July issue #184


Of the two versions of My Way I clearly prefer Sid's
Mike's Pith & Wind
Tears of pain and joy
It was a few weeks ago when Maria and I decided to re-test the coffee at Habituel, a former regular M&M haunt in Healesville, which is an attractive twenty-five minute drive from Mt Evelyn. We had time to establish that the coffee was back to good and The Age was available, so we were content – and then this noise started playing on the sound system.
When I say noise, I don’t mean it was heavy metal or anything remotely loud and anarchic, although it was louder that it needed to be, suggesting that at least one of the staff rather liked it. Perhaps one of the waitresses was involved in the recording – it sounded anaemic enough to have been recorded by a local hopeful with the aid of a studio owner-operator with time on his hands and an unwholesome gleam in his eye.
It went on and on, each successive track only compounding my/our irritation. We’d actually reached the point of discussing leaving the room when it mercifully ceased playing and normal transmission was resumed. Whatever genre of music that followed would have been a relief from the utter tedium of listening to this young woman sing – even reggae.
I’d all but forgotten about it until today when we sailed blissfully into Healesville and found a seat in Habituel. We’d received our order and I was just stealing a look at my phone when, like a good horror movie, it started all over again.
I got this sick feeling in my stomach. Even before she started singing I knew who it was. Well, actually, I didn’t know. Shazam! Shazam, the quite useful app that identifies most recorded music in the Western world in seconds might be able identify this mucus with vocal cords, although I still harboured the suspicion that it was a local creation – for instance the girl on the coffee machine had a ring in her nose and was clearly not to be trusted.
The first song had ended and so perhaps I’d missed the opportunity. I was in no-man’s land, half wishing another track by the same artist would commence for identification purposes and half wishing I’d die having never heard her voice again.
Utter dreariness resumed oozing out of the speakers. Bingo! Shazam says it’s El Perro Del Mar.
For some reason I think I’ve actually heard of Del Mar – or the ‘project’ that hosts her undistinguished voice. Wikipedia tells us that the project was founded in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2003. Her name is actually Sarah Assbring – the Americans would‘ve had fun with that – and she’s now released five albums. I don’t know or care which album we were subjected to at Habituel, but I’m hereby issuing a cease and desist order to preserve what little sanity I have left.
Maria was driving us up to Sassafras in ze Citröen the other day and I wasn’t happy with the accompaniment provided by ABC Classic and switched to 3MBS, a polite community station that also plays the classical repertoire to subscribers and restless freeloaders like myself.
A soprano, whose strength in the lower register might’ve led to her being mistaken for a contralto (like, by me), was in mid-performance. Something unusual about her voice caught my attention. For a start it was warm and inviting. The typical classical singer’s vibrato is an immediate turn-off to popular music listeners, but the vibrato in this case didn’t spoil the delivery - at all.
I detected it was a monaural (mono) recording and figured it must’ve been recorded round about the late fifties or early sixties. Victoria de los Angeles did come to mind for some reason but I didn’t trust my instincts and suggested to (my) Maria that, despite it not really sounding tortured enough, it might be early Maria Callas.
‘Shazam it’ suggested Maria, so I did. Shazam told me it was in fact Victoria de los Angeles. She was singing Berlioz’s Absence from Les Nuits D’ete (Summer Nights) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded in 1955. The music was quite lovely but I don’t think it wholly explains the tears that started to stream down my face.
Maria was moved too and wiping away a tear said she sounded like a lovely person. I should point out that Maria’s not a keen listener to classical music but she indulges my putting on ABC Classic on Google Home (volume 30%) while we have breakfast and occasionally when we’re driving, so this is verging on high praise. It paralleled my own appraisal and brought to mind a conversation that I’d had the evening before when I’d dropped into Syndal Music to pick up some early Spectrum CDs.
