance in a series of advertisements. As part of Britain's television-backed drive for environmentally friendly living, Black Lace appeared in a series of adverts promoting the glories of recycling. Picture it: Agadoo, Agadoo and more Agadoo, in each of its maligned incarnations. The slogan? Recycling rubbish works. It certainly has for Black Lace, and you know what? I think they know it...
Black Lace: party band extraordinaire, voted Wally Act Of The Year and yet, somehow, adored.
Ironically, Agadoo, the band's biggest hit and the song named recently as the worst of all time, (even beating Orville's song, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini, The Birdie Song and There's No-One Quite Like Grandma) was not written by Black Lace. Originally created by French songwriters, the song hit Club Med resorts in 1974 but thankfully steered clear of British shores until Black Lace released an English translation in 1984. Thirty weeks later, the song was still in the charts. Following a 1999 re-release, one has to wonder if humanity will ever be free of it...

The Cassandra Crossing

This rather cheap-looking 1976 horror film had me terrified as a child. A messed-up terrorist attack on the 'International Health Organisation' leads to a rather deadly viral form of bubonic plague being released. Carried aboard a long-distance trans-Europe train by a terrorist escapee, the train is quickly quarantined by a general who appears to be only very slightly megalomaniacal.

It is decided that the train will travel over the Cassandra Crossing, an extremely rickety bridge, and eventually stop at a medical camp. As events unfold, it slowly dawns on the train's inhabitants that they're not really heading for a distant medical centre at all, but are in fact intended to plunge to their death, ridding the world of a rather tricky problem.

Of course, as it turns out, the plague is curable. But will the general stop the train? Will he hell, and one small train-based uprising later, the train is stopped just in time.

This film, along with The Satan Bug, was one of a number of disaster films that focused on unexpected viruses. The tradition continues, of course, with films like 28 Days Later; an escaped disease always makes for plenty of fun. Nowadays, watching these kind of films, I'm not remotely worried. Back when I was seven or eight, however, the very idea of it terrified me. A later passion for reading things like The Andromeda Strain didn't do much to cure me of this delicious penchant for biological terror. But nowadays, if you do decide to inflict The Cassandra Crossing on yourself, you're likely to spend much of the film with the corners of your mouth turned down in a wry smirk.

Overacting, men in white wellies, and huge oxygen tanks authentically marked 'O2' all add to the fun. The train changes shape, size and colour repeatedly throughout the film, and the shots of a man crawling on the roof of the train features the worst superimposing I've ever seen, and that includes early Carry On films when they're riding in a carriage and the same scenery keeps going past outside.

The Cassandra Crossing was directed by George Pan Cosmatos - yes, the guy responsible for the second Rambo film. Burt Lancaster, Sophia Loren, O.J. Simpson and Martin Sheen all feature heavily. It was released in 1976, and if you have 129 minutes of your life that you don't want back, you'll love it. It's excellent. Keep an eye out for the model train hurtling off the bridge at the end!

Released: 1976
Director: George Pan Cosmatos
Genre: Disaster
Starring:
Sophia Loren as Jennifer Rispoli Chamberlain
Richard Harris as Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain
Roddy Navarra as Robby Navarro
and Burt Lancaster as Col. Stephen Mackenzie

12 December 2009

Yamaha DX-7



Introducing The DX7

Originally introduced in 1983, the Yamaha DX7 is a classic amongst digital synthesizers. The DX7 is capable of 16 voice polyphony, with 32 spaces for different voices, and features a membrane type control panel - the kind you may remember from Speak & Spell; in other words, its age shows. Yet the DX7 was wildly popular, with estimates in the region of 160,000 sold between 1983 and 1987, and while it's possible you may not have heard of the DX7 by name, it's virtually impossible for you not to have heard one.

