2019 April 24 • Wednesday

There aren’t that many episodes of Toast of London and I’ve watched them all at least twice.

There is, however, a book: Toast on Toast: Cautionary tales and candid advice.

It’s written by Matt Berry and Arthur Mathews, who wrote the scripts for the television program, so that’s one crucial element secured.

The only way to read it is with the voice of Matt Berry in your head, reading it out loud in character as Steven Toast.

There is an audio book option, with Mr. Berry doing this work for you, and that is certainly tempting, although I wonder if it could transmit some of the book-specific delights herein, such as the numerous footnotes and the very amusing index (practically useless as an index but one of the funniest parts of the book: “Zeus (God of sky and thunder and the ruler of the Olympians), 78, 79” is immediately followed by “Zeus, Kevin, 8”).

One of my favorite footnotes is for “In the early 1990s”, which leads your eye to the bottom of the page to read “1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993”. The list of acting credits that precedes the main text is also quite funny.

Also inside are handsomely reproduced posters for the many theatrical performances that featured Mr. Toast, along with fellow thespians such as Heathcote Permission, Wanda Fack, Elvis Pakistani, Trevor Clever and of course Ray bloody Purchase.

Many chapters end with a list of tips (“Sadly, the dumbing down of TV is now a fact. If you really want a job in television, you’ll have to slum it with everybody else in the shark pool. So, rule number one is: leave your self-respect at the door!”) and there appendices of critical reviews and Toast’s responses to them (“What a bitter and grossly unfair review”) as well as excerpt’s from Toast’s diary.

It’s a quick and very enjoyable read, careening from one ridiculous situation to another as Toast shares the dizzying lows and lowers of his implausible career.

The first line is “In 1986, I received an invitation to take part in a BBC production called It’s a Right Royal Knockout”.
2019 April 22 • Monday

We'll admit that the 566th Soundtrack of the Week is a bit of a stretch. It's The Archies! And it's on colorful splatter vinyl!

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Is this actually a soundtrack? It's songs from a fictional band of comic book characters and they had an animated tv series and the band was in the tv series and I think these songs probably were too and that makes it likely that this is a collection of original songs composed for a tv series and so our final verdict is a tie between "who cares?" and "close enough!".

Most of the songs were written by Jeff Barry.

It begins with "Archie’s Theme", unsurprisingly. This is a very Beach Boys-influenced song that calls out all the character names. It's not bad but it seemed like it was lacking in energy.

The next song, "Boys and Girls", is similar to both “Summer Nights” and “We Go Together” from Grease.

"Time for Love" is bouncy and a bit on the insipid side, a sunshine pop song that sounds under-orchestrated, since they’re sticking with just the band. It could use more of "Veronica"’s keyboard playing! (In real life this was apparently Ron Frangipane.) There’s some whistling but that’s not the same.

The first song here that has real energy and feels really solid is "You Make Me Wanna Dance" Letting the organ do more and having the electric guitar play something a bit smokier were good choices. The drums also have an edge to them that was missing from the previous songs. "Reggie" (probably either Chuck Rainey or Joey Macho) even steps out on bass!

"La Dee Doo Down Down" does in fact feature that five-word phrase quite a lot. It’s a bit like "Da Do Ron Ron", I guess, which isn’t a surprise.

“Truck driver, where are you bound?” asks the singer, "Archie" (Ron Dante), in “Truck Driver”. He wants a ride to follow his girlfriend but he doesn’t know where she went. There are lots of different license plates on the truck so that suggests a quite a few options. Baltimore or Hollywood? Or New York City where “the skies are grey but the lights are pretty”? This is a decent song and "Archie" gives the vocals some emotional urgency.

When I first heard "Sugar Sugar" I assumed it was just a straight cover of a popular song. But this is where that song actually comes from! According to wikipedia it "went to number one on the pop chart in 1969, sold over six million copies … [and] was ranked as the No. 1 song of that year, the only time a fictional band has ever claimed Billboard's annual Hot 100 top spot".