Steve Kelson is the proprietor of this long-established music shop in the barely known suburb of Syndal (squished between Mount and Glen Waverleys) and Aztec’s Gil Matthews, who’d left the swag of CDs there for me to pick up, tells me he’s a fine keyboardist. I asked how business was and he said he was glad he was ending there (after twenty-eight years) rather than beginning, as business was inexorably declining.
We quickly (I was in a hurry) discussed the differences in the playing-of-music business now and then and Steve passionately lamented the dearth of good singers these days. It got me thinking that it’s a universal malaise, with pop singers aspiring to emulate the techniques (or the over-singing) they’re hearing on the radio and The Voice etc. (who listens to the radio?) seemingly unaware that the recording process is so artificial these days that there’s scarcely an ounce of humanity left after all the filters are applied.
I think that’s what brought me to tears listening to Victoria de los Angeles– the humanity was so utterly intact. Her technique was flawless but the humanity transcended her technique.
The Telegraph obituary in 2005 summed it up succinctly.
'Victoria de los Angeles had a pure, creamy tone almost instrumental in its steadiness, but which somehow encompassed an entirely human warmth. At its best, her phrasing seemed unimprovable, with the melodic line incorporating the words with flawless intonation without portamento. Charm and sympathy were always part of her armoury, but her range broadened to include at times a surprising depth of passion and force, though she was never an analytical or intellectual interpreter.'
It used to be that pop singers, pop singers that came through in the sixties anyway, deliberately avoided conventional singing techniques, partly as a reaction to the manufactured in-house nature of pop music up till then. Think of most of the British Invasion bands. Of the established crooners, Perry Como came closest to bridging the gap between what was known as ‘swing’ and pop music. (I used to love Catch a Falling Star). Pat Boone was coming from the other direction and came closest to sounding like a pop singer who was a crooner singing pop songs, followed closely by Andy Williams, who started off his career as part of a cute family group, The Williams Brothers Quartet. Of course, they all ended up with their own long-running TV shows.
Frank Sinatra left them all in the shade while remaining true to swing for most of his career, only slipping into calculated pop mode near the end. Think of the execrable My Way and Strangers in The Night. Instead he sought to remain in touch with contemporary trends on his albums with the deft use of arrangers.
He did something pretty brave in choosing Quincy Jones to arrange for his bands in the sixties – Quincy arranged the albums It Might as Well Be Swing and the live recording Sinatra at the Sands and his last solo album in 1984, LA is my Lady. It was unheard of at that time for an act of Sinatra’s calibre to use a black arranger (not to mention insist that all the musicians in his band, including the large contingent of black musicians, be accommodated with him while performing in Vegas).
There’s a very interesting documentary on Quincy Jones available on Netflix simply called Quincy. There’s an intriguing sub-text that can be read into it, because Quincy chose to negotiate the side of the music scene that was wholly run by and for a white audience, most notably with Sinatra of course, and it seems more recently he’s had to work hard (he’s spent his life working very hard) to adjust some detrimental perceptions that may have been held by his compatriots.
That might just be me reading that particular sub-text, because apart from his taking Michael Jackson under his wing I knew virtually nothing about Quincy before seeing the doco. It’s worth taking a look at and see what you think.
A fun fact and something I didn’t know is that Quincy produced Lesley Gore’s hit It’s My Party And I’ll Cry if I Want To and they were life-long friends until her death in 2015. His good pal Sinatra may’ve been the undisputed king of swing, but despite singing definitive versions of all the standard repertoire, some songs from which rarely don’t make me cry, I admired the hell out of his singing but for some reason Sinatra never did made me cry.
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Not a word about HG Wells in Dick's Toolbox
Dick's Toolbox
The future
Well, the number of available topics that I am interested in writing about decreases every month as I cross another one off the list. Yes, there is a list which still has twenty of the original twenty-nine topics left to be written about for whilst they seemed a good idea at the time that isn’t necessarily true when you face a deadline. For some reason, a topic like ‘What price health?’ seems to be too relevant when you have two visits to a specialist scheduled next week to check the slightly embarrassing and personal things that happen to older men. If you are my age you know about them already and if you are younger you will find out in good time.