Enya, for one, is fond of the DX7's sound. It's particularly good at synthesizing a bell-like sound, which Enya has seized upon for more than one song: The actual track The Celts features it heavily, as does Book Of Days. Other artists with a penchant for the DX7 tubular bells include Tim Cappello, whose DX-laden rock hit I Still Believe graced The Lost Boys soundtrack. Not that the DX7 is only good for tubular bell sounds. a-Ha, Heaven 17 and Jean-Michel Jarre have all dabbled with the DX7 at one time or another, wrenching powerfulbrass sounds, deep orchestral strings or that brighter, less-analogue synth bass sound. And how can one forget Brian Eno? Surely not.






"So many processings and reprocessings - it's a bit like making soup from the leftovers of the day before, which in turn was made from leftovers..."



- all about creating Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks with a DX7.

Digital Synthesis and Frequency Modulation

In a world of analogue synths, the DX7 was something new. Used to twiddling knobs, if not patching things from here to there with lengths of cable, the world of digital synthesis was new, exciting and surprisingly popular. In fact, the DX7 was a paradigm shift: the first truly digital synthesiser.

More specifically, the DX7 used a type of synthesis known as frequency modulation (FM), developed a decade earlier at Stanford University by a Professor John Chowning. In FM synthesis sounds are created by interacting units, little building blocks of sound, which can act as 'carriers' or 'modulators'. Each unit, known as an operator, is a sine wave, which is shaped and pitched according to the programmer's wishes. When linked together and made to interact, one operator modulates another to produce a new, varying pitch and tone.

It is the arrangement of these operators and how they are allowed to interact that determines the final sound. Each voice produced by the DX7 was based on the interactions of six operators which could be interacted in 32 different ways - Yamaha called these algorithms. To further increase the complex synthesis abilities of the DX7, a range of other effects could be added, and an envelope could be manipulated for each operator, allowing it to fade in, fade out, be sustained and so on.

This complexity was daunting to many musicians, and a niche industry quickly arose: DX7 programmers were in high demand, and the ability of the DX7 to accept memory cartridges with pre-programmed sounds was rapidly exploited both by Yamaha and by third-party synth-programmers.

Getting Physical

The original DX7 is a behemoth of an instrument. With a metal case and sturdy keys, the DX7 is a hefty piece of kit. As previously mentioned, data input was undertaken using a membrane keypad, which stretched across the top-right portion of the instrument. To the left was a volume control and data input slider, just above a couple of standard wheels - one for pitch bend, one for modulation. Feedback to the user was provided through a miniscule LCD display: two lines, barely adequate to inform the performer what voice they were using, let alone provide display space for programming the machine. Yet programmers and musicians managed, and managed well, even though Yamaha declined to include lighting for the LCD.

Other Features

Although relatively new at the time of the DX7, Yamaha chose to include MIDI on the DX7, allowing it to communicate easily with other musical instruments through a standard interface. Sequential Circuits had already released their own MIDI synth, the Prophet 600, and Yamaha smartly jumped on board over a year before Roland. Yamaha's implementation was basic - crude, even - but at least it was there.

As well as the now-standard MIDI interface, Yamaha added their own breath controller, a little-used method of controlling the overall sound of the DX7 by breathing into a tube. The results were surprisingly good, allowing the performer to successfully emulate a woodwind or brass instrument. Breath control has not, however, caught on, despite it being a novel and well-implemented idea.

The Yamaha FS1R, intended as a successor to the DX7, is easily able to accept original DX7 parameters. This is backward compatibility rather than forward-thinking, but the effect is the same - the DX7, beloved of many, will continue to make its presence heard...

The Rest Of The DX Family

Yamaha's DX range did not consist solely of the DX7. Other notable models included:




DX1

Basically a double DX7 crammed into a wooden case with piano keys and a slightly easier programming interface.

TX7
Simply a rack-mounted version of the DX7.

DX5

Similar to the DX1 but at a more affordable price point.