"Catchin’ Up on Fun" has a nice lilt to it. It’s a sunshine pop number that works well with this band. The instruments mesh nicely, the vocal harmonies add some nice layers and the lyrics are better than most and even hint at some possible psychedelic experiences.

"I’m in Love" picks up the pace and intensity and maybe has a "Back in the USSR" feel to it. Something like that anyway. The bass playing is especially active on this one.

Things slow down a little bit for "Seventeen Ain’t Young" but there's more going on here than there is in a lot of the other songs. Again the singer seems to mean it a bit more and the tremolo guitar adds a nice sonic atmosphere.

The influence of Chuck Berry in general and "Johnny B. Goode" in particular can be heard clearly in "Johnny Ride, Ride, Ride", a straight up-tempo rocker that might work in the cartoon but on the record needs to be rougher and louder. A fuzz guitar solo and some car noises are a welcome addition and the guitar even adds a touch of freak out at one point. It’s kind of close to being a great song but it doesn’t quite get there.

"Hide and Seek" has a really great beat and organ playing. This is one of the best songs. It has a nice arrangement, with some hand percussion and a few other little details, like various cool guitar figures. And hide and seek is a geat subject for a song, a natural.

Finally we get another big hit for this fictional band. "Bang-Shang-A-Lang" apparently reached #22 in the charts. It's also the sound "Archie"’s heart made when he saw “her”. There’s some nice ascending harmonic movement in the chorus and the verses are agreeably perky.
2019 April 19 • Friday

Martin Amis is only one person but he has for so long been received in so many different ways by so many different people for so many different reasons that you could make a case that are a few Martin Amises out there.

A recent collection of Martin Amis short non-fiction pieces, The Rub of Time: Bellow, Nabokov, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994–2017, is by the Martin Amis that I like best, the Martin Amis for whom I try to be a better reader than usual.

There's much here about literature and politics and there are some sections with the heading "Personal". For literature Amis offers further examinations of writers important to him. Nobody has ever written more usefully about Nabokov than Amis does, and one of Amis's many strengths as a reader and a critic is to dive into the swift currents of love and awe for genius without being swept away.

(Amis often deploys two comma-divided nouns within parentheses in what I believe to be a conscious display of Nabokov's influence, a sharing of a gift with readers who know their Lolita.)

Alas, while Amis's enthusiasm and insight for Nabokov are thrilling, I have never been able to follow him on his hikes up the mountains of Bellow and Roth. But I doggedly read every word he has to say on those subjects, because everything in this book is worth reading.

A few pieces on tennis from the 1990s stand out for not being the equal of everything else here. And this despite my having a considerable personal interest in the sport. Part of the problem might be that they were written for The New Yorker, a periodical that so favors a tone of weary condescension thatit might as well be the official house style.

But Amis's short, non-fiction pieces have gradually been circling something that's stated here almost explicitly, a kind of artistic and humanistic and intensely verbal morality.

Something like this: "The foundational literary principle is decorum, which means something like the opposite of its dictionary definition: 'behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety' (i.e., submission to an ovine consensus). In literature, decorum means the concurrence of style and content—together with a third element which I can only vaguely express as earning the right."

This is the crux. And the principles contained within it can be expanded to include just about anything.

Later, when Amis describes Saul Bellow's biographer Zachary Leader as "respectful but unintimidated, balanced but never anodyne", whose "literary criticism, like his prose, is unfailingly stylish and acute", he could be fairly describing himself.

One of the strongest pieces in this collection shows Amis the explorer making a foray into the porn film industry in California. It could so easily be a condescending item about the grotesqueries of various "others" and shock value in abundance on low hanging branches.

But Amis encounters a truly remarkable porn star, a woman he finds to be admirable and worthy of respect, moreso than most people described in this book. She describes herself as a prostitute, because she looked the word up in the dictionary and recognized her profession: exchanging sex for money.

