UNDER PRESSURE by Queen & David Bowie

First, the story of the juke-box. In the relatively brief period after Susan and I decided we liked each other enough to be married to each other, and before we actually did marry, weekends meant at least one round-trip to Shropshire – usually to take Sue back to her place (near the school where she was employed on her first teaching post) on a Sunday night. On this particular weekend, quite shortly after our commitment, I was bringing her back from Shropshire – half-term, perhaps – and taking an odd route, deciding near Ross-on-Wye to veer off towards Gloucester by B roads. We stopped for some refreshment at an old pub, where I noticed – just before we left – that they were selling off their big old Rock-ola jukebox! Perhaps Sue recognized the gleam in my eye, perhaps I was insistent, I can’t remember, but one thing was clear, in those dewy-eyed days of love, Sue was crazily willing to forgo any hopes of an engagement ring to allow the purchase of the huge record-machine. The magic of the evening was sealed by our witnessing – by chance – the passing of the Severn Bore from a bridge in Gloucester where a crowd had gathered.

I tell the story here because of the discs it came with. When, by the support of longsuffering friends, it was transported and heaved into the ‘though lounge’ of my little terraced house, I could see that its carousel was stocked with a selection of early 80s songs with which I had little sense of connection. When the great re-stocking took place, the only ones I left on, if I remember rightly, were Hall and Oates ‘I can’t go for that’, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’ and ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and Bowie.  I liked this latter track well enough, but in the fervent enthusiasm for all things Bowie following his recent death, I wish I could say that I had liked it more…the truth is that although I gleefully sang along on the ‘under pressure’s, really I probably thought of it as an odd novelty collaboration and I had little patience to explore beyond its ‘um ba ba be’s  to see whether the lyric had any specific substance. Soon it had lost its place on the jukebox.

Now, it’s really not going to be cool to admit this, but what has single-handedly resurrected this song for me in recent years has been the US music/drama series ‘Smash’ (largely centred around the writing, directing, producing, performing and staging a Broadway hit musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and spin-off rival musicals) – see: I said it wasn’t going to be cool. In one particular episode (series 2, maybe?) ‘Under Pressure’ is given a ‘dramatized’ performance by the main cast as they converge on a theatre ready for, I think I recall, the Grammys to deliver verdicts on their rival productions. A shame that the subject matter is something that petty, but the emotional intensity is evident, and even after repeated viewing, I still feel it is a stirring dramatization that respects the energy of the song in a way that even (for me at least) elucidates and focuses it. (*and what a shame – the videoclip of this has been pulled from youtube; you don’t get the same sense of dramatic interpretation from the mere audio).

Thankfully it sends me back – as good interpretations generally do – to the of course superior original, and now, late in the day, it appears as quite a remarkable impressionistic sound/word collage of a song. This we get not just in the scat-singing ‘day-da-de-mm-hm’s, but it’s also in the distinctive non-fluency of some of the lines – ‘…Pressing down on you no man ask for’.. Still, conversely I also begin to see there is actually more of a lyrical progression than I’d realized all those years ago. Sure, the first half of the song bemoans the ‘pressure’ of..modern life? Urban living (‘people on streets’)? Societal conflicts (‘..that burns a building down/Splits a family in two..’)? and then Bowie gets to sing these great lines which make the ‘pressure’ seem more pervasive and existential – ‘It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about/Watching some good friends screaming/Let me out!’. He repeats these same lines a little further on, and his voice has the right kind of strident urgency for it.

The turning-point of the song – echoed in melody and tempo – comes with the words ‘Turned away from it all like a blind man..’ and the implication is that one tempting response to the overwhelming pressures of life is to distance oneself,  to ‘sit on the fence’ of disengagement… and the first mention of ‘love’ is a pessimistic one  – ‘Keep coming up with love/But it’s so slashed and torn…’. The ‘Why…’ that follows takes the falsetto of the ‘blind man’ line to greater heights screeching up the octaves in high-octane madness. But this takes us to another stage – the challenge to reject disenchantment and ‘give love one more chance..’. And that would be great enough, if we stopped there. But no, there’s even a further challenge – and this is brilliant and profound, so I’ll quote it practically all. While first acknowledging our over-familiarity with the word ‘love’ (‘such an old-fashioned word’) we hear this: ‘And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves/This is our last dance…’ Within the context of the rock idiom, this is powerfully articulate and challenging.