DX9

The DX9 featured the same technology as the DX7 but used four operators and 8 algorithms. It maintained 16 note polyphony and came with the ability to load and save voices to an external cassette tape.

DX21, DX27 and DX100

These were the low-end versions of the DX range. Lacking key velocity and with only 8 note polyphony, all three machines were very similar, the differences mainly centering on portability.

DX11, TX81Z

Along with further waveforms, Yamaha also added multitimbrality to these instruments, providing the basis for their SY77 and SY99 range.

TX816

Desperate for multitimbrality but can't quite afford a bank of DX7s? Then the TX816 was for you: eight rack-mounted DX7 modules in one case.

Notable DX7 Users

An incomplete but informative list includes: Kraftwerk, Underworld, Orbital, BT, Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Jan Hammer, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Scritti Politti, Depeche Mode, Front 242, U2, a-Ha, Enya, The Cure, Vangelis, Elton John, Queen, Yes, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Herbie Hancock


Sources

Vintage Synth
Yamaha Synthesizers History
Recording Studio Tips
Future Music
Yamaha DX7 Manual





Spiv


Spiv is a British term for a petty criminal, particularly popular during wartime and seeing a gentle decline in popularity since. The general image of a spiv is a flashy, well-dressed but somehow oily gentleman. Russell Brand has managed to turn Flash Harry into more of a Cockney dandy than a spiv, but if you go back to the original The Belles Of St Trinian's you'll see a perfect example of a spiv - a little pencil moustache, well-cut suit and a brightly-patterned tie, all set off with a rather dodgy hat.
Classic spiv activities include black marketeering, confidence trickery, illegal street trading; it's easy to see how these activities could have thrived in a post-war Britain, particularly as rationing came to an end and imported items became increasingly available.

11 December 2009

Wilhelm Reich

Wilhelm Reich was an Austrian scientist who spent his life investigating human emotions and energy functions, his work centering around an unknown form of energy which Reich postulated existed in all living matter and permeated the cosmos. He called it orgone energy, and his continued investigations into its nature eventually caused his imprisonment at the hands of the FDA and his death shortly after.

Reich was born on the 24th of March 1897 in the Austrian province of Galicia, and went on to study at the medical school of the University Of Vienna. Graduating from here in 1922 he continued to study the works of Sigmund Freud and pioneered many of the great breakthroughs in psychoanalysis. Eventually, however, his clinical studies drew him to more practical studies of the nature of energy processes and their effect upon the emotions.

Labelling this energy orgone energy, Reich moved to the United States in 1939, intending to continue his studies and discover ways of making this unknown and elusive form of energy usable. Reich was led to create devices such as the Orgone Accumulator and the Orgone Shooter, a device which could collect and distribute orgone energy.

Reich had already been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who were concerned that he might harbour communist commitments. This, coupled with his distribution of devices for manipulating orgone energy along with the claim that they could cure a whole plethora of medical conditions, quickly brought him to the attention of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, who, concerned at the unverifiable nature of much of his work, obtained an injunction. This injunction allowed them to ban and incinerate Reich's literature, including his published books and journals. This burning is now considered a most heinous act of censorship, and Reich, quite rightly, stated that 'Man's right to know, to learn, to inquire, to make bona fide errors, to investigate human emotions must, by all means, be safe, if the word freedom should ever be more than an empty political slogan.' The court, apparently rejecting this defence, convicted Reich of contempt of court for transporting orgone accumulators across state lines, and Reich was given a two year jail sentence in the LewisburgPenitentiary. He died on November the third, 1957 whilst imprisoned.

Reich's assertions concerning orgone energy are the subject of much controversy. Though Reich believed orgone energy to be demonstrable visually, thermically, electroscopically and by means of geiger counters, there has been considerable difficulty replicating his results. Reich claimed that orgone energy is omnipresent and accounts for such things as the colour of the sky, gravity, galaxies, the failure of the majority of political revolutions and a satisfactory orgasm. In living things orgone energy is known as bio-energy or life energy. The study of this science was named orgonomy, and Reich claimed to have discovered the existence of other entities - bions - which exist as vesicles for orgone energy. Reich recorded that bions were neither living nor dead, but were so-called transitional beings.