At the end of his journey, however, Amis decides, "not quite. Prostitution is the oldest profession; and market-driven porno is, perhaps, the newest profession. You are more like a gladiator: a contemporary gladiator. Of course, the gladiators were slaves—but some of them won their freedom. And you, I think, will win yours".

This is a rallying cry not so much for the reader but for the subject; though I expect readers also to feel elevated and inspired by it.

And this is why these particular Amis books are so rewarding. He travels the world and considers people whose lives and existence I hadn't even had notions of. He can bring a sympathetic eye to a Trump rally, a movie star, a destitute, paralyzed mass-murderer in a South American slum.

But he's never swept away. Just as Nabokov's genius won't blind his critical vision, his understanding of the reasons people might commit horrible acts does not lead him to a placid acceptance of those actions.

We can disagree with Amis about anything. But I never doubt his effort, his sincerity and his honesty. He makes large swathes of the world and its denizens understandable because he makes himself understandable.

Does that sound like an easy thing to do? I don't think it is. We all stand to gain by trying it, though, and this is a dazzling result of that process.


2019 April 17 • Wednesday

Edmund Naughton's The Maximum Game is a great page-turner. It's short and lean at 158 pages and carries no excess baggage.

This isn't an action story but a procedural. Howard DeWitt is a World War I veteran and a widower who's been running a hotel in Paris for decades.

He's conservative, right wing, quiet and racist: "His only problem was with blacks. He did not like to admit them, and he let them in silently only because he did not care to be criticized by his French neighbors".

The book takes place in the real world of the Watergate era. DeWitt's character is important because he's the type of person one might expect to be sympathetic to Nixon.

But he thinks that Nixon—whose name never appears in this novel—is a disgrace and is destroying both the United States and its constitution.

Not given to doing much of anything about anything, certainly not somebody who messes around in politics, DeWitt does mention that he knows it would be possible to assassinate the American president.

A consortium of wealthy businessmen are interested in doing just that and hire a British recruiter to find somebody for the job.

After some diverting interviews with German and Irish candidates, DeWitt is interviewed. He's an old man, no record, an American citizen who wouldn't need a visa to enter the country. He's also an expert big-game hunter, a crack shot who can expertly take down moving targets at long distances.

And he's interested. In fact, he'll do it just for expenses.

Of course, there is one slight problem: he's just started having heart attacks, something only he and his doctor know. He's supposed to avoid excitement. And no more safaris, no more hunting.

But maybe just one more...?


2019 April 15 • Monday

The 565th Soundtrack of the Week is the music by Maryvonne Giercarz, Lars Eric and Richard Bond for the Timothy Leary movie Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out, on psychedelic vinyl!

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So... there isn't really a lot to say about this. Maryvonne Giercarz plays "veena" (which sounds like a tambura to me), Lars Eric plays guitar and Richard Bond plays tabla.

The music part of it is mostly a drone with guitar and table just kind of doing whatever. It's pleasant enough.

Sometimes it sounds like Indian music, sometimes more like acid rock/pop. Sometimes you just hear bells. I thought I heard sitar in there also.

A lot of the record is dialogue and sound effects from the movie. You hear a lot from Leary himself.

"You brought your own mind games with you. Dreary old paranoias."

"Can you throb to the pulse of life?"

"Drift within, on a thread of sound."

All the talking makes it a little hard to enjoy the music but this is more of a document than a music album, I suppose.
2019 April 12 • Friday

Here's Howard Roberts again but this time as a leader. The record is called Color Him Funky.

Everything about this record is great. Every track is swinging and spectacular and the album is one of the best organ combo recordings I've ever heard.

And why not? Roberts has got Paul Bryant on organ, Chuck Berghofer on bass and Earl Palmer on drums.

While everybody is absolutely perfect on this, and Roberts's guitar playing is thrilling and musical and exciting, it's especially wonderful to hear Palmer away from session work and really cutting loose. His feel and time and groove are all just fantastic.

Two of the highlights for me are Jackie Wilson's driving "Florence of Arabia" and "Good Bye, Good Luck, I'm Gone!" which Roberts co-wrote with another ace guitarist, Jack Marsall.