The ‘Smash’ cast – Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport et al – do in fairness give this section sufficient gravity, but at the same time trivialise it – the march into the theatre, the forming then breaking from their circle and the individual line-up on ‘This is ourselves’ is effective but by rooting it in their story it still feels like some petty showbiz angst -‘Ooooh such pressures we have, delivering Broadway shows for the critics and public..’. Whereas Queen and Bowie’s original is more powerfully generalised. The ‘last dance’ seems to imply that if we don’t make love work, what else is there? And the ‘this is ourselves’ is perhaps asking us to be accountable and individually responsible… yet still, no facile ending, we are left with the single word ‘pressure’.  Rock n roll classic. OK, back on the famous jukebox.

A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

PEOPLE GET READY -Curtis Mayfield

No anecdotal attachment here, as such. It feels like this great modern gospel song has always been around. In fact when I was younger,  I might have thought of it as a version of some other train/salvation metaphor songs – didn’t the Seekers or the Settlers or the Rennies sing one about ‘the Gospel train’? (Wasn’t that also in ‘Youth Praise’, the British 60s hymnal for church youth groups?) I note that the original ‘Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ single/album of this title was actually released in 1965! But it’s been dormant for me, this song, only gaining a kind of prominence as, over the last 15 years, I’ve heard a succession of cover versions underlining what a classic of a song it is – James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Patty Griffin – but what, particularly, has occasioned this essay is hearing the mighty Seal singing it on his album of classic soul songs, which I picked up in a charity shop last week. Wow.

Going back to the original, it’s sweet, but surprisingly tight and low-key, with some neat choreography in the structured performance – the first halves of lines sung by a solo voice and then completed in the second half either by a different voice or by the whole group. Then there’s a key change before verse 3 – ah that tricky verse three (more in a moment) – and the first verse is repeated at the end. It’s a piece of smooth, controlled soul. If that’s not an oxymoron.

Hearing it being played in the car again last week, and having heard me warbling it round the house made my youngest daughter ask ‘Is this your favourite song at the moment, Dad?’ ‘I suppose it is,’ I said. These great cover versions over the last few years have made me want to add it to my repertoire, but I think I lack the necessaries to bring it to life – a good voice, maybe. My gifts such as they are – quirky song-composition-twiddling or whatever – are not enough to do this justice. You need a Voice, I think. On the only occasion I had a go at this in Folk Club, it all felt a bit flat. And then there’s the question of that trickiness in verse 3.

Before singing it publicly, I realized I had some theological problems with verse 3: ‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own..’ Hmmm, I thought: aren’t sinners precisely for whom there IS some carriage room? Or am I watering down Mr Mayfield’s justifiably urgent warning, because of a kind of liberal universalism? And maybe there’s the implicit understanding that said sinner is ‘hopeless’ because in his unrepentant malice willfully  misses the train?  Either way, I ended up singing ‘There’s STILL some room for the hopeless sinner..’ And the final two lines of the verse – ‘Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/Cos there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne’… Well, that was just about OK, I suppose. But what too about the end of verse 2 which seems to differ in different versions – ‘There’s hope for all among those loved the most.’ Uncomfortable (Calvinistic?) ideas of God’s favouritism, as the lucky Elect chug on in their luxury choo-choo? However, Eva Cassidy sings ‘There’s hope for all among the loved and lost’ which I think is what I plumped for in my solo performance.

Why such scruples, you might be asking?  I suppose it seems such a neat bit of gospel, I want the metaphor to hold together in a way that has some integrity by my funny standards. Is a train journey a good image for salvation? It has some validity I think, especially the idea of the ‘free ride’ (‘you don’t need a ticket’), the sense of sheer grace that enables the ride (‘no baggage..’) , the sense of train rides as having destination etc. Alright -easy to stretch what is essentially a fun piece of imagery if we over-analyse, I know!