Despite attaining little success in the mainstream scientific community, Reich's ideas have attracted a number of devoted followers, such as The American College Of Orgonomy, initially founded by Elsworth Baker, and The Orgone Biophysical Research Laboratory, Inc., headed by Dr. James DeMeo. Baker's successors and DeMeo continue to defend orgonomy and, by association, Reich.

Despite the FDA's best efforts, Reich's work is still very much a part of popular culture, spawning musicals (Wilhelm Reich In Hell), books and even inspiring popular music. Cloudbusting by Kate Bush tells the story of Reich's imprisonment at the hands of the FDA in great detail. The song was accompanied by a six minute music video starring Donald Sutherland as Reich, attempting to demonstrate how orgone energy can burst entire clouds and cause rain. Hawkwind, too, were inspired to produce the song Orgone Accumulator.

It's highly likely that, were a similar case to come to light today, the draconian action taken by the FDA in 1956 would not be repeated, though precisely where Reich's studies would have led him is a question best answered by examining the continuing work of James DeMeo and the College Of Orgonomy, who still have little success making mainstream progress with verification of Reich's theories of orgone energy. Reich's son, Peter, also wrote A Book Of Dreams, which focuses on their relationship and other notable events, making it an excellent source of further information. Reich's own books, as expected, offer considerable insight into Reich's theories, but for a more biographical approach, Fury on Earth, by Myron Sharaf , is preferable.

A short bibliography of books by Wilhelm Reich:
The Function Of The Orgasm, 1927
The Invasion Of Compulsory Sex-Morality, 1931
Character Analysis, 1933
The Mass Psychology Of Fascism, 1933
The Sexual Revolution, 1935
People In Trouble, 1936
Listen Little Man, 1948
The Cancer Biopathy, 1948
The Murder Of Christ, 1951
Contact With Space, 1957

Some notable articles:
Specific Forms of Masturbation (Part of a series of papers published from 1920 - 1925 which led Reich to his theories of orgone energy.)
The Oranur Experiment (A collection of papers published from 1947-1951 dealing with Unidentified Flying Objects and their effect on the desertification of the earth.)
Contact With Space (Further works on the Oranur experiment, originally published between 1951-56, republished Core Pilot Press, 1957)
The Einstein Affair (Correspondence with Einstein, originally published in 1953, which had little effect on either Einstein's or Reich's theories.)

09 December 2009

Fuse

There are two kinds of fuse: those used in explosives, and those used in electronic devices.

Explosives

In explosives there are a variety of fuses, the simplest of which consists of a rope or cord which has been impregnated with combustible materials. When one end of the fuse is lit the flame will progress along its length at a predetermined and dependable rate. The other end of the fuse is, as anyone will remember from the Road Runner cartoons, attached to the explosive charge. The whole point of the fuse, and the importance of it burning at a constant, dependable rate, becomes obvious here. The person lighting the explosive will require time to achieve a safe distance (or in the aforementioned cartoon, the coyote will require time to ingest or somehow become stuck to the dynamite), and thus a sufficient amount of fuse is left to provide time for anyone in the area to reach safe distance.

The safety fuse, invented in 1831 by a leather merchant called William Bickford, was the first fuse to achieve this dependable timing. It was, compared to its predecessors, astoundingly consistent. Bickford, motivated to reduce the number of accidents in the mines, wrapped a core of black powder in textiles. Later on the cord featured an added waterproof coating, often asphalt, and later on a further outer sleeve of plastic or textile.