A pair of familiar standards get a sprightlier read than usual here as well. "What Kind of Fool Am I?" is surprisingly brisk, breezy and swinging, while the classic "Days of Wine and Roses" ups the tempo to the point of giving it an aggressive edge, a feel which makes the minor chords and blue notes cut a little more sharply.

This is a really great record and I think it's available on CD, although I have only a vinyl release. Highly recommended!


2019 April 10 • Wednesday

Here's a record that all fans of jazz organ - guitar - drums trios will want to hear: Rieber Hovde's Organic Sound.

I'm generally up for anything in this genre but I was also intrigued by the presence of Howard Roberts, whom I know mostly as a session musician. Hovde plays some other keyboards besides organ.

This was recorded sometime in the 1970s, "live at the Sea Wolf Restaurant" in Oakland, CA, and the audience is present throughout.

The first thing you'll notice is how amazing Ed Thigpen is. And you'll never stop noticing it.

The first few tracks make it clear that Hovde and Roberts are also extremely strong and sensitive players. But it's on the Hovde original "Avenida Atlantica" that Roberts really blasts off, beginning with some phenomenal comping before launching a devastating guitar solo, as virtuosic and inventive as it is tasteful and soulful. This track, the last on Side A, ends in a fade out, which is a shame.

The whole record is a solid thrill and it ends on an especially powerful note, with a bluesy "Greensleeves".
2019 April 15 • Monday

This had to happen one of these days. Our 564th Soundtrack of the Week features a certain Hans Zimmer. But this is very early Zimmer, a score which was a collaboration with Stanley Myers. It's The Zero Boys, on blue vinyl!

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This is an interesting score. Hans Zimmer was a young German composer almost nobody had ever heard of at the time, and Stanley Myers an established composer who thought that Zimmer would do a good job.

According to director Nico Mastorakis’s liner notes, Mastorakis had already worked with Myers on a couple of movies and Myers came up with the idea that Zimmer would write synthesizer-based music for “some action sections”.

I haven’t seen the movie but listening to the record gives me a sense of something more collaborative than that. Myers’s strings and Zimmer’s synths are frequently working together as well as weaving in and out of each other.

Between the two of them they come up with a wide range of sounds, moods and textures. Often the sounds of the synthesizers give a strong indication of the film’s mid-1980s origin—not a bad thing—but at other timed will back up Mastorakis’s remark that Zimmer could “squeeze amazing sounds out of ordinary synths”.

The two sides of the record are very different. I wonder if Side A is Zimmer and Side B is Myers.

Side A is more swinging and melodic, even poppy in places, and I thought I heard the influence of Ennio Morricone and John Barry in spots. (There’s also a short and silly Bach quote.) A romantic acoustic guitar piece comes out of nowhere and earns a response from some menacing sounding synthesizers.

The music on Side B is almost certainly for die-hard soundtrack freaks, though. There’s very little that could be called melodic or groovy or lyrical or swinging, but if you like dramatic underscore, atmospheres of tension or suspense or horror—the synths quote Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho violins—and of course action cues, then you’ll have fun with this.

Apparently there are some unused pieces included in this release but no clue what they are.
2019 April 05 • Friday

If anybody ever asks you the world’s greatest jazz guitarist is, you can answer with confidence that no such person has ever existed.

But in 1962 or thereabouts, somebody was trying to tap Elek Bacsik for this conceptual dead-end of an honor.

Who? That was my thought when I first saw this record. Apparently he was one of Django Reinhart’s cousins.

And so I brought this home with me. I don’t love it.

If you like guitarists who play a lot of notes really fast and will dash up amd down the neck in modal sprints at the drop of a drum stick, then Elek Bacsik is likely to bring you a lot of pleasure.

That’s not my favorite approach, though I certainly enjoy it in the right quantity.