The next topic on the list was ‘Predicting the Future’ and I didn’t see that coming. But unless I find my type-written notes from nearly fifty years ago that are secreted in some dusty box in a far-away rusting shed I may find It difficult to start. The annoying thing is that I can envisage what they looked like, the fading typeface from the battered orange Olivetti, the non-archival paper wanting to disintegrate at the slightest touch. The notes were from a 1967 book from the Hudson Institute by Herman Kahn and Anthony J. Wiener called ‘The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years’ which, if my memory is accurate, was not too bad at describing some of the changes that might occur. He was accurate in matters technological such as the development and pervasiveness of computers, and a bit too early on the advent of automated grocery and department stores. However, I should have foreseen that I might misplace the notes and put them in a more memorable place.
Khan was a fascinating person who died in 1983 at the age of 61 weighing 300 lbs, which equals over twenty-one stone or 136 kgs - which is a lot for a man who was described as a jovial and obviously short-lived ‘prize-winning pear’. He was a prodigious worker and rapid-fire speaker and had undergone his annual physical examination the previous week. He was judged to be in excellent health. His doctor didn’t see it coming either.
I can also see that the prediction of individual flying platforms in the book don’t seem to have happened, nor have such idiosyncratic thoughts as physical non-harmful methods of over-indulging which, given his size, may have been a quite personal desire. It is odd that medical science hasn’t come up with a method of avoiding hangovers, apart from abstinence which totally defeats the point
However, he did get South Korea right, for during the mid-1970s, when South Korea's GDP per capita was one of the lowest in the world, Kahn predicted that the country would become one of the top 10 most powerful countries in the world by the year 2000. A hole-in-one there and a reason why we have Samsung, LG and Hyundai.
Once classified as one of the 1960s’ ‘Megadeath Intellectuals’ he was one of the inspirations for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, as he postulated that a nuclear war was winnable – though whether you wanted to live in a post-Armageddon world might be debatable.
According to Louis Menand “Kubrick and Kahn met several times to discuss nuclear strategy, and it was from “On Thermonuclear War” that Kubrick got the term “Doomsday Machine.” The Doomsday Machine—a device that automatically decimates the planet once a nuclear attack is made—was one of Kahn’s heuristic fictions. In Kahn’s book, the Doomsday Machine is an example of the sort of deterrent that appeals to the military mind but that is dangerously destabilizing. Since nations are not suicidal, its only use is to threaten. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret!” as Strangelove complains to the Soviet Ambassador.”
I keep recalling the scene in the movie with Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove in his wheelchair, partially masked by dark glasses trying to stop his artificial arm from giving Nazi salutes, the strangled German accent honed from years of the Goon Show.
The book “On Thermonuclear War” which caused consternation, horror and amazement was described by James R. Newman in the ‘Scientific American’ as a “a moral tract on mass murder: how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it.”
But another more important book was published about the same time, ‘The Limits of Growth’ a slim paperback that became a bestseller. It also created enormous controversy as the global optimists decried its potentially dystopian future. But, in fact, the book repeatedly said that none of the outputs of the relatively simple model was a prediction - and this was a model run on a computer that probably had less power than your current phone. Nevertheless it was, and is, a good model
The basic premise of ‘The Limits of Growth’ was that the human ecological footprint cannot continue to grow indefinitely because the planet Earth is physically limited. How is that not obvious and even more relevant as the world population rises inexorably towards nine billion?
As one of the original authors said; “I don’t like the resulting future, (as described from running the model from today’s conditions) but it should be described because it would have been so easy to make a much better future”.
As an article in the New Scientist concludes. ‘The most important message of ‘The Limits of Growth’ was that the longer we ignore the problems caused by growth, the harder they are to overcome. As we pump out more CO2 it is clear that this is a lesson we have yet to learn”.
Another coal mine anybody?
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