Black powder was eventually banned in many mines, and in 1908 the detonating cord made its debut. In many ways this was similar to the safety fuse, but contained high explosive rather than black powder. It was constructed in a rather unnerving manner, in that a large-bore cylinder of lead was filled with molten TNT and allowed to solidify before being passed, repeatedly, through rollers until it had reached the correct diameter. Called, in its native France, cordeau détonant, elsewhere it was merely called cordeau.

In 1936 the American manufacturers of cordeau developed their own version: Primacord. It was based on the French patents and consisted of a core of PETN or RDX surrounded by a variety of textiles, waterproofing and plastic.

Electronics

In electronics, however, a fuse is almost the opposite; rather than causing explosions it is designed to prevent them, being a simple but important safety device. Imagine the bulb from a torch, in which a thin section of wire glows when electricity is passed through it. If too much electricity is passed through the bulb the section of thin wire will melt. The fuse works on a similar principle; a wire or strip of metal, designed to melt when excessive current passes through it, is placed in the circuit. When a potentially dangerous amount of current passes through, the metal in the fuse melts and the circuit is at that point disconnected from the mains. (This is usually a good thing, though occasionally one is led to wonder whether fuses are designed specifically to blow at critical moments during television programmes or when you're just about to finish the penultimate level of Tomb Raider.)

07 December 2009

Felching

The Encyclopedia Of Unusual Sex Practices has surprisingly little to say on the subject of felching. The word felch refers, author Brenda Love tells us, 'to either stuffing animals into the anus or vagina, or to a partner sucking semen out of one of these orifices. For such a well-known, if not necessarily well-respected, tome to have so little to say is almost unthinkable, and thus we encounter the problem: how to define felching.

A Form Of Bestiality, Or Merely Oral Retrieval Of Semen?


Those who dare to define felching are neatly divided by its meaning. A quick search outside e2 provides a whole wealth of resources claiming to know what felching is, and one or two who claim to perform it on a regular basis. For proponents of the semen-drinking faction tips involving drinking straws abound, and only one source goes as far as to point out the risks involved where an exchange of bodily fluids takes place. Those who prefer to think of felching as a sexual act involving small animals quickly descend into urban myth, exchanging the same story of a gerbil-related mishap that it is claimed appeared in the LA Times. The story never appeared, and variants can be found on usenet tracking right back to 1993.

Alternative stories include the tale of a certain Richard Gere, who arrived at Los Angeles hospital with yet another hapless gerbil lodged in his rectum. The story comes in a dizzying range of varieties, both with and without fur, plastic bags or sources of lubrication. None of these variations (it hardly needs to be pointed out) are true.

Urban legends make poor evidence for any definition - the correct term for such practices appears to be gerbilling - and it would, therefore, seem prudent to define felching as the retrieval of semen from a bodily orifice into which is has been recently deposited. This includes the vagina or the anus. Interestingly in the light of such practices as nasolingus, and no doubt as a result of common sense, no sources mention other potential orifices such as the nose or ears. It should also be noted that despite the implication that one would felch out one's own semen, there is the possibility of felching out the ejaculate of another, previous lover.

Semen Retrieval: Why Would Anyone Want To Do That?


There is no doubt that felching deserves the monicker unusual - it's not one of your more common sexual practices. In fact, as seen above, the term is more often used derisively, to insult or slander, rather then taking the form of a simple descriptive phrase for a sexual act, presumably of pleasure to at least one of the two people involved.

In a world where golden enemas, Roman Showers and hygrophilia are recognised sexual practices, there is clearly a place for felching. It may be considered unsafe, but then so are many forms of sexual activity where bodily fluids are exchanged. Certainly the semen re-ingested from one's partner would be liberally mixed with vaginal discharges or, if the anus were the orifice of choice, a varying quantity of rectal mucus or even feces. Sounds unpleasant, but the practice of coprophagy has been around for a very long time, and adding semen to the mix is hardly going to make it worse.