But I would have preferred some more melodic ideas, a more sensitive touch. Bacsik has some shapes and intervals he likes enough that you hear them repeated in different tunes, which suggests to me the “blowing over changes” style of jazz improvisation. The actual tune, melody, song and its meanings and feelings are left standing on the sidewalk as the musician speeds away in a muscle car.

And I think it would be fair to say that interaction, another crucial element of improvised music, is not particularly important to Mr. Bacsik, at least on this record.

The liner notes will explain it more concisely than I can: “All of the tracks in this album were done first by recording the rhythm guitar part along with the rest of the rhythm section and then, at a later date, the melody line”.

Well, there you go. When he’s improvising, he’s playing over a tape recording of a band. Interaction has been made impossible.

The liner notes attempt to bluff their way through this: “This enables the guitarist to weave his own rhythmic patterns for his solo”.

Yeah, nice try, but no.

Having two Elek Bacsiks on every tune, playing two different parts on the same guitar on two tracks, also creates an uncomfortable, claustrophobic feeling. The impression he gives is of someone with a big personality, a loud voice and a lot to say. Two of him is one too many.

And who’s playing with him? On some tracks you’re hearing Pierre Michelot on bass (“the first Frenchman to treat the bass as a melodic instrument”, the liner notes inform us) and Kenny Clarke on drums. On other tracks the rhythm section is Michel Gaudry on bass and Daniel Humair on drums.

But if you want to know which tracks feature which rhythm section, you won’t find it noted anywhere here, with the exception of “Take Five”, about which we’re told “Take Five really takes the cake, as you will hear in the strange drum solo that Kenny Clarke takes”.

What’s strange about it? Well, as I recall, he mainly just plays hits on the snare and leaves a lot of space. I found myself wondering if maybe Mr. Clarke was just a wee bit bored.

This is overall a decent record, however, pretty fun to listen to, despite my reservations. Elek Bacsik plays the guitar very well, but he doesn’t make my list of ten greatest jazz guitarists or probably even twenty.
2019 April 03 • Wednesday

Gold Medal paperbacks can be good or bad but they're usually not boring. Robert Kyle's The Golden Urge is one of the exceptions.

Robert Kyle was a pseudonymn for Robert Terrall, about whom you can read quite a bit here, in this interesting bio and interview with his son.

It sounds as though Terrall wrote some books worth reading. He wrote quite a lot. As far as this book goes, the front cover arouses a few suspicions.

First, the breathless blurb comes from King Features Syndicatre. This is not a reviewer or a magazine or a newspaper. It's a syndication company that distributes varied content.

So a recommendation from King Features Syndicate is kind of bizarre in the absence of any other information. Imagine seeing a movie poster with "'Best Movie of the Year' — United Parcel Service" on it.

And then there's what the blurb actually says. "Best robbing-the-bank thriller since Cain's 'Double Indemnity'".

Double Indemnity was a story of insurance fraud and murder, based on the real-life case of Ruth Snyder. Nobody robbed any banks. So both the origin of this excited recommendation and the recommendation itself are dubious.

Heist novels and movies are almost always attractive to me and I was kind of hoping that The Golden Urge would be one, but it isn't.

It's actually a poorly paced and tedious mixture of mystery and melodrama, with incredibly long-winded dialogue and unconvincing behaviour from its characters.

The "likeability" of people in a story has never been especially important to me but I do need to have some slight interest in what happens to them. By page 78 of The Golden Urge I found myself groaning, "Why hasn't this book ended yet?"

Carol Winter works at a bank. So does her husband. In the first chapter of the book he tries to kill himself. She saves him and he confesses that he's been embezzling money from the bank to pay his mother's hospital bills. Carol intends to put this right.

She decides to ask her boss, the bank's vice president, for help. But this guy has actually just embezzled a much larger amount and is skipping town.

Once this becomes known, an insurance investigator shows up and we follow him around while he tries to find the absconded vice president and the money.