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad rendition of this song (except mine at folk club), and the opening exhortation generally makes something skip within me as a kind of response. I heartily commend – especially – the Seal recording. Could you get more soulful soul? And so, get on board, little children, get on board.

SANCTUARY by Red Horse, and THE VALLEY by Jane Siberry

We had a sermon, a few months back ,on Psalm 23: the priest said that it was one of those pieces of sacred literature which somehow resonates strongly and roots itself firmly into the memories –surfacing and surviving even in the senile, in stroke victims etc.  (Like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in Gillian Clarke’s poem about reading this in a care home).  You know what I mean.  And I believe it –even in a largely post-biblically-aware civilisation, there are these residue echoing strands…

I’m not sure what Eliza Gilkyson intended from her lovely song ‘Sanctuary’: was she indeed trying to write a psalm 23 for the 21st century?  Was it a love song for a significant other couched in the assumed elegance of semi-biblical echoes?  Was it simply an acknowledgement of her awareness of an overseeing/accompanying ‘presence’ in her life?  I don’t know –but it is a most enriching song –  its pace and its melody cradling measured tones of peace that entirely marry to the lyric.

It starts with that straight biblical ‘lift’ of course –‘…  The valley of the shadow…’ but from there on, the ‘deathly shadows’ of modern experience are expressed in fresher, more original ways –‘in the crowded rooms of a mind unclear…’, ‘through fear’s dark thunder…’, ‘through the doubter’s gloom and the cynic’s sneer…’, ‘…  The sea of desires that drag me under…’ My favourite is one I’m not sure I fully understand – ‘though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir…’!  And, like the iconic psalm it sort of emulates, this is a prayer for every one.  ‘Though my trust is gone and my faith not near…’ – for strugglers, for believers, for doubters – the affirmation we all long for –‘Thou art with me.’ And yes, please note, family, another to add to the list: I want this recording played at my funeral.

One particular memory I have of it is when, a couple of summers ago, I tried to walk sections of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway.  Trying to follow the maps, I found myself (between Hengoed and Maesycwmmer, for the record) stuck in the middle of a huge brambled-up area, hoping to find a path, but increasingly snagged up and hardly able to move.  In all of this, for at least 40 minutes I think, before emerging much scratched and bloodied, my iPod played ‘Sanctuary’ into my earbuds, and it was a most appropriate and energising prayer.

On the ‘Red Horse’ recording, it’s sung by Lucy Kaplansky, and with the other two songwriters on this sharing-our-songs project –John Gorka and the song’s composer Eliza Gilkyson, singing backup and harmonising.  As with ‘Cry Cry Cry’ (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell) another great album and project similar to Red Horse, I don’t know whether these collaborations are driven by creative or commercial impulses – but  I can’t help but  love the end results of the co-operative, composite venture – these remarkable  recordings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRKQWzm14-E

Looking again of the lyric of Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always automatically associated it with Psalm 23 – and yet I have the kind of gut feeling that she was aiming for something of the feel of it (?), in certain places anyway – ‘the valley is dark…  You walk through the shadows…  You trust the light…  The shepherd…’ Rhythmically, and and as regards tempo and tenor, it’s very close to Gilkyson’s ‘Sanctuary’.  When I first heard it, it was on that amazing Christmas (live) double album ‘Child’ –and while there are distinctly quirky choices on there,  I felt this song had a genuine spirituality and solemnity to it.  Since then, I’ve heard it in her original early album recording (on ‘Bound to the Beauty’) and also as a stunningly good cover on KD Lang ‘s wonderful album of songs from Canadian songwriters.  In each case my original impression is confirmed. More about Jane Siberry very soon. Though I’ve written more about ‘Sanctuary’, I hope this one doesn’t get overlooked:  listen to this recording.

In this song, the affirming refrain is ‘You will walk in good company’ –and although I’m not entirely sure what Siberry intended from that either, in my head it has the same psalm 23-type sense of ‘Thou art with me’.  I love it when songs lead me back to God, whether they intended it or not.