The question of why an individual would wish to do such a thing is one best answered by such individuals. Either one is the type of person who finds the idea of sucking semen back out of the orifice into which one has just deposited it an arousing and irresistible one, or one is the type of person who finds it inherently abhorrent.

Regardless of which category one falls into, the only acceptable attitude anyone can have regarding such practices is one of tolerance; ultimately, the practice of felching is of no consequence to anyone except those involved, regardless of the social niceties it bruises, or the feelings of disapproval it may cause to well up within us.

06 December 2009

Gallimimus


Gallimimus was a carnivorous, two or three metre tall dinosaur that was believed to exist in the late Cretaceous period, roughly seventy million years ago. Their skeletons, which resemble that of the ostrich, hint that the gallimimus had much in common with the lifestyle of the larger birds; certainly it is known to be a fast runner, and possessed a long, thin beak made of a horny, toothless material. Its name, provided in 1972 by its discoverers Halszka Osmólska, Ewa Roniewicz and Rinchen Barsbold, means 'chicken mimic'.

The small head contained a relatively large brain, and thus a rough estimate of its intelligence (taking into account the ratio of brain to body weight) should make it one of the brighter bipedal carnivores. A long neck and tail provided good balance and resulted in the gallimimus attaining a length of between four and six metres. Its two short arms with three clawed fingers add to its bird-like stature, and fossil records indicate its bones were hollow, another indication of its similarity to modern birds.

A variety of similar dinosaurs, such as harpymimus and garudimimus, were also common in various continents, including South-east Africa and North America. The diversity of the group is highest in Mesozoic Mongolia, however, and the first gallimimus specimen was discovered in the Gobi Desert.

Gallimimus was recently thrown into the public eye by the Jurassic Park films, which showed the dinosaur living as part of a herd despite their being no real evidence that gallmimus gathered in herds. That said, there's no firm evidence that they preferred to live alone, either.

05 December 2009

Gil Amelio

Described by the press, in his time, as gentlemanly, charming, modest and thoughtful, it is widely agreed that Gil Amelio was presented with a nigh-on-impossible task as leader of Apple computer, and even more widely-agreed that he didn't do tremendously well.

But that sounds harsh. Because Amelio was successful in solving the immediate difficulties of Apple, focusing initially on the financial crisis, moving onto issues of quality control and the OS Strategy. It was this last item that Gil never quite got right; an endless series of failed and abandoned codenames formed a veritable dungeon of next-gen operating systems that would never see the light of day.

Amelio's problems, really, stemmed from the institutional nature of Apple Computer. Amelio was well aware that Apple was often accused (not necessarily incorrectly) of valuing innovation over competition, and his solution was a bizarre determination to split the hardware and software businesses into two separate parts, something which seems quite peculiar in the light of today's intensely integrated hardware and software. Even so, Amelio was not alone in this view, though even with the support of John Sculley, the idea of Apple becoming competitive didn't rest easily with the Apple institution. "If the hardware people needed to sell Windows machines, then they would." - blasphemy, surely?

What was worse for Amelio was the lurking spectre of Steve Jobs. After acquiring Next, Steve (possessed by the firm belief that Apple was different and that's how it would stay), was prowling round Apple's campus as an advisor. Apple's board, reminded of the old days, were only too keen to believe him. Apple may have bought NeXT, but NeXT took over Apple...

Amelio did his best. And at the end of it, on July 9, 1997, he resigned. Later, after expounding his views in the book On The Firing Line: My 500 Days At Apple, one is left with the conclusion that Gil Amelio did the best he could with an impossible task.
"Apple will not fix its problems just by being cool. I honestly think that Apple needs someone more like me than like Steve. What Apple needs, if it is ever to become a competitor, is a disciplined, professional manager."