He's pretty bad at his job, doing stuff like leaving his gun lying around for anybody to take, right after the same gun had been taken from him and he'd been beat up. I can't imagine anybody letting go of their gun and such circumstances. You'd put it in your pocket or just hold on to it.

He also manages to get his wallet stolen by the same young punk who takes his gun and doesn't even realize it for a long time. Not until, of course, the author needs him not to be able to identify himself to some police officers.

In places you can see Kyle/Terrall straining for depth that isn't here. "Fessenden had a wall-to-wall carpet in his office, comfortable leather furniture, a little fireplace that no longer worked—the old chimneys had been cemented up before DeAngelis was born."

This isn't a great sentence. And when I got to the chimneys that had been cemented up before DeAngelis, the insurance investigator, had been born I thought, who cares?

Later on we learn that DeAngelis's boss is "a fat man shaped like a teardrop, fast on his feet for a man who rarely moved behind a desk".

The fat man who's surprisingly fast is a cliche and a human being can't be shaped like a teardrop. That doesn't work.

Another simile that falls flat is when an old man "straightened painfully, his knees crackling like heat lightning".

Lightning is silent, of course, and heat lightning in particular is sometimes known as "silent lightning".

The overall impression is of a book written in one sitting, for money and without much care. The wrapping up at the end is particularly abrupt and actually borders on the offensive, veering unexpectedly into some unwelcomely sadistic and gruesome territory.

The first line is "The apartment seemed a little too neat, as usual".


2019 April 01 • Monday

The music from Ganja & Hess, by Nina Simone's brother, Sam Waymon, is the 563rd Soundtrack of the Week.

It's on brown vinyl!

The A side starts out with an "Intro", a voice counting numbers and being run through an echo, and then a plaintive solo piano playing a melancholy piece.

Then are parts one and two of "The Blood of the Thing",a male voice singing a spiritual-influenced song about blood and slavery. “Thousands of strangers bled today.” The second part is subtitled "Shadow of the Cross".

"Bongili Work Song" is a field recording of people singing and dancing but at a distance and run through an echo. The liner notes explain that it's “a recording from the 1950 Smithsonian Folkways collection Music of Equatorial Africa" and the original version is included as a bonus track.

Sounds of thunder, drones and alarming musical stings form the background for "Hess Is Stabbed".

And then there's the Mabel King "March Blues", what you’d expect, classic old timey intensity, just piano, trumpet and voice. It's accompanied by sound effects and some other music that must belong to the action on screen. The song eventually gets run through an echo device.

"You've Got To Learn To Let It Go (instrumental)" is a pleasantly groovy song with a friendly beat and a cheery melody played on flute and vibes with support from horns, a nice instrumental pop soul number that also has sound effects from the movie.

"Survival/Drive" is an interesting electronic cue with synth and delay, getting a lot out of a few notes.

The last piece on the first side is "The Seduction (Analgam)", in which zithers or instruments much like them set the tone, with a low throbbing note above which strings are plucked and strummed, creating a dreamy and richly textured atmosphere in which other instruments appear and disappear. Eventually the zithers fade out, electronic instruments and various shrieking and yelling come in and it builds in intensity.

The B Side begins with a reprise of the "Intro" and what sounds like dialogue from the movie: “I had a strange dream last night. I dreamed you murdered me.” Then solo piano comes in with the song and we hear more dialogue. “I will not be tortured, I will not be punished, I will not be guilty.”

This sort of fades out and into the vocal version of "You've Got To Learn To Let It Go".

The Evangel Revival Church piano and choir sing the religious number "Just As I Am", followed by a reprise of "The Blood of the Thing".

"Resurrection" is a short percussion cue that sounds like mostly hands clapping.

Then a children’s choir sings "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood".

This is followed by the studio version of "You've Got To Learn To Let It Go" and it's awesome, with a deep groove and impassioned singing.

The record concludes with a couple of bonus tracks: The previously mentioned Folkways recording and something called "Theme from Blood Couple". I'm not sure what that is other than a solo synth piece “reassembled by Fima Noveck”. It’s cool and spacious, though.