04 December 2009

Interior Music - Jean Michel Jarre




Interior Music is a special edition album by Jean-Michel Jarre released in 2001 for Bang & Olufsen. It exists only in an edition of 1000 copies, which makes it slightly less exclusive than the Jaguar edition of Aerology which was only obtainable for a brief period by taking a Jaguar car for a test drive. The album contains two tracks, identical apart from vocals, both of which are almost 26 minutes long. The first, Bonjour, Hello, is a musique concrete collage of running water, rustlings and occasional, very-muted piano sounds. There is gentle birdsong later on, and sparse orchestral-sounding chords. Over the top is a constant stream of voices speaking short phrases: 'Hello', 'Bonjour', 'Vous est unique', 'You are beautiful', 'Hey, I'm looking at you!'. The second track, as mentioned earlier, is an instrumental version of the first and, since the voices seem childish and irritating to me, I feel it's the better of the two tracks.

The sentiment behind the track is plausible, if along similar lines to those awful British Telecom adverts of the nineties with Bob Hoskins, or the Nescafé ones which encouraged you to take a packet of biscuits round to the neighbours. The idea of encouraging us all to talk more or just try out being nice to each other is well-meant, but twenty-six minutes of someone saying 'You look great!' and 'I'm watching you!' feels just a little sinister. At best it comes across as some sort of manic self-improvement tape, and at worst you feel as though Bang & Olufsen are actively stalking you.

I have to report, then, that Whispers Of Life, the second track without all the self-hypnosis-esque stuff, is a delightful exercise in ambient music, and preferable by far to the first track. Bloom, a recent iPhone application from Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers produces very similar sounds, actually, or it may remind you of parts of Harold Budd's album The Room. The back of the CD, incidentally, darkly hints at the tracks being excerpts from a new album. It's currently late 2009, and a range of albums have been and gone. Whatever was planned, it appears to exist only in the form of 'Interior Music' now.

Interior Music
1. Bonjour, Hello (25:58)
2. Whispers Of Life (25.56)

03 December 2009

Cheese Straws

Cheese straws are long pastry fingers with, as you might have guessed, added cheese. A sort of long, cheesy biscuit, if you will. They sit nicely alongside sausage rolls, chunks of cheddar and pineapple on cocktail sticks and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off as quintessential British party food. A glass of crisp white wine, a plate of cheese straws and a doily, and you're away...
Ingredients
100g (3.5 oz) butter
100g (3.5 oz) plain flour
150g (5.25 oz) deliciously tasty cheese (go for a mature, strong flavour)
Salt and pepper to season
1 egg yolk
Method
Sieve the flour and grate the cheese. Cut or rub the fat into the flour, just as if you were making pastry, and add the grated cheese. Mix in a sprinkle of salt and a grind or two of pepper. It's important to use a good, tasty cheese here - after all, if you're going to use butter to make something pastry-based, you might as well splash out on the cheese as well. If you're stuck with supermarket brands then a good pinch of cayenne pepper can help add to the bite.
Use the egg yolk and a couple of tablespoons of water to bind the mixture together into a ball. Be careful here - it really is just like very cheesy pastry, so if you go wild and add too much water you'll end up with tough cheese straws. You want it to just hold together; if you can get it to do this with just the egg yolk then so much the better.
Flour a work surface and roll the dough out to about 5mm (1/8th of an inch) thick, gently pressing it into a square, if you can. Then simply cut it into strips about 1cm wide. You could also do them a little wider, if you want chunky cheese straws. Pop them on a baking tray, possibly lined with some non-stick baking paper, leaving a small gap between each straw.
Nearly there now... pop them in a 220°C oven (that's about 425°F) for about seven minutes. You could put them in a lower oven for longer, of course, but whatever you're doing, it's wise to check these after about six minutes. They're supposed to be a beautiful pale golden brown, you see, not black...
This basics of this recipe come from a wonderful book I found under the stairs called 'Bestway Cookery Gift Book', a treasure trove of pre-war cookery. My favourite recipe is for boiled calf's head with parsley and brain sauce, although I've never dared try to make it. Mmm!